What’s your “go to” systematic theology

Which systematic theologies are beginning to show a little wear around the edges because they’re the ones that you constantly pull off the shelves when you need to wrestle with some theological question?

Earlier today, Michael Patton posted his Top Ten Systematic Theologies. Clearly  not impressed, Nick Norelli quickly labelled this Maybe the Worst Top 10 List Ever. Obviously, the question of what qualifies as a “top” systematic theology is rather contentious.

I’m curious. What are your “go to” systematic theologies? I’m thinking about posting my own list of top systematic theologies, but I’d like to hear  your thoughts first.

So, let us know. What are your favorite systematic theologies?

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 January 21, 2011, in Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. I’m only into the first volume of Bavinck but I can already tell that I’ll be returning to him over and over. I like an Genderen & Velema’s recent volume as well. They’re in the tradition of Calvin and Kuyper/Bavinck which I’ve been gaining appreciation for. I’ll always return to Calvin because, well, it’s Calvin! Now that I have all of Barth’s volumes I can see myself referring to him a lot as well. I’ve not read much of Oden but from what I have read I like it a lot. Anyone who pays that much attention to patristic theology is well worth returning to again and again. I’m waiting to get my hands on Brunner but I’ve been told by enough people that I respect that I’ll love him. Time will tell if they’re correct.

  2. Indeed, I don’t have just one either. But Oden is getting to be one I use more now. Always Barth and Brunner at times. But, I am also very glad to see some of the new Calvin stuff, Julie Canlis, and her Calvin’s Ladder; and Billings, Calvin, Particpation, and the Gift. But also always T.F. Torrance! His books on the Trinity are very much like Systematics to me. And now of course one of Barth’s old friends in the East or Orthodoxy, the so-called Russian Georges Florovsky. (See Andrew Blane’s edited book: Georges Florovsky, Russian Intellectual, Orthodox Churchman.

    Btw, Nick, can I recommend Brunner’s work: The Mediator, actually one of my very oldest books in my library (a 1950 hardback I got a Knox College in Toronto, Canada during a visit there back in the 60’s). In fact I had my oldest son send me many of my favorites, besides what I already have here.

  3. *I pick-up copies of Brunner’s Mediator when I can, just to pass along.

  4. Btw, Marc,

    If I can ask you an unrelated question? Since you read so much, do you like, or read the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, at all? I love to dip into him myself. The Cambridge Companion in him is sweet!

  5. @Nick, good suggestions. It’s hard to argue with Calvin regardless of your theological perspective.

    @TC, Erickson is the required theology textbook at Western, so I definitely pull that one off the shelf a lot. It’s well worth reading.

    @Bob, unfortunately I have not engaged Leibniz directly that much. My exposure thus far has been largely limited to secondary sources. Can I ask where you find his work to be particularly valuable?

  6. Marc, Leibniz was actually very religious and taught both God in the ontological argument and in cosmology. Note the great debate between Leibniz and Spinoza. Leibniz’s God, unlike Spinoza’s chooses among the best possible worlds, etc. Also it was Leibniz that came up with the idea and concept of theodicy…God in the face of the suffering and evil of the world. Leibniz was just a profound philosopher and thinker!

  7. I like Stan Grenz’s theology that he did; used Erickson in seminary; starting to interact with Barth and want to get Oden’s set.

    • Brian,

      Indeed Grenz was a good man, both his classic works now: Theology For The Community of God, and his work on Postmodernism: Renewing The Center, etc. Btw, there is a Second Edition of the latter work, with the American Brian McLaren writing a forward, I guess they were friends? I have read and re-read parts of my hardback first of this book over and over! I like that he quotes the great American theolog, Bernard Ramm.

      I too like Oden’s! And of course Barth…the 20th century Church Father!

  8. Lots of good stuff mentioned already.

    Before the four-volume set came out, I used Bavinck’s “Our Reasonable Faith” which is still pretty useful – one volume and all.

    I don’t know if it counts as an ST, but Berkouwer’s set is something that I use, e.g. “Faith and Justification,” “Faith and Sanctification,” etc. A bit dated, but some of those are treasures.

