Theology reading list, please
July 7, 2011 8:24 AM   Subscribe

I want a primer on 20th century theology. Reading suggestions?

I've recently developed a very keen interest in 20th century theology--liberal and conservative, Catholic and protestant. I'm currently reading The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart, which I find rewarding but difficult. It draws on a conversation with which I have only passing familiarity. I'm educated well in philosophy but very little in theology, so now I want to catch up. Examples of people whose thought I would like to know more about:

-Paul Tillich
-Han Urs von Balthasar
-Karl Barth

Obviously the best way to know what they all say is to read all of them. I'm very open to suggestions of primary sources, but reading Church Dogmatics in its entirety is no practical for me right now. I'm content reading long and difficult books, but I'd like to start with things a bit more basic so that I get more out of the longer and harder stuff.

So, hive, suggestions for works either by those thinkers (or others that I might find interesting) or works about those thinkers?
posted by resiny to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't exactly describe any of those guys as "conservative." Barth and Niebuhr are about as close as you get, but while Neo-Orthodoxy may be a reaction to nineteenth- and twentieth-century theological liberalism, it's hardly conservative.

For conservative Protestant theologians,* we're talking about guys like Gary Habermas, R.C. Sproul, Geerhardus Vos, J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen etc. Sproul and Packer in particular will have good secondary sources for getting a feel for where conservative theology** has been and is going. I've recommended Packer's Concise Theology to a number of people.

You'll also find that conservative theologians can have lively conversations with each other, both within and across traditions, but that there's really almost no discourse between liberal theologians and conservative theologians even within traditions. There's a historical reason for this. The conservative/liberal split was established pretty definitively about a century ago with the publication of The Fundamentals (online here). These essays essentially form(ed) the core of conservative Protestantism's platform, defining those aspects of liberalism which are objectionable. You'll find a round rejection of higher criticism, and really, all Protestant theologians that call themselves conservative will subscribe to the Fundamentals with few exceptions.

The mainline denominations are almost uniformly liberal, or at least not opposed to liberalism as such. These include the ELCA, ECUSA, UMC, PCUSA, and UCC, at a minimum. Most of these have had conservative congregations or even entire regions split away from them over the past century, in numbers too high to list here. These splits were occasionally over superficially ethical issues like homosexuality and women's ordination, but always reflect deeper disagreements about issues covered in The Fundamentals.

*Can't help you with Catholic theologians, I'm afraid.

**Or conservative Reformed theology anyway. Most American Protestants interested in theology as such are Reformed, and most of the rest are Lutheran. The baptistic, charismatic, and non-denominational traditions have never been as interested in academics.
posted by valkyryn at 8:55 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd start with Buber's I and Thou if you haven't read it yet.

Lucky for you, Tillich is a pretty darned good writer. You could do worse than start with this anthology.
posted by General Malaise at 9:00 AM on July 7, 2011

For Catholic writing you would certainly enjoy Vatican II and then the encyclicals of the notable popes in the 20th century.
posted by michaelh at 9:06 AM on July 7, 2011

One other thing: I think you'll find that within conservative traditions, there's fairly broad agreement on most theological issues. Debates can be heated at times, but they tend to be about what any objective observer would characterize as remarkably minor issues. This is probably because most of the major issues are pretty much settled.

For example, the conservative Reformed tradition has been engaged in an unfortunately rancorous dispute about how to rightly characterize Paul's doctrine of justification. N.T. Wright has taken a fairly novel approach there, and some have followed him, but the majority consensus appears to be that this "New Perspective" as it's called is out of bounds. But it's the sort of argument that only a Reformed theologian could have with another Reformed theologian, because it assumes so much common ground on other issues.

Contrast that with someone like Tillich, who mucks about with the interaction of psychology, existential philosophy, and doctrines of revelation. That's way, way out there by most conservative theologians' standards, as the doctrine of revelation is viewed by most of them to be essentially settled. And contrast with Spong, who basically punts theism entirely. Conservative theology, almost by definition but certainly by intention, hasn't really done anything "new" for generations, unlike liberal theology, which most definitely has. While liberal theology really is an evolving conversation, a primer on conservative theology published in the last decade or two isn't going to be that different from one published in the late nineteenth century.
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on July 7, 2011

For Catholic theology in the 20th century, you want Fergus Kerr's Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians. There's a useful review here by R.R. Reno. Kerr's book covers Balthasar, the only Catholic on your list.

I've read and enjoyed a chunk of Portrait of Karl Barth by Georges Casalis. But it's far outside my areas of expertise and I can't vouch for the scholarship on that one.

I have on my Amazon wishlist Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth, but I can't remember where it was recommended to me. And early edition is actually online in pdf.

Going back a little further, but coming up to the present day (and focusing on Lutheranism), there's Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz by Paul R. Hinlicky. A capsule review from First Things is here.
posted by Jahaza at 10:08 AM on July 7, 2011

David Ford (ed.), The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005) gives good surveys; plus, there's a reader forthcoming later this year.
posted by davemack at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some links that may help:

Bibliographies of key 20th century theologians (Catholic emphasis, but with a section on key Protestant theologians including Barth, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer)

Faith and Theology (systematic theology blog). Subpage with theology books reviewed in the blog.

Not systematic theology, but one of the great theololgical reflections of the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison.

One-volume anthologies of 20th century theologies may be helpful:
Twentieth-Century Theologians
20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age
A Map of Twentieth Century Theology

Introductory books or web sites on specific theologians or works:
Rudolph Bultmann (Making of Modern Theology) (in fact you may find other books in the Fortress Press series, Making of Modern Theology, useful)
Church Dogmatics: A Selection (Barth)
Church Dogmatics in a Week
Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses
Introduction to Paul Tillich
posted by apartment dweller at 9:15 AM on July 8, 2011

(Fixing the Letters and Papers from Prison link)
posted by apartment dweller at 9:20 AM on July 8, 2011

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