Modern theology is discourse about God in the context of modernity and the cultural ethos brought about by the Enlightenment. After Enlightenment thinkers denigrated special revelation in favor of natural theology, post-Enlightenment intellectual giants tried in various ways to move beyond their assertions. Kant focused on morality as the focal point of Christianity. Hegel homed in on the intellectual realm as Christianity’s center. Schleiermacher elevated the experience and intuition of the community.
Judging those responses to be aberrations from historic Christian teaching, the theologians on the following list attempted to carve out a more faithful path for post-Enlightenment Christianity. Thoughtful non-theologians will benefit from patient exposure to these scholars. Inclusion does not imply endorsement. The list encourages readers not to be denominational or chronological snobs, but instead to read the most important theologians slowly, patiently, and receptively.
Karl Barth (1886–1968)
Reformed theologian Karl Barth's work signaled the end of liberalism’s theological reign. He recovered classic Christian doctrines and showed their significance for the modern world. “Barth’s . . . influence,” Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel writes, “profoundly changed the shape of Christian theology across confessional boundaries, significantly altered the direction of the Protestant church, and also left an unmistakable imprint on the politics and cultural life of the twentieth century.” The significance of his work in the theological sphere is comparable to that of Freud, Marx, or Wittgenstein in theirs, in that he indisputably reorganized an entire academic discipline.
For young theologians who want to read something readily comprehensible, one option is Dogmatics in Outline, which shows Barth’s early and unseasoned thought. Evangelical Theology demonstrates his more mature thought, though it is, unfortunately, not a dogmatics text. The final option, Church Dogmatics, is the best of the three. It is wickedly difficult to read, largely because Barth unfolds his arguments slowly and circuitously, rather than in a straightforward and linear fashion. His sentences sometimes last half a page. While not an easy read for the uninitiated (the first time I read a volume of it, back in 1996, I felt like a ferret swimming in a bucket of Thorazine), Dogmatics is nonetheless rewarding.
Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003)
Without a doubt, the most prominent evangelical theologian of the second half of the twentieth century was Baptist thinker Carl Henry. A theological journalist, teacher, editor, cultural commentator, and world spokesperson for evangelical Christianity, Henry never wrote a systematic theology, but he did write several powerful theological treatises.
Henry offers the most notable evangelical critique of both liberal theology and the Barthian response. God, Revelation, and Authority is a multi-volume treatise on, well, God, revelation, and authority. But the best entrée for a non-theologian is The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it, Henry calls for a new kind of robust evangelical scholarship that engages with the larger world and culture in all of its complexity, rejects cultural separatism, and proposes a type of theological “triage” through which evangelicals can unify and cooperate despite disagreement on secondary and tertiary issues.
Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983)
Alexander Schmemann’s writings are an impeccably good entrée into contemporary Orthodox thought. The Orthodox theologian’s books influenced myriad ecclesiastical leaders, seminary professors, and laypeople. He was one of the primary catalysts of Orthodox liturgical and pastoral renewal in the late twentieth century.
To understand Schmemann, I recommend starting with For the Life of the World, a slim volume that articulates an Orthodox view of Christian faith as reflected in Christian liturgy. For him, the church—rather than the academy—is the locus of theological life: “The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.” When addressing secularism, Schmemann retains the high ground for Christianity, understanding it from the perspective of the historic church and her liturgy.
Richard McBrien (1936–2015)
Richard McBrien’s constructive theology is decidedly unremarkable, given that he was a liberal-revisionist theologian excited by the many radicalisms of past decades. Conservative Catholics don’t prefer him. But he does a fine job with historical theology. I recommend McBrien’s Catholicism, a massive tome tracing the rise and development of Catholic doctrine and ethics, including its maintenance of Nicene Orthodoxy vis-à-vis Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment trends. At nearly 1,300 pages, this book is best read while sitting upright. In other words, do not attempt to read it in bed; I fear that you would doze off mid-sentence (a reasonable fear, I assure you) and be crushed to death.
N. T. Wright (1945–)
Anglican New Testament theologian N. T. Wright has challenged post-Enlightenment liberal-revisionist trends. In academic treatises such as The Resurrection and the Son of God and popular books such as Surprised by Hope, he has defended literal belief in the Resurrection and Second Coming as central to Christianity. Further, in What Saint Paul Really Said, Paul: in Fresh Perspective, and numerous other publications, he has sought to retrieve the “original Paul” and his teaching on justification from the clutches of modernist Christianity. In recent years especially, he has evaluated and criticized the syncretism of modern Christianity—its complicity with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment currents of thought.
Non-theologians may wish to start with one of his trade books, such as Surprised by Hope or How God Became King; these books offer a lay-level glimpse into Wright’s theological method and his views on the kingdom of God. More ambitious readers may wish to tackle The Resurrection and the Son of God, which centers on Jesus’s bodily Resurrection and explores the early origins of Christianity.
Craig Bartholomew (1961–)
Anglican Old Testament theologian and polymath Craig Bartholomew is perhaps unsurpassed among contemporary theologians in his multi-disciplinary subversion of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment agendas. His scholarly publications in various disciplines—Old Testament, hermeneutics, systematic theology, philosophy, spirituality, and public theology—center on Scripture as God’s living and active word for all of life. For him, a faithfully Christian approach to the disciplines will not only drive a scholar more deeply into Scripture (rather than drawing him away), but will also drive him more broadly into public life (rather than relegating his Christianity to merely personal spirituality or ecclesiastical involvement).
Non-theologians may wish to start with The Drama of Scripture, an introductory volume demonstrating the narrative coherence of Christian Scripture. More ambitious readers may wish to read The God Who Acts in History (the first volume of a five-part Old Testament theology series), Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (a majestic treatment of biblical interpretation), Doctrine of Creation (an exploration of the Bible’s teaching about creation and its application to personal ethics and public life), or Beyond the Modern Age (a theological analysis of contemporary culture).
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
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