Who are the “must reads” in theology (part 4)

We’ve been discussing the question of what makes a theologian a “must read” for students of theology. In the last post, I listed those that I thought were must-reads because of their historical significance. But, I’ve also argued that it’s perfectly legitimate to have a second list for people who fall into one of these three categories:

  1. People you find so personally compelling that you think any good theology student should know about them.
  2. People you think will eventually become historical must-reads.
  3. People you think are shaping contemporary theology so much that theology students should know about them even if you don’t think they fall into either of the first two categories.

So, here’s my (inadequate) attempt to provide my list of theological must-reads in this secondary sense. Since this is an inherently subjective process, your list should be different than mine. And, since this list could easily get pretty long, I decided to limit myself to five theologians in each era. That wasn’t too difficult in the early eras since their major figure were already represented on the historical must-read list. In the modern and contemporary categories, though, it got pretty tricky. And, I did cheat a little by including an “honorable mentions” category for those eras. And, I’ve appended a brief comment explaining why I chose them.

In the Early Church (up to AD 500)

  1. Irenaeus (I love his narrative of salvation and his polemic against gnosticism)
  2. Origen (amazingly creative thinker)
  3. Gregory of Nyssa (fascinating blend of theology and philosophy; interesting theological anthropology)

In the Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

  1. Pseudo-Dionysius (vital for understanding mysticism and apophatic theology, though I’m personally not that interested)
  2. Maximus (his cosmic Christology and theological anthropology are outstanding)

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

  1. Bernard of Clairvaux (the affective and mystical nature of his theology are a welcome change from medieval scholasticism)
  2. William of Ockham (brutal to read, but important for understanding nominalism and the theological/philosophical context of the Reformation)

In the Early Modern Era (1500-1800)

  1. Zwingli (I felt like I had to include Zwingli. Compared to the other Reformers, he always seems like the fat kid who never gets picked for kickball.)
  2. Melancthon (anyone who can systematize Luther’s brilliant ramblings is fine by me)
  3. Bucer (fascinating ecumenist in a theologically loaded era)
  4. Owen (how can you not like Owen? He probably should have been on the previous list)
  5. Spener (you don’t really understand American religiosity until you’ve understood German pietism)

In the Modern Era (1800 – 1990ish)

  1. B.B. Warfield (not my favorite personally, but critical for understanding American theology)
  2. Charles Finney (as much as it pains me to say it, he’s among the most influential American theologians ever)
  3. Alexander Schmemann (the 20th century was huge for Eastern Orthodox theology, and I went with Schmemann over Bulgakov because I’ve spent more time with him)
  4. Hans Urs von Balthasar (one of the people on this list that I really need to spend more time with)
  5. T.F. Torrance (I’m still torn on whether he’ll have a lasting historical significance, but his theology is challenging, rigorous, and robustly trinitarian. What more could you want?)

(Honorable mentions: C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, John Howard Yoder)

Contemporary Theologians (still living)

  1. Robert Jenson (possibly the best truly systematic theologian writing today)
  2. Miroslav Volf (one of my personal favorites, his work is always interesting and challenging)
  3. Rowan Williams (one of those really important theologians that I just haven’t been able to get into, but still critical for understanding theology today
  4. John Zizioulas (his work on Trinity, ecclesiology, and anthropology, has been very influential in my own thinking)
  5. Stanley Hauerwas (someone that I still need to spend more time on, but his creative synthesis of theology, biblical studies, and ethics is definitely must-read worthy)

(Honorable mentions: Gustavo Gutierrez, Virgilio Elizondo, Kathryn Tanner, David Bentley Hart, John Webster, Benedict XVI)

Okay, have at it and let me know what you think. I’m particularly interested in who would you be on your Top Five lists for the modern and contemporary periods.


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 8, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Great list! Curious as to what your thoughts on Moltmann and Pannenberg are?

  2. Also wondering if there are any women that would fit on this list?

    (not that there HAS to be, but it’s interesting to note the lack of women theologians in general).

