May 24, 2010

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by McDermott

In his well-known introduction to Athansius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis remarked on the importance of “having the clean sea-breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” in order to avoid the narrow-mindedness that results from the reading of modern books alone (St. Vladimir’s, 2000). Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians is, of course, a modern book, but it is one aimed at making the important ideas of the great Christian thinkers of earlier centuries accessible to non-specialist readers. With Lewis’ reflection in mind, McDermott summarizes the theology of eleven highly influential historical figures aiming to pique the interest of his readers such that they are inclined to further study in the primary sources. The Jordan-Drexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, McDermott has written widely and extensively in the areas of church history, theology, philosophy, and religion, and, as a result, is highly qualified to provide this guide to some of history’s most important theologians.

McDermott indicates that the book comes in response to Christian laypersons who have asked for a “handy introduction” to Christianity’s important theologians (11). Thus, the present volume is written with those in mind who have not had a basic theological education and would be intimidated by highly technical textbooks. There is, though, a twofold danger for any such endeavor. On the one hand, such an introductory work might do too little by oversimplifying the complex theology of great thinkers leaving readers with only caricatures of each person’s thought. On the other hand, the guide might attempt to do too much by chasing too many nonessential lines of thought resulting in a text burdened with excessive secondary issues and notes. McDermott elegantly balances his way through this twin danger providing a clear introduction to the basic thought of each theologian.

The format of the book is well-done. Each chapter opens with a biographical sketch that places each theologian in his historical context and sometimes even provides some humorous detail from the life the figure. The biographical material is followed by a brief survey of the major elements of that person’s thinking. Next, and most importantly for McDermott, is a section which looks in more detail at a distinctive element of that thinker. Here McDermott is not looking for the main cause for the theologian’s fame. Rather, he is focusing on that aspect of the subject’s thinking which has had a particularly important impact on succeeding generations of Christians. McDermott then includes a series of lessons that can be learned from the particular theologian. The next two features of each chapter will be of particular aid to new students of theology. The author includes a brief excerpt from the theologian’s writings which illustrates an important theme from the chapters and then provides bibliographic material for students wishing to do further study. The bibliography for each chapter contains at least one primary source entry and one or more secondary source entries. Each chapter concludes with questions intended to facilitate use in group study or Sunday school. While this is an introductory work, some of it may be too technical for the average Sunday school class. Specifically, McDermott’s interaction with more recent theologians in the latter chapters of the book is sometimes more technical. The book is certainly not beyond the reach of the non-specialist, but it would be suitable for study in a small group of lay persons more interested and motivated than, perhaps, the typical Sunday school class.

The opening chapter is titled “Why Study Theology?” and makes the case that theology is not only for ivory tower seminary professors and students. Pointing out that “theology” is simply thinking or speaking about God, and that anyone who reads the Bible, listens to a sermon, or prays is doing theology, McDermott argues that “there is no faith without theology” (12). Every time anyone hears a sermon, it is their theology that analyzes the sermon and is simultaneously modified by the sermon. The question, then, is not whether a person has a theology but whether their theology, that is their view of God, is correct. How do we know which theology is best? McDermott suggests that the best way to get at an answer to this question “is to study the theologies of the greatest minds of the church,” which is precisely what the present book aims to do (13).

The bulk of the book introduces the reader to eleven of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity including: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth, and von Balthasar. Readers with a little theological training will quickly see that the book covers a range of thinkers across the theological spectrum from ancient to modern, Roman Catholic to Protestant, and modern liberal to neo-orthodox. McDermott is not interested in treating only those figures that support a particular strain of Christian thinking. Instead, he wants readers to see how these giants shaped history through the interchange of ideas, varied emphases, and sometimes vigorous disagreement.

McDermott’s treatment of each thinker is even-handed. He clearly writes from a position of historic Christian orthodoxy, and is sympathetic to a wide range of ideas that fit within the breadth of creedal Christianity. The book is no exercise in hagiography. McDermott is honest about the weaknesses and faults of his subjects, such as the sometimes excessive anger of Calvin or the pastoral weaknesses of Edwards. His treatment of Schleiermacher is worth special note. McDermott is fair but much more negative towards Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism arguing that his dependence on experience as the primary source of authority is a good example of how not do theology (145).

The final chapter makes seven observations on “What These Theologians Teach Us About Theology.” McDermott does not here rehearse the insights from earlier chapters. Rather, he makes more general observations about the nature of theological study itself. Key insights include the observation that all theologizing is done in a particular social and historical context and is, thus, limited in some way by that context. Limits and errors do not mean, though, that we have nothing to learn from a particular thinker. Everyone has cultural limitations, but these limitations do not prohibit a person articulating truth and providing insight and clarity for the church. McDermott sees the Holy Spirit at work in what he calls the Great Tradition to bring a development of understanding as history proceeds. Very important to McDermott’s approach is the reality that development is not always linear. When historical theologians are neglected or forgotten, we can learn and improve our thinking by studying the insights of those before us. “Therefore,” concludes McDermott, “we can say, somewhat ironically, that the way for us to move ahead in theology is to move back—to the greats of the past” (208). For McDermott, it is all-important that competing traditions be evaluated through the lens of the Great Tradition. He concludes in the spirit of Lewis by urging readers not only to read about these great theologians but to read the actual writings of these thinkers as well.

In short, this book is an excellent example of how history should be done. McDermott is not interested in simply recounting random facts about dates and dead people. Rather, he would have his readers learn from the successes and mistakes of these great thinkers in order to better understand the world that they have shaped, the world in which we now live. The present volume is heartily recommended as an accessible introduction to the insights and weaknesses of these great theologians.

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