Theology & Spirituality

17 Engaging Theologians You’ve Probably Never Read

Each major Christian tradition has theologians who exercise strong influence beyond its borders. To give only a few examples, Roman Catholicism has Thomas Aquinas, the Reformed tradition has John Calvin, and Methodism has John Wesley. In addition to these great heroes, each tradition also has a catalogue of brilliant and engaging theologians whose influence does not typically extend beyond their own tradition or, in many cases, beyond a small circle of academic specialists. I like to think of this catalogue as the tradition’s secret menu. In the spirit of sharing and mutual enrichment that is at the heart of Conciliar Post’s activity, I have asked a number of authors, some regular writers for the website and some not, to introduce theologians from the secret menu of their tradition or a tradition with which they are closely familiar. Each brief introduction is accompanied by a recommendation of at least one book or audio series that an interested outsider could profitably start with. My hope is that this post will be, for this site’s readers and writers, a starting point for further learning, discussion, and edification.

— David Doherty, article editor

ANGLICAN (David Doherty w/ Fr. Wesley Walker)

Most Anglican theologians who currently enjoy widespread popularity across Christian traditions are either evangelical leaders, like George Whitefield and N. T. Wright, or imaginative literary figures, like C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. The prominence of these intellectuals is well deserved, yet other movements and circles within the variegated Anglican tradition have also produced many theologians who are worthy of serious attention. With this in mind, I have decided to introduce three authors who do not fit into either of the two aforementioned categories. I have focused in particular on British Anglicanism in the early twentieth century. The first and third theologians are specifically Anglo-Catholic, and the second expressed in his thought and ministry something of a compromise between Anglicanism’s evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, and liberal streams. Fr. Wesley Walker has kindly supplied the introduction to Thornton; I have written the rest.

Charles Gore (1853–1932)

Many saw Anglo-Catholic bishop Charles Gore as a dangerous innovator. Early in his ecclesiastical career, he led a band of intellectuals who sought to harmonize historic Christian orthodoxy with science and biblical higher criticism, and he articulated rather liberal beliefs about the Old Testament. A committed Christian socialist, he was also an early leader of the Christian Social Union in England.[1] However, the prolific Gore was in many ways a staunch theological conservative, and he proved himself to be one of Anglicanism’s most formidable defenders of creedal faith and many Anglo-Catholic convictions.

Good book to start with: Orders and Unity

William Temple (1881–1944)

William Temple, appointed archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, was one of twentieth-century Anglicanism’s daring, forward-thinking theologians. Drawing on his impressive ability to pare down complex issues and get at the heart of a problem, he made bold and often controversial propositions about philosophy, politics, economics, social reform, and other subjects. Though somewhat liberal on certain points, he nevertheless engaged meaningfully with the great tradition of Christianity and provoked further consideration of what it means to be faithful to the beliefs and witness of the historic church. He was also the first president of the World Council of Churches, before it was formally established.[2]

Good books to start with: Church and Nation; Daily Readings from William Temple (ed. William Wand, comp. Hugh C. Warner)

Lionel S. Thornton (1884–1960)

Anglo-Catholic theologian E. L. Mascall wrote that Lionel S. Thornton was one of four “very outstanding priests whom I was privileged to know intimately during the most productive periods of their lives.”[3] Thornton was a large, awkward man who always used a walking stick and had a keen mind and a photographic memory of the biblical text. A constant theme of his work was that revelation subordinates contemporary thought, not the other way around. He applied his skills to biblical theology, concerning himself with questions about Scripture’s role as the medium of revelation, its underlying unity, and its authority all while virulently opposing tendencies in modern biblical studies that encouraged cold, scientific approaches to the text. Instead, Thornton utilized vibrant figurative and typological exegesis as a way to uncover the divine unity of Scripture. The Common Life of the Body of Christ is a brilliant exposition of the Pauline corpus that anticipates many modern advances in this area of study, emphasizing themes of cruciformity, ecclesiology, and becoming.

Good books to start with: The Common Life of the Body of Christ; The Incarnate Lord; a trilogy consisting of The Form of the Servant: Revelation and the Modern World; The Dominion of Christ; and Christ and the Church.

EASTERN ORTHODOX (Benjamin Cabe)

Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid (1050–1107)

As archbishop of Ohrid, Theophylact fulfilled his duty of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15 KJV) by writing commentaries on passages of the Bible. Most notable is his ability to condense the scriptural-patristic tradition of the previous one thousand years—with special emphasis on St. John Chrysostom—within a few short paragraphs. His commentaries on the Gospels are short and to the point and are excellent resources for any Christian.

Good books to start with: Commentary on Matthew; Commentary on John

St. Paisios (1924–1994)

St. Paisios is well beloved within Orthodoxy. While most have read his biography, far fewer have read his spiritual teachings. At present, there are five volumes which have been published posthumously by the nuns he counseled. The books themselves consist of the Saint’s answers to questions posed to him by the nuns in private meetings. And the counsels themselves are gems.

Good books to start with: With Pain and Love for Modern Man (vol. 1 of Spiritual Counsels)

Fr. Seraphim Rose (1934–1982)

Fr. Seraphim Rose is easily one of the most polarizing figures within modern Orthodox theology, with his comments on “aerial tollhouses” in The Soul After Death being the locus of the dispute. But having read his corpus in its entirety, I believe the widespread criticism is unfounded. In his book on the soul, for instance, he merely recites the patristic tradition with the comment that “we do not know how literally to take this.” His contributions to modern debates such as creation versus evolution, alongside his incredible foresight in books like Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future and Nihilism, make his work indispensable for Christians living in the twenty-first century.

Good books to start with: Genesis, Creation, and Early Man; Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future; The Soul After Death.

LUTHERAN (John Ehrett)

For many newcomers to Lutheran thought, theological explorations begin and end with Martin Luther himself (and maybe Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s intellectual heir). Historically, Lutheran theology has been more closely identified than other traditions with the work of its architect; by contrast, the early Reformed tradition can point to Zwingli, Calvin, and Bucer, among many others. This is a shame, because Lutheran theology—especially in recent centuries—has proven to be far broader than simply the works of its founders. (And the list below is saying nothing of the almost unknown heritage of early Lutheran scholasticism, many works of which have not yet been translated into English.)

C. F. W. Walther (1811–1887)

C. F. W. Walther served as the inaugural president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and remains one of its foremost theologians to this day. After rejecting the thin theology of the Saxon state church of his day, Walther and a group of like-minded individuals immigrated from Germany in the mid–nineteenth century and settled in the American Midwest. At the heart of Walther’s theology was the centrality of the law-gospel dialectic for both parish preaching and everyday life—a dynamic upon which much contemporary Christianity tends to place little emphasis.

Good book to start with: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel

Francis Pieper (1852–1931)

A first-generation German immigrant like Walther, Francis Pieper served as the fourth president of the LCMS, but is best known for his scholarship. Most notably, Pieper was the author of the foremost dogmatics textbook used in the LCMS—a comprehensive treatment of the central themes of the Christian tradition, ranging from prolegomena to last things. Throughout Pieper’s works, he strove to situate Lutheran theological distinctives within the wider current of Christian thought as a whole.

Good books to start with: Christian Dogmatics (3 vols.)

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–2014)

Perhaps the foremost Lutheran theologian of the last half century, Pannenberg is best known for his comprehensive theological vision centered on eschatological anticipation—the future coming of the kingdom of God. In the course of his monumental Systematic Theology, Pannenberg worked to place classical Lutheran theology into dialogue with current developments in ecumenism and with modern Roman Catholic thought, stressing at every turn the fundamentally “forward-looking” character of Christian life and worship.

Good books to start with: Systematic Theology (3 vols.)

