Top Ten Theological Works of the 20th Century

There are many important theological works written in the 20th century. Sometimes they have been influential, sometimes they have not. Here you will find what I believe to be the top ten works of theology in the 20th century, based upon either their influence or the value I see they should have for the future of theology. All of these works I believe have something of value and are worth studying, although some I will agree with less (sometimes far less) than others.

  • 10. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism.
  • 9. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology.
  • 8. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.
  • 7. Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb.
  • 6. Karl Rahner, The Trinity.
  • 5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
  • 4. Pavel Florensky, Pillar and Ground of the Truth.
  • 3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama.
  • 2. Henri de Lubac, Mystery of the Supernatural.
  • 1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics.

The ranking of works here should not be seen as an indication of which works are my favorite. Rather, I tried to combine both the influence and the value of the works, and use that to indicate their ranking on this list. For this reason, some of my favorites are actually higher up on this list.

If you were to make your own list, what would be on it, and how would you rank the works?

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  • Pinky

    None of the Council documents? No Humanae Vitae? Nothing by Maritain?

  • David Nickol

    The top 10 listed here is nearly identical to the first 10 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Theological Works of the 20th Century.” Humanae Vitae did not even make it into their top 500.

  • Why The Trinity rather than Spirit And World?

  • Pinky

    David, that would explain why U2’s last album is on Henry’s list. 🙂

  • Humanae Vitae is the greatest theological work in human history.

  • Pinky

    Richard – Go back to your own playground.

    • James Cone’s stuff, especially A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed.

      Catholicism and A Theology of Liberation for sure.

      Maybe Foundations of Christian Faith by Rahner.

      Method in Theology and Insight by Lonergan have been profoundly influential of course. Not that I get all that excited by him, but I recognize his influence and some of his important “insights.”

      Schillebeeckx’s thought has seeped into Catholic theology pretty deeply as well, especially certain aspects of his christology and sacramentology. People “know” his thought even if they haven’t read him directly.

      The Politics of Jesus by Yoder has become more and more influential as years pass. And Niebuhr is not on your list, though we see in U.S. politics how influential (for better or worse) his thought has been.

      Maybe some works of Richard Hedges should make the list too?

  • Dear Pinky,

    Who are you exactly?

    * Dick HEDGES

  • David

    Balthasar’s top theological work/project is his Trilogy + Epilogue which altogether comes to sixteen volumes.

    • David

      Yes, and while I put the Dogmatics of Barth, since Balthasar did split up his Trilogy to themes, I chose the part I thought which is the most important (many say the Aesthetics, but I say the Drama)

  • V F

    Heartily agree with Rahner’s TRINITY.

    But have to express shock that Dorothy L. Sayers’s THE MIND OF THE MAKER is not on the list. It is the greatest work on the Trinity since Augustine–and much shorter. And Augustine didn’t have at least one belly-laugh per page.

  • I agree with the de Lubac selections, I would go with some Florovsky before I would cite Bulgakov (even amongst modern Orthodox, the former would be less controversial), and would throw in Chenu’s Aquinas and His Role in Theology, Gilson’s The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Maritain’s Three Reformers for good measure. (What can I say? I still have a soft spot for Thomism.) If I were to really think outside the box, I would have to say that the best theological work of the 20th century by far is Maya Deren’s The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. I don’t think any other work better encapsulates the transition of traditional cosmology into modernity better than Deren’s.

    • While I agree Bulgakov is controversial, I think his actual theological work is deeper, far more insightful, and will have a far greater legacy.

  • brettsalkeld

    I think that putting magisterial documents on a list of theological works like this is putting one’s favorite apples on a list of oranges. Such a list would certainly be interesting on its own, but I don’t see much value in comparing HV with Theo-Drama. Two different beasts.

