Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What advice would you give for someone new to theology?

A reader who is relatively new to studying theology has asked my advice for reading, writing, and publishing. He does not have any plans to study for a degree in theology, but is interested in pursuing it as an independent scholar of sorts. He is a Catholic and has been reading theology for a number of months now, and is also getting into some modern philosophy.

I was wondering what advice others would give for someone in this position. A theologically educated public... people who are not professors or priests but who nonetheless contribute and receive from the theological conversation... strikes me as vital to the continued relevance of theological reflection for the Church and culture.

What would you recommend that this person read? Where would you recommend that this person direct their writing? I'm sure there are other discussions on other blogs that would be helpful as well-- feel free to recommend them.


  1. I would highly recommend that a person interested in theology read "Evangelical Theology: An Introduction" by Karl Barth; "A Little Exercise For Young Theologians" by Helmut Thielicke; and "Christian Theology: An Introduction" by Alister E. McGrath. Barth's book is a great little introduction and Thielicke's book gives a great framework for doing theology and staying spiritually centered. Alister McGrath's book is just a great introduction to theology and a great resource for understanding the views of particular theologians and past and current issues in Christian theology. After this basic introduction read as much as you can, but I would encourage that you start with earlier Christian theologians and work your way up in order to understand the beginnings of theology and the theological framework in which contemporary theologians are working. Start with Augustine, work your way to Calvin and Luther, and then I would recommend maybe some Bonhoeffer, Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkouwer, and Barth. Also, read blogs and see what is being talked about and what books are being recommended. I hope this helps.

  2. What is it with theologians whose names start with B?
    good list but I would add some Catholic stuff to the list. I'd suggest Josef Pieper - especially The Four Cardinal Virtues and his intro to Aquinas. And I'd add some von Balthazar and Newman. And I'd suggest some of Benedict's work. (more B's)
    I'd recommend the Blackwell collections and the OUP books on the incarnation, the resurrection, and the trinity for good cross sections of current folks on central issues.
    I'd read Pelikan's 5 vol. History of Christian thought and Peter Brown's bio of Augustine (and anything else by Brown actually) for historical background to early theology.
    I'd recommend Sarah Coakley too - her essays are fascinating and the first volume of her systematic theology is forthcoming.
    Hope that helps.

  3. This is going to sound awfully snarky, but the first thing I'd recommend is ignoring those first two posts (too perspectival for #1; too discrete for #2) and starting over with big-picture overviews and primary sources, such as:

    Anthony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. and exp. ed. (Baker Academic, 2006).

    William Placher, A History of Christian Theology (Westminster, 1983) and Readings in the History of Christian Theology, 2 vols. (Westminster, 1988). (Dated, but still useful.)

    Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, rev. ed. (Westminster, 2007), and Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Westminster, 1992).

  4. I hadn't thought of those OUP essay volumes... they would be a worthwhile place to go. Links below:

    The Incarnation
    The Redemption
    The Trinity
    The Resurrection
    Exploring Kenotic Christology

    (pending Robert's approval, of course.) ;)

  5. As for writing and publishing, there's little substitute for book reviews, particularly in philosophy and theology.

  6. Another volume that might be good is Nicene Christianity... it's been a number of years since I've read it, but I think it would give a good, if incomplete, flavor of some central issues in theology.

  7. For a good overview of all Christian doctrine, maybe see Thomas Oden's 3 Volume Systematic Theology - he also has a new one volume edition called Classic Christianity. All are long, but really allow one to engage in the history of the belief of the Church (he really holds to Vincent of Lerins' maxim that orthodoxy is what people have believed in all times at all places).

    Pelikan is also a great resource, although you may want to begin with Gonzalez's history of Christianity and then move to Pelikan.

    And, then, move into the classics, like Irenaeus, Origen, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.

  8. This would appear to be an unfashionable suggestion, but I would recommend...a lot less. That is to say, I would suggest that this person read a good overview of Christian theology, but then turn as quickly as possible to the works of a single theologian. It is a commonplace that theology is learned theologian-by-theologian (rather than doctrine-by-doctrine or introduction-by-introduction), and I think it's true: if someone wants to learn theology, he or she should get a sense of the field's topography, and then work with a particular theologian until he or she has a lively feel for that theologian's thought. So then: read one of Gonzalez's histories, but then steep yourself in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Adrienne von Speyr, or some other worthwhile theologian, and don't move on until you either can think that theologian's thoughts after him or her, or discover that he or she just doesn't resonate with you.

    That's my standard advice, at any rate. And as I said, it seems to be a minority position.

  9. Regarding the focus on a single theologian, I think this is good advice. My own entry into academic theology (from original plans of ministry) came through reading a fair amount of Bonhoeffer- both because his work is what happened to have instigated my transition, and because I received similar advice (not from a theology professor, but in a ministry related course) of focusing on one thinker and taking in a good deal of their work and their perspective. Since then I haven't especially focused on Bonhoeffer, but my original reading of him was helpfully formative even after moving elsewhere.

  10. Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer.

  11. If anyone is still interested, here are my thoughts on this: