Monday 8 August 2005

Top ten systematic theologies

Some of the biblical studies blogs have been churning out Top Ten booklists on various subjects. So I felt obligated to offer my own systematic theology Top Ten list (and see also Jim West’s outrageous alternative list):

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
3. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
4. John Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis
5. Origen, De principiis
6. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
8. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics
9. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology
10. Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith

It’s hard to decide the exact order—the first four definitely belong together as the four greatest systematic theologies. Karl Barth has no contenders for top place, but the order of the next three is fairly arbitrary—Calvin and Schleiermacher could just as easily have changed places. Origen’s De principiis (number 5) deserves special honour, since this is really the work that invented the discipline of “systematic theology.”

After Origen, the list gets much more arbitrary: Tillich and Pannenberg definitely deserve their places, but the last three are more a matter of taste. Perhaps among the last three I should have included instead the works of Gerhard Ebeling, or Herman Bavinck, or even Augustus H. Strong (his work is still the only great Baptist systematic theology); or perhaps I should have included the small but still significant systematic works of Karl Rahner (Foundations of Christian Faith) or Hans Küng (On Being a Christian) or Hendrikus Berkhof (Christian Faith) or Peter Hodgson (Winds of the Spirit). But for the time being I will leave things as they are.


Faithful Progressive said...

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian should be on the list--to call it little is rather absurd in my book. It has spoken to a larger audience than many of the others. And unlike, say, Tillich--one gets the impression that he really believes what he is writng.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

Good list. I could only hold to your order of the first two on the understanding that St. Thomas Aquinas' intention in the ST was for it to serve as a summary for beginning theology students. One can only imagine what a full-blown-for-mature-theologians ST would have been like.

As to baptist sytematics, I wonder whether you have ever encountered the recent 4 volume set by Norman Geisler-a Southern Baptist, though Thomist, thinker. I think you might especially appreciate the first two volumes of the set. If you get a moment, you might want to peruse them.

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Simon. Admittedly I was only using the term "systematic theology" very loosely here.

Anonymous said...

The list seems a bit antiquated, although they are certainly prominent theologians. We need theology that speaks to the post-modern person. There are modern theologians who have used more contemporary language, such as Grudem and Grenz.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I would add James Wm. McClendon's Systematic Theology (Vol. 1: Ethics; Vol. 2: Doctrine; Vol. 3: Witness) simply because it is the first full-blown attempt at a systematic from the perspective of the (ana)baptist vision.

Pertinacious Papist said...

I agree with your first commentator. But this only raises the question of criteria. It seems clear you're listing Christian systematic theologies, but you haven't therewith assigned any criteria of orthodoxy, which might be a way of organizing a list. Short of that, you have a list that might include some nebulous standard of "world impact in terms of perceived greatness," or something of the sort. But then, some writers, perceived as 'great' in their own day, are quickly forgotten, as ephemeral as the most popular teen idol of 1973. Some have wide impact but are relatively insubstantial; while others have less impact, but are also far less superficial.

Still, your list is a good one to have out there on the Internet, since it gets us all thinking and asking about what really is important in systematic theology.

Here are some more obscure but substantial Catholic works to throw into your kitty:

1) M. J. Scheeben, "The Mysteries of Christianity" (19th c.)

2) Emil Mersch, "The Whole Christ" (early 20th c.)

3) Ludwig Ott, "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" (1955)

4) Michael Schmaus, "Dogma" (6 vols. 1960s)

5) Cardinal Ratzinger and Johann Auer, "Dogmatic Theology" (1988)

a. steward said...

I'm surprised that not even a comment was made in reference to Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes. The 1523 edition is one of the most beautiful treatment of the main ideas of the Christian faith. But I suppose its beauty is tied in with it's concise nature (150 pages), and your list seems to deal with heftier works. And considering that his later, much longer editions are so beholden to Aristotelianism (or so I am told), it makes sense all things considered that he doesn't make it.

a. steward said...

