I divide this list into two: five theologians who have left us, and five who are still alive and kicking. This list deals with the first batch. It is by no means exhaustive, nor is this list an attempt at naming the most historically and theologically significant theologians (hence I do leave out historically significant figures, like Karl Barth or Thomas Aquinas; this is a blog post, after all). In fact, I make no pretensions at impartiality here. These are simply theologians that I love, and theologians whose work I wish everyone would devour with eager embrace, and whose work I believe would be of great benefit to the church. Even in Asia. I make brief comments on each, and why I think they are important. Casual readers could simply ignore the nerdy notes I make in a few places below.
1. Herman Bavinck
Well, this should be of no surprise. Bavinck’s work, particularly in the Reformed Dogmatics should simply be in every pastor’s bookshelf. His work stands alone in its attempt to be penetrative and (almost) exhaustive. One could read this magisterial work and receive the impression that Bavinck has the unique spiritual gift of omniscience. His writing style is eloquent, and even at times poetic. He structures his thought, typically, by contrasting the Christian position from all the other worldviews – from Islam, Mormonism, Religious Psychology, Feuerbach, Kant, Descartes, Locke, Eastern Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Pantheism, Platonism (the list goes on) – by surveying the biblical material, and bringing together the whole into one coherent thought. His other shorter writings also involve treatises on Science, Marriage, and Philosophy. In Bavinck we see a Reformed theologian who sought to consistently work out his theology on the basis of God’s revelation and the organicity that obtains between the character of creation and the Trinitarian God from whom it comes. We would do well to follow suit.
For the Nerds: There have been attempts to connect Bavinck’s prolegomena to Thomism and common sense realism. There are, admittedly a few passages in Bavinck that might give this impression – but this would be misleading. It seems that Bavinck’s constructive work demands that his epistemological views, especially relative to knowledge of God, is much more centered not on an active use of the human intellect, nor the proper functioning of one’s cognitive faculties, but rather on the active agency of God who reveals himself to all people. This active revelatory work of God is something prior to the active use of the intellect, and is the basis from which the intellect works. In no way does Bavinck’s doctrine of general revelation sanction human reason with a positive, constructive or legislative role with respect to knowledge of God. Instead, consistent with Bavinck’s Organicist motif, the speech of God in special revelation is, for Bavinck, the principium cognoscendi from which the Christian knows God, and this speech of God in Scripture organically connects with what God had already communicated to all men in general revelation – so God’s non-verbal revelation (prior to, and more basic than, an active, legislative use of human reason), anticipates God’s verbal revelation – and in the post-fall context, God’s verbal revelation includes within it a corrective feature to man’s interpretation of God’s general, non-verbal, revelation. Special and general revelation, for Bavinck, must go together – and in this way men are called to think ectypally God’s thoughts, which are the arctype. This, of course, anticipates Van Til’s constructive efforts.
2. Cornelius Van Til
As I’ve written in previous blog posts, Van Til’s been widely misunderstood. Not only has John Frame argued that Van Til is the most “influential Christian thinker” since John Calvin, his apologetics has certainly made his mark within the Reformed community. But I want to note that his apologetics cannot be abstracted from Van Til’s theological constructions. Depending heavily on Bavinck, Kuyper, and Warfield, Van Til was concerned first of all to take every thought captive to God’s Word. He was adamant about making the antithesis clear between non-Christian thought and Christian thought. He evacuated human speech of all of its normative claims, arguing that unless the state of affairs as described in Christianity is the state of affairs that actually obtains, human predication would devolve into plain relativism or would be rendered imposible. He denied that human beings could know God by an autonomous use of human reason, and argued consistently that God’s wholly otherness entails that the only proper way to know Him is through His own voluntary condescension to reveal himself (WCF 7:1). This means that we cannot think abstractly about God, making deductions autonomously and purely logically about what God can or cannot do. Conceivability, for Van Til, grounds no certainty. He calls us to think robustly in a biblically consistent manner – and this means we ought to think concretely with the Scriptural text, making inferences that are implied by Scripture, and refusing to make the inferences that lead to a denial of another Scriptural principle, even if the inference, on a purely deductive level, seem to follow from the first principle (an example of this would be inferring that there are three gods, since Scripture teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and that the Spirit is God. In a purely deductive level, we must conclude, it seemed, that there are three Gods. But Scripture denies this, and in fact only affirmed that there is one God, in whom are three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Abstract thinking leads to Tritheism, or to a denial of the integrity of each person. Concrete thinking affirms the revealed hyperdox that God is both three and One). We ought to follow this true conviction to think God’s thoughts after Him.
