This week, I devoted one post each day to the Top 5 Most Important Theologians in Christian history. Here are the five I considered to have been most influential:

Athanasius of Alexandria

Augustine of Hippo

Thomas Aquinas

John Calvin

Karl Barth

What follows is a list of honorable mentions: theologians who impacted Christian theology in important ways, but who (usually for a few good reasons) do not make the Top 5 List.

Irenaeus – for his apologetic defense of historic Christianity in the face of Gnosticism. He also popularized the recapitulation theory of the atonement

Anselm of Canterbury – founder of scholasticism. Formulated the ontological argument for God’s existence.

Martin Luther - for his instrumental role in the Reformation. He was definitely a theologian in his own right, although I see him more as a revolutionary than a theologian. Calvin is the one who took the Reformation insights and systematized them and therefore becomes more influential as a theologian.

Friedrich Schleiermacher & Adolf von Harnack - Schleiermacher made the subjective experience of the believer (specifically the feeling of total dependency) the center of theology and thus became the “Father of Liberalism.” Together with the later work of Adolph von Harnack, these two packed quite a punch. The reverberations continue to echo throughout Christian theology.

John Wesley - an important leader of a renewal movement within Anglicanism which eventually became Methodism and the Holiness churches. While probably deserving a place in the Top Ten or Fifteen, I don’t believe Wesley’s theological contributions earn him a Top 5 ranking.

Jonathan Edwards – If I were making a list of the Top 5 Most Important American Theologians, then Edwards would probably be #1. A fine preacher and interpreter of Puritan theology, Edwards’ legacy cast a long shadow over American evangelicalism.

C.S. Lewis – I don’t consider him to be primarily a theologian. He was a terrific apologist, and he ably articulated the essentials of the Christian faith. But one can hardly speak of a “Lewisian” school of theology that has grown up because of his contributions.

Who else do you think of? Did I get these right or wrong?

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62 thoughts on “Top 5 Christian Theologians: Who Did I Leave Out?”

  1. Ian says:

    How about a book recommendation on each of these theologians? Like a good “primer” of their ideas. Particularly for Barth because I don’t know much about him. Thanks.

  2. hiscrivener says:

    A.W. Tozer may break your honorable mentions as well. Luther had a lot more to do with the 95 Theses than just nailing them to some door. It takes a true scholar of the Word to break down the ineptitude of the Papacy and call B.S. like he did. That’s theological there.

    Nice mention on Karl Barth. Most folk forget him.
    “The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us. ” (Church Dogmatics)

    Peace.

  3. hiscrivener says:

    For most charismatics, tops would be Charles Finney.

  4. Bill Blair says:

    I listened to a teaching by R. C. Sproul and he mentioned his top 5 and they were: 1. Augustine 2. Thomas Aquinas 3. Martin Luther 4. Calvin 5. Jonathon Edwards. He said these 5 would be in almost everyone’s top 10. What made me remember this was that you chose Calvin over Luther. In his talk, Sproul referred to Calvin as the junior partner to Luther. Sproul obviously loves the teaching of both men, but he was very clear in listing Luther over Calvin.

    For honorable mention I thought of:

    Tertullian – introduced the terminology of “trinity,” “unity of substance,” & “three persons.” (deserves a nod for that)

    The 3 Cappodocians. They did a lot of work around the arian controversey & kept popping up in the study of history.

    Leo & Cyril for their work leading up to Chalcedon.
    I have not thought this out much, but those are some that come to mind that you did not mention. Good idea to write about.

  5. Tony Kummer says:

    I was partial to Irenaeus to get someone from the Greek speaking pre-Imperial church into the list. But they you would have to bump Barth to #6.

  6. Matt Svoboda says:

    I think I would agree with Trevin in putting Calvin over Luther. But it could go either way. The only thing I care about is making sure that no one puts Calvin and Luther over Augustine!

  7. Trevin: I think this list is pretty much right, though there are a lot more theologians that deserve to be in the honorable mentions list. Some have already been mentioned. I would highlight Cyril of Alexandria (would probably replace Athanasius in my list), Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Ulrich Zwingli, Isaak Dorner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

    Ian: As a doctoral student studying Barth, I have to say you can’t do better than reading the man himself, and the first book I would read is Evangelical Theology: An Introduction — such a beautiful and simple book. A good beginner secondary text is John Franke’s Karl Barth for Armchair Theologians. If you feel ready to “graduate” to the big leagues, then read Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Doctrine of Reconciliation) as the primary text, and Eberhard Jüngel’s God’s Being Is in Becoming as the single best secondary text ever written about Barth, and one of the best books on the Trinity ever written. I hope that helps.

