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On My Favourite Theologians

Jun 9, 2008

There are all sorts of reasons why I should not be writing this article. First, I will not only flummox most non-believers looking at this website, but I will almost certainly lose about 95 per cent of believers as well. “You are writing about theologians?” they will exclaim in wonderment. “Why, that must mean you actually like theology!”

Well yes, I confess, I do rather like theology. OK, so that puts me in the land of cuckoos and fruit loops. It certainly puts me outside of much of Christendom which has decided that theology is unimportant, irrelevant, or maybe even an impediment to living the Christian life. But for those rare souls who see the importance of truth and doctrine in the life of the church, this article might be of some solace and enjoyment.

Second, talk of “favourite” theologians sounds like, well, favourite types of ice cream or donuts. Such matters of taste can be enjoyed individually, but do they need to be shared collectively? Who really cares what one thinks about this anyway? Well, as I say, a handful of people at least will be appreciative of such an article.

Third, the title is actually a bit misleading. There are plenty of theologians I quite enjoy, but perhaps what I am really getting at here is some of my favourite Christian thinkers and writers, most of whom also happen to be theologians, or New Testament scholars, or thereabouts. And to fellow lovers of Christian thought and commentary, some of these authors and books may be something you will like to explore further.

So now that I have weeded out most of you by now, for those few who remain, let’s reflect a bit on good theology and some important Christian thinkers and writers. This listing will of necessity be quite selective. For every author that I mention, I will probably forget another half dozen that I would also like to mention.

So this is a very haphazard listing, in no particular order, noting some of my favourite contemporary evangelical Christian writers and thinkers. Those writers who are no longer alive I will save for another article. Having recently finished reading a new volume by David Wells, let me start with him.

I don’t think I have disliked anything that Wells has penned over the past several decades. Of course I could be biased here. He was a prof of mine at seminary, and he has long emphasised the need for solid theology, the importance of truth, the need to let God be God, the dangers of church techniques and trends, the cultural captivity of the church, and so on.

His many books have focused on these various themes. His newest, which I have just reviewed on this site, continues the themes he has developed over the past few decades and is well worth digesting. His assessment of, and warnings about, the contemporary evangelical scene deserve very wide reading indeed.

D.A. Carson is another theologian who I always seem to find myself more or less in agreement with. (Of course good theologians are also those who challenge you and disagree with you.) He writes on a wide range of topics, from postmodernism (The Gagging of God), good commentaries (e.g., on Matthew and John) theodicy (How Long O Lord?), to Christianity and culture (Christ and Culture Revised – his latest volume).

Chuck Colson is another writer that I find myself resonating with in just about everything he says. He is continually on the cutting edge of where faith and society meet, and his insights are always worthwhile. His newest volume, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, is another great reminder of the importance of the mind, of good theology, and of a faith that has relevance and application to the issues of the day.

One pastor/theologian worth getting to know is John Piper. A keen populariser of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, his many volumes are always informed and helpful. He is both a capable theologian as well as one concerned about the practical issues of Christian living. His most recent book, a critical assessment of Tom Wright, leads me to my next author.

N.T. Wright is one of our most significant biblical scholars today, and is as prolific as he is challenging. There are some theologians and writers who always have important things to say, even if one does not always agree with them. This is certainly the case with Wright. Some areas, such as his view on justification and imputation, one may well have strong disagreement with. But nonetheless, he is a Christian thinker not to be missed.

His new volume, Surprised by Hope, looks at various eschatological themes. It contains recognisable and familiar material for those conversant with his previous writings. He challenges some traditional evangelical understandings of things related to the end times, but his insights and theological depth are always worthwhile.

Of course mention can be made of a host of other contemporary theologians and Christian writers. Alister McGrath, Os Guinness, Millard Erickson, Michael Horton, Ben Witherington, Craig Blomberg, R.C. Sproul, Richard John Neuhaus, and Philip Yancey, and many more come to mind.

Those already deeply into theology may not find much new or revealing here in this listing. But those who may be a bit new to theology, or have not done much reading in this area, might profit from this brief introductory list. Thus consider this a guide to new or interested believers who want some more depth and substance to their current reading.

