One of the finest and most accessible books for the study of theology and great theologians that I have read has just been released by InterVarsity Press. The Great Theologians, authored by professor of religion and philosophy Gerald R. McDermott of Roanoke College (VA), is superb in every way. I gladly endorsed this book by writing: “First-rate scholar Gerald McDermott employs effective prose without becoming prosaic and so provides us a wonderfully catholic and evangelical book that gives Christian theology its proper place in renewal for the health of the church.”
I am asked to endorse a lot of books, which I generally do quite gladly if I have both the time an the interest. In this case I gladly agreed to read this book when InterVarsity wrote to me because I know the author well and count him a personal friend. But I do not now promote this book simply because Gerry is my friend. I promote it because it is truly a first-class guide for the individual who is not academically trained in historical theology. But even those who are formally trained you will find things here that they might not know, or at least have thought of so clearly. The content, for such a small book, is rich and the author's approach is a demonstration of how to do missional-ecumenism in serious theology.
McDermott, the author of ten previous books, gives the reader of The Great Theologians thirteen chapters, covering eleven theologians from the early church to the twentieth century. In chapter one he asks: “Why study theology?” He shows you very plainly that if you think about God much then you are already doing theology. You have a framework, which was created out of something and gained from somewhere, that is “your theology” (12). This theology is “the lens through which you read the Bible, listen to sermons, read books about God, think and pray to God” (12). If you read anything about God then you are listening to someone else’s theology. “Therefore, there is no faith without theology” (12). Thus, every Christian really does have a theology and the more you think about God and life the more you need to think about your theology, what it is and where you got it. This book will be a wonderfully helpful guide.
One of the most important things McDermott’s book does is show ordinary readers why they cannot construct theology by saying they will read the Bible on their own and do theology all by themselves. Ignoring the greatest and most godly minds of the church “seems to be a kind of arrogance and presumption” (12). It forgets that there is wisdom in “the multitude of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14).
But why these eleven theologians? The ones chosen are Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth and Von Balthasar. McDermott answers by saying “these are the eleven I consider to have had the most influence on the history of Christian thought” (13). Almost everyone I know will want someone else included in McDermott's list, or excluded, but this is a good and representative group by anyone’s accounting.
Who was left out that is important? A lot of important people, leaving my friend with a few more volumes that he might add to this fine book. His “extras” include important writers such as: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Anselm, Teresa of Avila, John Wesley, Charles Hodge, Henri dr Lubac, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis (not a theologian but had a powerful impact on theology, especially among ordinary Christians), Edith Stein, Sergei Bulgakov, Simone Weil, H. Richard Niebuhr, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Are McDermott’s eleven the “greatest” theologians? He is not sure and confesses that his own interests guided him. I actually believe they guided him well and regardless of the choices this is a remarkable book and should be used by many Christians to study and discuss the importance of these truly great Christian minds. Adult Sunday School classes, small study groups and various kinds of home meetings could all use this book with its helpful reflection questions at the end of each chapter. It will promote both serious thought and the kind of healthy ecumenism that we need now more than ever.