20th Century Theology: The Heavy Hitters

Though this book isn’t new, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove, IVP, 1992) by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson is one of those books that theology students need to read, like it or not.  It is basically a run-down of all the major theologians in the 20th century Western world (though a few transitional figures from the 19th century are also included).  Grenz and Olson discuss men like Kant, Hegel, Barth, Brunner, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer, among others (Moltmann, Rahner, etc.).

Here are a few introductory blurbs to give you the general tenor of this book which summarizes some teachings of these theologians.

“We see twentieth-century theology as the story of theology’s struggle along with culture through this transition from modernity to postmodernity” (p. 10).

“The theology of the twentieth century, flowing as it does out of that of the nineteenth, offers an interesting case study in the attempt to balance these two aspects of the relation of God to creation (my note: the two are transcendence and immanence).  In fact, the see saw of transcendence and immanence as a significant focus provides a handle for grasping the unity and diversity of the central current of theology that flowed through the century” (p. 12).

The book then unfolds first by discussing the Enlightenment and some aspects of 19th century theology.  Grenz and Olson then take the trek through the 20th century theologians.  I’ve enjoyed and appreciated this book which is a sort of textbook for those of us who want to get a good “feel” for what was happening theologically in the 20th century.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

16 thoughts on “20th Century Theology: The Heavy Hitters”

  1. Don’t leave out the conservative Anglican’s, see one book by Fr. E. L. Mascall, “He who Is” A study in Traditional Theism (Longmans, 1943, my edition is 1958). He has a chapter X, Transcendence And Immanence. It is very good, as the whole book!

    Eric Lionel Mascall (1905-93), was an Anglo-Catholic theologian and philosopher. But still very conservative, and well worth reading.

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

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  2. Nice, Robert, thanks for that. Always looking for “parallels” of books I/we enjoy. I’ll have to check it out.

    By the way, feel free to offer more suggestions when we plug books.

    shane

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    1. Shane,

      Thanks, I will remember that. I put your guys blog in my fav’s. I am more modern Reformed myself, but I really love Calvin…he is always Sir Calvin to me. Since I am Irish in the English world, he is Knighted for me! lol I will be 60 next month, so I have been after this Christian race for 40 years or so. Oh yeah, so far a sweet read is Herman J. Selderhuis’s book: John Calvin, A Pilgrim’s Life,(IVP). This is a keeper I believe! Most personal, but still gets to the real Calvin.

      What do you guys think of PT Forsyth? He is actually in my family tree somewhere…my greatgram was Scot & Irish. But I was using Forsyth in a debate with an Orthodox priest on the blogs. He (the Orthodox man) would not admit to the reality God’s wrath in scripture, and said it was just a metaphor. If you have any thoughts here? Shoot them my way..I can always use help from younger minds and perhaps better minds?

      Yours In God Triune,
      Fr. Robert
      D.Phil.,Th.D.

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      1. Robert: a few others on this blog have pointed me to PTF. I suppose it’s time to dig in, though I’ll have to decide where to start. That’s all I can say about PTF, however, sorry!

        And I have heard of Selderhuis’ book, but I’ve read/own enough stuff by Calvin and on Calvin that I can’t (right now) justify another book about Calvin on my shelf! Glad you enjoyed it, though, and Sir Calvin in general.

        On metaphor and wrath in Scripture? Hmm…consider Calvin’s “accommodation,” or check out a few of Calvin’s commentaries on wrath passages (i.e. Rom 1.18ff). If God’s wrath is a metaphor, what of his love? Justice? Mercy? Any attribute? Who judges what is a metaphor in Scr. and what is not?

        shane

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  3. Robert:

    Forsyth gets favourable blurbs on Sproul’s series, “The Cross of Christ.” It’s a touch difficult to understand an Orthodox priest making the divine wrath a “metaphor.” Your thoughts?

    An American Anglican,
    Philip

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  4. Hey Shane,

    Thanks for your regular posts. Regarding the most recent, however, the Grenz/Olson book is actually pretty horrendous. Serious theology students should pick up something like the two volume “Modern Christian Thought” edited by James C. Livingston (Fortress Press). It’s far more readable, and more important it’s far more accurate.

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    1. FTaciturn:

      If you would, could you explain how/why you thought this was horrendous? Just curious. Though Grenz/Olson aren’t on my personal “tops” for theologians, I was intrigued by their perspective on 20th C. theology, since they are products of it (as we all are, at least to some extent).

      Anyway, I’ll preview Livingston on Amazon later, thanks for the tip.

      shane

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      1. I haven’t heard much about Grenz/Olson’s book, but I can definitely vouch for Livingston’s book. It’s a great introduction to modern Christian thought and I think he’s very fair in his assessment of all the philosophers & theologians he covers. I never heard of Livingston prior to or apart from those two books, which is surprising since the book is really quite an amazing read. Livingston covers a lot of people and their thought and he traces development and connections between thinkers/movements quite well, I think.

        Just my two cents.

        Shane,
        You can probably get the book real cheap (I paid $7 total) on Amazon (older, used editions).

        Father Taciturn,
        Perhaps you know a little bit more about Livingston? I’ve searched all over the internet and have not had any luck finding any background information on the author, it would be great if you could tell us anything about him.

