Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Review of Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought

    Christian History gives a concise review of an informative new book on Jonathan Edwards by Edwards scholar Douglas Sweeney.

    Douglas Sweeney, who teaches church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has written a most helpful book on the life, theology, and impact of Jonathan Edwards—as well as on the encouragement that Edwards can be for Christian believers today. Everyone who remained even semi-alert in high school knows about Edwards for his famous (and hair-raising) sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Those who have been paying a little more attention know that Edwards was a major figure in the colonial American revivals that are called “the Great Awakening” and also that he was a major thinker who forcefully defended traditional Christianity against secularizing forces associated with the Enlightenment. An increasing number also know of Jonathan Edwards as an extraordinary theologian and Christian philosopher because of landmark scholarly books like George Marsden’s prize-winning biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003); the great edition of Jonathan Edwards’ writing overseen by Harry Stout and Kenneth Minkema that for many years has been issuing from Yale University Press; or popular presentations in many books by John Piper, such as God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006). (Continue)

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    Guest Blogger – Naomi Noguchi Reese on Abigail Hutchinson in Jonathan Edwards

    It’s an honor to have back Naomi Noguchi Reese as Guest Blogger at Cloud of Witnesses.  Naomi is a PhD student in theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    I have been enjoying reading some of the quotes on this blog by Jonathan Edwards. It reminds me of the class on him that I took a while ago. In the class, I learned about the conversion of a woman named Abigail Hutchinson. I had never heard of her before then, probably because I was not familiar with much of Edwards’s writings. But, she made such a big impact on me.

    Edwards described her conversion story in a letter to Benjamin Colman, pastor of the Brattle Street Church in Boston. Edwards writes, “She was first awakened in the winter season, on Monday, by something she heard her brother say of the necessity of being in good earnest in seeking regeneration…” This seemed to be the beginning of her conversion. Until her passing after a long battle with a terminal illness, she earnestly sought God in every area of her life. “I am willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, I am willing to spend and be spent for Christ’s sake; I am willing to spend my life, even my very life for Christ’s sake!” she declared, even in her sickness.

    What a powerful statement! Surely these are not ordinary human utterances. Certainly, a divine and supernatural light, a true sense of divine excellency, had enlightened her heart and inspired her to say these things. The entire account can be found in “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” (1737) at http://www.jonathan-edwards.org/Narrative.html.

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    "The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast" – Jonathan Edwards

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    I currently have the pleasure of editing a series of five books on Jonathan Edwards that are forthcoming from Moody Publishers, which I’m excited about.  I believe they will be a good and accessible introduction to Edwards’s life (one book is a biography) and work (the other four are topical studies) from two scholars who know him well – Dr. Douglas Sweeney and Owen Strachan.

    I’m finding some great quotes along the way and I’ll share a few here from time to time.  This quote is from a sermon mentioned in the title above, in which Edwards compares the blessings of life in Christ to a great feast.

    There is every kind of thing dispensed in Christ that tends to make us excellent and amiable, and every kind of thing that tends to make us happy. There is that which shall fill every faculty of the soul and in a great variety. What a glorious variety is there for the entertainment of the understanding! How many glorious objects set forth, most worthy to be meditated upon and understood! There are all the glorious attributes of God and the beauties of Jesus Christ, and manifold wonders to be seen in the way of salvation, the glories of heaven and the excellency of Christian graces. And there is a glorious variety for the satisfying the will: there are pleasures, riches and honors; there are all things desirable or lovely. There is various entertainment for the affections, for love, for joy, for desire and hope. The blessings are innumerable.

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    Edwards on Knowing Doctrine to Be Divine

    Here’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” where he describes how believers possess certainty of the truth of biblical doctrine.

    A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s Word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative. There is a beauty in them that is so divine and godlike, that is greatly and evidently distinguishing of them from things merely human, or that men are the inventors and authors of; a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divinity, and reality. When there is an actual and lively discovery of this beauty and excellency, it won’t allow of any such thought as that it is an human work, or the fruit of men’s invention. This evidence, that they, that are spiritually enlightened, have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence. They believe the doctrines of God’s Word to be divine, because they see divinity in them, i.e. they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing  glory in them; such a glory as, if clearly seen, don’t leave room to doubt of their being of God, and not of men.

    Alvin Plantinga cites descriptions like these from Edwards (e.g., Warranted Christian Belief, 100-101) in support of his extended A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model of warranted Christian belief, in which the believer acquires knowledge (both true and warranted belief) of “the great things of the gospel”– a phrase borrowed from Edwards — by the internal testimony or instigation of the Holy Spirit.

    The believers described above by Edwards could be understood to be those on Plantinga’s model who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to believe in the divine origin and truth of core biblical teachings.  They possess “a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence” and “see divinity” in the “things of God’s Word.

    Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology makes a lot of sense to me, and he and Edwards seem to be in agreement on at least this point.

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    Jonathan Edwards on the Holy Spirit’s Work on the Soul’s Faculties

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    This quote I recently read caught my attention.  Edwards had some great insights into theological and philosophical anthropology.

    But in the renewing and sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost, those things are wrought in the soul that are above nature, and of which there is nothing of the like kind in the soul by nature; and they are caused to exist in the soul habitually, and according to such a stated constitution or law, that lays such a foundation for exercises in a continued course, as is called a principle of nature. Not only are remaining principles assisted to do their work more freely and fully, but those principles are restored that were utterly destroyed by the fall; and the mind thenceforward habitually exerts those acts that the dominion of sin had made it as wholly destitute of, as a dead body is of vital acts.

    From the sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light”

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    Online Encyclopedia of Western Theology

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    I just discovered this nice-looking resource on the blogroll of A Time to Think – the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology.  According to the site, it “contains articles written mainly by students of Boston University Modern Western Theology seminars.”

    There’s a great list of articles on important figures in theology such as Augustine, Barth, Jonathan Edwards, Carl Henry, and Niebuhr, as well as significant topics like evangelical theology, Protestant liberalism, Pietism, and the social gospel movement.

    Some important figures in philosophy make the list too:  John Hick, Kierkegaard, John Locke, Richard Swinburne, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

    Looks like a fine resource for and by students of theology.

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