Who are the most important, most influential theologians in Christian history?  If you had to narrow down your list to five, who would you choose?

After having discussed this question with several seminary students, professors and theologians, I have chosen the five theologians who I believe have left the most lasting influence on Christian theology and practice.

Beginning on Monday of next week, we’ll look at one theologian a day. I’ll provide a brief biographical sketch, some major contributions to Christian theology, and then some of my favorite quotes.

But until Monday, let’s open up the lines of discussion. Which five would you pick? And why?

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39 thoughts on “Who Are the Most Important Christian Theologians?”

  1. Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Barth, and, perhaps popularly, C.S.Lewis. But I’m not sure about the last one.

    Not that I’m ever sure about anything ;-).

  2. trevinwax says:

    Pete,

    You’re not far off from my list… but I’ll let you know that I did not include any of the apostles. I’m thinking more of church history than the New Testament period itself.

  3. Weston says:

    Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, Lewis, and Trevin Wax

  4. Jake Meador says:

    Man… great question, Trevin. Excited to read the series!

    How are we defining “important”? Do we just mean “influential”? Or is it something else?

    If it’s just influential, Augustine, Calvin, and Barth are obvious. Maybe Aquinas and Schleiermacher? (I feel like we have to acknowledge the widespread effects of theological liberalism, so someone like Schleiermacher should probably be there.) Except I feel like there has to be a place on the list for someone like Jonathan Edwards or John Owen. And my list only has one theologian from the first 1,200 years of church history, which kinda scares me.

    Looking forward to the series :).

  5. Michael says:

    Name the “big” heresies and then name the theologians that fought them:

    Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Barth (I’ll play by the rules and stick with five, but Aquinas really should be in there too!)

    But I understand “most important” to be quite different from “favorite.”

  6. Brian says:

    Hmmmm. Tough to choose only five. Good suggestions already made. I’d probably add Anselm to the list. Augustine, Acquinas, Anselm would be three I’d likely consider. Also, don’t scoff, but in our present day, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) is strong. Not sure if he’s TOP 5 worthy, but an honorable mention to be sure. While quite prolific with logically rigorous and scholarly works galore, his book “Jesus of Nazareth” is a work that isn’t lofty but presents a theologically sound look at our Lord.

  7. Chuck says:

    Great question!

    My initial brainstorming yielded some great “preachers and evangelists.”

    I will submit my 5 as: Paul, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and C.S. Lewis.

    I’m not certain that Lewis belongs in the top 5. He stood on the shoulders of others. I know he wouldn’t want to be on the list. But I am a huge Lewis fan.

    I can think of a few names of living theologians but I suppose time is required to put them on a “greatest” list.

  8. trevinwax says:

    Great suggestions, guys.

    And yes, I’m deliberately thinking of influence, not merely my favorites.

    We should have an honorable mention list at the end for all those who were influential in their own ways.

  9. jesse says:

    What about Wesley? As a Reformed Christian myself, the fact that as soon as I though about him I dismissed it actually scared me. Certainly the impact he has had on British and American Evangelicalism is huge, and his use of ‘Methods’, while not necessarily original, were definitely the precursors to much of our churches’ spiritual growth ‘programs (small groups, Bible studies etc.) Just a thought. Maybe honorable mention.

  10. ****St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards****

  11. trevinwax says:

    I will be listing the Top 5 in chronological order, not in order of importance (how would one judge that anyway?).

    According to the guesses you guys are bringing up, I expect you might be somewhat surprised on Monday by Pick #1. But I hope, after that, you will think, “Oh yeah… Of course.”

  12. John D'Elia says:

    As a Southern California native, this kind of question always comes up about movies. The problem there is that the most important movies (The Bicycle Thief, Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, etc.) aren’t always the ones you want to see over and over again. We tweaked it to talk about our favorite movies and why, and ended up with an entirely different and more personal discussion.

    On theologians, while I recognize the value of the Big Five (to me: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth). My list of favorites–ones I read and use in preaching and teaching and study–is different. That list would be Calvin, Bultmann (I know–it surprised me, too), George Ladd, Miroslav Volf and N.T. Wright.

  13. Barry says:

    This question is fun.
    C.S. Lewis would be at the top of my list. I think I would include him because I can’t read one single Christian book without it including a Lewis qoute. That’s a lot of influence.
    Beyond that I can only think of people I know, cause I haven’t read a lot of the guys I would list:
    Aquinas, Stanley Hauerwas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Soren Kierkegaard…I’ve only read a little bit of the last two.
    But Barth, Calvin and Augustine should probably be in there, even though I’m not a big fan of some of their stuff.

  14. Brannon says:

    Trevin, of course, you’re going to make all of us wait till Monday–I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. Here is my list: Athansius, St. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards

  15. Justin says:

    Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin

  16. Justin says:

    If you exclude Jesus and Paul, I would add Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards.

  17. trevinwax says:

    I did not choose my five favorite theologians, but the five whose schools of thought most shaped Christianity.

    So, as you think about the top five, ask yourselves these questions:

    Is there a legacy from this theologian that has pervaded a major portion of Christian thought?

