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The Best Theologian-Writer?

One of the wonderful things that is a sad rarity in reading theology is to find a theologian who is also an excellent writer.  Sadly the greatest of theologians are often some of the worst writers you’ll ever read.  I remember my glee in reading Alan Lewis’ wonderful book Between Cross and Resurrection because not only was it some of the best theology I had ever read, it was definitely the best theological writing I had yet encountered.  David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite was another such joyous experience of great theology being wed to beautiful writing. 

Other theologians I’d put in the good writers category would be Robert Jenson, Herbert McCabe, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Where else have people read theologians whom they consider to be good writers?  In what great theologians does true literary ability meet theological acumen?

53 Comments

  1. WTM wrote:

    Barth and Calvin both knew how to write clearly and turn a phrase.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  2. WTM wrote:

    Oops, I meant to add that H. Richard Niebuhr is an excellent writer as well, even if his brand of theology isn’t making big waves these days.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Calvin and Barth surely knew how to write clearly, but I wouldn’t call them good writers in a literary sense. Competent surely, but I’m not sure their writing would stand on its own as great writing.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I think Milbank has his moments. The first paragraph of Theology and Social Theory comes to mind. It has a kind of poetic clarity that I really appreciate.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  5. PT Forsyth, Jürgen Moltmann and Tom Smail certainly come to mind, as does Dostoevsky (who I have no qualms about calling a theologian). I’m surprised you listed von Balthasar. I recently read Dare We Hope and found it one of the most awkward pieces of prose I’d read in a while. The same could not be said, however, for his Mysterium Paschale.

    Did I mention Forsyth? O how that boy could write!

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Try reading Balthasar’s Heart of the World if you want to be blown away by some of the most beautiful prose you’ve ever read. Some of his books are difficult to be sure.

    Good call on Forsyth. He’s a superb writer.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  7. C.S. Lewis. I kid.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  8. St. John of the Cross, even in translation.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  9. Steve Martin wrote:

    I’d like to second H. Richard Niebuhr as a model of clear prose (and as an aside, I’d like to voice my dismay that he’s become associated so closely with Christ and Culture that his earlier work is largely neglected. Check out his essays in “The Church Against the World” for example. There’s a crackle to them that well captures the theological zeitgeist of the mid-thirties).

    And I’d also put in a word for William Cavanaugh as someone whose writings are very enjoyable to read, owing I think to his wry sense of humour.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  10. Andrew Tatum wrote:

    These are my favorite writer/theologians:
    Walter Brueggemann
    Peter Leithart
    Pope Benedict XVI
    Bonhoeffer
    Stanley Hauerwas isn’t bad either.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  11. aaron g wrote:

    Ben Myers would have to be on this list.

    This post is begging for the next post to be on the Worst Theologian Writers. B. Lonergan…

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  12. joshua wrote:

    oh contrary, halden, barth’s writing is rhetorically beautiful, especially in cd iv. in fact, barth won awards in germany for his prose. as for calvin, he is often credited as a seminal figure in french writing. still i find the other great reformer, martin luther, to be a much more enjoyable read (if not beautiful).

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  13. Ben George wrote:

    Jenson has an almost Chestertonian habit of a BANG turn of phrase. It’s a joy to read his writing–which makes it doubly frustrating when he dumps some dense and indecipherable knot, as he seems to do about once every three pages.

    Ratzinger is really nice and smooth, solid like a well build but unassuming desk, I rarely encounter impossible phrases with him, and his tone is very measured.

    Whoever mentioned Niebuhr is right, that was really nice rich mahogany prose… carved into an out-of-fashion art deco lampstand.

    And for terrible writing married with fascinating material, no one beats Danielou for me. His writing is just so bog boring. But his subject matter facinates me—Bible and liturgy, “Jewish Christianity”. “Wow, this if fascinatzzzzz…”

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  14. Mike Higton wrote:

    Dorothy L. Sayers – but perhaps she’s a writer-theologian, rather than a theologian-writer.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  15. Halden, you wouldn’t call Barth a good writer in the literary sense? And I quote: “Barth was awarded the prestigious Sigmund Freud Prize for the eloquence of his academic prose’ (George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, p. 28). Take that! I agree with Joshua, Barth is a beautiful *theological* writer. Why does everybody always refer to his work with aesthetical terms like ‘the architecture or cathedral of the church dogmatics’ or describe it as a ‘symphony’?

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 1:27 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    James, I find Barth’s work very varied in terms of the clarity and eloquence of its style. Sometimes it is breathtaking, other times convoluted, at least in my reading of him.