METHODIST (Jarrett Dickey)

Generally speaking, theologians can be divided into two categories: speculative and practical. Speculative theology utilizes philosophical reason and logic to craft a systematic expression of core doctrinal tenets. Traditionally, speculative theologians have reigned supreme in terms of influence and academic study. By contrast, practical theology eschews systematic approaches in favor of spiritual, devotional, and pastoral concerns.

John Wesley is arguably the most influential practical theologian in church history. His compiled works consist of sermons, letters, journals, essays, and short doctrinal tracts. However, the true impact of his ministry was not in his writing, but in his missionary work, open-air preaching, small-group discipleship structures, and renewal efforts within the Church of England. In his doctrinal pamphlet A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity (1753), Wesley defines the true Christian experience in this way:

It guides him into an uniform practice of justice and mercy, equally extensive with the principle whence it flows. It constrains him to do all possible good, of every possible kind, to all men; and makes him invariably resolved in every circumstance of life to do that, and that only, to others, which supposing he were himself in the same situation, he would desire they should do to him.[4]

In the spirit of Wesley, the theologians introduced below are practical theologians whose work focuses on church renewal, pastoral ministry, and discipleship structures. Additionally, these individuals are to be noted not simply for their academic work, but for their years of ministry in Methodist contexts.

Howard A. Snyder (1940–)

My first introduction to Howard A. Snyder was in a course called Enabling an Evangelizing Church at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The professor, Dr. Wesley de Souza, was familiar with Snyder’s work because he had studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, where Snyder taught history and theology of mission. Snyder’s own career encompassed pastoral ministry in the USA and Brazil as a member of the Free Methodist Church and teaching positions at several Methodist seminaries. Snyder’s academic publications focus on church renewal and revitalization.

Signs of the Spirit is an analysis of four renewal movements from church history: Montanist, Pietist, Methodist, and Moravian. Snyder attempts to answer the question “How can an institutional church be renewed?”[5] The Community of the King is an examination of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church. In the introduction, Snyder argues that “too little attention has been paid to the doctrine of the church” and that “there still exists something of an ‘ecclesiology gap’ in much Christian theology—and even more in practice.”[6] The remainder of the book is an attempt to rectify the deficient ecclesiology present in many church contexts.

William H. Willimon (1946–)

Currently, William H. Willimon teaches at Duke Divinity School as professor of the practice of Christian ministry. Prior to this teaching position, he served as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church (2004–2008) and dean of the chapel at Duke University (1984–2004). As his current teaching position indicates, Willimon has long been viewed as one of the essential voices regarding pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church. Two of his most widely read works, A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship and Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, are written for pastors and ministers. In the introduction to Pastor, Willimon defines ministry as “an act of God,” saying, “Ministry is one aspect of God’s determination to have a human family, then to maintain that family into eternity. . . . God will have a family of priests, a holy nation that shall be a blessing to all the nations, no matter what it costs God to get it.”[7]

David Lowes Watson (??–)

David Lowes Watson served as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for many years while teaching at multiple universities. Watson himself was educated at both Oxford and Duke and has published scholarly works on Methodist history, theology, evangelism, congregational life, and mission. I was introduced to Watson through a course at Candler entitled John Wesley and 18th Century Epistemology. My final paper for that course was an extended analysis of John Wesley’s use of small-group structures in the early Methodist revival. My research for that paper connected me to Watson’s book The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance.

(Read Jarrett’s Conciliar Post article on Methodist small groups.)

PENTECOSTAL/CHARISMATIC

William Seymour (18701922)

William Seymour, a major figure in early US Pentecostalism, led the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California, in the early 1900s. Fueled by an expectation of Christ’s imminent return, he urged hearers to seek the baptism of the Spirit, a critical event in salvation coming after justification (which removed “actual” known sin) and sanctification (which removed original sin). The sanctified were indeed “cleansed and filled with divine love,” but Spirit baptism conveyed “the enduement with power.” A demanding Holiness preacher whose teaching paralleled Phoebe Palmer’s “altar theology” and Minnie Abram’s teachings on fire baptism, Seymour believed Spirit baptism would ignite world evangelization in the “last days.”

