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Book Review: The Great Theologians by Gerald McDermott
The Great Theologians by Gerald McDermott

Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. $20.00. 214 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3875-9.

Who did you learn about Christianity from? Your parents, a Pastor, a friend perhaps? One of the most amazing and peculiar things about Christianity is that people keep talking to other people about it. I’m not necessarily talking about evangelism here (while there is that), but rather I’m talking about the idea that for thousands of years humans continue to discuss God and man’s relation to God. This idea of “theology”, the idea that we can discuss and think deeply (and critically) about God is truly remarkable. It really is a conversation that has lasted for thousands of years. Think about that. And that is where Gerald McDermott, a Lutheran Pastor and professor out of Roanoke College gives the reader keen insight into some of the most important and striking “conversation partners” in the history of the Faith.

The Great Theologians, whose subtitle is “A Brief Guide” really is that: a brief guide. Tomes have been written by people who have studied and learned from the insight of these 11 contributors. Tomes have also been written by most of the contributors themselves on the important theologian issues of their day. McDermott does a truly wonderful job of compacting a broad outline of their thinking into manageable chapters that are accessible to lay-learners yet a wonderful resource for any Pastor, student or professor. While I could see this book being used in a book study group, I think the ideal venue would be an undergraduate course in college, perhaps an Introduction to Theology sort of class.

I’m glad that McDermott says early on that while only having 11 contributors in this book, there have been an innumerable number of contributors to Christian thought in the history of the Church. I’m also glad that he admits to have a sort of soft bias toward these contributors, which is understandable because you as the author have to do all this research on these men (in this case), and his affection for these contributors over others comes out in his writing as respectful and even thankful to all they have done. The only, might I say “annoying” thing in this book was his over-infatuation with Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is certainly an important theologian, but often times McDermott would mention Edwards or Edwards’ thinking in a chapter not devoted to Edwards! To my mind, there is limited space in this 200 page book to begin with and you’re trying to do A LOT with those pages….let’s keep Jonathan Edwards in his own chapter and let the others speak in theirs.

Self-admittedly from McDermott too was the fact that, aside from Schleiermacher, all these contributors have had an immeasurable impact on the life of the Church and man’s thinking about God. I mention Schleiermacher as an aside too, in wondering why he was chosen as a contributor to this book. McDermott answers this concern that Schleiermacher was literally the “father” of liberal theology and is thus an important “conversation partner” in the history of theology. I will grant that, but it’s confusing to me that a book called “the great theologians” includes a theologian who naturalizes or spiritualizes everything in the Bible, denies the authority of the Bible itself, denies Christ’s divinity, denies the Trinity, the list goes on and on. Can a theologian of this sort really be considered “great” when he denies or reinvents everything that was done in theology for the past 1800 years (at the time of his living)?

This is exactly the problem with most of the modern Church and why a book of this caliber is so needed in those Introduction to Theology classes across American campuses. Each semester a new crop of freshmen come into class thinking they have God and theology figured out. Each semester God is “reinvented” to account for “contemporary scholarship” and sensibilities to culture. God is now “relevant”….every semester. But what was discussed last semester is old hat. It’s this kind of book that focuses on what was said in the past that will most influence contemporary and future thinkers….not reinventing theology every semester in THEO101.

It’s when we look to the past, and grasp onto the previous thinkers, is when we really learn to understand God. Not when our culture, which is horribly depraved, cherry picks what God ought to be like and the Church tucks its tail between its legs and follows suit. Not when fanciful titles such as Blue Like Jazz, which have absolutely no breadth or theological insight from past thinkers. “Popular” books like this which are all the craze in the American Church are hypocritically drinking the same kool-aid that they seek to abolish – what does God mean for me? Who cares! A better question is, what does God mean to humanity and what does humanity mean to God? Who is central in this relationship --- me or God? And if the American Church thinks one iota that it can figure these incredibly complex propositions out by reading some memoir style book at a Starbucks with your Apple computer, Buddy Holly glasses and long GAP scarf, it has a whole other thing coming. And that other thing is totally awry from Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Luther, the list goes on and on.

One could make the argument that all these “individualized theologians” (me and my God) are in fact contributing to the “Great Conversation”. Perhaps (inasmuch as you need two people to play chess), but like Schleiermacher….where does deconstruction of the Biblical text, and denial of all things prior end? Christianity ALREADY looks vastly different than the times of Peter and Paul, do we really need to take anymore meat off of this bone? American Christians are obsessed with reading the Bible for “what it means to me”, yet we continually deny the historically focused Church that gave us the Bible in the first place. American Christians are obsessed with their churches looking and “feeling” comfortable to the whimsical and brevity of the mainstream culture. Yet when Jesus told his disciples “Come, follow me.” they dropped everything they had (and are) to follow him.

I was told just yesterday about a situation near where I live where there are three churches literally within one square block of each other, all of the “free church” variety. When an outsider looks at this situation the intuitive question becomes: what makes that church over there more right than that church over there, or that one over there? The answer is, it doesn’t! Because none of these churches have any kind of historical grounding that connects them with CENTURIES of Christian thought. What was preached last Sunday might be irrelevant THIS Sunday.

Wake up Church! Wake up Christians! When are we going to realize that the reason people still quote Augustine and study what in the world Aquinas was talking about because it was so profound….is because it matters. When are we going to realize that Calvin and Luther are way more Roman Catholic than most Roman Catholics today? When are we going to give Jonathan Edwards credit not just for preaching a sermon about people going to Hell, but then following it up the very next week talking about God’s grace? Stop cherry picking bumper sticker quotes from these guys and snippets about what makes them famous. Why are they still remembered, is the proper question to ask. The answer is that they thought deeply, passionately, submissively about God….but most importantly they used past theologians as conversation partners, not just pull out new ideas in their THEO101 class that “sounds right”.

Study Barth. Study Von Balthasar. The more you do the more you will see how the past influenced their thinking far more than reactionary “me and my God” thinking that courses through the veins of modern Christians. Gerald McDermott has given a very good primer to some of the most influential Christian thinkers of all time. Let’s take him up on his advice and actually read and learn from these people. To be sure, they will teach us something about Christianity and God that we never thought about before; or surely ever heard from during most sermons on Sunday morning. We spend more time controlling our rambunctious child with a styrofoam cup of coffee in our hand than reciting the Athanasian Creed or entering into the presence of the Eucharist. Let’s change that, today.


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