In an age where theology is not much in vogue, and Christians are not always known for using their minds to the glory of God, these authors are a much needed corrective. They are heartily recommended to any newcomers to important Christian thinking and writing, as well as to those who are already there.

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22 Responses to On My Favourite Theologians

  • Thanks for the resume, Bill. While I would not put the same authors on the top of my list, I do endorse the sentiment that theology matters – vitally!
    N.T. Wright, however, I regard as positively dangerous in his view of justification and his embrace of the so-called “New Perspectives on Paul”. This approach so negates and undermines the way of salvation it must be rejected with abhorrence by all Reformed Christians. It means, apart from many other things, that the many Protestant martyrs of the C16th died for a misunderstanding. If only N.T. Wright had been around to tell them that they were barking up the wrong tree, and had got the wrong handle on things!
    Moreover, Wright, although he personally affirms the bodily resurrection of Christ, he sees fit to include in the sphere of salvation those who reject it. However, I do not. While this may reflect his Anglican comprehensiveness, it is in clear conflict with Rom.10:9-10, where salvation is for those who “believe in their heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” Doubtless Wright would have his answer to this, but it cannot in my view in the end be anything other than mere word-games.
    Also, in view of the fact that R.C. Sproul has now officially embraced 6-day, young-earth creationism, this must put the cat among the theological pigeons who will either try to denigrate or dismiss Sproul, or else, follow his lead.
    One other matter: you mention that Wright has challenged conventional end-times views among evangelicals. To what do you refer? If this is what is called Dispensationalism, I can only agree. But if this is some attempt to propound radical Preterism, I must profoundly demur.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Thanks Murray

    I of course display my eclectic (some might argue contradictory) tastes here. As to Wright on Paul, I did refer to Piper’s critique, The Future of Justification. Many others could be mentioned as well. As to his eschatology, like most English evangelicals, he is neither dispensational nor a rapture theory proponent. So as to his millennial views, he is therefore not premil, and his take on Revelation may not be easily classified, but preterism would not quite fit with his understanding either.

    But his book is much more about our understanding of salvation, heaven, creation/new creation, and the kingdom of God than it is about end times as such. He is really trying to get us to understand salvation as far more than simply getting souls into heaven – that there is a very this-worldly aspect to salvation, not just future-tense. In this sense, he is quite in the Reformed camp in getting us to see the Lordship of Christ in every area of life, based on a proper understanding of the importance of the initial creation, and how that fits in with the idea of new creation. He is concerned for us to see how the in-breaking of the Kingdom is something we are a part of in the here and now, and how this fits in with the rule and reign of Christ now. Not just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by stuff, in other words.

    Those familiar with his earlier work will see old material here, but in a new package. And again, one may not agree with it all to still be challenged and stretched by his thinking.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill and Murray,
    Alister McGrath and many heavies describe T.F. Torrance as the most significant U.K. theologian in the last half of the 20th century in Great Britain. Whilst he is very difficult to read, Donald Bloesch is easy to read – see his work on the nature of God and you will have got Torrance. James Torrance, who is also easy to read, will give a great insight into T.F.’s work. The hours I’ve wrestled with T.F. have been of incomparable value to me, even though I do not agree with him on several necessary matters. What do each of you think of T.F.?
    Stan Fishley

  • Thanks Stan
    I must confess I have not read too much of either Torrance. But I should. And as you say, a careful wrestling with Tom Torrance especially will pay big dividends, as is the case with important thinkers. I need to find the time to do him proper justice.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I had heard Yancey criticised by others as a liberal. I haven’t read his books myself but a quick search on the web turned up the following quote of his which comes from an interview he gave to a ‘Christian’ homosexual group.

