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 five theologians who have left the most lasting influence on Christian theology and practice.


Dates Lived: 298-373

Most important works:

  • On the Incarnation (317)
  • The Nicene Creed (325)

Biggest Contributions:

  • Untiring advocate for Trinitarian theology against Arianism. In fact, much of the way we think about the Trinity goes back to his efforts.
  • A biography of Anthony the Great that inspired the monastic movement
  • First to identify the 27 books currently in our New Testament
  • Main author of the Nicene Creed, unarguably the most important creed in Christian history.

Favorite Quotes

“The Jesus whom I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God.”

“The Son of God became man so that men might become sons of God.”

“You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.”

“[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come again to judge the living and the dead…” – from the 325 version of The Nicene Creed

250px-Saint_Augustine_Portrait2. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO

Dates Lived: 354-430

Most important works:

  • Confessions (398)
  • On the Trinity (416)
  • On Christian Doctrine (426)
  • The City of God (426)

Biggest Contributions:

  • Articulated the doctrine of original sin and God’s grace through divine predestination over against Pelagius’ emphasis on free will and innate human goodness
  • Proposed a distinction between the “church visible” and the “church invisible”
  • Popularized the amillennial view of the End Times, which has become the most dominant throughout church history
  • Wrote about the relationship between church and state; he was the first to advocate the idea of a “just war”
  • Developed a sacramental theology that would form the foundation of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church

Favorite Quotes

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (Confessions I, i, 1)

“Give what You command, and command what You will.” (Confessions X, xxix, 40)

“Man’s maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that the Truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.” – (Sermons 191.1)

“Excess is the enemy of God.”

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

“To sing once is to pray twice.”

“Love God, and do whatever you please.” Sermon on 1 John 7, 8

“Works not rooted in God are splendid sins.”

330_1_span33. THOMAS AQUINAS

Dates Lived: 1225-1274

Most important works:

  • Summa Theologica (1274)
  • Summa Contra Gentiles (1264)

Biggest Contributions:

  • Believed that a combination of Faith and Reason led to true knowledge of God
  • Sought rational proofs for the existence of God
  • Greatly influenced the Catholic notions of mortal and venial sins
  • Popularized the rising view of the Lord’s Supper known as “transubstantiation”
  • Apologist for Christianity in a time in which Islam was increasing rapidly

Favorite Quotes

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”

“The sole way to overcome an adversary of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture.”

“Reason contains certain likenesses of what belongs to faith, and certain preambles to it, as nature is a preamble to grace.”

“In God there is pure truth, with which no falsity or deception can be mingled.”

“If the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance.”

“Knowledge must be through faith.”

“All the good that is in a man is due to God.”

01v/11/arve/G2582/0204. JOHN CALVIN

Dates Lived: 1509-1564

Most important work:

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion(1560)

Biggest Contributions:

  • Emphasized the penal substitutionary view of the atonement
  • Overarching commitment to the Augustinian notion of the sovereignty of God in salvation
  • Taught that Scripture must interpret Scripture
  • Used the concept of the Covenant as the organizing principle for Christian theology

Favorite Quotes

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.

It is better that I should leave untouched what I cannot explain.

When the gospel is preached in the name of God, it is as if God himself spoke in person.

God tolerates even our stammering, and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us – as, indeed, without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray.

Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe. It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, [a] sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal.

Wikipedia-karlbarth015. KARL BARTH

Dates Lived: 1886-1968

Most important works:

  • The Epistle to the Romans (1922)
  • Church Dogmatics (1968)

Biggest Contributions:

  • Sought to recover the doctrine of the Trinity, which had been practically abandoned by radical liberalism
  • Believed the Bible was a witness to the Word of God (Jesus)
  • Viewed doctrine of election and predestination as centered upon Christ
  • Stressed the paradoxical nature of divine truth

Favorite Quotes

“God is not an abstract category by which even the Christian understanding of the word can be measured, but he who is called God is the one God, the single God, the sole God.”

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

“The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself.”

“No one can be saved – in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved – in virtue of what God can do.”

“Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.

Once a young student asked Barth if he could sum up what was most important about his life’s work and theology in just a few words. Barth just thought for a moment and then smiled,

“Yes, in the words of a song my mother used to sing me, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'”

“If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of hte donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time… I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry it as best I could.”

Honorable Mentions

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 my 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?


Originally posted as a series in August 2008.