I am a theology addict. I’ll admit it.
Since college, I have tried to read at least one systematic theology per year, and try to do so from as wide a spectrum as possible, while still trying my best to ground myself in my own Baptist tradition.
To date, I have read the following…
Non-Baptist: Emil Brunner, Robert Jenson, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolhart Pannenberg, Vladimir Lossky, David Bentley Hart, Daniel Migliore, Owen Thomas and Ellen Wondra, David Yeago, Alister McGrath,
Admittedly, I have gotten thought sizable chunks of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Rahner, but I am not about to claim I know everything they say, since I got to finish reading them…one day.
Ana/Baptist: Walter Ruschenbusch, William Newton Clark, T. W. Connor, Edgar Mullins, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, James McClendon, C. Norman Kraus, Charles Ryrie, Wayne Grudem, and Dale Moody
I got asked the other day for a list of some of the best systematic theologies. Here is what I came up with:
The Best: The Top 10
Not necessarily in order of best to worst, I should point out. I tried to include a mix of constructive theologies and introductory theologies, because often you need an intro to get your feet wet before being able to appreciate the deeper stuff.
A good systematic theology presents all the major topic of theology: trinity, Christology, creation, atonement, church, sin, salvation, and eschatology. It does so summarizing the biblical and historical material, while proposing conceptual refinements to best state the doctrine today. A good theology is biblical, but not biblicist, historically-informed, but not a slave to traditional categories when they need revising. It does not bog one down in endless questions of method, but moves towards a constructive doctrine that equips the reading for living their faith out in church community. It is faithful to the past of Christian tradition and faithful to the future of our faith. A good theology in our day is ecumenically oriented, but still grounded in one tradition. A good theology does not replace the Bible; it aids in reading the Bible better, organizing it around central themes, namely Christ, the Trinity, and his kingdom and love. Theology can sound very technical and dry, but at the end of the day, a good theology is a rigorous pursuit of truth and a vigorous reckoning of what it means to follow Christ.
1. Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God
Grenz’s Beyond Foundationalism (co-authored with John Franke) and Reclaiming the Center recasted evangelical theology in a sophisticated centrist manner, sensitive to postmodern insights, robustly Trinitiarian, communitarian, and eschatologically-oriented. For many Grenz is the pinnacle of evangelical theology.
Grenz died tragically at the prime of his career (d. 2005), while he was writing his Contours of Christian Theology, two volumes in. Both books demonstrated him to be a leading theologian at the global level. His standard theological text, Theology for the Community of God, is an excellent introduction. Historically well-informed, exegetically sound, comprehensive in scope, and yet still constructive for a text meant as an seminary introductory text.
Grenz is probably my recommendation for the first theological text a seminary student should encounter. He covers all the topics well and that is what a seminary student needs. Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology is more comprehensive, but less constructive (it feels like you are reading a giant glossary at times). Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding would be my other choice. For something more succinct, so less comprehensive, but it is excellent and would be my recommendation for a single course in theology (most seminaries do two course introductions, however).
Now, Grenz was still too much of a biblicist as I later found. He does not take into account the diversity of the biblical canon or even some basic historical critical insights. His understandings of, for instance, the doctrine of Adam or eschatology are a bit too simplistic. So, like I said, Grenz is a good place to start, but not stay.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Barth is daunting but indispensable. I have gotten through about four volumes of the Dogmatics cover-to-cover, with chunks here and there throughout. Barth is often hard to get since his context was so different than American evangelicalism. One has to understand the problems he faced in order to fully appreciate the beautiful innovations he brings to doctrinal problems, whether it is his understanding of the word of God, the perfections of God, election, nature of creation, or Christology. Barth was reclaiming theology based on revelation against the hey day of liberalism in Germany, but that does not mean Barth is a conservative in the sense of the American scene.
Barth is one of those thinkers you can spend your whole life reading and rereading. He is one of those minds that cannot be easily pigeon-holed or summarized. Each section of the Dogmatics brings new insights and directions, constantly surprising you. Because of this, to dismiss Barth because, for instance, you don’t like doctrine x of his, frankly means you not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, it is more like throwing out the whole house along with it.