    When it gets to particular matters of policy, like ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, I’m confused, like a lot of people. There are a few – not many, but a few – passages of Scripture that give me pause. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Thanks Ewan
    Yes he is certainly a mixed bag: very good in some areas, but a bit of a lefty in others. Indeed, I spoke to him personally about these very matters when he was out here in Australia some years ago. So as with most authors, the old “fish dinner rule” comes into effect: eat the meat but leave the bones behind.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • hey Guys,

    I would recommend watching this interview. http://www.asburyseminary.edu/chapel/ntwright.php

    He clears up a lot of misunderstandings. If we’re serious about Scholarship on Paul, ie., Romans, then you have to read Wright, among others like James Dunn, Robert Jewett, Moo and so on.

    Sorry but Piper is not really known for being a scholar, he’s no doubt an excellent pastor and speaker. After watching that video I linked, that should settle whatever issues people are experiencing. (well, if I know anything about people, we’re set in our ways, so maybe not) haha.

    @ Murray

    You said, “I regard as positively dangerous in his view of justification and his embrace of the so-called “New Perspectives on Paul”. This approach so negates and undermines the way of salvation it must be rejected with abhorrence by all Reformed Christians.”

    Please explain, sorry but I respectfully disagree. In my time studying New Testament Greek and so on. I have to say that Wright has done the best at sticking with the text, even over his own tradition. Many scholars out there struggle to side with the text, rather siding with their tradition. For example, D Moo is a great scholar on Romans but sides with the text. He realizes his Calvinistic presuppositions (tradition) does his best to see the text clearly.

    I think it’s best to approach the text asking ourselves if we’re willing to listen to the text or transmit our already preconceived ideas and theologies onto the text. Sadly, I feel like much of the reformed church as done the ladder.

    Hey Bill, Your right, some old material in new packaging . yeah, I’ve see the mainstream church in the west struggle with Wright because it is set or stuck within this faulty type of thinking; which is completely out of touch with New Testament teaching.

    Many are not educated, including most Christians concerning extremely important issues about heaven, the resurrection and the task of the church.

    Miguel Wickert (Pineiro)

  • As per the article I cited earlier,The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul by J. Ligon Duncan, Wright has been disingenuous in his reponse to critics. And he is hardly without his own preconceptions, such as an uncritical trust of Sanders about 1st-century Judaism, and reading Paul in that light:

    First, there is a historical-contextual problem in the new perspective’s interpretation of Second Temple Judaism. They have gotten it wrong. They have painted too rosy a picture of Rabbinic Judaism. Paul Zahl (Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama), who studied under Peter Stuhlmacher on the continent (no mean student of Paul, himself), has written, in a fairly recent Themelios, a little article on “The Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul.”

    Second, there is an exegetical problem with the NPP. They have, demonstrably, gotten Paul wrong. I note here at least four problems with NPP exegesis of Paul. First, they constantly invoke the discredited “eastern thought vs. western thought,” “forensic vs. relational,” and “Greek vs. Hebrew” dichotomies. Operating from false antitheses, they exclude important aspects of biblical thought from their product. They need to go back and read James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language one more time. Second, they are myopic in their focus on Pauline soteriology and ecclesiology, and thus skew the results of their exegesis by failing to coordinate Pauline anthropology and hamartiology with it. Third, in the important area of the definition of justification, they’ve gotten it wrong.

    ….

    The third general problem area of the NPP has to do with its knowledge of and assertions about historical theology. In other words, there is a historical theological problem with the NPP. The NPP has gotten the Reformers wrong. They have done a disservice to Luther’s and Calvin’s exegesis. This has been pointed out not only by Carl Trueman, but by Lee Gatiss, Kim Riddlebarger and many others who have done good historical work on this issue.

    ….

    Fourth and finally, the NPP is promotive of theological errors with significant negative practical and pastoral consequences. NPP New Testament theology tends to be reductionist or minimalist in nature, and undercuts the certainty of believers regarding the substance of the Gospel message.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • I have lived in Australia for 28 years after a previous life in the UK where I was brought up on theology. Here, theology is a swear word as most churches, particularly of the pentecostal kind see theology as a barrier to their feel good experience.
    In most churches you have pastors who cannot teach doing all the so called teaching, meaning that the spectators do not get any teaching.
    I have studied New Testament church life over the last 12 months from scripture and found it quite contrary to 21st century church life. I have committed it to the internet at http://churchalive66.googlepages.com and despite the evidence and comments from over 40 other authors, there are still people, church leaders among them, insisting that traditon has more authority than scripture.
    It should not surprise us that the church here is as weak as dishwater and in the main totally ineffectual. If you don’t know what you believe, how can you contend for the faith?
    Roger Marks

  • Thanks Bill. While reading this a few verses came to mind:

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (emphasis added) Luke 10:27 (NIV)
    Similar verses are found in Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30. These passages are well worth reading.

