Brief Reviews, Uncategorized, VOLUME 3

Brief Review: THE GREAT THEOLOGIANS – McDermott, ed. [Vol. 3, #12]

A Brief Review of

838750: The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide

By Gerald R. McDermott
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2010.

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Reviewed by Chase Roden.

In The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, Gerald McDermott takes a look at eleven of the theologians he believes have made the greatest theological impact on the western world.  Specifically he outlines the lives, theological importance, and major works of Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

McDermott aims to provide laypeople with a resource to understand the importance of the theologians most likely to be mentioned in sermons or Sunday school– and he accomplishes that goal with skill, far exceeding what one would expect of an overview.  This book is no Wikipedia of theologians; McDermott’s writing is crisp and concise even as he covers some of the densest theological topics.  For instance, the 4th-century ousias debate over the substance of the Father and Son in the Trinity is handled beautifully in a single page, with McDermott making clear both the modern and historical importance as well as the content of the dispute.

In addition to summarizing the lives and importance of the theologians he treats, McDermott provides a brief sample of the original work of each, as well as discussion questions for using the book in a class setting.  The approachable writing and succinct chapters would make The Great Theologians an excellent book for adult education in a congregation, but it is also actually very interesting as a review for people who may already be well-acquainted the men McDermott covers — especially since McDermott is careful to incorporate current scholarship into his interpretations of each theologian.

As with any overview, the most common complaint is going to be the selection criteria: why these eleven and not some others? Mainline protestants and Catholics will probably not take issue with McDermott’s selections, but believers from the Radical Reformation traditions and the Eastern church will not find their theologians represented. Regardless, McDermott does a fine job of arguing the importance of each figure covered, even if his selections are admittedly subjective.

Overall, The Great Theologians is a surprisingly compelling read and an excellent resource for church educators and interested laypeople alike.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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