  3. Oops. I had Pannenberg on my “honorable mentions” list for contemporary theologians, but apparently I deleted him somehow. He should definitely be there.

    I’m not a big fan of Moltmann myself. He has certainly been a very influential theologian, but I’m not convinced that he’s got staying power and he has been as significant for me personally. So, he didn’t make the list.

  4. Regarding women theologians, I did put Kathryn Tanner on the honorable mentions list for contemporary theologians. After her I’d go with Sarah Coakley and Elizabeth Johnson.

  5. thanks for your thoughts. I’m enjoying these posts.

  6. Modern/Contemporary mixed:

    1)TFT 🙂 (I’m glad he’s on your list, Marc).



    4)Barth (I know you put him on your other list, historical)

    5)Lewis Ayres (he still has more work to do . . .)

    6)Thomas Weinandy

    I’ve got more, but there’s some from my list.

  7. Oh, what . . .

    7)Bruce McCormack

  8. I am reading Origen’s Homilies on Luke and the one thing that continually sticks out to me is how much he loves Christ. Many say what they will but it is apparent that Origen treasures the word.

  9. Not already named:

    One more for Early Modern: Francis Turretin

    Modern: Charles Hodge, J.W. Nevin

    Contemporary: William Cavanaugh, John Webster

  10. I find the choice of Fr Schmemann as the token Orthodox to be odd, at best. He may be among the more easily recognizable names of Orthodox theological scholars for the non-Orthodox, but his influence beyond the already restricted field of liturgical theology is limited — and as it is, his work amounts to little more than an original appropriation of the pivotal insights of the pre-Conciliar Roman Catholic ressourcement. A better choice, I believe, would have been Fr Georges Florovsky, whose name is no less recognizable beyond our circles, and the scope of whose contribution is far greater and wider.

    • As long as “token” here reflects the idea that I think 20th century Orthodox theologians as a whole were immensely influential, but I could only pick one. And, as I mentioned, I went with Schmemann over Bulgakov (or Meyendorff) strictly because he’s been more significant for me personally. But, to be honest, I simply forgot about Florovsky. You’re right, he should definitely be considered and would have made a better representative of Orthodox significance (though I’d still say that Schmemann’s influence has been broader than your comment suggests).

      • Marc> Oh, of course! I meant no criticism by that. Really, a list like this is ultimately an exercise in tokenism: a token Orthodox, a token Lutheran, a token Anabaptist, and so on, until the list is sufficiently complete and well-rounded. Nothing wrong with that!

        I never cease to be amazed by the attention that Fr Bulgakov attracts in some circles. I realize, of course, that the stock of innovative thinking such as his is very high indeed among contemporary theological scholars, yet his “sophiological” thought is really only the obscure province of certain dedicated specialists, and its impact on Orthodox faith and life is negligible at best. The same could be said, in varying degrees, of any number of scholars past and present. What is most distressing about this is that well-meaning students of the “theological sciences” approach these authors as gateways to the Orthodox tradition, and yet they are so very marginal! Fr Florovsky is far better for these efforts, and indeed for more substantial engagements; Fr Meyendorff too, to a lesser degree, especially in his historical works.

        I do admit that Fr Schmemann has had palpable influence, especially in the Orthodox Church in our part of the world, although he is also read back in the geographical East. But the locus of this influence, again, is liturgical theology. And again, his insights are more of an appropriation of the pre-Conciliar ressourcement, something that English speakers with no exposure to continental Catholic thought were unable to realize until the translations started to appear about 20 years ago. Also, his appropriation has its own problems when evaluated from a traditional Orthodox perspective. Given this, as an Orthodox Christian who has actively worked in the catechesis of certain academically inclined people over the past several years, I have shied away from exposing them to Fr Schmemann, and lead them to Fr Florovsky (and sometimes Fr Meyendorff) as more adequate gateways to Orthodox thought and history.

      • Great comments, Esteban. Thanks. It was very helpful hear more about how you understand the importance of all four of these individuals both within Eastern Orthodoxy as well as externally. That was a much more nuanced explanation than I could have given.

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