    They are all quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5. It is well worth reading the passage in context, particularly Deuteronomy 6:4-9 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

    Here we learn about how important loving God with our minds is. It is to be reflected in particular by what we say and making sure we don’t lose sight of God’s requirements and it is to be continuous, all the time, anywhere and everywhere. Loving God with the mind is to be an expression of what’s on the heart.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • Roger,
    That is a very interesting insight you make. Fortunately, the church I attend puts some emphasis on theology. That is a big reason why I started attending it. What you say is true, though, especially of Pentecostal churches. Well said, Roger.

    Bill,
    I share similar faves to you; Wells, Piper, Carson. Interesting that we can disagree on much, and agree on much also. I am encouraged. I plan to delve into N. T. Wright, also, to find out what all the talk I hear is about. I was thinking of starting with ‘Suprised by Hope’, however, if you have another suggested starting point, I would be glad to hear it. Cheers.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • Thanks Simon

    The Surprised by Hope volume is probably as good as any for a general introduction to his thought and major themes.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yeah, I agree. Surprised by Hope is a general and condensed presentation of his work detailed in “The New Testament and The People of God”, “Jesus and the Victory of God” and the last completed volume on the resurrection (green cover).

    Dive in and enjoy… 🙂 Wright is one of the best in the business.

    Miguel Wickert (Pineiro)

  • MurrayA says, speaking of N.T.Wright’s theology, “It means, apart from many other things, that the many Protestant martyrs of the C16th died for a misunderstanding.”

    I would like to offer the historical fact that those whose soteriology and theology most closely match Wright’s were also far and away the most persecuted and martyred of all believers, and by Reformationist leaders at that, as well as the RCC! They are and were …ana-baptists and non-Calvinists.

    Steve Foltz

  • Dear Bill
    Thanks for writing this article. I am curious as to your own views on fellows such as Colson on the evangelicals and Catholics together, the ecumenical movement etc. … I look forwards to your response.
    God bless, Andrew Lacey

  • Thanks Andrew

    My answer centres on what I see the purpose of this website to be. I have a lot of respect for people like Colson. Of course there is probably no one that one agrees with 100 per cent of the time. The attempts at Catholic/Protestant dialogue can have their place, while recognising the many theological differences that remain.

    This site is admittedly a strange mix. It is written for both believers and nonbelievers, so it can be difficult to please everyone. It has lots of theology, and it has lots on the culture wars. If this were purely a site for believers to discuss theology only, this sort of discussion might occupy much more space. But it is more than that.

    Thus it has been my intention here not to enter into Catholic-Protestant fighting. Thus I don’t run comments by Catholics criticising Protestants. Nor do I run comments by Protestants criticising Catholics. Some topics may well allow for some Catholic/Protestant tete-a-tete. But for those looking for theological battles between the two, I would advise other sites for that purpose.

    I hope that explains a bit where I am coming from.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Some theologians I’m really enjoying at the moment include:
    Michael Horton
    Kevin DeYoung
    Wayne Gruden – in most parts
    D. A. Carson
    Albert Mohler

    Older theologians include
    Spurgeon – turn to him on any available opportunity
    Calvin

    Others I have my eye on for future reading include
    B. B. Warfield
    Charles Hodge
    Martin Luther

    Regards,

    Cameron Spink

  • Yes they are all folks I endorse as well Cameron.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Perhaps my favourite author at the moment is James White.
    He touches on so many different topics and covers all of them in great detail.

    Regards,

    Cameron Spink

  • Yes he has penned a number of good volumes.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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