    I do agree with Joshua though that CD IV is some of Barth’s best writing and some great theological writing to boot.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  17. For clarity of prose, breath of insight and pastoral acumen, it would be difficult to overlook Donald Bloesch or Colin Gunton too … and I’m shocked no-one has mentioned Rowan Williams who is clearly one of the ablest writers penning theology today.

    A plug too for my own supervisor, Trevor Hart, whose writing style encourages every form of jealousy in me.

    BTW: Did I mention Forsyth?

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 4:27 am | Permalink
  18. Ben Myers wrote:

    Yeah, absolutely Rowan Williams. He’s one of the only theologians who will have me leaping up from my chair to go and read a sentence to my wife (who couldn’t care less, but I can’t help myself!).

    I’m not an enthusiast of C.S. Lewis’ theology, but he also deserves a mention here as a writer of perfect prose: in fact, I reckon he’s one of the 20th century’s finest English prose-writers (above all in his books on literary criticism, but in his “theological” works as well.)

    And I just want to add to the chorus of support for Barth. No one has ever written theology like that, either before or since. The prose in the Romans commentary is absolutely piercing, shattering, traumatically potent. And the prose of CD IV is absolutely overwhelming in its beauty and symmetry and unfathomable expansiveness. There’s nothing else even remotely like it.

    But for contemporary writers, I’d have to say the most extraordinary is D. B. Hart. Yes, his prose can be pretentious and overdone; yes, he tends to revel in the glory of his own language. But he can afford to, since his language is just so bloody good.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 5:13 am | Permalink
  19. Dave Belcher wrote:

    David Jasper.

    While you may not agree with everything she says, Catherine Keller is an outstanding writer.

    Donald MacKinnon.

    Michel de Certeau (can he count? Yes, I think).

    Friggin’ Clement of Alexandria. My God.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  20. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Perhaps the most overlooked thus far:

    Soren Kierkegaard.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  21. Halden, I can understand your partial appreciation. But if Jenson makes your list than Barth should as well. Jenson is delightful at times, at others the finger is impatiently shaking the page.

    Good call on Kierkegaard, he is sweetly poetic in his blistering laments.

    Williams is fine as well, but sometimes it’s almost like he actively seeks to hide his point in a dense thicket of obscurity. At least Barth makes sure to repeat his point a million times and in a million different ways when he’s being obscure, so that you still understand him, even if by drowning.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 6:53 am | Permalink
  22. Kent Dunnington wrote:

    Halden,

    First, my apologies: this comment is unrelated to the topic (though McCabe would get my vote as the most fun theologian to read). I can’t figure out how to send you a general question/comment.

    Second, terrific blog.

    Third, my question: I seem to remember coming across an Amazon listmania that you did on Theology and Science. Am I remembering rightly? I can’t seem to track it down now (perhaps you’ve deleted it in light of your opposition to Amazon). If you did post such a list, is there a way you could send it to me? I imagine my email contact will show up with this post?

    Thanks for any help.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  23. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Rowan Williams and, indeed, Robert Jenson, would get my vote. Von Balthasar writes beautifully, but more than once have I read and reread the same sentence trying to understand what the hell he is actually saying. I like Williams and Jenson because of how wonderfully careful they are with theological speech.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  24. Robert H. wrote:

    Sallie McFague, for clarity.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  25. C’mon James and Dave. Are you really serious about Kierkegaard? I mean he has some brilliant insights, but he’s almost as repetitive as Barth; but unlike Barth, he doesn’t take you very far. I am assured by a number of Danish readers that he reads much better in Danish (they would say that though). I can’t recall how many times I fell asleep while reading Christian Discourses – it is like a literary version of bad dance music (and, to be fair, nothing nearly as exciting as Fear and Trembling.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  26. Jason. Yeah, I like Kierkegaard for much the same reason I like Barth – repetition, reiteration, and adjectives. I don’t know, I have a taste for that style, it’s rhythmic at points, even though it might be tedious and tiresome. It’s sort of like ocean waves – they’re unceasing in repitition, but the redundancy becomes musical. You have to be in the mood for it, perhaps. I recommend a warm drink like whisky.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  27. Perhaps this is a question for another thread, but my question here is how we define theologian. Kierkegaard, while a brilliant religious thinker, and one whose writing I happen to think unparalleled, was quite ambivalent about the discipline of theology (I think of Steven Shakespeare’s excellent essay, “Stirring the Waters of Language: Kierkegaard on the Dangers of Doing Theology”). So how do we define theology? Someone above nominated Dostoevsky. Again, he’s one of my favorite religious thinkers, but is he a theologian?
    And what would be at stake in our defining this question?
    Well, anyway, its probably off topic. Though it is a question I am more and more interested in as I see certain polemical arguments made for the inclusion/exclusion of particular thinkers from the theological domain.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  28. Hill wrote:

