Every now and then I run across a book where I say, “Wow, that will be really helpful for members of my church.” Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (InterVarsity, 2010) is one of those books. As a theologians trained in church history I think that every Christian needs to know the history of the church as well as the main personalities of that history. The Great Theologians was written to facilitate this very thing. In thirteen chapters McDermott introduces his non-specialist readers to eleven of the church’s most important theologians: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Though he admits that his choices are somewhat subjective he confesses that “these are the eleven I consider to have had the most influence on the history of Christian thought” (p. 13).
Personally, I think that he has managed to hit not only some of the most significant theologians but also to present a variety of persons and a diversity of theological positions that is reflective of the church herself. The chapters are all structured the same. First, a brief biographical sketch, including the most important stories and/or events from the person’s life. This is followed by an introduction to the main themes of his thought with a zeroing in on his distinctive contribution to theology. Next, McDermott highlights several things that the reader can learn from the theologian under discussion. A short selection of text from one of the author’s works is then given, followed by a handful of discussion questions and brief bibliography.
There are obviously strengths and weaknesses to this format but the intended goal of the book is more important, I think, than the means of getting there. Given that the evangelical church is notoriously a-historical or, it seems nowadays, pseudo-historical, McDermott’s book can fill an obvious void. Will The Great Theologians revolutionize the church? Likely not. But it is a needed book and I would encourage any pastors or small group leaders reading this blog to use the book in some sort of small group or Sunday school class because the book might revolutionize several people who will in turn revolutionize the church. The discussion questions included by McDermott can be used to facilitate conversation and no one person in the room needs to be the expert since everyone will be working off of the same book. However, it a pastor or teacher really wanted to spice up the class or small group then they could have the group read longer texts by the theologian under discussion, which would facilitate an even deeper exploration into the church’s history and theology. In any case, McDermott’s book is a welcome addition to my library and hopefully to personal and church libraries all over the evangelical landscape.