Some criteria for judging theologians who will be remembered 50 years from now

Some criteria for judging theologians who will be remembered 50 years from now March 18, 2012

Thanks to all of you who have offered answers to my question about Christian (trinitarian) theologians who probably will be included in a book on late 20th century and early 21st century theologians 50 years from now.

I agree with those who have said it’s hard to predict because we live in a time when there are no theological “giants” comparable to Barth or Tillich. That’s what make this so difficult.

Recently I wrote about 19th century Christian (trinitarian) theologians. (This is not yet published.) What criteria did I use? Well, I didn’t exactly have a formal list of criteria, but I had some informal ones that are more noticeable looking back on the project than they were during the selection process. I’m not saying these are the right criteria, but I think they are the ones (more or less) that will be used 50-100 years from now (in academic and semi-academic books on what we call our contemporary theologians).

1) Broad, lasting influence on other theologians and popularizers;

2) Prolific writing widely read (usually in more than one language);

3) Originality and creativity (not just in inventing new ideas but in bridging divides);

4) Engagement with culture (not necessarily accommodation to it);

Usually such theologians were the subjects of many books about their theological contributions. Usually they were read and discussed by theologians and theologically-minded pastors and lay people outside their own denominations or traditions. Usually they received a lot of reaction both positive and negative.

So, about whom did I write? (I began by writing about some philosophers who stimulated theological creativity and reaction such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Reid, and Hegel. Kierkegaard could be considered both a philosopher and theologian.) Here are the 19th century theologians I selected: Schleiermacher, Bushnell, Hodge, Ritschl, Dorner, Troeltsch, Blondel and Tyrrell, Harnack and Rauschenbusch.

These 19th century (up to WW1) theologians stand out over a century later as THE giants of that era. Were there others? Yes, but they have been largely eclipsed by these. I could have written about Warfield, but I think I covered his contribution by writing about Hodge on whose shoulders he stood. I could have written about several American liberal theologians, but Bushnell is remembered (e.g., by Gary Dorrien) as THE 19th century American liberal theologian par excellence. (I actually treat him as a mediating theologian.) There is no “stand out” Catholic theologian in the 19th century except Newman and Blondel and I decided to write about the Catholic modernists because of their originality and influence on 20th century Catholic theology (for better or worse).

A perplexing question is this: Who would have been identified by a theological cartographer as the “mountain peaks” of 19th century theology THEN–say, around mid-19th century? I suspect there wouldn’t have been any consensus other than Schleiermacher and maybe Bushnell (in America). What caused these other theologians (e.g., Dorner) to be remembered? In his case, I suspect it is his influence on Barth and the fact that Claude Welch liked him.

When I write about today’s living theologians (or recently deceased) and have to narrow it down to, say four or five, who will they be? It’s a risk because even 25 years later some of them may be forgotten. There are no obvious theological giants stalking the land. (N. T. Wright comes about as close as one can get due to his prolific writing and broad influence but he’s not a systematic/constructive theologian per se; he’s a biblical scholar.)

The name I hear everywhere from almost everybody (whether conservative or liberal or postmodern or nothing) is Hauerwas. Why? Well, I think Time magazine naming him the “best” theologian has something to do with it. Also, he’s an iconoclast; we like iconoclasts. Also, he’s difficult to categorize and we no longer like neat categories. And, he’s prolific, broadly influential and arguably original and creative (at least in the sense of combining Barth and Yoder which is not easy!). Also, he spawned so many doctoral students!

But let’s put Hauerwas up against someone like him (in many ways) 50 years ago. Ever hear of Langdon Gilkey? Fifty years ago he was all the rage. Not only was he prolific, supervised more dissertations in theology than anyone else, and broadly influential, he was a hippy. (He looked kind of like Willy Nelson wore beads and a pony tail, etc.–even into old age.) Hands down, for about twenty years or so, he was considered America’s “best” theologian (even if Time magazine didn’t say so). Yet, now, 50 years after his peak, who even remembers him? Will it be like that for Hauerwas? Will he be remembered and talked about 50 years from now? WILL ANYONE?

Those are my thoughts and questions. Thanks for you suggestions–especially those of you who offered reasons. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve written here please feel free to comment.

