Who are the “must reads” in theology (part 3)

In two earlier posts (see here and here), I discussed what it means to say that a theologian is a “must read.” And, I argued that we should primarily reserve such a label for people who are historical must-reads, those whose theology decisively influenced particular streams or eras. But, I also argued that we can legitimately use the label to describe people whose theology we find personally compelling or inherently valuable as well.

In the next two posts, I’m going to start a list of theologians that I think are must-reads. I’m not going to set these up as exhaustive or definitive lists, but more as works in progress. Today’s list will offer the (hopefully) less debated list of historical must-reads, and tomorrow’s will enter the fuzzy world of personal must-reads.

First, here are the principles that I will use to set up my list.

  1. I’m not including the Bible or anyone in the Bible. Those are must-reads for everyone, not just students of theology.
  2. A must-read must have decisively shaped a theological tradition, not just a particular era.
  3. The theological tradition they shaped must be one of the major traditions. (It’s hard to call someone a theological must-read for everyone if the tradition that they decisively shaped has not been terribly influential itself.)
  4. I will focus exclusively on “theological” must reads, rather than those important for other fields of study (Bible, philosophy, etc.).
  5. And, since I live and teach in America, my primary focus will be on what qualifies as a must-read for theology students in America. I’m open to the possibility that, particularly in the modern era, even the historical must-reads might begin to vary depending on one’s context. (Tomorrow’s list of must-reads will be much more obviously contextual.)

Second, even though this list should be less debatable than tomorrow’s list, I know there will still be some disagreement on people I’ve included (e.g. Barth) and probably people I’ve excluded. Again, this is a work in progress, so feel free to comment and let me know where I’ve gone wrong with the criteria or the particular individuals.

    Historical Must-Reads in Theology

    In the Early Church (up to AD 500)

    1. Athanasius
    2. Basil the Great
    3. Gregory Nazianzus
    4. Augustine
    5. Chrysostom

    In the Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

    1. Gregory the Great
    2. John of Damascus

    In the High and Late Middle Ages (up to AD 1000-1500)

    1. Anselm
    2. Aquinas
    3. Gregory Palamas

    In the Early Modern Era (AD 1500-1800)

    1. Luther
    2. Ignatius of Loyola
    3. Calvin
    4. Arminius
    5. Wesley
    6. Edwards

    In the Modern Era (1800-present)

    1. Schleiermacher
    2. Barth

    Okay, let me know what you think.


      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 November 5, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

      1. I’m wondering if Stanley Grenz should be added to the modern era list, as his theological works are/were the basis for the post-conservative/post-modern shift in theology?

        • Grenz is a fascinating theologian who has definitely had considerable influence. But, I personally wouldn’t include him on this list because there really hasn’t been enough time to know if his influence will be lasting or only limited to this era. He could easily be more like Carl Henry, who was one of the most influential 20th century evangelical theologians, but who I don’t think belongs on this list because I don’t think he’ll have decisive theological influence beyond this era. As I argued in the last post, I really don’t think you can put anyone from the last two generations on the historical must-read list. I’d be more inclined to consider him for tomorrow’s list (personally compelling theologians who are not yet or will never be historical must-reads).

      2. No John Owen? I guess Edwards and Owen are two sides of the same coin in some respects.

      3. Yes, Wesley hardly gets read theologically, save for the Methodists. He was a major Evangelical, but always an Anglican influence.

        Also here Luther was effected in a positive way in Wesley. One can find the real Luther in Wesley I believe.

        But it is also very interesting that Roman Catholic scholarship has found both Luther and Calvin.

      4. I was really torn on Owen. He was on the list right up to the very end. But, I finally ended up decided that Edward was more important if you’re studying theology in America. But, I’m still not convinced that I was right.

      5. Looks good. I wouldn’t know who to add for RC or Orthodox theologians. For Orthodox, it may not matter until the 19th-20th c. and it is still too early to tell. For RC, I thought of documents more than particular theologians (e.g. Trent, Vat. 2, etc.).

        • I had exactly the same problem with EO and RC theologians. In some ways, the trajectories for both are pretty well established by the time you get through the middle ages, so I wasn’t able to come up with any really seminal thinkers after that. I agree that the 20th century offers some good possibilities, but no one I could justify including on this list. (Some will show up on the next.)

