Theological Smackdown

This week I got a comment & question based on a statement I made in an earlier post that stated:

“They (critics of Christianity) won’t regard the serious academic theologians in their arguments, preferring instead to attack featherweights like Warren and McLaren.”

Who are the lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight serious academic theologians?

First, let me say that I wasn’t taking a poke at Warren and McLaren.  McLaren confesses in his writings that he hasn’t studied much theology before the modern era, and Warren sticks to the basics at best.  As I consider the best way to answer the question, let me share with you how I would define the various “weight classes.”  These are purely my own opinions, and may be subjective in the extreme.

Heavyweight — those who do foundational theological reflection, characterized by originality, deep philosophical and practical reflection, and challenging the status quo and conventional wisdom of the day.  Those who shape the thinking of others in significant ways.  Identifying a heavyweight in no way implies that I agree with everything they say — only that their influence is unmistakable.

Light heavyweight — those who synthesize and adapt the deep theological reflections of the heavyweights.  Not original thinkers, but incredibly adept at “connecting the dots” of others.

Middle weights — those who recycle important concepts into modern language and culture.  Much of the thinking is derivative at best, but while there is little or no originality, there is a powerful ability to communicate and impact people’s thinking.

Light/welter/featherweights — those whose thinking is derivative and fairly simplistic.  This is not to say that there is no value in the theology, just that it is basic and offers substance to newcomers and novices only.  Those who have “trained, practiced, and conditioned” for more challenging matches will find little helpful or valuable here for their own continued development.  I’m not going to name specific writers/thinkers/theologians in this category because I don’t want to sound like I am devaluing what they offer to the church.  They primarily provide an entrance into the faith.

Heavyweights:

Pre-modern: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Boehme, author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Fox

Modern (post-modern?): Brueggemann, Helmut Thielke, Jurgen Moltmann, Catherine Keller, Karl Barth, Robert Funk

These thinkers delve into the depths and offer provocative challenges to faith.  They point us in new directions and raise more questions than answers.  Whole schools of belief arise from their teaching and philosophies.  They may incite great controversy, but they always invite engagement with the “deep” issues of faith, life, death, morality, change, hope, and our relationships with God, Christ, and Spirit.

Light-heavyweights:

Pre-modern: Francis of Assisi, Wesley, Zwingli, Albright, Thomas Kelly

Modern: Neill Hamilton, Stanley Hauerwas, Bishop Willimon, Borg, Crossan, A.W. Tozer

These thinkers don’t contribute many new thoughts, but they reframe existing thinking in innovative and compelling ways.  They generate energy by synthesizing elements of many other thinkers, and construct new ways of looking at the “old, old story.”  John Wesley was not an original thinker, but he was a brilliant synthesizer — drawing from a wide variety of sources to assemble the framework for modern Methodism.  No one has influenced my own personal theology and philosophy more than Neill Q. Hamilton.

Middle-weights:

Modern: C.S. Lewis, Richard Foster, Phyllis Tickle, Parker Palmer, Walter Wink

Before anyone gets offended and thinks “middle-weight” is a put-down of some sort, my only distinction (personal) here is that in these people’s writing it is difficult to find anything new (though there is much that is novel).  All of them are saying what dozens (hundreds?) of others have already said, but they are saying it anew.  They share their best thinking and observations about what is common knowledge (if you’ve spent much time in the church or in reading Christian literature).

I also would add a list of non-Christian/philosophical thinkers who are heavyweights/light-heavyweights, but not theologians.  To this group I would add Ken Wilber, Edwin Friedman, Peter Senge and Peter Block.

I generated this list off the top of my head, therefore it is incomplete and  not deeply thought-through.  I present it with all the seriousness of a bar game (think: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).  Who would you put on the list?  How would you rearrange what I have?  Who would you dump?  Who would you add as essential?  Play with the idea and share.

25 replies

  1. The mention of liberation theology brings to my mind the question of who might be mentioned (or mentioned more) from feminist circles or racial ethnic circles. I’d want to second John’s mention above of Marjorie Suchocki.

  2. I would place NT Wright in the heavyweight division because of his integration of Resurrection into a theology that is both environmentally and socially conscious. While, for some, this type of resurrection thought may not be “new” but the way it is integrated into a “good world” concept is very powerful and shouldn’t be ignored.

    It’s also powerful in how it stands out against a Christianity that has grown increasingly gnostic and “otherworldly” in its pursuits.

    • I can go with that. I have appreciated Wright’s more recent books than I did some of his earlier books. My impression — completely my own — is that he has traded breadth for depth, and the trade has been well worthwhile.

    • Wright has written some very good stuff, but he’s clearly not in the heavyweight division as Dan is defining it.

  3. Well, I’m still very much an “apprentice sitting at others’feet,” but Friedrich Schleirmacher set the standard for many a liberal theological thinker. And how about Thomas Merton–if we include “spirituality” as a subcategory of theology, his influence was especially noteworthy in the mid-20th century…and I suspect still is for many people (including myself).

  4. Heavy – Luke Timothy Johnson, Elizabeth Johnson, John Howard Yoder, Rahner, Bultmann
    Light Heavy – no way Borg and Hauerwas are on the same level (move Borg down) and I would add either Rauschenbusch or Borden Parker Bowne for giving theological foundations to the social gospel. For swimming upstream on source-theory: David Dungan. For his contributions to liberation theology: Jon Sobrino.
    Mid-weights – Borg, Wright (like you said, most of his earlier works and commentaries (my opinion, not Dan’s) are light-weight and bring his stock down). Rowan Williams, Joan Chittister.

  5. Not to be sarcastic, but our most profound theology begins with those whose thinking is shared in Scripture. While IMO Jesus has to be the heaviest of heavyweights, even David’s conceptualization of God in terms of a deeply personal relationship that anyone could relate to was certainly a radical expression of theology . . .

  6. It would be a worthy blog post to think out loud about the value of academic theology in comparison/contrast to “popular” theologians. Who do they influence? Who is more influential? Think I’ll blog this..

    • It’s a great idea. I got an email yesterday from an irate woman who took me to task on saying Rick Warren wasn’t a heavyweight theologian. I tried to tell her I wasn’t denying his influence, just that his theology is approximately equivalent to that I remember from Campus Crusade for Christ rallies in the 1970s — which isn’t meant as a putdown. Those rallies were very helpful to me when I was younger. (Another woman pointed out to me that not being a “deep theologian” can be a good thing! So heavenly-minded, they are of no earthly good…) The point I wanted to make was that in Warren there isn’t much depth, and a lot of the thinking isn’t even really about God, but about what it means to be Christian. You, I think, are getting at the same thing. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis all wrote influentially about the Christian faith and knowing God, but they were very different thinkers speaking to significantly different audiences much of the time.

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