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  • Greg D

    I like Hauerwas (Resident Aliens) but it seems his works resonate with only a certain segment of the Christian faith, namely with those of the Anabaptist tradition. I don’t know why, but Hauerwas seems to be synonymous with John Howard Yoder who also is of the Anabaptist tradition. But, it is my hope that these works will indeed resonate with Christians 50 years from now, where I’m certain his theology will be timely just as it is today.

    Another theologian that comes to mind is Charles Ryrie. I read Basic Theology in seminary and found it to be very insightful, void of biased theologies and politics unlike what is found in Wayne Grduem’s Systematic Theology. And, if I’m not mistaken Ryrie is Arminian although heavily dispensational.

    • rogereolson

      Is Ryrie read by anyone but conservative evangelicals? Not to my knowledge.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The results of your survey are fascinating, thanks for doing this. Also, thanks, I think, for adding to my pile of books to read.

    I am surprised that few readers, if any besides myself, seemed to highlight the great importance of scientific discoveries and the urgent need for a “star” theologian to make the connection between our two big sources of information about God – namely, inspired writers of  Scripture and inspired studies of creation. The last 100 years have produced unprecedented deep and wide advances in our understanding of the created universe. This new knowledge is so fundamental it will clearly have a revolutionary impact on orthodox theology, as well as profoundly improving the way we read Scripture. A masterful “bridging of divides” between these two sources of information is the single greatest need in post-modern theology. Yet, even most first class theologians don’t seem to have captured the sense of urgency. Torrance constructed a real foundation, but much new evidence has emerged since he stopped writing. People like Polkinghorne are doing a good job on the front lines, but the definitive/defining theology has yet to emerge. I would be delighted to be proven wrong on this observation.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I think we need that. Polkinghorne is the best, IMHO. Clayton is doing good work but very speculative and tainted by idealism (IMHO). Peacocke was doing good work in this area until he adopted process theology.

      • C.J.W

        But isn’t Clayton Process theology as well? If not, it seems he’s close

        • rogereolson

          My understanding is that he is not. But he does call his view of the God-world relation panentheism. However, it is a strange kind of panentheism, a qualified Christian panentheism (to use Niels Henrik Gregersen’s label in “Three Varieties of Panentheism” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being edited by Clayton and Peacocke. It’s an excellent book, by the way, but in my opinion it stretches the term “panentheism” to the breaking point. I prefer to keep “panentheism” tied to views that make God involuntarily dependent on the world (e.g., Hegel and Whitehead).

  • Joshua

    This was humbling to say the least. To think on the many “giants” who walked, talked, thought and taught long before us, and then to realize that their names are long forgotten, well – that’s humbling.

    I would like to say that, whether I’m happy about it or not, John Piper’s “Desiring God,” will probably be one of the few books still read fifty years from now (perhaps not, but it’s already been around thirty years, and it’s still immensely popular). In that sense, I think it fair to say that John Piper will be remembered as a highly influential theologian. Disagree?

    I agree with you about N.T. Wright. He will almost definitely be remembered as one of the most influential Biblical scholars in the early 21st century.

    • rogereolson

      I think Desiring God will be remembered and read as a spiritual classic rather than as a classic of systematic, constructive theology. I didn’t find anything there that can’t be found in, say Jonathan Edwards.

  • Paul Ede

    Moltmann? Pannenberg? Volf?

    • rogereolson

      Without out doubt Moltmann and Pannenberg. No risk there. Volf? Maybe.

  • CGC

    Hi Roger,
    Not only are there no more theologians like Karl Barth from the 20th century but there are no more biblical scholars who were conversant in so many languages like Bruce M. Metzger. I would also suggest that the Roman Catholic Church produces people with Saint like qualities like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, and Henri Nouwen. Where is the robust spiritual tradition within Evangelicalism to do something similar?

    I don’t know how long Hauerwas or Wright will be influential after they are gone? (they produce so much more than most for the moment and therefore have great influence on many people studying Christian theology today).

    I will say there would be an irony for Hauerwas to be the postmodern Christian par excellence since he is actually a critic of postmodernism and not an ally. Hauerwas as an iconoclast? I suspect Hauerwas would like to be best remembered as a “Christian contrarian” :–)

  • Roger,
    Why not include some of the Plymouth Brethren teachers in your list of influential theologians of the 19th century? Darby and Mackintosh immediately come to mind. They appear to meet at lest the first 3 of your categories. Although dispensationalism is not popular today, the brethren teachers had a great impact on both theologians and popularizers for many years beyond their lifespans.

