Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Elizabeth Dreyer – Accidental Theologians [Review]

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A Review of

Accidental Theologians: Four Women who Shaped Christianity.

Elizabeth Dreyer

Paperback: Franciscan Media, 2014
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Reviewed by Kyle A. Schenkewitz


Focusing on Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux, Elizabeth Dreyer forces her reader to consider again the lasting impact of these women’s holy lives and spiritual teaching. They are revered as theologians, even doctors of the church, and rightly so. Their teaching reflected the “existential, daily engagement in the spiritual life which influenced the life of the Church.” ( 2) These four “accidental” theologians had a tremendous impact on the church of their day and continue to resound in concurrent eras.

The title of this book has continued to resonate and intrigue me while reading this introduction to four monumental Christian teachers. Are these women theologians by some happy accident of history, or is their status of theologian accidental to their lives as faithful, thinking Christians, or some unfortunate title mistakenly applied? The recurring theme of this text is that these women are aptly named Doctors of the Church and appreciated as theologians because their writings speak from the depth of their conviction and experience despite the lack of formal education and academic enterprise of the recurring trio of Anselm, Aquinas, and Bonaventure. Dreyer returns to her refrain that the authenticity and originality in these women because of their fervent love of God, desire to increase in holiness, and ability to offer correction to those in error, even clergy establishes them as teachers and doctors to Christians throughout the ages.  Her text does not, however, cover the warts of these theologians with hagiographical flair. Rather, she allows the lived experience of each to shine forth. Their mistakes and triumphs, doubts and trust add layers of humanity onto the divine truths they espoused. Additionally, their position in society as women imposed certain limitations on their ability to learn, write, and teach. These circumstances opened up “a new theological language out of their experiences as women.” (122) Dreyer points out the ways in which these women achieved a “more existential, mystical, imaginative theology” that can awaken the contemporary reader to ways in which “their poetry, imagery, and prophecy [can] enliven our theology and our Christian lives.” (123)


Dreyer posits that one can only appreciate and understand these theologians when one apprehends their historical contexts. Her methodology maintains the tension between two ideas, “our time is markedly different from times past, and yet as human beings we share areas of common ground.” (7) Dreyer provides an entire chapter setting the stage for her exposition of the theological task of these four women theologians. Her biographical chapters are arranged to attend to the historical and theological situation, textual expositions, and, finally, our own imaginations of each person’s life.  She introduces each character and offers a biographical narrative. She also attends to ecclesial, social, economic, intellectual, and artistic details that may have impacted these theologians. Each chapter ends with an extended section exploring how the theologians of the past can be relevant today with questions for reflection that “all the texts to interrogate us.” (8) She investigates each theologian with an eye to a particular theme of their theology. In Hildegard of Bingen’s writings, Dreyer explores the role of the Holy Spirit in working through her Benedictine prayer life to illumine new possibilities for the future and spiritual knowledge of Christ like the apostles at Pentecost. For Catherine of Siena, the incarnate Christ is central to the way she understood the new possibilities for humanity to live lives of holiness. Catherine went so far as to see herself as working and suffering so that others might be renewed in Christ.  Teresa of Avila’s theological anthropology takes center stage as Dreyer explains her interior spiritual life.  Theresa searches for self-knowledge and only finds it in relation to God’s divine embrace and in community with others. The theology of the cross and suffering permeate Dreyer’s presentation of Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse understood well the relationship between childlike trust in God and the joy that suffering can bring, even as her understanding of suffering developed.  Dreyer crafts each chapter to revolve around these theological motifs, but allows the writings and lived experience of each theologian to billow into the deep spirituality and prayerful reflection of these tremendous lives. She uncovers the symbols, images, and metaphors that these imaginative theologians offered and explores the paradoxical struggle to “capture their experience of mystical encounter and union with God.” (14) Each portrait into the lives of these women illumines both the distinct flavor and texture of their theology and the universality of their themes for Christian readers of any age. In her final chapter, Dreyer aids the reader in appreciating the women behind the texts, giving these theologians works’ a richer and fuller voice.


Elizabeth Dreyer has certainly achieved her aim of exploring the rich and complex theological tradition that is often overlooked when one is myopically focused on formal, academic treatises. (4) This book will be a great introductory text for small groups or classes interested in delving further into an exploration of spirituality in the works of these theologians or those interested in discerning the place of women in the history of theology. The passion and experience of the author leaps from the prose and she is commended for her work.


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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: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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