Often to read Barth you need a good introduction. Mine was my professor’s own work: Joseph Mangina’s Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, which has been hailed among the best intro’s. The last Pope hailed Barth as the greatest theologian next to Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Mangina had a sign over his door: “I am deeply suspicious of any theologian that does not like Karl Barth.” I share his view. Those that dismiss Barth might as well dismiss themselves as serious Christian thinkers.
3. C. Norman Kraus, Jesus Christ Our Lord and God Our Savior
Kraus was an Anabaptist Missionary turned theologian. His small two-volume theology is as impressive as unexpected. His theology begins as an extended treatment on Christology, salvation and discipleship. And it is good. Only then, in his second volume, does he go on to treat creation, trinity, ecclesiology and eschatology, all in a Christological mode, thus presenting a thoroughly Christ-centered theology. Not only that, Kraus is remarkably balanced and well-read, citing an impressive array of biblical studies, theologians, all with a respectable level of charity and engagement. Having missionary experience, he brings a great deal of cultural awareness to his theology. For instance, his understanding of Christian theology in comparison to world religions is really good.
If you are looking for a theology that is not overly technical, but still deep, this is the one. I think this would be my choice for a theology for my congregation to read because of its Christ-centered approach and emphasis on discipleship.
4. James McClendon, Ethics, Doctrine, Witness, (in his Systematic Theology)
McClendon stands in the background of several important theological movements in American theology: the postmodern turn, post-liberalism, narrative theology, neo-Anabaptism, the Baptist-Catholic movement, etc.
He was one of the first narrative theologians. His understanding of Scripture moved beyond biblical inerrancy and historical critical reading, to understand Scripture as a speech act, speaking its figures into the present in a “this is that, then is now” way.
He was one of the first theologians to “kiss modernity good-bye.” His theology displays disruptions that move away from the modernists scheme that obsessed about the philosophical legitimation of theology. His Systematic Theology begins with ethics, attempting a pedagogical move to return theology to practice in community. After that, he moves on then to doctrine, and then onto issues of philosophical and cultural witness, flipping the modernist approach on its head.
His Doctrine begins with the eschatological kingdom of God in order to understand salvation and creation, then it moves onto the doctrine of the cross and resurrection as the center of God’s identity (in other words, no separate treatment on divine attributes apart from the cross), and only then the doctrine of the Trinity as a grammar to structure the biblical narrative. His argument for a “two-narrative Christology” and narrative Trinity are both particularly profound. His ecclesiology is also a missiology. Doctrine closes only then with a methodological essay on reading Scripture in a Trinitarian and figural manner, as if to say, we learn theology by practicing it, not sitting around thinking about prolegomena.
He read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and considered it a second conversion, propelling him to formulate a “baptist vision” that brought together Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, and several other free-church identities into one group. He has rightly been described as offering the new constructive account of Baptist theology for our time, something that has not been re-envisioned since Edgar Mullins’ Axioms of Religion.
Compared to Pannenberg or Grenz, often I felt like McClendon was offering not merely a theology, but literary tools to construct doctrine better. He does not give a comprehensive treatise, which is often what I have come to expect from a systematic theology. So, at times he covers a topic rather pithily, offering brilliant insights on how to understand, for instance, eschatological language or narrative Christology or metaphors for salvation. Often he drops the core concept down, and I was left thinking, “I wish he fleshed that out over 100 more pages.” I think McClendon did this on purpose to invite you to finish what he started. He does not give you a place to settle; he gives you a compass and walking stick and says, “Get going!” Also, McClendon is an eloquent writer. He writes theology artfully like a novelist. It is one of the few theologies that is simply a pleasure to read.
5. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
Pannenberg is someone I consider the greatest systematic mind of the last century. Pannenberg saw theology as an attempt to state the coherence of Christian thought with all of human reality, especially science and history. The result is a theology loaded with historical insight and apologetic power. Firmly rationalist, his theology is a recovering fundamentalist’s dream. He is not afraid to revise a problematic doctrine: his doctrine of revelation is formidable; his doctrine of creation and understanding of Adam is a thing to behold. Yet, his theology lands often in unexpectedly conservative positions: beautifully Trinitarian, firmly committed to a historical Jesus, and oddly one of the few defenders of penal substitutionary atonement left in mainline theology.