  • It’s just my opinion, but I think Wolfhart Pannenberg must be on the list. His is such an intellectually challenging and stimulating theological project.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. I studied with him for a year and have kept up with his writing over the intervening years. Sadly, he is not well these days. And I was disappointed in his Systematic Theology. I liked his earlier writings and especially Theology and the Kingdom of God.

      • I’ve long been a Pannenberg fan because he was the first theologian I encountered who seemed to understand how scientific method influences our understanding of knowledge. So, his theology has always been at the interface of science and theology. I think he came to mind so readily because of having recently read F. LeRon Shults book The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology where Shults shows that Pannenberg’s epistemology foreshadows what post-foundationalist thinkers are currently saying. (Thanks for replying.)

        • rogereolson

          Pannenberg is post-foundationalist in that he affirms the coherence theory of truth and reserves the totality of truth to the future. However, he is a foundationalist insofar as he believes in a universal rationality shared by all human and that Christian truth claims must be justified by that.

  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,

    If you were asked to to suggest one current theologian as a “must-read”, who would it be?
    Thanks for your thought-provoking posts.

    • rogereolson

      It depends on who’s asking. But generally speaking, for those ready for serious theology, Moltmann.

      • Tony Pounders

        Yes, it does depend on who is asking. Allow me to narrow the field. Let’s say someone who graduated seminary 20 years ago and is in full-time pastoral ministry. Would Moltmann still be the one?

        • rogereolson

          Yes, assuming the person has an intellectual bent. Moltmann is not easy to read or digest. Otherwise, But first and foremost he or she should read Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. I truly think it will turn out to be one of a few theological classics written in the latter part of the 20th century.

          • Tony Pounders

            Thanks for the recommendations. I wrote a paper on Moltmann’s Theology of Hope for a MDiv Seminar back in 1990. We were studying Paul Ricoeur’s work. I was assigned Moltmann and asked to interpret him in light of Ricoeur. Paul Ricoeur is a name I don’t see or hear anymore.
            I also read Moltmann’s God In Creation for a second year Theology course.

          • rogereolson

            Yes, Ricouer is one of those thinkers whose star rose and fell rather suddenly. When I was doing Ph.D. work we required students in religion classes to read Ricouer’s The Symbolism of Evil. Ricouer was all the rage then (late 1970s, early 1980s). Now, who even knows who he was? I know that’s an exaggeration but not a big one. It’s sad how quickly such an important thinker can be largely forgotten.

  • Just Sayin’

    I think it wll be philosophers who will be remembered, discussed and debated, not theologians. Thus: Plantinga, Wolsterstorff, MacIntyre, Swinburne, Lane Craig and some younger philosophers it’s still not possible to single out (there are plenty to choose from).

    Canada’s bestselling author J. I. Packer will be remembered, conservative publishers will surely be reprinting his major books for the next several decades. But what can future scholars say about his ideas? Not much, not in the way that Barth, for example, is supplying ongoing discussion and debate among today’s theologians.

    Miroslav Volf might be one candidate for your list. Packer’s successor at Regent, Hans Boersma, is also a favourite of mine — one to watch!

  • ScottW

    Dr. Olson-
    To broaden your map I think the late Orthodox theologian Fr. Georges Florovsky will continue to be important, along with his student Met. John Zizoulas.

  • Can you believe I’ve never read anything by Hauerwas? I guess I better get started. What are some of his best works?

    • rogereolson

      I’m asking that, too. Until recently I’ve had very little interest in him. I talked with him a couple weeks ago and found him more personally engaging than I thought. But, then, I didn’t argue with him, either. 🙂

      • Darcyjo

        You have this current student of Dr. Hauerwas laughing out loud in the library! 🙂

        • rogereolson

          Explain why.

          • Darcyjo

            Nothing bad, believe me. I am taking him for his Introduction to Christian Ethics this semester, and he has a well-earned reputation for a lack of patience with fools (or folks who he might consider to be in that category.) It has been an interesting semester. 🙂

          • So since he didn’t get impatient with Dr. Olson, apparently he thinks Olson is not a fool? Ha!