  8. Kevin says:

    Your list is correct, though Luther deserves a very close 6th place. Edwards? Sorry, not even close. I think Edwards is great, but I would hesitate to put him even in the top ten. Can we seriously put Edwards above Irenaeus, Anselm, Luther, and Schleiermacher? No. So that takes up nine spots. Edwards would barely make it in at number 10, but a strong case could be made for either Pseudo-Dionysius or Bernard of Clairvaux — if we are talking about importance in terms of influence.

  9. I’d pretty much agree with TWax’s list, though I would list Jonathan Edwards in place of Barth. Edward’s “The End for which God Created the World,” “Freedom of the Will,” “Charity & Its Fruits”, “Religious Affections,” & “Original Sin” are all seminal works, not to mention many of his sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and the Publication of David Brainard’s Life & Diary which has perhaps been more influential in igniting the Protestant missionary movement in the 19th& 20th centuries than anything else.

    Fun series. Thanks!
    http://kicking-the-darkness.blogspot.com/2008/08/big-boys.html

  10. What R.C. Sproul didn’t have Owen in his 5? Let me call T-Mobile just to make sure!

  11. elderj says:

    where is Jacob Arminius? Certainly the Calvinist / Arminian divide among protestants is significant

  12. Biff says:

    I am somewhat disappointed no one has mentioned Erasmus yet. Not that I see him in the top 5, but maybe on someone’s top 10. He may not be a current favorite, but he should get a mention anyway.

  13. Biff says:

    Sorry to post again, but after thinking for a few minutes, wanted to add that, given the current philosophy of the church as a whole, we may see his name on the top 5 sometime this century. It goes without saying that your reply will be “Not if I can prevent it”. Just a thought…

  14. trevinwax says:

    I don’t think that Arminius should make the cut. He more or less reacted from within the Calvinist framework he had. Historically, he is decidedly within the “Reformed” tradition, although he departs from it. But as a theologian, I don’t think he’s as influential (the theology associated with his name comes more from Wesley).

    About Erasmus, good pick. I didn’t think of him, but surely his textual contributions are worthy of mention.

  15. Babylon's Dread says:

    A man of inestimable weight and value but underappreciated is P. T. Forsyth. This Congregationalist and Kenoticist is unique. He has been called a Barthian before Barth as he anticipated many of the same themes. Few writers wrote so profoundly in Christology or Theodicy. Give him a look his writings can be found free online.

  16. dancurant says:

    I vote for Paul. Romans especially was really good.

  17. DrNick says:

    What about Theologians that are still living now? N T (Tom) Wright would have to feature high on that list!

  18. My five:

    Paul
    John
    Irenaeus
    Origen
    Augustine

    with Aquinas, John of Damascus, Calvin, Schliermacher and Barth rounding out the top ten.

  19. RMS says:

    How about John MacArthur, Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul Sr., and not living but also Phillip Doddridge. The first three are very influential theologians of our time and great defenders of the Christian faith.

  20. iwka says:

    ..if you have Barth, you should consider von Balthasar…

  21. bryonm says:

    you left off N.T. Wright.

  22. Tyler J. says:

    Hmm… well if we’re including biblical writers, I would have to say Paul and John are my number one and two, respectively.

    Other than that, I’d have to say

    Irenaeus, Luther (I’d have to put him close to the top, his ideas formed the basis of modern thought on grace), Aquinas, Barth, and Lewis.

    I’d also put Bonhoeffer pretty far up there. Now, to be honest, I haven’t read many church fathers, so my list will probably change considerably when I find time to read some of their works, but for now, this is mine

    I know you said Lewis doesn’t particularly count, but I thought C.S. Lewis had a particular way of bringing new insight about God to me in a way that allows for personal thought and coming to personal conclusions. I love it!

    Also, just modern thinkers… or maybe post-modern thinkers, I like McLaren (I don’t always agree with him, but he makes some great points), Rob Bell, and Donald Miller. Also Shane Claiborne.