        • I could have a go at it, but no doubt my list would be “mine” and challenged. Both the RC’s and the Orthodox have so many good theologians! With the East, today, I love to read Andrew Louth!

        • pgroach,

          My list for Roman Catholics would be very long! But, in our time De Lubac’s works would be one of the top for theology.

      6. Here’s some possible additions

        Early Church:
        Ignatius of Antioch
        Benedict of Nursia

        Early Medieval:
        Maximus the Confessor

        Late Medieval:
        Bernard of Clairvaux

        Johann Arndt
        Johann Gerhard

        • These are great suggestions. A couple of them nearly made my list (Origen, Maximus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Bernard), and they’ll probably make an appearance on tomorrow’s list. (I really struggled over Maximus because I appreciate his theology so much personally and because of his significance for Eastern Orthodox theology.)

          I’d probably need a little more convincing for the others. They strike me as more important for understanding their particular era than for theology as a whole.

          • I thought of Ignatius of Antioch mainly because of his influence on the rise of the bishop which played an important role later on for both RC and EO ecclesiology. Maybe not so much a theologian as the foundation for later theology. I guess Benedict isn’t so much a theologian as he is an organizer, but he greatly shaped Western monasticism and consequently RC.

            I added Arndt and Gerhard because I just read them in my Reformation class and they’re stuck in my head. Arndt played a large role in Lutheran Pietism as well as the influencing later Pietist thinkers such as Spener and von Zinzendorf who in turn have had their own influence on Wesley and thus American Pietism (okay, maybe that’s a loose connection, but I can’t help but read Arndt and see the influences on my own conservative Baptist roots). I threw in Gerhard as the balance to Arndt for the rest of Lutheranism (i.e., Missouri Synod) and because he coined the term Patristics. 🙂

          • I think Bernard is a really good suggestion as well. Both Luther and Calvin are heavily dependent on him.

      7. Bobby, I’m glad you mentioned von Balthasar. I spent some time trying to decide what to do with him, and ended up not including him on the list. I’d be interested in hearing what other people think. Although he’s important for modern theology, I just couldn’t say yet that he’s defined an entire theological tradition. I made the same decision with Rahner.

        • Yeah, these are kind of hard decisions. von Balthasar is an interesting case. I think his influence though is probably secondary to Barth’s, he himself being a helpful interpreter of Barth.

          • Von Balthasar really has his own form of theological aesthetics, note his book: Seeing The Form. But yes, he is touches both Protestant & Catholic theology.

            But yes Bernard the Abbot of Clairvaux, certainly.. see his book: On Grace & Free Choice.

            And it is nice to hear the name of Count von Zinzendorf again. He was such a profound Lutheran in theology!

            If you crack the door with St. Benedict, his whole theology is more like a spiritual realm. My wee formation with the English Benedictine’s, way back in my 20’s for a few years, still lives with me. Very positive overall!

      8. Marc,

        Btw, Schnelle’s: Apostle Paul, His Life and Theology, is grand! For Pauline people, a must read!

      9. Interesting post you have here… Congratz…

        I don’t know if you would agree or if you are aware of them, but in the Eastern Orthodox, the following are well respected:

        1. Georges Florovsky
        2. Alexander Schmemann
        3. Archimandrite Sophrony

        as well as:

        4. Hilarion Alfeyev
        5. Vladimir Lossky
        6. Sergei Bulgakov
        7. John Meyendorff
        8. Justin Popović

        And in the Greek EO especially the:

        1. John S. Romanides
        2. Nikos Matsoukas
        3. John Zizioulas

        I hope that helps…


        • Hey CK, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There’s actually a fourth part to this series. And, in that post I comment on people who would make by personal must-read list even though I don’t think they are historical must-reads. I included Schmemann and Zizioulas on that list, though Esteban convinced in me in the comments that Florovsky would have been the better choice than Schmemann. I’ve heard of Sophrony, but I’m not personally acquainted with his work. (I also considered Meyendorff and Bulgakov.) Some of these others are worthy additions as well. Thanks for all the input!

      10. Yes, I like very much Florovsky, Schmenann, and Lossky. And it is interesting to note that Florovsky and Barth were good friends.

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