Now, Pannenberg is very, very dry, mind you, but if you want no-non-sense precision, his 3 volume Systematic Theology is the cream of the crop. If you take up Pannenberg, you must read his Basic Questions before tackling the system. Pannenberg is one of those methodological thinkers that will refine you even when you disagree with him.
It should not be lost that three of these theologies I have listed here (Grenz, Jenson, and Erickson) all had Pannenberg as their mentor. This was a giant that raised up other giants.
6. Jurgen Moltmann, (series of books)
Moltmann never wrote a systematic theology like Pannenberg did; he wrote several stand-alone books that develop topics. As a “theologian of hope” like Pannenberg, they share many commonalities. Pannenberg is the dry, methodical, systematician; Moltmann was more political and edgy. Moltmann’s first three books, Theology of Hope, Crucified God, and Church in the Power of the Spirit, were mind shattering for me. Likewise, Trinity and the Kingdom (Trinity), The Coming of God (eschatology), The Way of Jesus Christ (Christology), and The Spirit of Life (Pneumatology), were all highly provocative works. While often I find Moltmann a bit too cavalier at times, his writing is always challenging me to see the theology and the church as a liberating force.
7. Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology
Jenson was Pannenberg’s student, and in many ways, his work is deeply indebted to Pannenberg. However, his slim Systematic Theology is something more like a set of theological meditations in the classic topics of theology, drenched in Patristic reflection. Jenson’s commitment to a catholic notion of theological reflection drives him to reflect using the categories of Patristic theology far more than Pannenberg, yet unafraid to propose revision similar to his mentor, making for a powerful read. Jenson is a beautiful writer. Ever section of his writing is an event of thought.
8. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
A standard Greek Orthodox text, this little volume is a beautiful summary of the mystical theology of this tradition. Fully of quotations of Church Fathers, the book is a powerful treatment on the ineffable realities like the Trinity or salvation as deification.
9. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology
McGrath is perhaps the most informative single volume introduction to Christian theology. McGrath is an excellent historical theologian and the book begins with a summary of the major figures and developments from the history of theology. After that, each chapter is jammed packed with information, which is both good and bad. Good in that you get a full picture of views and positions; bad because it is like sipping fine wine through a fire house. So much information in so little space left several chapters, like the chapter on eschatology, deficient.
10. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding
Migliore is someone that has incorporated the best of Karl Barth and others, and brought it together in an irenic and gracious introduction to the major topics of theology. Migliore is an excellent writer and is able to cite other authors with a proverbial beauty. His inclusion of global voices like feminist, Latin American and Black liberation theologians is done very well, therapeutically pulling the White middle-class male reader (like myself) to listen to the voices of the marginalized. Migliore’s text is a short text, and so, unfortunately, his gentle treatments often mean he deals with topics fairly generically.
11. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology
While I am not a conservative Calvinist, I think Erickson presents the best researched presentation of that tradition. While his treatment, for instance, of biblical inerrancy was, for me, unpersuasive, it is vastly better articulated then, for instance, Grudem’s take on it.
12. G. C. Berkhouwer, Studies in Dogmatics
After an ongoing dislike of reformed theology and a strong Anabaptist move in my thinking, Berkhouwer was the guy that made me appreciate classic reformed theology again. I say classic because Barth is reformed, but since his theology innovates the tradition heavily, I know a lot of reformed theologians that discount him, to their determent, mind you. Berkhouwer’s Studies are dry at times, but they are methodical treatments of theological problems with the best biblical reflection of his day. His volumes on Holy Scripture and the Return of Christ are both superb.
13. Joe Jones, Grammar of Christian Faith
Jones is a Disciples’ of Christ theologian and a brilliant post-liberal thinker. His theology reflects on the “grammar” of doctrine – the basic rules that make a doctrine intelligible. The result is something a bit dry, but really something precise and helpful.
Jones did an excellent job in integrating treatments on the rules that govern Christian thought as well as action, for the two are one and the same. So, his treatments on the nature of living hopefully are treated alongside eschatology or living out love is put alongside the doctrine of the cross.