  23. Joe says:

    What about Emil Brunner? Even though he admitted that Barth was the true theological genius, he still has a place amongst the church’s greatest theologians.

  24. Jeff James says:

    Apostle Paul (Period)
    Wayne Grudem
    Charles Hadden Spurgeon

  25. Giancarlo says:

    I wouldn´t dare to say that there is “a best theologian“. I will God let be the judge on who was the instrument that He used the most.

  26. diana clifford says:

    Paul as a first century theologian rather than a third century saint is certainly the ultimate. Rowan Williamson the Archbishop of Cantebury is interesting.

  27. MARK says:

    If author C.S. Lewis then Tolstoy rates mention.

  28. MARK says:

    I would also include Watchman Nee for his work on church government. He also had some insightful thoughts on the “trinity of man” (my term) – the flesh, the soul, and spirit. esp. his equating the soul with ego.

  29. Awall says:

    I’m frankly amazed that no one has mentioned Kierkegaard.

  30. Martin Gutierrez says:

    I think the best 10 ever:

    The Apostle Paul

    John Calvin

    Jonathan Edwards

    Martin Luther

    Saint Augustine

    RC Sproul

    Karl Bart

    Thomas Aquinas

    A.W. Tozer

    Mathew Henry

    Martin G

  31. Steve says:

    Your asessment of Luther as more of a revoltionary and Calvin as more of a theologian. Luther was not a revolutionary he was a reformer. He did not divide the church, he was kicked out. Till the day he died his hope was that Rome would embrace the solas. This is where he and Calvin differed. It was actually Luther’s non-revolutionary nature that gave him the objectivity he needed in developing his sacramental theolgy, which cast aside the elements of Rome’s which were heterodox but preserved where they were still faithful. Calvin on the other hand, because of his strong anti-Rome penchant, completely obliterated any notion of the sacraments as truly being means of grace. Indeed Calvin was more of a reolutionary than Luther. Luther belongs in the top 5.

  32. danny says:

    I agree with Awall about being surprised about no one mentioning Kierkegaard, also another name to consider is John Howard Yoder. I also would put Dietrich Bonhoeffer high up on the list, and as an honorable mention Greg Boyd.

  33. John without Revelations there is no continuim to Genesis and to which I speak: Analysis at the highest level imaginable to man whether tight to the language with touch of lace and dab of paint or rugged Paul … It is to the anonymouse that the top ten belong. And from such lists as our pointed out here I then must replace Luther with Henry Miller, Marx for Augustine Krishnamurti for Calvin I’ll then add Corrie ten Boom for Barth and Kierkigaard for Thomas and Peter Csiranyi Curtis for the anonymous other: These ‘self validating’ pronouncements are antithetical to the Sovereign One of Israel and those that dwell within thus are enslaved by the Father of lies or we carry currency with Creator as if the Tower of Babel is apparently just a curiousity as was with John whom kindly could have said and now my vision finished in Come the New Jerusalem you all so qualitative forget that it is the children to which He references the Kingdom of God: from such mouths a turn of joyful utterance masters the pious or the pretentious or the pathological fields plowed herein to which we have no such comprehension and thus should summarily then either condemn John now quite awake or think these first be first. Guess then there goes Solomon and Isaiah … what say we call these men bold if you think I slight them but I would rather see the 10 best imperfectionists or the 10 made most available and it is through pathos one must wander so each of us in wilderness should caution which or who has His signature been sealed. I love to hear my Father laugh!

  34. Trevin,

    Nice list. As far as influence and importance goes:

    I think Augustine and Aquinas are indisputable. It’s hard to know if one should include Calvin over Luther or to include him while leaving Luther out. I think I would have included Calvin while leaving Luther out simply because he produced more theology than Luther, even if Luther paved the way.

    However, as to Athanasius . . . I don’t know. I would probably put the Cappadocians in there first.

    Further, I think that while Barth is very important – Schleiermacher has exerted more influence. Barth’s theology is too indebted to him to leave him out (though I think as the years go by, Barth [has and] will continue to prove himself more and more of a giant).