    • pg,

      Oh yes Berkouwer is still a good read! Dated to good thought and an openness in Reformed thinking! Here I guess I show my age and reflection in my past theological journey. But these men, now gone for the most part, were “theologians” and thinkers. The 20th century was a rich time in theology! Btw, both WW1 & WW2 no doubt caused many men to search for God! There was renewal in many places, from Protestant theology.. to Catholic monasticism! I can remember the Catholic Tom Merton’s many books. Not to mention our C.S. Lewis!

  9. I like Calvin, Torrance, Barth, Vanhoozer, and Ryrie 😉 .

  10. bobby since you are a vanhoozer guy, let me know what you think of this review: http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/6968_7561.pdf – seemed kind of heavy handed to me but maybe it was a good and fair critique?

  11. Brian F.,

    I’m not sure I would characterize myself as a “Vanhoozer guy,” simply because I haven’t read enough of him yet. But what I have read of him resonates with me deeply; so I guess in that sense (and is why I mentioned him in my “list”) I could be a “Vanhoozer guy” 😉 .

    Having said that, I did read the review from Tooman; and was left unimpressed! I have not read that volume under review, and I’m not quite sure I’m all that interested in that piece. Yet, Tooman appears to me to be throwing a bit of a tantrum; feeling somewhat slighted as a representative of the “academy” and “guild.” Truth be told, Brian, I’m not a fan of the “academy” or the “guild,” clearly (as a necessary — apparently — evil) the academy is providentially used by the Lord for edification of his body (in certain spheres); but the way I view the academy (in general) is characterized by what Martin Luther has called a theology of glory, or what Jesus chastised the Pharisees for throughout the Gospel of John — viz. seeking the approval of men. To me, at a systemic level this is what characterizes (even methodologically) the “guild;” and I would imagine that it makes the Lord sick (of course everything I’m saying can be said of the “Church” in general, the “Laity” etc.) — it’s simply the flesh at work.

    What I’m getting at may seem tangential to a supposed review of Vanhoozer’s asserted approach. But, really, as I noted earlier, I think Tooman appears like he feels slighted by Vanhoozer and the apparent “tone” that Vanhoozer effuses towards the “academy,” in this case Tooman feels he is representative of (whatever!). That’s all that really came through in Tooman’s review to me. It is clear that Vanhoozer explicates what he means much more substantially in his: The Drama Of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach To Christian Theology (which I happen to be reading right now, re-reading at points). If Tooman was really wanting to be “generous” in his review, and if he is mindful of Vanhoozer’s book (just mentioned); then much of what Tooman objects to in the volume under review could have easily been answered by paying attention to the contours of Vanhoozer’s deeper thought on such things as articulated in “The Drama.” So Tooman is either aloof to Vanhoozer’s more “academic” work, or is just being somewhat disingenuous in his review here.

    Having said all of that, from what I gathered; Tooman is concerned that Vanhoozer has over-promised (through his ideal of presenting a “Theological Interpretive Approach”) and under-delivered (reflected by the offerings in offering under review). Again, I think Tooman needed to be a bit more generous by attuning readers to the fact that Vanhoozer has said much much more on this issue; than Tooman lets on about!

    In the end. I found that review to be almost worthless. To me I know more about what Tooman thinks about the academy and his relation to it; than I do about the book that he was apparently reviewing! 😦

  12. Good suggestions so far. It is interesting to see who hasn’t been mentioned yet. Among more recent theologians not one has comemented on are Bloesch, Gunton, Jenson, McClendon, or McGrath. And, I’m surprised not to see some of the older standards (e.g., the Hodges, Strong, Berkhof). Are these theologians just not on your “go to” list?

    • Marc,

      How could an Anglo-Irish forget an Alister McGrath, or a Colin Gunton! But I did, both such good scholars! RIP Gunton! He was not much older than I am (died 2003?). And yes too the American Donald Bloesch! When you look at such men, God has gifted the academy! I wonder what some think of Mike Horton, in the Reformed camp? See his new book, on this very subject!