    Now, if one wants to argue that JPII’s Theology of the Body belongs on such a list, that is altogether more pertinent. Come to think of it, it is odd no one has suggested it yet. It is a theological work in the same sense as those listed above and it is getting some serious traction in many circles. I feel altogether unqualified to make such a ranking, but perhaps TOB wouldn’t fit in my top 10 list for the 20th century simply because it had very little impact in that century. Let’s check back on it in 50 years.

    As for magisterial documents, I put forward Divino Afflante Spiritu for consideration. This had a very profound influence, at least in the circles I run in. As a side note, I’ve always been a fan of reading Humanae Vitae and Populorum Progressio side by side. Such a practice makes it far more difficult to put Paul VI in the box of one’s desiring. Such a reading of Paul VI is part of what I like about Caritatis in Veritate.

  • f I were to really think outside the box, I would have to say that the best theological work of the 20th century by far is Maya Deren’s The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. I don’t think any other work better encapsulates the transition of traditional cosmology into modernity better than Deren’s.

    I just watched some of her film on Haiti the other day.

    No one mentioned Glenn Beck in their lists.

  • brettsalkeld

    Nor a single author from the Catholic blogosphere. What is the world coming to?

  • Arturo Vasquez

    Reading John Paul II’s theology of the body discourses was like trying to break apart marshmallows with a sledge hammer. I worked at all 650+ pages of it, and have come to think that it is better to think of “theology of the body” more as a movement than a text. It is an effort to create a Catholic tantra to fill the vacuum of a theology that is transitioning out of the idea that the primary end of marital intercourse is to have more babies. If you ask me, it is the the obscene hand of Foucault’s biopower under the guise of holy clerical meddling in the bedroom. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sex is just a really good time, not a determinative of identity.

    Michael, the sad part of Deren’s supposed film is that it was created after her death out of hundreds of hours of footage locked in a vault somewhere. The one good thing is that the text is taken out of the book, but in this case, the book is definitely better than the movie.

  • Pinky

    From the little I know about JP2’s theology of the body, it didn’t really break any new ground. In that sense, I’d disagree with Arturo, and say that it should be excluded from this list not because it is so thin, but because the field it addresses is already so thick. I could be wrong.

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  • David

    “Divine Mercy In My Soul” by St Faustina with help from God should be on the list.

  • brettsalkeld

    I also have the suspicion that TOB is more of a transitional piece than a final product. And I agree that one of the flaws with the “movement” aspect of TOB is an unrealistic picture of sex that does not allow it to be simply ordinary. But ordinary is sometimes exactly what couples need from each other.
    Two top notch ethicists, David Cloutier and Bill Mattison, have written an article (very charitably) critiquing Chris West, leader of the “movement.” They don’t come at him from the right like Schindler and Hildebrand, but from the centre. Their critique is essentially that West’s theology never touches the ground.
    As for marshmallows and sledgehammers, been there done that. One of the more unfortunate aspects of TOB is the fact that, since it is virtually unreadable, folks like West can do whatever they want with it and not be held accountable.

  • WJ

    Agree with criticisms of TOB above: but I actually think the readings of Genesis in that text are quite brilliant, even if I don’t finally think they’re sound. (I think that Augustine, in On the Trinity, anticipates and rejects JPII’s familial understanding of the Trinity, but, on the whole, I actually find JPII’s textual exegesis superior to his philosophic argumentation, which is odd, given his reputation as a philosopher.)

  • Liam

    Lumen Gentium
    Gaudium et Spes
    Dignitate Humanae
    Nostra Aetate

    While not theological works in the conventional sense, the three decrees issued by Pope Pius X between 1905 and 1910 that overturned centuries of practice that minimized participation in the mystery of Holy Communion were the foundation for a veritable revolution (in the old sense of the word) in not only sacramental and liturgical understanding but also ecclesiological and theological understanding. Vatican II is a fruit of this revolution.

  • Let’s not discount Robert Marli’s important recovery of Thomas Aquinas’s lost treatise De Cannibus, found here:

    … I think this work has unjustifiably been overlooked by too many Thomists…..