    Thus:

    -Cappadocians
    -Augustine
    -Aquinas
    -Calvin
    -Schleiermacher

  35. Drake says:

    Having read Luther’s BONDAGE OF THE WILL and his preface to Romans, I’d have to strongly disagree with your statement that Luther was more of a revolutionary than a theologian. Luther was a theologian first, recolutionary second. In fact, Luther didn’t even want a revolution, but he just wanted the Catholic church to teach true doctrine. In fact, I’d say that most of what Calvin taught was taught by Luther first.

  36. Drake says:

    As for the top 5 most influential theologians in my life, I would probably say (in no particular order):

    John MacArthur
    Martin Luther
    C.S. Lewis
    R.C. Sproul
    Charles Spurgeon

    With A.W. Pink at a close sixth.

  37. steve says:

    I have to disagree with much of your selection. There are certain divines that hold such pre-eminent position in the church of God that are not even mentioned.

    Not to put Jonathan Edwards near the top of any list is simply an ignorance of the man’s theology. Here is some others that are most worthy to note:

    Edwards – hands down the deepest theologian perhaps the Church has ever known

    John Owens – Pillar of the Christian church

    Thomas Goodwin – profound theologian

    Herman Bavink – unrivaled in the scope of theology

    Beza – principle

    Turretin – excellence

    Dabney – best of southern presbyterianism

    Boston and Manton – copious excellence and breath of truth that few can rival

    Warfield, Hodge, Murray and the princeton school products before its apostacy

    Berkof – best concise theologian

  38. Ira says:

    Dr. R.C. Sproul has turned his ear toward the Papacy as if Augustine and Calvin were orthodox. He takes pride in his Reformation theology, but keep in mind that Luther and others stayed close to Romanism including “The Bondage of the Will.” Sproul did get one point of Calvinsim right, namely, eternal security of the Christian. One out of five is not Biblical theology but is a regurgitation of 1517 Roman Catholic theology.

    Ira … Th.D. & Ph.D. Summa Cum Laude

  39. Tom T says:

    Really all of us are just searching for who will be number five because the top four are pretty clear (in no particular order)
    -Augustine
    -Aquinas
    -Calvin
    -Barth

    my pick for 5th would be a toss up between Martin Luther, Jurgen Moltmann, and Kierkegaard

  40. Eric says:

    Maybe he belongs in a top 10 list of 20th century theologians, but I’d toss Francis Schaeffer’s name out there. Although some might say he was more of a philosopher or evangelist, and they’d probably be right. Nonetheless his work did have tremendous resonance in terms of understanding the context of the times Christians must be “salt and light” within.

  41. kim says:

    With all of these people we almost need it broken down into centuries.
    Luther would be in my top 5.
    Modern would be Lewis, Grudem, Packer, Bridges, Tozer, Piper – but I don’t know how those tie in with ones we have been studying for over 1000 years or more, or even just over 500.

  42. Mudcat Stew says:

    If you are going for theological soul winners for Christ, Billy Graham has put on quite a show. His actions and results speak volumes.

    You may think I am bit off base here, but you missed Joseph Smith. A relatively modern day Arius.

    I am not an LDS, but you have to admit Smith to Christ to the bounds of theological innovation and unfortunately beyond those bounds as well.

    However, much like the early Trinitarians were to Arius, such anomalous thought provoking notions as propounded by such have given Christians in general to pause and reflect upon the core or their beliefs.

  43. Glen says:

    Charles Hodge, atleast in the honorable mentions for his systematic theology.

  44. Joe says:

    Glad to see someone finally mentioned C.H. Spurgeon.

  45. ryan says:

    As for Spurgeon, I have greatly enjoyed his work for quite some, but I would not really consider him a theologian. He had a very deep knowledge of God and of Scripture and was very good at articulating Biblical Christianity in a way that is both beautiful and understandable to those who are not heavily educated. But none of his ideas are original or somehow revolutionary, and his specialty was not in offering new arguments or exegetical insights into the text. Thus, while he may well be in a top 5 list of preachers, I wouldn’t put him in a top 5 list of theologians.

  46. ryan says:

    I just realized how old this is; I guess my comments will probably go unheard. Oh well…

  47. Christiane says:

    There was a little French nun who died at age 24. She left some writings.
    When her sister showed the writings to the priests, they were amazed . . . they sent the writings to Rome, and there,
    they were examined.