        – Joshua Lim

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      2. There are two problems with Grenz/Olson as I see it. First, it reproduces a number of historiographical caricatures of theologians on the right and the left. The treatment of Schleiermacher is a typical neo-orthodox skewering of “culture protestantism.” The father of liberalism was really so much more interesting, and so much better a theologian and thinker than they make him out to be – why else has he continued to be very much a live option in academic theology today. The same could be said of their treatment of Barth and Bonhoeffer, although the presentation here is offered from the other side of the aisle, in other words it’s an evangelical caricature of Barth. Having misstated views on the so-called right and left, their own Grenz/Olson/Franke perspective starts to look pretty mainstream (ex Franke runs around casting himself in the role of Reformed, Barthian, and evangelical, when his theology is really more Schleiermacherian than anything – that with a little unsophisticated version of Tillich thrown in. In a nutshell, the G/O volume is constructive theology masquerading as historical theology; they are teeing up their own take on things. The hard-hitting Scott Clark (who only drinks Mike’s Hard Lemonade!) has a good critique of G/O in an old issue of Modern Reformation magazine.

        Second problem, it’s theology light. It tends to produce confused evangelical responses, like thinking that Pannenberg is cool because he defends a historical resurrection. Well, there’s more to the story than that. By comparison, the Livingstone volume always gives you slightly more than you want. The effect: readers might be slower to think they identify (or despise) a view under consideration.

        The first volume of “Modern Christian Thought” is all Livingstone’s work. It’s pretty good, on the whole, in its discussion of 19th century theology. Most of the interpretations represent the scholarly consensus – i.e. not as much polemical historiography. The second volume is edited and, I think, even better, especially the Francis Sch. Fiorenza sections. She was a major figure in post-Kaufman theology, especially feminism. I think it is useful for Reformed/evangelical types to encounter sympathetic presentations of later 20th century theology by living proponents of some of these trajectories.

        Hope that helps – wish I had more time.

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  5. Hey Mates,

    Yes, well first I like old Peter Taylor very much. He is solid thru and thru, perhaps my favorite little work would be The Cruciality of the Cross. But from another work I quote, “The non-theological christ is popular; he wins votes; but he is not mighty; he does not win souls; he does not break men into pieces and create them anew.” (The Taste of Death aand the Life of Grace).

    Philip, I was using Forsyth (toward my Orthodox friend) as one that belives that the Death and Atonement of Christ are more about Christ’s voluntary obedience to the will of God and His confession thereby of the holiness of God. Thus the cross did not change God so much as it wrought a change in the relation in which men stood to HIM. Not so much a vicarious penitence, but a vicarious obedience of Christ. And thus the “obedience” is the essential spiritual meaning of those ancient sacrifices. “His complete, central, vital obedience to the holy will of God in a necessary act on the eternal scale.” (PTF, The Cruciality, etc, p. 212)

    Also Philip, I was a Royal Marine officer (recon). I was at Gulf War 1. We had some deep penetration missions there, etc. So Semper Fi!

    Shane, I love Ford Lewis Battles (RIP) book: Interpreting John Calvin. There he gives a very good look at Calvin’s Accommodation! Thanks, your thoughts are on the nailhead here!

    Also, Father Taciturn thanks for the reference to the Livingston book.

    Again thanks mates. I have been here in the States, for the funeral of my little Irish Mother. She died here in hospice, as she wished with my brother’s family around her. But I did the funeral myself. RIP mother!

    Yours,
    Fr. Robert

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  6. I am of the same opinion as FT regarding Grenz/Olson. The book suffers from a very jaundice take on Reformed theology ( Olson’s massive history of Christian theology suffers from the same flaw).

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    1. GLW Johnson

      I took a peek at your Church, I guess you people would be Reformed Baptist? Just a friendly question. I am not over knowledgeable about American Reformed. You all must suffer as we do with postmodernism?

      And Fortress Press, now there is a mixed bag, yes? Often now a liberal theological press it seems? Though I have some much older stuff, when it was both really Lutheran and some conservative Methodist elements. I hope also Americans realize that John Wesley was far more Calvinist, in at least his soteriology. Your American Thomas C. Oden sure has turned around in the last many years or so. His, The Justificaation Reader is very nice!

      Fr. Robert (Anglican)

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  7. Absolutey NOT. We allow for immersion as a mode of Baptism-but we baptize infants ( no dedications whatsoever). The reason we include the Second London was to accomadate existing missionaries who held Reformed baptist convictions). The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity define us as a chrch ( we have ,as a church gone throught the Westminster Shorter catechism, the Heidelberg catechism and are up to quetion 188 in the Westminster Larger catechism).

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  8. I see, well thank you. Yes the London Confession, made me think of the R. Bap. etc. Personally I prefer the Belgic Confession, as the Heidelberg also. And again for myself at least, the Westminster is a bit stiff. Of course I like our simple Thirty-Nine Articles! But I am Anglican, and like too the Dutch Reformed theolog’s in general. But it’s all good!

    Blessings,
    Fr. Robert

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  9. Thanks for the feedback, guys. I suppose the caveat in the post should have noted that Grenz/Olson wrote from their perspective, not necessarily a Reformation one. Thanks for noting that for other readers. I suppose not all readers will know the backgrounds of Grenz/Olson enough to realize “from whence tradition” it was written.

    Also, again, thanks for the other book tips as alternatives to the Grenz/Olson one.

    shane lems

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  10. Father Taciturn,

    Can you further elaborate your thoughts about “femiminist” ideas, and the theology of the book you mentioned? Can we really dialogue with this position/positions?

    Fr. Robert

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