            As one of his students, what are 2-3 of his “must read” books?

          • Darcyjo

            Since I’m still pretty new to Dr. Hauerwas’ writings, I’d suggest starting with the Hauerwas Reader, which has a pretty good selection of his essays, and might give you an idea of where to go from there. I’ve gotten a lot out of it this semester.

          • rogereolson

            What essays in it do you think are most important for understanding him?

  • Rob

    Dr. Olson,

    This is an interesting topic! Maybe this fits into one of your four categories mentioned above, but I think one way to predict who will be influential 50 years from now would be to think about what the church may look like then. By that I mean in terms of church structure. At least in America, the church is being pushed more into the margins so theologies that square well with that type of environment would have the most influence. For me I think theologians of the Anabaptist/Neo-Anabaptist persuasion would fit this category.

  • Timothy

    No Hermann or Kahler?

    “What caused these other theologians (e.g., Dorner) to be remembered?” Interesting question but I have never heard of Dorner so perhaps in UK he is not remembered. And Bushnell would only have been heard of by a few. Is this a very Americo-centric selection?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t think so. The only Americans in the list are Bushnell and Rauschenbusch. Dorner was extremely influential on Barth and widely considered, during his own lifetime, the mediating theologian par excellence. Unfortunately, he was eclipsed by Ritschl soon after his death. I don’t think any more have heard of Hermann or Kahler than Dorner and Bushnell (at least in America). The book will be published by an American publisher, so it’s natural to include a couple of influential American theologians others may not be as familiar with.

  • Joshua Penduck

    I think Hauerwas’ popularity is more than simply his review in Time. Many of the leading Christian ethicists – and many of the new generation of leading ethicists – have been immensely influenced by Hauerwas. For instance, Samuel Wells, Joel Shuman, John Swinton, Brian Brock, Glen Stassen, Robert Song, Michael Cartwright, John Berkman, William Willimon (I could go on) have all counted Hauerwas as an inspiration. Yes, it may be the case that in 50 years, all these might be forgotten – after all, who in 1900 could have imagined the impact a figure such as Barth could have had? – but from the present indications there is no reason to imagine that Hauerwas’ influence will lessen (other than through sheer speculation). Hauerwas’ influence extends beyond the issue of pacificism (though that is where he is most widely known, it is where I think he is at his weakest): he has had an impact on ecclesiological ethics (Wells, Willimon and Cartwright, for example), and increasingly in the area of Bioethics (especially on medical practice and posthumanism). In looking through your four categories, I would say that Hauerwas has filled most of them (at least from current trends): I have already noted the influence he has had on many leading Christian ethicists (and he himself is one of the most widely read Christian ethicists); he is a prolific writer (though mainly through the essay format and journals), though I would not want to put too much emphasis on how MUCH a figure has written (after all, Yoder did not write to an extensive degree) – and he is being widely translated (my Ukrainian and Polish friends read him!); much of his originality grows from how he has plausibly started the bridging of the divide between Barthian and Thomist eclesiological ethics; and finally he has had a secondary impact on contemporary culture, in particular through his thinking on cultural and bioethical issues (I have seen at first hand how Hauerwas has had an impact on British politics through his – albeit limited – influence on the cultural philosopher Philip Blond). In terms of Christian ethicists in the second half of the 20th Century, other than O’Donovan and Cavanaugh, I would find it difficult to name someone who has had as much influence has Hauerwas.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Everyone,
    I would recommend people read Hauerwas’s popular works first like “Resident Aliens” (which he did with William Williman) and I loved his challenging “After Christendom.” Of course, there is a work called a “Hauerwas Reader” which will give you a good overall sense of Hauerwas ideas.

  • Joshua Thiering

    This is partially a list of people I hope will be read:
    Jeremy Begbie, with the Theology through the Arts, could potentially make a sizeable impact to Christian attitudes to art and theology, and his work is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
    Rowan Williams, I’m continually surprised how many nonAnglican/Episcopalians know, read and quote his work. And he has as Benjamin Meyers puts it “a way of making the familiar strange,” which I think resonates with the darker tones of post modernism.
    I’m also a little curious of what people 50 years from now will say of Peter Rollins.

  • All the names mentioned are worthy contenders. I don’t want to sound like the annoying person three rows from the front of the lecture hall, but they all seem to have one thing in common: they’re (very, very nearly) all white men.

