The virtue of Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians is that it condenses the central contributions of eleven of history’s most influential Christian thinkers into a readable and accesible format.
And McDermott makes this seem easy.
The Great Theologians introduces a rather diverse crew of theologians, from controversial but invaluable Origen, to the monumental Karl Barth. The selection alone might be enough to raise eyebrows in some quarters: can we really learn anything from Friedrich Schleiermacher?McDermott answers with a cautious “yes,” patiently discerning the shape of their central ideas while pointing out minefields as they arise.
It would be easy in adopting McDermott’s format–a highly organized structure that is repeated in every chapter–to view the theologians as titans whose work was independent of the others and whose thought is isolated from the broader stream of church history. But McDermott will have none of that. He repeatedly locates the contributions of later authors in the context of their predecessors, creating a chorus of voices that offer distinct contributions, even where there is significant disagreement.
As you might expect in a book like this, McDermott’s own theological inclinations peak through. He seems to be, for instance, excited about deification as a theological concept in a way that I am not (and in a way that will make many evangelicals skittish). But such are the sorts of issues and conversations that arise when you begin discussing Athanasius and Augustine: that they bear witness to the truth of the Gospel in a way that tills the ground for “deification” means we should listen carefully before rejecting it.
But as an introduction to the Great Tradition, the sort of thinkers who (in all cases except perhaps Schleiermacher) adhere to the sort of “mere orthodoxy” we are fans of around here, The Great Theologians is the best of its kind. For those who are attracted by Jim Belcher’s notion of “deep church” and the “deep tradition” that accompanies it, McDermott’s book is the logical starting point.
But it must–as McDermott knows and tells us–serve as a starting point. As he puts so well in his final paragraph, “We should not only readabout the great theologians, but the actual writings of these thinkers.” McDermott’s book will whet your appetite for them–it will be up to you to find satisfaction.
Cross posted at Mere Orthodoxy, which you should also be reading. This copy was graciously provided to me for review by the kind folks at IVP.