    They contained something that the Church recognized as so important that the little nun was eventually canonized a saint and, in time, named as one of the twenty-three DOCTORS OF THE CHURCH.

    She is among the ‘Doctors of the Church’ with many of the great theologians you have mentioned. Therese is certainly not’the most recognized’ among theologians, but to those of my faith, she is likely the one who is most loved. She was very humble. Very child-like.

    Something in her writing was an insight into Christ that has brought many, many people to Him or closer to Him.
    Is that the work of a ‘great theologian’ ? Or just someone who loved Him and was able to articulate His love with a greater depth than had seen before in any writings of the great Christian theologians ?

    I think it was latter.
    What is ‘great’ in Christianity?
    Sometimes paradoxically, the love-filled writing of a simple, child-like nun blessed with the gift of leading men to Christ has more power in the Kingdom than the logic of sages.

  48. Keep to see something new from you

  49. simmmo says:

    You’ve left out the Christian East, apart from Athanasius. I would have thought Saint John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and co would have been worth a mention. Perhaps this is due to the differing views of what a theologian is in the West versus the East. I notice that you give a shout out to Anselm of Canterbury, who you point out started scholasticism. I’m not too sure what is so good about scholasticism. In my opinion it has led to the neo-gnostic tendencies we see in Western Christianity today. But in the East, a theologian is one who prays. The one who knows about God is the one who becomes close to God through prayer. So it’s not about a scholastic exercise as in the West. There’s not a ladder of human logic that one can climb and then be able to know about God. I think a lot of Western theological folly is the direct result of guys like Augustine, Anselm and particularly Calvin. They imposed their own philosophical questions on Christianity, rather than to let Christianity speak for itself in its own way. I’m glad to see guys in the West such as NT Wright and Greg Boyd coming around to Eastern points of view. Particularly on the atonement, where Anselm’s model has led the West astray and has really resulted in a theology of the cross that is totally devoid of love. It’s great to see Christus Victor making a come back, because it was the position of the early church.

  50. simmmo says:

    As for modern theologians in the West, you’d have to have NT Wright. Quite frankly, guys like Grudem, Piper, Carson, even Packer just can’t hold a candle to Tom Wright. They’re just not in the same league. It’s very interesting that Wright’s position on the atonement, hell, beauty, new creation, justice, etc sits very comfortably with Orthodox theology. Perhaps we could see an Orthodox counter revival to the neo-Calvinist revival in the West!

  51. simmmo says:

    Perhaps a list of great theologians in the Christian East would look like this:

    Basil the Great
    Gregory Palamas
    Gregory of Nazianzus
    John Chrysostom
    Simeon the New Theologian

    Modern Eastern theologians would include

    Vladimir Lossky
    John Romanides
    Kallistos Ware
    Hilarion Alfeyev
    John Zizioulas

  52. Jim says:

    Did we forget Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Billy Graham,Rick Warren.

  53. Glenn N. Smith says:

    John Owen

  54. Thomas Latimer says:

    I am an old man now who, since age 12, has been in quite regular church attendance in various places, mainly mainline Christian, but including an evangelical church. I wind up being not so convicted of sin as convicted of confusion. I am impressed with the focused, life changing power of evangelicals… BUT am blocked from participation by the entry requirement:: accepting the Bible as the inerrant Word (words) of God in their literal meanings. This seems so blatantly in the face of reason, that I feel as though a sort of submission to a lobotomy would be required for me to enter willingly go through such a gate. This seems to me not “faith”, but either conscious falsehood or insanity. “Faith”, it seems to me, must surely require that my mind, will and emotions must all be on board.

    Help! I want to have a way to come home spiritually that does not have the appearance of a beguiling, warmly welcoming home that has an evil brain surgeon at the door.

  55. JJeffrey Hosman says:

    What about a more modern Theologians such as FRANCIS SCHAEFFER?????
    Or possibly N.T. Wright? Or John Stott? Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

  56. Fred Wallis says:

    Wesley has had an incredible impact on the Christian church, But the context of his work and understanding was decidedly Arminian. Arminius was a gentle giant in his day. He continues to be misrepresented to this day by some of the theologians mentioned in this thread. I am presently on a study leave at the Bridwell Library on the campus of SMU. As I have research both Wesley and Arminius’s actual works I have been both humbles and awed.

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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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