    • Marc,

      One theolog not yet mentioned also, is good old Luther! I wonder just how much he gets read these days? Btw, Bernard Lohse’s book: Martin Luther’s Theology, Its Historical and Systematic Development is simply “the” Luther book! (It is a Fortress Press book)

    • In seminary we used Berkhof, Charles Hodge and even R.L. Dabney and some few pages of Shedd. I have only occasionally used any of these since seminary, however.

      I am interested to see if Horton’s ST will be the new “Berkhof.”

  13. Wow Bobby, when someone asks you a question, you definitely give an answer.

    Although I like Vanhoozer, he probably wouldn’t make my list of “go to” systematic theologies simply because his work isn’t really “systematic” enough yet. I like his stuff, but my “go to” theologians are usually ones who have written extensively across the whole range of Christian doctrine in a way that is relatively easy to access (i.e. I don’t have to spend too much time hunting to find what I want).

  14. Marc,

    Yes, I like Bloesch, Gunton; I really was thinking of guys who have actually written a Systematic Theology. And neither Bloesch or Gunton have. But then as I think of it neither has Torrance or Vanhoozer or Calvin 😉 — and I threw Ryrie in for some fun (his was actually the first ST I ever read).

    Speaking of surprised, I’m surprised nobody put Michael Horton yet.

    • You’re probably right about Gunton, but Bloesch’s Christian Foundations series definitely qualifies as a systematic theology in my book. The only drawback is that I don’t think anyone has produced an index yet for the whole series.

      And, I think Horton’s work is probably still just a bit too new to be on people’s “go to” list quite yet.

      • Yeah, Bloesch’s Christian Foundation series certainly could be construed as a Systematic Theology (I know that’s how Bloesch envisioned it); I guess I just never thought of it that way since it came out in pieces.

        Yeah, Horton’s is way too early yet; but in the sense that he is a Systematic Theologian, I would have thought he might have been mentioned — esp. since his ST just came out.

        I don’t know what I’m saying, Marc; I’m just kind of talking off the top 🙂 . . . or blogging 😉 .

  15. @Marc,

    Yeah, I know, when I finished my response to Brian it came out to be more of a Tome or Treatise than I had really intended. I needed to vent I guess 😉 .

    I doubt Vanhoozer will ever be “systematic” since that would cut against what he is getting at, it seems.

  16. Marc, I like bloesch too (can’t believe I forgot to mention him) but haven’t read the others mentioned

    Bobby, that was pretty much the feeling I got too and wanted to be sure.

    • Brian,

      Yeah, sorry I effused all over your question. I guess I should’ve taken a moment before responding directly from reading the review 🙂 . . . I really thought it was quite poor [stop]. 😉

  17. I can’t comment too much on Tooman’s review since I haven’t read the essay that he’s referring to either. But, I would be a little hesitant to dismiss it too quickly. Although he may have responded too sharply to Vanhoozer’s “tone”, the theological interpretation people do have a tendency to talk about other biblical scholars in a pretty critical/dismissive way at times. Just the fact that Vanhoozer seems to be suggesting that TI keeps the needs of the church in mind and other approaches don’t has to grate on someone like Bill who is a theologically aware and ecclesially minded biblical scholar.

    • Marc,

      And I should note, mine was a knee-jerk response. I don’t know Tooman, at all, as I imagine you do (your alma mater). I think the whole “game” is an unfortunate one, Marc; that we have these bi-polar extremes per the “disciplines” (which in some ways makes sense, of course). I don’t think ST guys/gals should dismiss Bib Studies folks or vice-versa.

      There is too much vested interest on either side of the disciplines for my liking! I think there needs to be more of a complementary mood in place, that unfortunately just is not there. Having said that, in the review, Tooman seemed to be defending “his academy,” vs. taking issue with the TI folks . . . just my “shallow” read (at this point, not knowing Tooman).

  18. Bobby,

    Yes, the “academy” is often a thing of the “theology of glory”. But, sometimes God gives us some gems too. Certainly Julie Canlis’s book: Calvin’s Ladder is a nice surprise! And in the same genre I have also enjoyed J. Todd Billings work and book: Calvin, Particpation, and the Gift. Though Billings work has been around for a few years I think? But I clearly understand your feelings about the academy! I left it years ago, for both my path in the military, and just the normal Anglican priesthood, or so I thought? Yet, I have gone the way I felt called, though often one can always say ‘what if’?