    Hart has a great essay on Kierkegaard (with a tremendous aside on Hamann) in First Things entitled “The Laughter of the Philosophers.” I more or less agree with what Hart has to say about Kierkegaard’s “theology,” although Kierkegaard is still one of my favorite writers and played a tremendous role in my formation. I think Hamann is going to come on the scene (very belatedly) in a major way thanks to people like Hart and Betz. It’s very difficult to find any helpful treatments of his work, much less a translation into English, but the (very few) people who are familiar with his corpus absolutely rave about him, and that includes people like Hart and Milbank. I believe Betz is in the process of translating a good deal of Hamann’s and has written a few articles for Pro Ecclesia on him that come highly recommended by a trusted friend of mine. I’m really looking forward to discovering the “Magus of the North.”

    Here’s the Hart article:

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=141

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  29. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Saint Egregious,

    I tend to think that the sorts of figures I have listed that may be questionable when attempting to situate in the category “theologian,” are precisely for that very same reason theologians (well, not for that reason necessarily — there are of course other qualifications). It is when we can so easily classify a thought that aspires to be God-talk that we should perhaps be somewhat suspicious.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  30. Joseph Siegel wrote:

    Just a question to further the discussion — is it fair to include those theologians who are read in translation? Is it only possible to get a good sense of one’s talents as a writer if they are read in the original language of composition?

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  31. Hill wrote:

    The Kierkegaard issue is certainly relevant to Joseph’s question. There are some really terrible translations of Kierkegaard as well as some very good ones. This is likely true across the board for theologians writing in a language other than English.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  32. Joseph, on translation: Brunner used to confess that his theology was better in Wyon’s English than in his German.

    Dave, I agree.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 11:37 pm | Permalink
  33. Yes, Dave, I agree and am myself suspicious of certain theological boundaries. And yet, I also think there are some historical and theologically substantive reasons why Kierkegaard, for example (as well as many of those we might call religious existentialists) is an uneasy fit within the theological domain. And the question of realism and anti-realism, as Pattison, Shakespeare, and others have pointed out, is at the heart of the matter.
    That said, I don’t really care whether you call SK a theologian or not. He’s the most brilliant religious thinker of the past 200 years in my view, and a brilliant writer as well.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  34. Adam wrote:

    Luther. The man’s writing ranged from gentle and sweet to explosively violent, playful to lamenting, addressed in turn to theologians, princes and common people. Incredible ability to turn a phrase; so good with words, in fact, that it can make his theology that much easier to dismiss as just so much verbal exercise.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  35. Barth (sometimes, like Halden says) and D. B. Hart stand out as the best recent theologian-writers, I think–but why are we sticking to what’s recent? Almost any text from the early church trumps almost any recent one in rhetorical beauty, even the anonymous or little-known ones. For starters, think about the Confessions, or Denys’s Mystical Theology (that opening prayer!), or Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, or any one of Chrysostom’s homilies. And that’s all prose, which leaves aside Prudentius’s poetry (so mistaken but so beautiful) or Thomas’s prayers or, of course, the inimitable Dante.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  36. sagely wrote:

    augustine, anyone? and luther–i’ve laughed harder reading luther than reading many more explicitly humourous books. moments in karl rahner (i’d say moments in karl barth, too–both theologians are at times impenetrably dense, difficult. i think this very fact is what makes their more lucid moments unbearably beautiful).

    if we’re including the likes of kierkegaard and dostoyevsky (which, i think, do end up on the writer-theologian end of the spectrum), i’ll throw annie dillard into the arena. she writes undoubtedly the best prose i’ve ever read.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  37. Apolonio wrote:

    I would have to say Fr. Antonio Lopez (you can see his articles in Communio).

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  38. Oscar Romero. His homilies were great.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  39. Christopher wrote:

    36 comments and no mention of Milton?!
    Richard Rolle?
    Hildegaard of Bingen?
    and, certainly Bernard of Clairvaux must be on this list also.

    Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  40. Andrew wrote:

    Can I enter a plea for Oliver O’Donovan? I’m a little-read undergrad theologian, and O’Donovan was suggested to me by a teaher when I started asking about political theology.

    I won’t cite The Desire of The Nations in this thread, but I was moved to tears by The Ways of Judgement; a really exciting exposition of the subject steeped in love of justice and of the world. I thought O’Donovan’s writing was warm as well as insightful.

