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Best Contemporary Theology Meme

January 12, 2007

Patrik over at God in a Shrinking Universe and Theology Blogs has asked us to compile a list of what we believe to be the most important and substantial theological works published in the last 25 years (1981-2006). Patrik asked for a list of three or more works. The meme has spread far and wide in the Christian blogosphere, and I’d like to make my own contribution here. Patrik hopes to construct an unofficial list of the best theology books of the past quarter century to serve as a resource to specialists and non-specialists alike.

I am employing the categories of scholarship, impact across Christian denominations, influence and quality as my own criteria in listing my choices. Please feel free to add your own books. These works are listed in no particular order.

Walter Kasper, Der Gott Jesu Christi (1982) – I cannot think of a better contemporary book–Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant–on the doctrine of God. Kasper is a remarkable synthesizer and a sympathetic interpreter. This book addresses the modern problem of atheism and belief in its social and humanist modes before treating the historically interrupting disclosure of God as triune love. If you have any doubts about Kasper’s intellectual creativity or faithfulness to Christian tradition, this book will put them to rest. (ET: The God of Jesus Christ)

John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (1991)
– The book that established the formidable presence of John Milbank on the theological and philosophical scene, and announced the advent of what soon after become the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Outlining his misgivings over the union between Christian thought and modern social science, Milbank seeks to recover and innovatively apply a Christian theological tradition that extends out of itself and into the social and political sphere. Without question, one of the most important books in theology written in the past 15 years.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theodramatik I-IV (1973-1983); Theologik I-III (1985-87); Epilog (1987) – What is there to say? Balthasar is perhaps the most cultured and exciting Catholic theologian of the past eight centuries. His work influenced and nourished the minds of Pope John Paul II (who named him a cardinal) and Pope Benedict XVI. During the 1980’s, Balthasar brought his magisterial trilogy to a close, establishing a theological legacy that places him among the greatest thinkers the Church has ever produced. (ET: Theo-Drama I-V; Theo-Logic I-III; Epilogue)

Jean-Luc Marion, Dieu sans l’être (1982) – Marion’s work was a watershed moment in contemporary theology. It’s one of those works that sets the agenda for an entire field of literature. Looking to figures of the Christian tradition such as the Pseudo-Dionysius and Bonaventure while taking seriously the critiques of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Marion challenges the theological world to shatter their idolatrous categories reserved for God by modern philosophy and think beyond being. (ET: God without Being)

David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (1981)
– Deeply influenced by the transcendental method of his mentor, Bernard Lonergan, and inspired by the promise of a method of correlation as attempted by Paul Tillich, Tracy provides a model of theology that seeks to do justice to the “classics” of Christian tradition while seizing the insights of contemporary hermeneutics and postmodern theories. Tracy’s impact in Catholic and Protestant circles is remarkably felt, and his development of the tri-fold scope of theological expression–Church, academia, public–has changed the way Catholic systematicians conduct theology.

John Paul II, Theology of the Body (1979-1984) – John Paul II’s catechesis on man, woman and the language of the body has effectively re-oriented Catholic theological anthropology and ethics. Drawing on modern biblical exegesis, phenomenology and theological ethics, John Paul II put together a stunning presentation of the intrinsic goodness and importance of sexuality. His work inspired the establishment of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family which spawned satellite schools in such locations as Australia and the U.S.

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character (1982) – This work launched Hauerwas, who was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine, into theological notoriety as a firm voice for Christian pacifism, reinvigorating community Christianity and eschatological realism. Selected as “one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century” according to Duke University Divinity School, this book is essential to understanding the mind of one of the most prominent and provocative American theologians today.

Joseph Ratzinger, Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs (2004) – While this book was only recently published, the breadth of its influence and rapidity of its distribution is staggering. This collection of Ratzinger’s pre-papal essays in political philosophy and theology will most certainly play a fundamental role on the Catholic social conscience in Europe. I saw this quite clearly when the president of the European Society for Catholic Theology, Lieven Boeve, flew to the U.S. in order to deliver a substantial paper at the CTSA Convention on this work. Do not underestimate the further impact this book will make in the landscape of contemporary political theology. (ET: Values in a Time of Upheaval)

Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) – One could argue that Novak’s landmark book is a sort of programmatic for contemporary Catholic “neoconservatism“. Laying the groundwork for a theology of creative wealth and the prominence of the American experiment, the impact of Novak’s book has been felt worldwide . Perhaps the single most important theological work in support of democratic capitalism to date.

David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church (1996) – Schindler’s masterpiece could be argued to be the counterpart to Novak’s book. Containing a serious critique of “neoconservativism” while drawing heavily on the cultural and ecclesiological studies of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Schindler’s book is just now beginning to consolidate a strong resistance to “neoconservative” political theology among Catholic and Protestant thinkers. I suspect that we will be talking about this book for some time to come.

Edward Schillebeeckx, Pleidooi voor mensen in de kerk (1985) – This book was an expansion, correction and clarification of Schillebeeckx’s earlier lightning rod, Ministry. Agree or disagree with Schillebeeckx, love or hate his work, this book remains a touchstone in ecclesiology and pastoral studies, and no serious theologian can ignore its contribution and controversy. (ET: The Church with a Human Face)


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