Seymour’s writings are published in Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism.

Rikk E. Watts (??–)

Watts is research professor of New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, having previously served as the school’s professor of New Testament. Born in Australia, Watts was raised in the Pentecostal tradition and went on to serve as a pastor. Endeavoring to enhance his tradition’s approach to Scripture, he studied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary under legendary Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee and then completed a Ph.D. at Cambridge.

He is known for his passionate love for Jesus. Students report that it is not unusual for him to break down in tears while teaching. He also supplements his lectures with stimulating visual materials—be it complex charts comparing the Gospels or even side-by-side images of his own brain showing that his cognitive activity increased while he spoke in tongues! Watts’s influence as a theologian has been exercised more through the spoken word than the written word; his Regent lectures, available at Regent Audio, have been downloaded by thousands of listeners worldwide.

Good course to start with: The Gospel of Mark (2014)

REFORMED (Joshua Schendel)

When I was asked whether I would like to introduce three of my favorite little-known (or unknown) theologians in the Reformed tradition, I responded happily that I would. The decision of who to include, however, proved quite difficult for several reasons. So, let me say a word or two about why I’ve chosen the three I have (and snuck in a fourth). One challenge I encountered was that I had to keep with authors whose major works were written in, or have been translated into, English. Another consideration was that while my very favorite Reformed theologians are mostly from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I wanted to give a representative look beyond that period. I therefore included a theologian from the (mostly ghastly) nineteenth century and a contemporary one as well. Finally, though delimited to writers accessible in English, I did not want to appear overly Eurocentric. For this reason, I snuck in a quick word on a fourth, from Korea.

Richard Baxter (1615–1691)

Richard Baxter was a non-conformist English theologian of that tumultuous period in English history that saw civil wars. He served as both a deacon and a curate in the Church of England until 1662 when he was ejected by the Act of Uniformity. Baxter’s writings are remarkable, by my estimation, not only on account of their great abundance (he wrote 150 treatises and hundreds of letters) but also because of their breadth and profundity. He was very able in technical scholastic discourse and very moving in his biblical and devotional meditations.

A good place to start is Baxter’s own memoires, Reliquiae Baxterianae. Of particular interest to Conciliar Post readers may be his Catholic Theologie and Catholic Unity. (Some readers may be aware that C. S. Lewis took his title Mere Christianity from Baxter!)

James Orr (1844–1914)

James Orr was a Scottish Presbyterian theologian. He distinguished himself in philosophy at the University of Glasgow and by the late 1870s was one of the leading scholars of David Hume and the radical skeptics, Kant, Hegel, and the German Idealists, as well as his own country’s Common Sense Realists. He was not merely a critic of these schools of thought, however, but attempted to put them in conversation with the great tradition of Christian antiquity.

His most significant work is undoubtedly his 1897 Elliot Lectures, later published as The Progress of Dogma, wherein he ambitiously attempts to answer simultaneously both John Henry Newman’s and Adolf von Harnack’s theories of dogmatic development.

Sebastian Rehnman (1969–)

Sebastian Rehman is professor of philosophy at the University of Stavanger. He has published studies on the philosophy of religion and on the Reformed Orthodox period. I include him on this list because I believe his writings to be a model of open, honest, clear-headed, and astute inquiry.

I would suggest beginning with his article “Philosophy Explored” and then digging into his historical and philosophical studies.

(Now for my sneaky fourth: the Reverend Nam Joon Kim, who has served as a lecturer and assistant professor at An-Yang University and Chon-An University, is the full-time pastor of Yullin Church in South Korea. He has authored numerous articles and over fifty books in Reformation studies and in Reformed theology and practice in Asia.)


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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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