I'm surprised that not even a comment was made in reference to Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes. The 1523 edition is one of the most beautiful treatment of the main ideas of the Christian faith. But I suppose its beauty is tied in with it's concise nature (150 pages), and your list seems to deal with heftier works. And considering that his later, much longer editions are so beholden to Aristotelianism (or so I am told), it makes sense all things considered that he doesn't make it.

J. K. Walters said...

My prefered systematic theology is Grudem's. Some may not appreciate him due to his Reformed Baptist standpoint, but his treatment of the various subjects is, I think, very balanced. I also like Calvin's Instututes of the Christian Religion. Most of the others are no doubt great works, whether I agree with them or not.

Anonymous said...

A good systematic theology book:

ERICKSON, M. (1994) Christian Theology, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House.

Hi Benjamin,

You have an informative blog. I really appreciate Millard J. Erickson's systematic theology text. Although Calvinistic in my leanings, I grew up in a liberal United Church, attended an Anabaptist Mennonite Bible College, a Baptist seminary, a secular University for my MPhil, and by God's help will complete a PhD at a secular University. I appreciate diversity in perspectives from which I have grown in my understanding.

Although I agree with much of Erickson's theology it is good that within his text both conservative and liberal positions are provided in order that one can have an educated, broad understanding of issues.

I don't agree with some of the conclusions of liberal theologians, or secular philosophers, but I can honestly say that some of their work has benefited me in my dissertation writing and blogging.

byron smith said...

If your working with a loose definition of systematic theology, then I'd put in another vote for City of God, without which quite a number on this list wouldn't exist.

Anonymous said...

I'd add my vote for Calvin and for Augustine :o)

I'd also be nominating Charles Hodge and if I was considering more contemporary Systematic Theologians from the reformed perspective (and yes these are people I agree but that's why they are on my list!) then Henri Blocher must be up there as someone worth reading)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Calvin and Augustine would have quite a few points of view in common - if only people assessed their views together rather than as opposites. Find the blog read provocative and soul searching.

Anonymous said...

I would replace Origen's 'De Principiis' with John of Damascus' 'Exposition of the Orthodox Faith', or the Sentences of Peter Lombard, both of which are foundational to the cohesion of Christian doctrine using a methodology of sound patristic thought and scripture, as opposed to the primitive attempts of the first fathers. At any rate, a thinker from the early church definitely deserves a place in the list.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tim Shultz brought up a good point. Including a systematic theology that speaks to the postmodern community is definitely pertinent (I have no doubt all of the authors we have mentioned wrote just as much with their place in the historical context in mind). Here I recommend Thomas Oden's Systematic theology. Although one would agree with the author that 'nothing new' is presented in his thinking, the specific purpose of paleo-orthodoxy is to organize the postmodern community under the traditional lense of the early church. An excellant read.

Nick said...

Two quick questions:

1. Would NT Wright's Christian Origins and the Question of God series qualify as a systematic theology? If so, how would it compare to those books on the list.

2. A friend asked me why God created at all. As I am particularly weak in the area of systematic theology, I was hoping that someone might be able to provide me with a pointer to a set of readings (inside the top 10 lists or out) that might be able to prepare me to engage more fully in such a discussion. I'd appreciate any thoughts.

Anonymous said...

As of yet I have not read N.T. Wright's magnum opus on the origins of Christianity, so I cannot comment on its exact method. However, I am aware that the author deals primarily with the subject of New Testament history, and as much as I know those volumes are written using the historical approach. This would separate it from systematic theology, which seeks above all to unify the study of God into a workable and processable whole.

As for your second question, theologians tend to argue deductively on establishing the reason for God's creating. They start by assuming His divine and perfect benevolence, and then argue for a consequent necessity of creation due to it being benevolent work. In other words, a perfectly benevolent being would express his goodness somehow. God would seem to be less good if He did not express His goodness.

Thomas Oden treats this question more cogently in his ST, the first volume pg. 254. You may also

Anonymous said...

John of Damascus's systematic work "an Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" should not be overlooked. Nor should the work of the Cappadocians (through whom many of the works on the original list would still be with us if Augustine's City of God had not been written, contra byron).

Anonymous said...

