Michael Reeves, “Theologians You Should Know”

The secondary title is, “An Introduction:  From the Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century,” and the author is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford (and, to his credit, he quotes Oxfordian C.S. Lewis a lot).  It’s a very useful and engaging book.

The chapters are: the apostolic fathers, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, and J.I. Packer.  The discussion in each chapter begins with a short biography, followed by a summary of the theologian’s(s’) most important works, and concluding with a brief guide to what works to read first by the theologian(s) and then recommended secondary sources.  The author is a great believer in reading works actually written by each man and, in the introduction and final chapter (“Back to the Sources”), warns the reader against what Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” insisting instead that we can learn a lot from those writing at times when the suppositions were very different from our own.

I enjoyed reading the book and it will be a useful reference.   I did plenty of underlining; to give just one example, it was interesting to learn (243 n.39) that “[Jonathan] Edwards believed that both heaven and hell are progressive states, such that, as our love and union with God will ever develop in heaven, so hatred will ever worsen in hell.”

But it did not make me want to be a theologian, or even to dive too deeply into theology.  For reasons I go into little more, but still briefly, on my blogpost “What’s True and What Might Be True,” “I wonder if a lot of theology shouldn’t be more tentative, given for example the ambiguity of some Scripture to us and the unknowability to us of much of God’s handiwork.”  Thus, for instance, finding evidence of the Gospel in every Old Testament passage can, no doubt, be done, but it starts sounding like the father in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who finds a Greek root in every word, whether there really is one or not.  That’s not to say we don’t need theologians, or to deny that some of what they deduce really does have a strong claim to be not only the truth but a central truth; but one hopes that, more than two thousand years after Jesus was born and almost as long since the Scriptures were completed, the number of brand new central truths to be discovered is limited, and there should be a lot of interpretation and rumination that, while interesting, concerns points about which we should be able to agree to disagree.  Mere Christianity is, more often than not, guidance and challenge enough.