The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide
Author: Gerald R. McDermott
Publisher: IVP Academic
In The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, Gerald R. McDermott provides “a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians – so that any thinking Christian” can “get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each.”
Do we need to read and study what the great minds of the church have said? McDermott answers, “Ignoring the great and godly minds of the church – who have been ruminating on God for thousands of years – when we have them at our fingertips through books and even the Internet seems to be a kind of arrogance and presumption.” He likens comparing our thoughts with theirs as iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17 KJV). By studying their works we can learn what theology is best.
The author chose eleven individuals who, in his opinion, had the greatest influence on the development of Christian thought. This does not mean that all of them had good theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher gave rise to liberal theology, but understanding his thought is important to comprehending the strange turns taken by modern theology.
Each chapter covers a different individual and begins with a story about the person’s life, highlighting important events. This leads to a review of the main themes in their thinking. The author then zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that individual and examines it in detail. He concludes each section with lessons we can learn, a brief selection from the person’s writings, questions for reflection and discussion, and a list of resources for further reading.
The author’s knowledge of the subject matter, his eye for important details, his skill as a writer and his wisdom in providing practical application make this a delight to read. Even though I had read about most of these individuals before, I gained new insights. I marvel at the wealth of useful information to ponder.
As I read about Calvin I was struck by the comfort that can come through knowing God’s sovereignty. The author writes, “If I know that a tragic event in my life was permitted by God, I can be assured that God meant it for good. I might not understand why this thing was permitted, but at least I will have the comfort knowing that in the long run things will be better because of it.”
What a surprise to learn that Jonathan Edwards, best known for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was obsessed by God’s beauty more than his wrath. McDermott summarizes Edwards’ thought on the subject: “The essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections and to sense his irresistible love.”
Years of experience have taught me the truth of John Henry Newman’s disciplina arcani, or “method of keeping sacred things secret.” McDermott summarizes what Evangelicals and Lutherans can learn from it: “Too often we have thrown pearls before swine in our evangelism and Christian education.… We Christians generally have been too willing to blabber the mysteries of the faith to anyone we can get to listen, forgetting that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God … and he is not able to understand them’ (1 Cor. 2:4). We have both said too much (when we explain the intricacies of atonement and justification to unbelievers) and too little (reducing the gospel and all the Bible to justification by faith).”
In describing how Athanasius defeated the Arians, the author makes a useful observation, “Sometimes it is necessary to use an unbiblical word such as Trinity to teach properly and clearly a biblical concept.” He follows with a revealing thought indicative of his personal leaning, “This is also why theology is necessary and the Bible alone is not enough – it needs an orthodox community and tradition to interpret it.” Some Evangelicals may take issue with that last thought, but this book makes a strong case for it.
McDermott’s background as a professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and a teaching pastor at St. John Lutheran Church have shaped his perspective. His appeal is to the collective wisdom of the church rather than to one segment. “The Great Tradition,” led by the orthodox thinkers in this book, provides a means to rightly assess the many competing ideologies that we face today.
Though all great theologians fall short in some ways, McDermott persuades readers that they have something to teach us. We see through the development of doctrine how theologians develop, supplement and correct one another. McDermott advocates learning from this heritage with humility and attentiveness that we might see our own shortcomings. This is an excellent introductory guide that is highly readable.