In explaining his theories and conceptions regarding the divine nature, the writer helps us understand what the Thomistic school of thought is. It must be underlined that the Thomistic conceptions reach a very profound philosophical level. Regardless of this the author of the book under review manages to introduce them to the general audience through a language and a manner which make them accessible to everyone. Religious issues such as the revelation, the creation of the world in general and of things in particular are briefly explained in a manner which allows the reader to grasp their fundamental meaning. In addition, the writer makes some notes about the Thomistic virtues, explaining Aquinas' contribution to the development of the religious thought.
It is interesting to notice that McDermott's selection includes figures who come from various backgrounds and environments. From Aquinas we pass to Martin Luther, who, in his opinion is the monk who rose up against heaven and earth. Perhaps one of the most exciting idea in the religious filed is that according to which salvation does not derive from a good and morally valid behaviour but is a gift which god makes to man in order to manifest his generosity, to repay him for his faith and to clean him from sin. This writer helps us understand the importance of this distinction. Luther's conceptions as well as relevant data regarding his life and social events which may have influenced his ideas are also presented. Those who did not know that the idea according to which the only source of religious truth is the bible and not the books written and diffused by the church belonged to Luther have the chance to find out now.
John Calvin is introduced as the greatest theologian of the reformed tradition. We get the chance to find out about his main ideas and his most important works. The writer presents interesting facts regarding his life, giving us a hint about the manner in which the social events and the religious atmosphere of his time influenced the development of his religious and philosophical thought. In a brief chapter McDermott succeeds to help the reader understand what is the traditional thought and what its reform consisted in. As the presentation evolves on the temporal axis and society changes, so does the manner in which the religious thought is transformed. McDermott's style helps the reader grasp this aspect as well and this is definitely another strong point in his favour.
It is interesting to notice the classification which the author makes of his chosen figures. If the former one was analyzed in the context of the cultural transformations of his time, Jonathan Edwards is presented as America's theologian. It is the only time that the nationality of the character is considered to be such a determinant factor. We soon understand that this determination has to do with the social, historical and cultural context in which Edwards produced his works. The author explains his main ideas as well as the manner in which they influenced the development of American society at that time.
According to McDermott, the father of liberal theology is Friedrich Schleiermacher. Less known to the general audience compared to the figures previously analyzed, Schleiermacher benefits from the same type of presentation. The readers discover the social persona of the German philosopher and theologian, being introduced to his main ideas and their impact upon the contemporary religious perspective. McDermott underlines the fact that at this point the religious thought is heavily influenced by the development of the religious one. The religious conception of god is no longer free from the philosophical one. The focus shifts more and more towards morality and those elements which are supposed to support it.
John Henry Newman is the Anglican theologian who swam the Tiber. McDermott explains his contribution to the contemporary theologian view, as well as the events which led to his consecration. As the book gets closer to its end, while the construction of the chapters remains the same, the ideas presented undergo significant modifications. In this case faith seems to be the central argument, which is understandable if we are to take in consideration the historical period we are dealing with.
And speaking of the importance of the temporal context, Karl Barth is considered to be the most influential theologian from the twentieth century. McDermott does not compare him to other theologians coming from the same background, he limits himself to presenting the ideas through which the figure under discussion succeeded to impact the contemporary world and its view upon god and religion. Doctrines such as the one of election which influenced the perspective regarding god's nature, the idea of predestination and god's attitude to man and man's sin -- are the contribution of this particular contemporary theologian.
Von Balthasar on the other hand is introduced as the stellar catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is interesting to notice the fact that the author avoids comparisons between theologians as well as value judgements. In this way he influences the readers who are tempted to evaluate the contributions of these historical figures in the same manner. Von Balthasar makes very profound philosophical considerations regarding issues which deal with both ontology and Christology. His contribution is rendered important through the complexity of his ideas and his overall approach.
All in all it could be stated that McDermott succeeds in fulfilling his goal. The book can be used as a beginners guide in theological study. The fact that the figures are chronologically ordered is very helpful as it allows the reader to grasp the manner in which the religious thought has evolved and why. The factual information about the theologians helps us better understand who they were and what influenced them. In this manner we also understand that the development of the religious paradigm is connected to the development of society and the other way around. The social and historical context are illustrated as decisive actors for the development of the way in which man thinks and approaches his environment (faith being a central element in this equation).
It is very clear that the author of the book has a deep insight upon the subject which he discussed. The readers can consider themselves fortunate to be able to get it. Thanks to McDermott we are able to understand the transformations of the religious thought which led to the contemporary situation. The selection criteria as far as the list of theologians may be considered a weak point in the absence of a valid explanation from the author- one which could differ from his subjective motivation. It becomes clear that McDermott did not wish to impose his view at any cost, but only attempted to share his knowledge and his personal insight upon such a complex theme.
The fact that the length of the chapters is short is by no means a weak point. On the contrary, taking into account the fact that the writer succeeds to explain such difficult concepts in just twenty pages not only underlines his capacity to summarize and catch the essential, but also contributes to the "enlightenment" of those audiences which are interested in the argument without being an expert. In conclusion, a good book, to be recommended to both connaisseurs and not.
McDermott, G. (2001)The great theologians, A brief…