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by Bruce Riley Ashford

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Protestant theology was dominated by the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy, as many established Protestant seminaries and theologians aligned themselves with the liberal revisionism of Schleiermacher and his progeny. In response to the bizarre lucubrations and supercilious anti-orthodoxy of the revisionists, Protestant fundamentalists retreated from modern culture, formed intellectual ghettos, and cast a reactionary and anti-intellectual vision for the Protestants wishing to avoid liberal heterodoxy.

Forging a middle path between fundamentalism and liberal revisionism, evangelical Protestant theology emerged and bore prolific theological fruit. This list provides a good starting point for thoughtful Catholics who would expose themselves to some of the most influential Protestant theologies of the last century and a half. It introduces some of the most important Protestant theologians during that era, focusing primarily on evangelical Protestantism while taking brief note of liberal Protestantism and foregoing an examination of fundamentalism.

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921)

Herman Bavinck was a Dutch Calvinist theologian and churchman who served as professor of dogmatics at the Theological School in Kampen, the Netherlands. Second only to Karl Barth among modern Protestant systematic theologians, Bavinck viewed Christian Scripture as inspired and infallible, and viewed the local church—rather than the academy—as the primary locus of reception for the Bible. Given that he spent his life teaching at a small seminary in the Dutch backwaters, his refinement and sophistication—with regard to the historical, systematic, and philosophical aspects of dogmatics—are especially impressive. First-time readers of Bavinck may want to start with The Wonderful Works of God, a lucid and compelling lay-level systematic theology that shows the narrative coherence of Scripture. More advanced readers will appreciate his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics.

Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998)

Lesslie Newbigin was a Reformed British theologian and missiologist. After serving as a missionary in India, he retired and wrote his theological treatises in the context of post-Christian Europe. He argued that knowledge is never neutral but always built upon faith-based presuppositions. First-time readers should start with either Foolishness to the Greeks or The Gospel in a Pluralist Society; both draw upon Michael Polanyi and Alasdair Macintyre to argue that Christian thinkers must take a “missionary approach” when theologizing for Western cultures. Or, readers may wish to read Truth to Tell, which argues that the gospel is a public truth in the light of which all other modes of thought and spheres of culture should be evaluated. Lastly, Signs Amid the Rubble is a collection of Newbigin’s essays and speeches focusing on the Church’s call to live as signs of God’s kingdom amid the rubble of human history.

Harvey Cox Jr. (1929–)

Harvey Cox is an American theologian whose research focuses on analyzing developments in world Christianity. His constructive theology is widely influential and significant in understanding faddish Protestant revisionisms of the late twentieth century; its questionably orthodox flavor might cause one to wish that the twentieth-century ecumenical agenda included a Cox-Christianity dialogue. Cox’s first book, The Secular City, is his magnum opus. It was an extraordinarily influential call for the Church to be at the forefront of social change and to celebrate the new forms of religiosity arising worldwide. Cox went on to publish various moribund and irrelevant revisionist tracts until he finally committed another significant act of literature: Fire from Heaven is a prescient analysis of the worldwide charismatic movement—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.

Stanley Hauerwas (1940–)

Stanley Hauerwas is the most discussed and debated (living) theologian in the Anglo-American world. Although he is best known for his “postliberalism” and pacifism, the most unique factor in his thinking is his rejection of mind-body dualism. Taking his cues from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hauerwas argues that the mind is not separate from the body, and thus cannot “step back” from the world to view it objectively; likewise, human language cannot “step back” from the world to depict it objectively; and theology should not employ high theory or system-building. Thus, eschewing systematic theology, Hauerwas turned to the literary essay. The Hauerwas Reader, an essay collection representative of his thought as a whole, is a great starting point for readers. The Peaceable Kingdom and A Community of Character both represent his Anabaptism. Finally, The Work of Theology is the best summary of Hauerwas’s theological method.

John Milbank (1952–)

John Milbank is an English Anglican theologian and founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. A polymath, his work integrates systematics, sociology, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy into a coherent whole. He is best known for his presuppositional approach to theology and theory, taking back the “high ground” from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers who sought to situate Christianity within a secular framework of thought. His work is notoriously difficult to read; his prose is aggressively opaque; he drops phonebooks of scholarly names without explanation. Yet, he is a monumentally significant theologian. The first-time reader may wish to tackle Theology and Social Theory, Milbank’s most seminal treatise, or Paul’s New Moment, a fascinating exploration of Continental philosophy in relation to the Christian faith (tri-authored with Slavoj Zizek and Creston Davis).

Thomas R. Schreiner (1954–)

Tom Schreiner is an American New Testament scholar and biblical theologian whose writings are exemplary of the evangelical insistence on biblical authority and fidelity. First-time readers should start with The King and His Beauty, a biblical theology focusing on Christ’s kingship. Also significant are his New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (centered on covenant, kingdom, and redemptive history) and Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (a Pauline theology offering an alternative to N. T. Wright’s view of justification).

Jonathan Leeman (1973–)

Among younger Protestant theologians, one who should not be overlooked is Jonathan Leeman, a pastoral theologian. Most of Leeman’s publications are for laypeople and ministers, but some are scholarly. First-time readers should begin with Political Church, a landmark political theology from a Baptist perspective; Leeman rejects modernity’s separation of religion and politics into discrete realms, arguing that the local church is a profoundly political assembly, an embassy of Christ the King. He explores the nature of Christ’s rule and the manner of its expression in our era between Christ’s two comings. Also significant are The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (a treatise on church membership and church discipline) and One Assembly (a critique of the evangelical “multi-site” megachurch model).

Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.

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