Today we are revisiting a past Kingdom People interview with Gerald McDermott, professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. His new book is The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (see my review here). He is also the author of Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment and God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church.
Trevin Wax: Your new book profiles eleven theologians throughout Christian history. Why are these theologians (many who lived more than a thousand years ago) relevant to the Christian today?
Gerald McDermott: Let me try to answer that question with an illustration.
Suppose you know there is a great woman of God in your church who has read the Bible and theology for forty years. She not only has deep knowledge of Scripture and how to interpret it for life and culture, but she also walks a holy life. People often remark on her humility and love.
What if you were to take the attitude, “I’m going to construct my own theology (which, remember, is your view of God) on my own, simply reading the Bible and theology books by myself.”
Wouldn’t that be odd, when you have a godly theologian in your midst? In fact, doesn’t this seem to illustrate sinful pride? It calls to mind the warning of Proverbs: “Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7b).
To ignore the great and godly minds of the church who have been ruminating on God for thousands of years—when now we have them at our fingertips through books and even the Internet—seems to be a kind of arrogance and presumption. It ignores the biblical reminder that there is wisdom in “the multitude of counselors” (Prov 11:14).
It also forgets another biblical observation that learning from other godly minds and comparing our thoughts with theirs is like “iron sharpening iron” (Prov 27:17), making our thinking about God sharper and clearer. The result will be deeper knowledge of God, which Jesus said is “eternal life” (John 17:3).
Trevin Wax: Why did you choose these particular theologians?
Gerald McDermott: Generally, these are the eleven whom I consider to have had the most influence on the history of Christian thought.
- Origen’s way of reading shaped Bible interpretation for the next 1500 years.
- Athanasius saved the church from degenerating into a little sect of Greek philosophy.
- Augustine was perhaps the most influential of all theologians—East or West—teaching us all, for instance, the meaning of grace.
- Thomas Aquinas was declared by the Catholic Church to be its foremost Doctor (teacher), and showed us all how faith relates to reason and the meaning of “sacrament.”
- Luther’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church were the principal stimulus to the rise of Protestantism.
- Calvin was the first and greatest teacher of that second great Protestant tradition, the Reformed movement.
- Edwards was the greatest religious thinker to grace the American continent and also the premier Christian thinker about how God relates to beauty.
- Friedrich Schleiermacher was the father of liberal theology.
- John Henry Newman was the great reformer of the Church of England who famously became a Catholic and showed us how doctrine develops through time.
- Barth was the most influential of all 20th-century theologians.
- Von Balthasar, a contemporary of Barth, is fast becoming the most important Catholic theologian for this new century.
Trevin Wax: I’m curious as to the reasoning behind some of your picks, particularly John Henry Newman and Hans Urs von Balthasar, when I would probably have put the Basil the Great or Irenaeus first.
Gerald McDermott: Basil and Irenaeus are both great minds and had enormous influence on our thinking. But, as I say in the Introduction to the book, I wanted to keep the list to ten or so, and I wanted to limit myself to those with the greatest influence.
Balthasar is a rising star in Catholic theology, and is becoming the most influential among Catholic 20th-century thinkers. Newman is a personal favorite, not only because he was Anglican (as I am) but also because of his journey from evangelicalism to high church. I also find that I never cease to learn from him, unlike so many others who seem to repeat what has already been said.
Trevin Wax: How do we learn from the strengths of each of these theologians while avoiding their weaknesses?
Gerald McDermott: By reading more than just one or two. This is the glory of the Great Tradition. By reading it over the centuries, and not limiting ourselves to one or two thinkers, or one or two periods (such as today and the Reformation), our knowledge and wisdom become more balanced. We see the weaknesses of one period by comparing with other periods.
Trevin Wax: Of the eleven you picked, which one is your personal favorite?
Gerald McDermott: Edwards.
Trevin Wax: Why?
Gerald McDermott: I have spent the better part of my scholarly life reading and writing about him (I am writing my 5th book devoted to his corpus). Better than anyone in America and perhaps ever, he combined keenness of intellect with passion for God.
Trevin Wax: One of the messages that comes through very clearly in your book is that theology has consequences, both positive and negative. Each of these great theologians had their weaknesses. What are some of the unfortunate consequences from their weaknesses?
Gerald McDermott: Well, I’ll start with Edwards, who opposed the slave trade yet had slaves himself. He reminds us that no theologian gets it all right. While his own son and top disciple (Samuel Hopkins) were leaders in the abolitionist movement, he himself couldn’t quite see it.
Then there were major negative influencers such as Schleiermacher. I include him, the father of liberal theology, because orthodox Christians need to learn what to watch out for. He is a lesson in how not to do theology.
Trevin Wax: How can we be good theologians?
Gerald McDermott: By being steeped in the Great Tradition. We need to be humble, and learn from the great minds and hearts that have spent thousands of years (collectively) meditating on God’s Word, listening to God’s voice, and learning from one another. If we proudly think we can do it on our own, or simply with the latest books by contemporary writers, we will inevitably go astray.