Not too long ago I published Part 1, summarizing the top 5 dead (alive and kicking elsewhere, of course) theologians I would always recommend. That list included, meant to be in no particular order of priority, Herman Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, Meredith Kline, John Murray, and John Calvin. This time I present the five living and breathing theologians I’d always recommend others to read. Again, in no particular order of priority, and with no attempt at all whatsoever to be neutral or objective.
6. Richard B. Gaffin
Retired Emeritus Professor in New Testament and Systematic Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary, Richard B. Gaffin, admittedly, was the first person that popped into my mind as I thought about the persons I would include in this list. Dr. Gaffin is an elder at the church I attend, and his life as both a scholar and a Christian is both an inspiration and a challenge to me. His humility, fatherly attitude, and desire to truly listen and to shorten the distance between himself and the people around him is one I so wish more would emulate, including myself. I would never forget my first meeting with Dr. Gaffin – he suggested that we met, of all places, in a local McDonalds by church, during which we enjoyed some deliciously unhealthy McNuggets while we discussed hermeneutical methodology.
His article on the epistemological implications of 1 Cor. 2 is one to which I return over and over again, as it provides, with such rare exegetical precision, the reader with the theological, biblical foundations from which Van Til derives much of his thought. His book, Perspectives on Pentecost is a must-read as a solution to misunderstandings of cessationism; his Resurrection and Redemption is a decisive study on Paul’s eschatology, and By Faith, Not By Sight is also helpful in understanding justification. Dr. Gaffin’s philosophy of publishing is one that is also commendable; pursue quality over quantity, and to make haste, slowly. Dr. Gaffin writes with urgency, clarity, and certainty, and he lectures in the same fashion (many of his courses are available online in Itunes U for free). We would do well to emulate this posture too.
7. J. I. Packer
I remember reading Knowing God for the first time as a new believer in Christ. The number of misconceptions I had regarding the Christian faith that was remedied by the reading of this book were too many to mention. He writes theology as it is meant to be written – not as cold and abstract but as passionate yet precise. Despite responses to the contrary, I still believe that his introduction to John Owen’s treatise on limited atonement captures accurately what any form of Arminianism would necessarily lead to, and is itself one of the best defenses of limited atonement available today. His tiny book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God answered, for me, the question of why it is that we ought to evangelize given the fact that God does control all that occurs, including the eternal destiny of individuals, at a crucial time in which I was heavily wrestling with reverting back to Arminianism or conforming to Molinism (see this helpful essay against Molinism written by another author). Perhaps it is true that Packer remains a better writer than he is a speaker, but his works, nonetheless, helped me in deep moments of cognitive dissonance since I became a Christian.
8. Sinclair Ferguson
Sinclair Ferguson is currently Professor of Systematics in Redeemer Seminary, Dallas. He, like Gaffin and John Murray, shows what it looks like to conduct systematic theology as coordinated with biblical exegesis. I have benefited much, particularly from his book on the Holy Spirit – from which I drew most to write my response against claims that there would be a third pentecost in Indonesia. This particular book, I think, represents the best short summary on the Scriptural doctrine of the Holy Spirit, countering misperceptions of continuing apostolic presence, repeatable pentecosts, and the nature of the spiritual gifts. I have also enjoyed one of his shorter essays that seeks to define the orthodox Reformed position on Sanctification. I hope you are seeing a trend here among the theologians I recommend: speculative modern theologians, in my view, aren’t only tedious to read; they are also unhelpful to the church. Scripture must condition the constructive efforts of systematic theology. The primary purpose of theology is neither to be culturally innovative nor ethically inspiring. Besides, those two things could only be achieved if the goal is scriptural faithfulness anyway.
9. K. Scott Oliphint
Again, I tip my hat here. Dr. Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology in Westminster Theological Seminary and is perhaps, along with two other professors, the one who has influenced me the most during my time in the seminary. He is, arguably, the leading scholar on Cornelius Van Til’s thought today. I’ve sat in many of his courses, assisted in grading, and received much constructive criticism from this man (I will never forget the time he called me out in a Ph.D/ Th.M level seminar course discussion, saying that I think much like a ‘pagan philosopher.’ Humorously, of course, but it did get me to think!). From Oliphint I learned, also, never to publish for publishing’s sake, and never to be a scholar for academic’s sake alone. All of our intellectual efforts must be in service to the church, and when we must choose between a reputation in the academy or of faithfulness to Christ’s bride, we must quickly choose the latter (a characteristic shared by all the professors I know from WTS, I might add).
I happen to think that God With Us is his best work so far. Yes, Oliphint is known primarily as a professor of apologetics, but this is perhaps what makes him (and apologists following the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til), so unique. This book is a work of theology. It deals with the complex theological issue of how it is that God can remain essentially independent, sovereign, and all-controlling while at the same time be the God who is relational, using Christology, along with the Reformed notion of the communicatio idiomatum as the key. The two other books that have been particularly helpful to me are his Reasons for Faith and Covenantal Apologetics. Both of these works ought to be read by anyone who wishes to engage in Philosophy from a Christian perspective. The latter book, specifically, shows how a Christian ought to defend the faith against other unbelieving positions, with the chapter on Islam, I find, to be the most illuminating. Perhaps what makes Oliphint’s work so fresh is his consistently biblical-theological approach – it will anger most philosophers, of course, for obvious reasons.
For the Nerds: Oliphint’s God With Us was under some heavy criticism by esteemed Reformed philosopher Paul Helm. Nate Shannon had responded to Helm earlier here (which I thought to be quite definitive), while Oliphint finally decided to respond himself, too, here. Helm’s rejoinder to Oliphint could be found here. What fun.
You can follow Scott Oliphint on twitter too.
10. John Piper and Timothy Keller
Well okay, If I cheated in my previous post by bringing in an Old Testament Scholar into a list of theologians, I cheat here once again by bringing in not one, but two pastor-theologians that I would always recommend. Yes these two men are different (one a baptist, the other a presbyterian, to name an obvious example), and yes I am aware of all the criticisms both of these men had taken from various staunchly Reformed camps, and yes I am also aware of all the dangers that come with being a celebrity-pastor (please don’t stone me just yet!). But let’s face it, I’d rather have folks watch these two on youtube, and have their books be on the best-selling lists rather than the slick yet poisonous works of Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer. These two men are doing a lot more good than bad, in my view, and I would rather rejoice that thousands of charismatics are embracing the Reformed doctrines of grace rather than scowl sourly that those same charismatics have never yet read the Westminster Confession of Faith (though that would be a great next step!). I know of too many people who would not be reading Herman Bavinck today were it not for reading the works of these two men in their earlier Christian days. Oh, and I don’t think anything can get me more excited, in terms of preaching, than a John Piper sermon.
Reformed theology has become “cool” nowadays because, in part, of the works of these two men – I just hope that it isn’t merely a fad. The way to do this going forward, of course, is to root ourselves into the historic Protestantism from which we came, and to acknowledge, at the very least, that there is more to the Reformed tradition than a few celebrity pastors and the five points of TULIP.
So there you have it. The top 10 theologians I would always recommend, with no intention at all whatsoever of being unbiased. A few other honorable mentions are in order, both dead and alive: Two Barth-friendly scholars, Kevin Vanhoozer and John Webster (the two men that initially made me invulnerable to temptations toward any form of dispensationalism), R.C. Sproul (despite his views of apologetics), Carl Trueman, Peter Leithart (especially his book on exegesis), Greg Bahnsen (despite his theonomic views), Vern Poythress, John Frame (despite his modified presuppositionalism), James Anderson, Herman Ridderbos and D.A. Carson.