For the Nerds: I think that Greg Bahnsen (and, it seems, Scott Oliphint with him), was right about the priority of the transcendental argument in Reformed apologetics, over Frame. Don Collett has written a persuasive argument against Frame’s approach. Most evangelical readings of Van Til (especially the philosophers), have missed Van Til’s essentially reformed approach because they have abstracted, it seems to me, Van Til’s apologetic from the theology that he espouses. Reading Van Til in light of Bavinck and Kuyper first should remedy this situation. Therefore, in my view, Scott Oliphint, current apologetics professor in Westminster Theological Seminary, was spot on to emphasize the theological roots of Van Til’s apologetic by renaming presuppositionalism, calling it now, instead, a Covenantal Apologetic.
3. John Calvin
Of course. Calvin is normally known for his predestinarian worldview – which is interesting – because I do not think that his predestinarianism is unique to him – nor did he write anything on it that his predecessors didn’t write. One could find predestinarianism in Luther, Wycliffe, Hus, Gottschalk, and Augustine, prior to Calvin and a myriad of other thinkers contemporaneous with Calvin’s time, and many more after him. Calvinism cannot be equated with predestinarianism (hasn’t Richard Muller taught us this?). I am a full blown predestinarian (double, supralapsarianism is my cup of tea, especially the Jonathan Edwards [Pauline! ha] kind of supralapsarianism), but what I want to accent here is Calvin’s pastoral heart and his theological exposition on union with Christ, especially in Book three of his institutes. One could not read Calvin and fail to note his pastoral concerns on every page, his piety, and his love for Christ. His theology of union with Christ is also something that points us not to the mere benefits of salvation – justification, sanctification etc – but to its benefactor: the Person of Christ. One could also learn much from the way in which Calvin and his company of pastors did ministry. So yes, read Calvin, and edification will surely follow suit.
For the Nerds: Union with Christ is the locus of justification – justification does not cause the union, nor does justification cause moral transformation.
4. Meredith Kline
Meredith Kline is the youngest in our list. He passed away in 2007, and he was a professor of Old Testament. But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a list of theologians, not of biblical studies professors? Well, yes, I may be cheating here – but Kline’s theological constributions, especially with regard to the theological content of the Old Testament, simply cannot be ignored. His intrusionary paradigm helps us understand better some of the toughest passages of the Old Testament. His rigorous exegetical work brings seamlessly Old and New Testaments together – one would come away reading Kline simply thinking that both Testaments are one book, designed and written by One Divine author. The connections he makes are both creatively profound and provocative, and effortlessly combines both theological sensitivity with exegetical precision. I may not agree with everything that Kline says, but his name would always be one of the first that comes into mind when I think of a robust Old Testament theologian.
5. John Murray
Here’s a whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking presbyterian I love to read. John Murray is a systematic theologian, but he is also a biblicist in the best sense of the word. His conviction that systematic theology is lifeless and speculative apart from rigorous exegesis is something that remains needed in place of the wildly speculative efforts of much modern theologians today. Reading Murray may be arduous (though not as arduous as reading Turretin or John Owen!), but that is simply because he is a precise writer, and precision along with concision demands the utmost of our powers of concentration. His collected writings contain, I think, some of the best chapter long summaries of all the classical loci within systematic theology – yet each chapter, though could be read on its own – logically (if not organically) imply all of what he has said before. His short on the imputation of Adam’s sin remains one of the best of its kind, and his commentary on Romans, as John Piper so passionately proclaims, is nothing short of a work of art. Murray might not be the most “creative” in much of what he does, but that is because he is convinced that what the church needs, simply, is a coherent, eloquent, systematic presentation, of all that the Bible teaches, along with the conviction that classical Reformed theology is the best manifestation of such a presentation. The church does not need the creative musings of theologians. The church needs, again and again, to be brought back to Scripture. And Murray succeeds in doing that brilliantly.
Of course, some honorable mentions are appropriate here: Augustine, Martin Luther, John Owen, Abraham Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos, and Francis Turretin immediately come to mind – along with B.B. Warfield, and my guilty pleasure: Charles Spurgeon.