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 2:30 am | Permalink
  41. Alexander Schmemann is beautiful at times.
    Eberhard Jüngel is one of the tightest writers I’ve seen, and God’s Being is in Becoming stands out as his best.
    John Webster’s degree in Literature has obviously given him an excellent style for writing theology.
    George Hunsinger’s essay on Hellfire and Damnation in Disruptive Grace gets the award for Best Long Quote for an introduction. I find him to be an excellent writer as well.

    An example of bad theological writing would be: Reinhard Hütter’s Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice.

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  42. Dave Bruner wrote:

    Hmm. I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but did anybody think The Beauty of the Infinite was a really irritating read? Admittedly, 75% of that book went over my head (since I don’t read/speak Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Latin with the fluency of Dr. Hart), and the ideas he advances there are really important. But his writing style seems to be in the vein of ‘Hey, look at the big words I know!’, and it’s bothersome. Am I out on a limb on this one?

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  43. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Dave, I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone who reads that book does in fact come to that conclusion (it’s almost a kind of “I dare you to read this without a dictionary ready-at-hand,” and I think this damages theological egos pretty quickly)…but then there is still placed this strange kind of obligation to say that it’s good prose…because it’s so incomprehensible. I am perplexed, myself, at the phenomenon that is David Bentley Hart. I find that book in particular to be not only plodding, but downright sluggish — and precisely because of the obscurity of the prose. The poetic “flights” so lauded by the crowd are, methinks, but strategic cover-ups of the weaknesses and errors in his argument.

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  44. Hill wrote:

    I don’t find Hart incomprehensible at all. He has a penchant for using words for which very few people know the definition, but after consulting a dictionary, the sentences that contain them are quite lucid. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Hart’s popularity is something that exists only among amateur theologians of the blogosphere. Unless you are prepared to cast aside the opinions of people like Peter Leithart, Robert Wilken, John Milbank and many others, I would be hesitant to play the “Hart is just a flash in the theological pan” card. He’s not quite the second coming of Gregory Nazianzen, but you’d think by some of the critiques levied against him, anything short of that is considered a failure.

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  45. David wrote:

    I find Newman very pleasant to read, which isn’t surprising considering what a good preacher he was and that many flocked to listen to him.

    I do enjoy D.B. Hart, although he is pretentious. His articles in First Things, for example, aren’t all that difficult to read.

    Von Balthasar, obviously. I love McCabe’s simplicity of prose as well.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  46. David wrote:

    Oh, and Chesterton (if he counts).

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  47. Patrick wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I have to agree with your listing of Alan Lewis. Between Cross and Resurrection is one of the better books (theology or otherwise) that I’ve read in recent years. Compelling is a good description.

    I too think Barth needs to be at the top of the list. Nobody before or after him has ever written like that!

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 5:06 am | Permalink
  48. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Hill: “I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Hart’s popularity is something that exists only among amateur theologians of the blogosphere.” That’s fine as it goes, since I never suggested that. And I never said he was difficult to read — I said he was incomprehensible…theologically. There is a difference.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 6:19 am | Permalink
  49. Dan McGuire wrote:

    Let’s not forget to tip our hats to publishers who seek out great translators. I wrote my dissertation on Balthasar – and I found that my own translations paled in comparison with the translations provided in the english language volumes published by Ignatius Press. I could translate the sentence, but I could not capture the beauty as well as Graham Harrison or Edward Oakes.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  50. Hill wrote:

    Sorry Dave, I was imputing to you some common sentiments one tends to find among Hart’s detractors in these sorts of contexts. All I mean to say is that it is far more than a nameless “crowd” that thinks highly of Hart. I realize we likely disagree, but calling Hart “theologically incomprehensible” is not something you can really expect people to take seriously in the absence of some sort of more developed criticism, so let me know when you publish that paper you’ve been working on. :-)

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  51. philip wrote:

    Anyone read Charles Marsh? He may not count according to your standards, but is an incredible writer.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  52. philip wrote:

    oh, and I would second the O’Donovan as well and reject the claim about Milbank. Sure, the first paragraph of Theology and Social Theory is crucial and good, but most of his prose is unintelligible–not to mention pretentious. I don’t have chapter and verse, but there is a point in Theology and Social Theory where he says, “the gist of Augustine is…” Who does that?

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  53. Greg Boyd. Love or hate his theology, his writings are permeated with passion and the ability he has to communicate dense matters in a readable way will always make him one of the best authors i have ever read.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

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