    Does this theologian have a school of thought? For example, like you can say “Pauline theology” when talking about the Apostle Paul, can you say this about the theologian you think should be in the top 5?

    Does this theologian’s legacy continue into the present time? (In other words, how long-lasting is the contribution?)

  18. Marcus says:

    I would suggest Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin. Honorable mention would go to Wesley and Barth. They were incredibly influential but I don’t think they crack the top 5. Jerome has to make the list because of his translation of the Vulgate.

  19. Matt Svoboda says:

    The five most influential/important theologians of Church History: that is not an easy question. I would have to say I think there are about 20 people who could easily be on that list. But anyways, here are my five:

    Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Karl Barth…

    I think those are the 5 most influential theologians since the apostolic age.

  20. Catherine says:

    I believe a list of five most important / most influential theologians could differ considerably from a list of the most important and Biblically reliable ones. For example Karl Barth was and is very influential but has led many astray therefore I would be sad to see his name included.

    Augustine, John Calvin, John Owen, Matthew Henry and James Henry Thornwell come to mind but there are so many others that I wish you were asking for a list of twenty.

  21. Barry says:

    I don’t know the guy that well, but how does Jonathan Edwards fit into being one of the greatest theologians? Haven’t read anything from him except that sermon.

  22. trevinwax says:

    Edwards would definitely be in a list of the most important American theologians. Founder of Harvard. Important preacher and thinker. His thought has not produced enough of a worldwide school of thought, however, for you to think of an “Edwardsian” theology. He built upon and expounded the Puritan theology of his day.

  23. trevinwax says:

    Catherine,

    Don’t be surprised to see a theologian or two who you disagree with. In fact, I could safely say that ALL of the most important theologians had aberrant views in some area or another and wound up leading their respective schools astray.

    I am thinking of importance and lasting influence, not merely theologians that I would say, “I recommend whole-heartedly.”

  24. Barry says:

    Wow he founded Harvard. Did not know that.

  25. John D'Elia says:

    Not to nitpick too much, but Edwards wasn’t involved in the founding of Harvard. The school was established by the Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. Edwards was born in 1703 and a Yalie, though he didn’t start that school either.

  26. trevinwax says:

    Wasn’t he president then?

  27. Matt Svoboda says:

    I thought Edwards founded Princeton?

  28. Paul Cable says:

    Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth

  29. John D'Elia says:

    Just to tie up the Edwards question: He was not the founder of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey), but did reluctantly serve as president of the college for about six weeks before dying from a smallpox vaccination.

  30. Scott says:

    Augustine (major influence of the Reformation and Counter Reformation theologians)

    John Calvin (While an important theologian in his own right I view Luther more of an apologist in his work.)

    Karl Barth (he is taught more than most seminarians are aware of as he is often held in derision then almost immediately his theology is used in support of a point being discussed.)

    Author W. Pink (even though a bit disgruntled)

    Athanasius (his work against the Aryian controversy has molded our theological perspectives today) (And I say that not because Trevin made it pick one)

  31. Josh Johnson says:

    Augustine, Luther, and Calvin..duh, but also: The Puritans!! the Puritans!! the Puritans!!

  32. Some of these answers reveal our particular theological bent. Has anyone considered the affect of James Arminius on theology? Oh that’s a hot one. Every school of thought and their different shades of content or lack thereof can be summarized as existing somewhere between the poles of the 5 points of Calvinism and the 5 points of Arminism. Some are extreme Calvinists or 3 point Calvinists (although they wouldn’t admit it.) Some are just barely Arminian,(God forbid the thought) but if you inspect what they believe you could definitely see the influence.

  33. trevinwax says:

    Louis,

    Arminius is definitely influential, but he was largely reacting against the Calvinism of his day. In fact, he would have always considered himself within the Reformed tradition that Calvin began.

    Wesley is probably a more influential theologian than Arminius, as he popularized Arminius’ views.

  34. I think that Arminius has been widely influential as the source of one of the two major schools of thought even if only indirectly. Proponents of his ideas such as John Wesley emphasized certain doctrines of salvation and the Holy Spirit that have helped shape much of current theology in those areas. Wesley recovered the doctrine of “the Witness of the Spirit” and the preaching of the new birth as a personal experience. Pentecostals and Neopentecostals, as well as evangelicals have been influenced indirectly by Arminius, albeit through Wesley.

  35. Ken McGuire says:

    My list of top five post-biblical theologians would be the following: Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Aquinas, and Luther would be my list of most important historically. Admittedly, I have read very little Aquinas, but he has been quite influential.

  36. Clifton says:

    Wow! No one has mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr????

    While he was not nearly as prolific as Barth, I think he is the most influential Theologian of the 20th century. While Barth may have given liberals another ‘option’, Niebuhr blew liberalism out of the water. He also had a profound influence upon Bonhoeffer and US foreign policy. Even Barack Obama claims that Niebuhr is his favorite philosopher. He is a modern day Augustine! And we are only beginning to see how his influence is taking shape…

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  38. Capps says:

    Luther, Luther, Luther, Luther, and Luther

  39. Vijai Tiwari says:

    St. Agustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Jonathan Edwards

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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