An Eastern Orthodox systematic theology seems (is) impossible, given the apophatic nature of theology according to holy Orthodoxy: God is a Mytery to be loved and experienced, not attempted to be rationally "understood." But "De fide orthodoxa" by St. John of Damascus is a brief statement of some of Orthodoxy.
Scott in Erie

Anonymous said...

Of course Barth is the most significant Baptist theologian if we define Baptist theologically rather than denominationally. Not only did Barth defend a Baptistic view of baptism but according to his biographer he was congregationalist in his leanings.

Unknown said...

I am surprised to see Dabney totally left out, not even mentioned by you or anyone else. How sad. James P. Boyce's, "Abstract of Principles" also goes unmentioned. Berkhof's would definitely be in my "A" list. While I have only just recently become aware of it, still, Garrett's two-volume work deserves full attention. here are two reviews:

"One of the characteristics of Garrett's system that needs especially to be noted is its balanced, judicious, and nearly invariably objective presentation of materials. While holding true to the teachings of his own Baptist faith, Garrett so carefully and judiciously presents alternatives . . . that teachers and students from other confessional and denominational positions will find his work instructive." --Consensus, 1997 (23/1)

"If one is searching for an extensive exposition of the biblical foundations and historical developments of the various loci of systematic theology, there is no more complete presentation in a relatively short work than this . . . Pastors will especially find this feature to be a real help in teaching theology . . . [It is] an indispensable contribution to the task of systematic theology. Pastors and theologians alike will neglect it to their detriment." --Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1999

A blurp on it asserts the following:

One of the most comprehensive studies of Christian beliefs ever written
Often called a "gold mine" of information
Objective, even handed studies give cross-denominational appeal

In this second edition, Professor Garrett has expanded and updated his monumental classic, Systematic Theology. This is one of the most comprehensive contemporary studies of Christian beliefs ever written. Garrett provides a full-scale exposition of doctrines, drawing upon both biblical theology and historical theology from the patristic age up to the present. He examines issues both individually and in relation to each other, yielding an unparalleled in-depth study that is an invaluable resource for seminary students, pastors, and educated laypersons.

Garrett, who holds earned doctorates from both Harvard and Southwestern Baptist Seminary and has taught theology for over forty years, makes no secret of his Southern Baptist heritage and evangelical convictions. However, his presentation is so thorough and so objective that it has found widespread acceptance not only in Baptist circles, but also in the wider community of Christian scholars, students, and pastors. This is because of his even-handed approach, his interaction with theologians and exegetes across the religious spectrum, the encyclopedic wealth of information that he provides, and the fact that his approach, though starting from divine revelation as recorded in the Bible, includes a presentation of Christian tradition and Christian experience. Many have called this work a gold mine of information.

Nevertheless, Garrett's Systematic Theology remains the only systematic theology written by a Baptist who extensively quotes other Baptist writers, theologians, and exegetes. Evangelicals will find no other source which simultaneously informs them so thoroughly about their own heritage as well as the beliefs of other Christians around the world and throughout history.

[It ought to go to the top of the "A" list just for the unbelievably low price for this two-volume work on CD! $19.95]

For a Hardback hard copy, do a search at for: Systematic Theology Vol 1 James Leo Garrett

and... Systematic Theology: Biblical Historical and Evangelical James Leo Garrett

Also, I do think Erikson's should get mentioned. Maybe?

And what about: A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith 2nd Edition - Revised And Updated (Hardcover)
by Robert L. Reymond

Monumental is an over worked word today. Does it apply to Reymond's work?

Food for thought!!!!

Would love to hear your all's reflections. :-)

Anonymous said...

No doubt, Barth would be dismayed to be considered a Systematic Theologian. But, more to the point -- I would expand this list to the "top 15 or 20 theologians" and include Tom Torrance, Eberhard Jungel, Lesslie Newbigin and Hans von Balthasar.

John Smithson

Anonymous said...

Herman Bavinck should be near the top but missing from this list.

Charlie said...

Since the link to my name no longer works, I'm sending a different link to my name.

Charlie said...

The link to my name isn't working. Here's a different link.

Unknown said...

I think that Thomas Aquinas must have the first place for his philosophical and theological work.

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