14. Dale Moody, Word of Truth
Moody taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990’s. His theology is neo-orthodox, attempting to construct a systematic presentation of doctrine taking into account historical critical insights into Scripture. The result is quite good. His chapters on creation, predestination, salvation, and Christology use excellent exegesis to inform his theology. Unfortunately, since he broke with the Calvinistic orthodoxy of SBTS and pointed out that the Scriptures do speak of free will and the potential of apostasy, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement. It is a shame since this book is an eloquent presentation of doctrine.
15. William Newton Clarke, Outlines of Christian Theology
William Newton Clarke (d. 1912) was the first progressive North American theologian. He taught throughout the Northern United States and Canada. While his thought (or more accurately his students) sparked the liberal theological movement of the Social Gospel, his own thinking is much more restrained, thoroughly centered on Christ and biblical revelation. His theology is progressive in its revisionist capacity, but the only reason people deemed it “liberal” is that because Clarke was so intelligent in thinking about the Bible, he quickly transcended the problematic conventional theology of his day.
In many ways, his theology is still usable today, making him a forgotten gem of the past. His ability to rethink doctrines like the Trinity, the atonement, inspiration of Scripture, sin and eschatology, were all ahead of their time – all of which were deeply impressive.
Every progressive/moderate Christian needs to read his memoirs, 60 Years with the Bible: A Record of Experience. It will make anyone that has wrestle long nights with the Bible get weirdly misty.
Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology
Growing up a dispensationalist and worrying whether I could be “left behind,” Ryrie was considered the dude. So, I read his Basic Theology eager to explore a deeper biblical foundation for what I held all through high school, reading popularizers like Tim LaHaye and John Hagee. There are very few books that, in reading them, I found myself profoundly dis-persuaded from that position. By reading Ryrie’s treatments on, for instance, Daniel and Revelation, his understanding of the rapture in 1 Thes. 4, or maybe it was the fact that eschatology occupied more in his theology an Christology, Trinity, soteriology and ecclesiology combined – whatever it was – it resulted in me moving away from dispensationalism.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology
Wayne Grudem’s massive book was my first seminary theology textbook my freshmen year. Hungry for theological certainty, I devoured this book, reading it…twice. I thought I found the greatest theologian to ever put pen to paper. Turns out that only lasted until I read another theologian.
My second year, I decided to read Erickson, who, while they largely agree on many things, I found vastly better researched and thought through. Grudem’s work is methodologically deeply flawed. He assumes Scripture is one flat compendium of statements to be systematically arranged. At many points I found his exegesis at times shameful. His refusal to engage with different views or even to think fallibly about his own leaves his reflections horrendously dogmatic, often quite shallow, and worse, combative against alternatives he barely understands, whether that is open theism or egalitarianism or even, dare I say it, historically orthodox Christian theology. The fact that his text is so widely used (and preferred to much better reformed texts like Erickson’s) is surely a sign that conservative evangelicalism is in for trouble.
Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective
I consider myself a moderate, so I find parts of conservative theology persuasive and parts of liberal theology persuasive, and it is never as easy as picking one side as your one-stop-shop. I read Kaufman as an interest in liberal Anabaptist theology, and I found this book deeply unpersuasive. While his theology is brilliant, it is also generic and generalized. He is committed to thinking through history as the basis of theology, and so, due to historical critical insights, does not think the Bible is revelation. This leads to a feeling like his theology is neither here nor there. It seems to arbitrarily quote the Bible when it serves his purposes and dismiss it when it doesn’t.
His Trinitarian theology was at times quite sloppy. For instance, he listed attributes that corresponded to each person in a way that seems obviously methodologically unsound. He is convinced that the incarnation is historical, but is not convinced that the resurrection was bodily. He is convinced that God saves, but expresses skepticism about an afterlife. Huh? Throughout, while he at many times made brilliant remarks, I found so often his doctrines were highly inconsistent.
He later went on to reformulate his thinking further in the second systematic theology he wrote, In the Face of Mystery, and I am curious to see what that holds. I have been told it is even more extreme, but perhaps it is more methodologically consistent. As for this book, I was not particularly impressed.
Anyway, perhaps this list will steer you on some theological adventures.