Friday, April 07, 2006

You are what you read, No. 1

Phil Ryken makes this interesting observation at Reformation21. He suggests that those who interested in the Emerging Church movement tend to be quite "presentist" when it comes to their theological reading. He also notes that while that reading has a place, he is more drawn to the great works of theology that have stood the test of time.

Ryken's thought provoked two of my own. The first is that this is why church history/historical theology is so important. Last night, I lectured on the development of 19th century theology and the point that I kept making over and over was that if you don't understand this story, you won't understand modern theology. For example, Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels aren't saying anything that Schleiermacher, Baur, or Strauss (or a number of other 19th century Protestant liberals) didn't say and say better. Hence, our theological students might be better served wrestling critically with Schleiermacher's Christian Life or Strauss' Life of Jesus than Ehrman and Pagels.

But the second thought was on what should be considered "the great works of theology." What ten books, say, should be considered the canon of great works of theology? Here is the list with which I came up:
  • Augustine, On the Trinity
  • Anselm, Why God Became Man
  • Aquinas, Summa Theologica
  • Luther, Bondage of the Will
  • Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Edwards, Religious Affections
  • Schleiermacher, Christian Life
  • Hodge, Systematic Theology
  • Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
  • Barth, Church Dogmatics
If I could somehow get students to understand the world-historical significance of these ten theologians and their best writings, then I think they would have a good sweep of the history of the Christian tradition. In addition, they would find things that would challenge their thinking, warm their hearts, or point them in new directions.

[Disclaimer: obviously I don't agree in every respect with these theologians. For example, I reject the sacredotalism of Aquinas, the liberalism of Schleiermacher, and the existential neo-orthodoxy of Barth. Still, they are worth Christian engagement, even when they move in erroneous directions, because they impact the Christian tradition in significant ways. In addition, reading Aquinas, Schleiermacher, and Barth would help us to understand what happens to Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism in various eras. Learning the tradition is as much discovering wisdom about the consequences of ideas as warming one's own heart.]


Anonymous said...

My two-cents worth...

As a first alternate I'd suggest the Westminister Standards (all of them). They are IMHO, the most accurate, yet consice corpus of orthodox Christian theology ever produced.

wyclif said...

That list is amazingly similar to what I would have suggested, with only one or two differences.

Sean Lucas said...

Wyclif: What would be your differences? sml

Sean Lucas said...

David: Yeah, I thought of the Standards, obviously. But I also thought that these were ten theologians and their key works in a "theological canon." Another interesting question would be, which ten confessional statements should be considered key doctrinal symbols in the Christian tradition (n.b. not necessarily ones with which we would agree, but ones that shape the tradition)? sml

Corner Creature said...

When I try looking up Augustine's On the Trinity, I get only Books 8-15 in Amazon.

Any suggestions?

Corner Creature said...

Whoops! I stand corrected. See here!

Thanks for the list!

Anonymous said...

What about Berkof? I tend to believe his theological work holds a distinct place in Christian thinking. I'd probably place him before Schleiermacher, maybe Barth.

Sean Lucas said...

David: Good point about Berkhof. I was trying to think of the most significant books in the history of Christian theology, not necessarily the most important books for the Reformed tradition or even the most important books for feeding one's heart. If I was trying to answer those two questions, then certainly Berkhof would find a place.

But as someone who works on American Presbyterians specifically and American religious history generally, it would be hard to overestimate the impact/signifiance of both Schleiermacher and Barth.


barlow said...

I would definitely add Athanasius' "On the Incarnation" to the beginning of the list. That book still knocks my socks off.

attycortes said...

Sean: Do you think John Owen would be a worthy addition to your list?

Sean Lucas said...

Attycortes: Again, my question would be how influential Owen has been within the larger Christian tradition and Christian story. I think that for Reformed types, he is hugely important. But for the larger story, perhaps not as much.

In that regard, perhaps the one name on my list with which I would quibble might be Machen. I put that there because it was very important in the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy of the 1920s and continues in print almost 75 years later. But I wonder if there are other books that might be more important (such as the book Barlow suggested, Athanasius' On the Incarnation, which was so important during the 4th century Trinitarian controversies).

Best, sml