    In your case, keep after that dream of that Torrance Ph.D., if that is still your desire? TFT, is just one of those that we really need in the West! His star still needs to shine even brighter! His Trinitarian Theology and books are like no others, save from where he processed them, in his mental blood, sweat & tears!

    • Fr Robert,

      Please don’t mis-read me. I don’t think the “Academy” is all bad, it’s just the bad part of the academy that I think is bad 😉 . I too loved Canlis’ book, and am enjoying Billings! I just think the “Academy” in general is too full of itself at points, and I tire of academics defending the guild as if its God’s gift to men; last time I checked that was Jesus 😉 . . . I know I’m being a bit of a rascal!

      I’m planning, Lord willing of doing that PhD; we’ll see how life plays out here and how finances work out 🙂 .

      Thanks, Fr. Robert!

      • Bobby,

        I know myself how life ebbs and flows. Sometimes our plans are not God’s plans. But also sometimes they are. I know I have pressed God in both ways in my life. I will pray for you in your will and desire. May God give you His will. One thing I just lately discovered personally, and that is God’s synergy! God does work within our will and spirit. It really is HIS synergism…divine mystery, together. My will somehow touches His, and I “know”. Here is that existential place in knowing God! But it is a very “human” place also.

      • Fr Robert,

        Have you converted to EO? I think you have, at least functionally (doctrinally) 😉 . I do appreciate the prayers, Robert, it’s never really the easy way to move with the LORD; but certainly the best and only way 🙂 !

      • Bobby,

        No, I have not yet gone to the EO itself, though certainly I am very close to many of their doctrinal and also spiritual beliefs. And I have friends there. But, I am also I think a broad-minded thinker/theolog type myself, and I still appreciate many of the modern type thologians, both East & West.

        As I have said, with certain aspects of providence I will just stay my Anglican course right now, though certainly I am going to walk as I have before (years back) in my own Anglo-Catholic and Anglo-Orthodox place. But, I will always read and seek to do theology, and hopefully bring along my Anglican past (this includes my Anglican Reformed).

        I can see btw, that many on the blogs are just not theologically literate when it comes to the EO. This is my take anyway.

      • Robert,

        Yes, I know you’re still Anglo-Catholic.

        I need to become more astute to EO stuff myself. Ah, only so much time 🙂 .

      • Bobby,

        Ya might want to try reading the Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky, who was a close friend of Barth’s btw. I think Florovsky is one of the greatest 20th century’s spiritual and theological minds myself, and he knew both western and eastern forms of Christian history and theology. He was considered a patristic scholar also. He also wrote as a philosopher on the problem of evil. Just a great mind and man of God!

      • Robert,

        When I get the chance, I’ll have to check out Fl. some time.

      • Although I went with Schmemann on my list of contemporary “must read” theologians, Esteban rightly pointed out that Florovsky would have been a much better choice. He is definitely someone worth spending some time with.

  19. *I keep forgetting to hit that place of reply…sorry!

  20. I use Clavin, Hodge, and (not sure why this hasn’t been mentioned, or maybe I just missed it) Wayne Grudem.

  21. Marc,

    I am a bit surprised that Thomas Oden 3 vol. or even one volume Systematic now is not used more? Oden always brings in that needed patristic persective.

    • That’s a great question. I remember asking some people that some years ago when I realized that I wasn’t hearing as much about his work as I might have expected. And, I can’t say that I’ve gotten a really good answer. But, I also haven’t used his theology that much, I don’t have a good answer either.

  22. Since picking up Grudem’s Sys. Theo. a little over 3 years ago I would have to say it is my go to now. I’ll also put Erickson, Chafer and Ryrie as good ones to have and read.

  23. Michael Fletcher

    Gregory of Nazianzus
    Fyodor Dostoevsky
    Maximus the Confessor
    Timothy Ware
    Thomas Weinandy
    C.S. Lewis

    And on a sidebar, I also really enjoy studying topics like physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology to help us see the beauty behind what God has created.

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