    I have nothing against white men—I’m proud to call myself one! But I wonder what the fact that few women ( I counted one) or people of non-Northern-European descent have been suggested says.

    Are there really no women theologians with the sort of influence that will be remembered in fifty years’ time? Black? Hispanic? African? Australian Aborigine? Trans-gender? Queer?

    The way we label these sorts of theologians mightn’t help. We’ve already discussed whether biblical scholars count. What about feminist theologians? Are they really theologians, or just feminists who quote the Bible a lot? Would liberation theologians make the cut if they discussed ‘real’ theology more? Do we need to specify what sort of theologian actually counts?

    Similarly, does the list of criteria limit the possibilities to professional, academic theologians? Or do we add that as an unspoken criteria? The fact that no-one remembers Langdon Gilkey suggests that activity within the academy mightn’t be so relevant to the question after all.

    I guess my point is that we must be careful who we include and exclude when we’re having discussions about who might be considered important in years to come.

  • Jamie

    Does George Lindbeck fall outside the time frame you are considering? I’m thinking he might be remembered because The Nature of Doctrine could plausibly be seen as an agenda setting work.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, but so full of problems! I think Vanhoozer is better. (I don’t even know him and have never met him, but I think his work on the canonical-linguistic theory of doctrine is far superior to Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic one which reduces doctrine to grammar.) But, for to the point… Years ago there was a theologian who was saying many of the same things Lindbeck later said. I don’t know why he doesn’t get more credit for postliberalism (a term he didn’t use). His name was Paul Holmer and he was very influential during the 1960s and 1970s. I met him and heard him speak (a sort of debate with Alvin Plantinga) sometime during the 1980s. His book The Grammar of Faith was a classic of what was then called Wittgensteinian fideism (not a term he embraced). I often wonder why people who were so popular and influential for a decade or two drop off the radar so entirely only a few years later. For those of you who may have heard of, read or knew Holmer…He lived not far from me in St. Paul and I ran into him at used bookstores often when he was ancient. I was so young and wet behind the ears I couldn’t get up the nerve to speak to him. But I read him voraciously and went through a Wittgensteinian fideism phase through him and D. Z. Phillips (and Willem Zuurdeeg-another forgotten theologian).

  • Alex

    Strongly appreciate Moltmann. I believe he is already demonstrating his “gianthood”; after all The Theology of Hope was written during the Johnson administration and his theology is relevant and widely read today. There are other would be giants but I think we are in an age of synthesizing theologians who combine influences of previous giants, current creative theologians and an emphasis on biblical exegesis. You mentioned N.T. Wright. Others come to mind, e.g. Richard Bauckham and even T.F. Torrance. I also think some liberationist theology will be read well into the future – James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez et al.

  • I think if we forget the influence of Moltmann we’re in trouble. Moltmann, I would say was the most influential theological of the second half of the 20th century.

  • MattR

    Since Jamie mentioned Lindbeck, I’d also say Hans Frei, “The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.” This was part of my intro (through Hauerwas) to narrative theology. Not talked about as much recently, but you can see the influence on much of post-foundationalist/narrative theology.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. I thought I mentioned Frei, but I might have intended to and got side tracked. My mentor was a student with Frei at Yale. He told me that Frei had a nervous breakdown just before his comprehensive exams. He had to take time off and go sit near the ocean and recover his equilibrium. He told me that to comfort me as I was on the verse of one just before my exams. I agree that The Eclipse of Narrative is a classic of modern/postmodern theology.

  • Dan Arnold

    What about Gustavo Gut%C3%A9rrez?

    He clearly has had a significant influence on a variety of others, including Moltmann. He engaged culture on issues that are still pertinent and likely will continue to be in 50 years, even if his solutions relied heavily on Marxism. Even so, for his era, he was quite creative in his application of theology. And while he was not a terribly prolific writer on the order some, Gut%C3%A9rrez has been translated into numerous languages giving him literally a worldwide audience.

    • Dan Arnold

      Ah rats, the comments didn’t handle he Spanish characters. That should read Gutierrez.

    • rogereolson

      He will be in the book. I greatly admire him–especially since I met him and spent some time talking with him.

  • Brian Abasciano for sure for his three volume series on Rom. 9.