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Fifty Key Christian Thinkers by George Newlands
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May 12, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: theology
Read in May, 2011

This volume contains extremely useful and interesting summaries of the theological/philosophical works of thinkers from Paul the Apostle to David Tracy. Even after earning more than one advanced degree in the theological field, I found that there were many entries where I had read more about these thinkers than read them on their own merit. For example, I read a lot about Peter Abelard during my Church History courses, but I simply associated him with conceptualism and his disastrous affair with his student, Heloise. As a result, I missed his attempt to define the Trinity in such a way as to avoid the Sabellian heresy (that the members of the Trinity were the same God in temporal succession). His suggestion that the Father represented the power of God, the Son demonstrated the wisdom of God, and the Holy Spirit reveals the goodness of God is interesting because he asserted that power should always be exercised with the guidance of wisdom and for the purpose of goodness (p. 5).

In addition, the authors have clarified the breach between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner with a clarity that had never been available to me. I simply thought that Barth was being stubborn over his resistance to “natural theology,” that capacity for discovering God in the natural world and rational consideration, and that Brunner was merely going along with the liberal understanding in which he had been educated. I oversimplified Barth’s position, revealed in Fifty Key Christian Thinkers as believing that “natural theology” (usually understood as a purely human capacity for discovering God) negates the doctrine of grace (p. 83). Yet, that wasn’t Brunner’s position. Brunner argued from the basis of the “image of God” that in spite of the flaws and distortions in human existence and understanding, there must be some natural “point of contact” in which grace can take place (p. 83). Brunner was emphasizing the human capacity to comprehend revelation when God provided it while Barth was emphasizing the inception and completion of the saving work in God’s self-giving activity (p. 64).
I also appreciated the nature of Barth’s and Brunner’s dogmatic in that both believed that the Bible did not have its authority until the Holy Spirit made it real to the seeker, reader, student, and worshipper (p. 65) and that, in the Word of God, God doesn’t communicate “something” to me but rather himself (p. 81). That may not speak to those who must believe that individual words and sentences are infallible in a literal sense, but it communicates the Truth that even the Scripture can be misconstrued and confused without Holy Spirit influence (usually affirmed through a group of believers who are accountable for each other). These men were not saying that the Bible is unreliable, but that it is dangerous to interpret the Bible without the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, there were also thinkers that I’ve never actually read at all. Boethius comes to mind. Here is a wealthy individual who served as a Roman consul (before being accused of treason and sentenced to death), a student of Symmachus, who said, “God foresees the free acts of the free will, but this does not destroy their freedom and contingency, for foreknowledge of an act does not imply the necessitation of an act.” (p. 68). I hope to find some electronic editions of his short works in order to study further. I have also paid too little attention to Justin Martyr. His “Apology” (defense of the faith) to the emperor in Rome was important enough to induce his martyrdom (after 155 CE). He argued that the Stoics weren’t interested in a transcendent God, the Paripatetics were primarily mercenary, and the Pythagoreans were focused on music, geography, and astronomy which he considers to be peripheral to the truth. To Justin, philosophy was a shadow of the ultimate truth. So, he used Platonic categories to attempt to bridge the gap between philosophy and his faith (p. 159). Alas, his Trinitarian thought was almost polytheistic with Christ coming across as a lesser god (p. 160).

The explanation of Anselm’s “satisfaction theory,” atonement in terms of feudal loyalty and honor was the most understandable I’ve ever read. The characterization of Karl Rahner as the most important Catholic theologian of the 20th century, a theologian of “rescue” rather than repetition or demolition, an essentialist even more than existentialist (though heavily influenced by Heidigger), was totally right on. The summary of David Tracey’s work has me determined to check him out as soon as I finish this book I’m reading on theological method by Bernard Lonergan, the theologian/philosopher who influenced him. If Rahner is the Catholic “Barth,” Tracey seems to be the Catholic “Tillich.” Speaking of Catholic theologians, I liked the suggestion that whenever Thomas Aquinas is speaking with intrinsic attribution (the attributes and qualities of God that describe God’s “internal” reality), he is speaking hypothetically from God’s point of view and succeeds most effectively as a theologian, but whenever he is speaking with extrinsic attribution (the attributes and qualities of God that are inferred from our experience), he underscores the inadequacy of our understanding and “God language.”

Sadly, even though the bibliography on Wolfhart Pannenberg features the three-volume Systematic Theology, the summary of Pannenberg’s Christology doesn’t take seriously the re-evaluation of kenosis theory that Pannenberg noted in the later volumes. Pannenberg said he was too hasty to dismiss the idea of the pre-existent Christ “emptying” Himself in order to become the God-Human, Jesus, in Jesus-God and Man. Yet, the essay focused almost entirely on the earlier work. Yet, the section on Moltmann was extremely insightful in showing the evolution of his “Theology of Hope” and how it related to both his understanding of the crucifixion (in terms of God’s unity with the oppressed) and his social trinitarianism (avoiding the hierarchical understanding of Son and Spirit as subordinate to the Father in favor of self-giving and self-communication within the Trinity).

If I were teaching an introductory course in theology at the moment, I would be most inclined to use this as the textbook. The essays are succinct, accurate (with the aforementioned possible exception), useful, and stimulating. I’m glad I discovered this work.

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