Who are the “must reads” in theology? (part 1)

Brian LePort sparked quite the discussion yesterday with a question about “must read” theologians.

So what makes someone a bonafide “must read if you are serious about biblical/theological studies”? Who would you say is a must read, why, and what is your criteria? Also, is given “must read” always a must read (e.g. I don’t image Barth matters to those who spend their days in textual criticism or the Gospel of Thomas)? Is there anyone who is always a must read?

From there, the discussion ranged rather far afield, with most of the discussion focusing on whether people like Barth and Torrance qualify as must-read theologians. I commented early in the discussion and started to comment again toward the end. But, my comment got too long. So, I decided to turn it into a post of its own. Then that got too long. So now I think I’ll end up with a short series on what it means to say that someone is a “must read” theologian.

Reading the comments on Brian’s post, I was intrigued by how difficult it seems to be to keep separate the question of whether someone is a must-read because of their historical significance and whether they’re a must-read because of the inherent value of their theology. In this post, then, I’m going to comment on what I think makes for a must-read theologian in the former (historical) sense. Tomorrow, I’ll comment on what it means to be a must-read theologian in the latter sense. And, I’ll try to follow that up with a third post offering my list of must-read theologians (in both senses).

For me, determining whether someone falls into the former category (historical must-read) really has to do with the extent to which understanding that person is necessary for understanding a significant portion of Christian theology. For example, one simply must have some understanding of Augustine and Aquinas to have any real grasp of what’s been happening in Western theology pretty much ever since. The same would hold true in the East for theologians like Athanasius, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas (to name just a few). For me, people like these constitute the “giants” of theology – people we must read to have a deep understanding of entire Christian traditions. (This isn’t to say, of course, that their theology is necessarily better than that of other, lesser-known theologians; only that their theology has had a level of historical influence that places it in a distinct category.)

After these giants, there is a secondary level of historical must-reads, those people who are necessary for understanding their generation, and certainly had significant influence on later thinkers,  but never rose to the level of defining an entire tradition. In this category I would put people like Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Bonaventure, Melancthon (depending on how you understand his impact on the Lutheran tradition), and others. These are important figures and well worth studying in their own right. But, for me, they are only must-reads for people specializing in their era of church history or who want a more thorough grasp of the particular tradition they represent.

Much of the debate about theological must-reads, though, focuses on a third category – those people who are are still alive or who died fairly recently. This is a debated category because it’s nearly impossible to assess their historical significance yet. Personally, I would not categorize any living theologian (or even any of those who have died recently) as a historical must-read. I think you need to be at least a generation or two removed from a person before you have any hope of making that kind of assessment. Each generation has its larger-than-life theologians who are largely forgotten by later generations. (And, that’s not a knock against their theology. Every generation needs people to rise up and engage the theological task in ways that are meaningful for that generation. Most will not be talked about by later generations, but they still performed a valuable and needful task for the church.) So, for me, if you were alive and writing within the last forty years, you would probably not qualify yet as a historical must-read. Indeed, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, even forty years is barely enough time to make this kind of assessment.

So, my main must-read category is reserved for those who are historical must-reads, primarily those who are theological “giants” because they established a theological trajectories for entire traditions.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on October 31, 2010, in Historical Theology, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’m pretty much in agreement. That was my basic line of reasoning regarding Torrance not being a ‘must read’ quite yet. Let’s give it some time and see what kind of impact his work has.

    I look forward to the other two posts in the series. As I see it, the inherent value of someone’s theology is fairly subjective. I’ll wait for that post before I comment any further. And I can’t wait to see your list of ‘must reads.’

  2. I see ‘must reads’ as those who have significantly shaped the Christian tradition. For instance, Augustine’s works have had an undeniable influence on Western Christianity from his day straight through today. Even though I disagree with Augustine a lot, I would still call him a theologian who is a ‘must read’ simply because of his huge influence.

  3. My only point on Torrance, and in regard to Nick’s point (and your’s, Marc), is that he better be a “must read” for some — or he never will have that impact that folks are waiting to see.

    It seems in many ways, that “must read” is quite preferential and subjective. It is clear with Torrance that he has potential to end up being a “must read;” for me he is a “must read” now — I’m trying to get in on the “ground floor.” 😉

    • I would agree though, there are folks in the history like those you mention who are “must reads;” at least for anyone interested in doing theological and biblical studies work.

      • That last clause was key for this discussion. We’re definitely not saying that these are must-reads for all Christians, only for those involved in specifically biblical/theological studies.

    • I definitely agree that he has that potential, and I’ll be commenting on this kind of a “must read” (hopefully) today.

  4. Thanks, Marc, I look forward to your further insightful thoughts on this.

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