A Recent [2008] Discussion of "Top Five Most
Important Christian Theologians in History"


George Desnoyers


September 3, 2009



Portions of this article consist of material copyrighted by Trevin Wax and are used here with his permission.  Please do not reproduce the copyrighted portions or convert the copyrighted material to any other use without first receiving his permission.  Trevin Wax can be reached by email Here.



Recently Trevin Wax asked a group of bloggers pretty knowledgeable in Christian theology to suggest their personal choices for a list of “Five Most Important Christian Theologians.”  Note that when he posted the question, Trevin had already discussed the subject with “several seminary students, professors and theologians.”  Here is the copyrighted post in which Trevin put the question:


Who Are the Most Important Christian Theologians?




By Trevin Wax on Aug 15, 2008


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?


© Copyright by Trevin Wax


Note the above two criteria Trevin suggested in his original post for use in compiling the list of five “most important, most influential theologians in Christian history.”

1.      Left the most lasting influence on Christian theology and practice, and

2.      Made major contributions to Christian theology.


In the course of discussion, Trevin suggested some other things to keep in mind, or questions to ask, while compiling the list.


3.      Don’t list your favorite theologians, but theologians “whose schools of thought most shaped Christianity.”

4.      Ask whether the theologian left a “legacy…that has pervaded a major portion of Christian thought.”

5.      Consider whether the theologian has a school of thought named after him, e.g., as the Apostle Paul has “Pauline Theology” named after him.

6.      Ask whether the theologian’s influence extends to the present time.  “How long-lasting is the [theologian’s] contribution?”

7.      Think more of Christian history, not the New Testament period itself.  (I.e., do not list Bible figures such as Jesus and Paul.)

8.      List the “Top Five” in chronological order.  It is too hard to list them in order of importance.  “How would one do that, anyway?”

9.      Consider the world-wide importance.  For example, [Jonathan] “Edwards would definitely be in a list of the most important American theologians. Important preacher and thinker.  [But] 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.”

10. Consider theologians you disagree with.  It can be safely said that ALL of the most important theologians had aberrant views in some area or another and wound up leading their respective schools astray.  Think of importance and lasting influence, not merely theologians whom you would ‘recommend whole-heartedly.’

11. Remember some close calls, or those you think should receive “Honorable Mention” without being in your “Top Five.”


Suggestions for Inclusion


Up to the point at which Trevin began posting his choices, thirty people had been named among 103 suggestions for inclusion in the list of “Top Five Most Important Christian Theologians.”


Some of those suggested were primarily writers, preachers, or Christian apologists, and were at most only lay theologians.  These were nevertheless nominated for inclusion because of their large impact on some point(s) of Christian theology.


Interestingly, four people who are still alive were each mentioned once (Joseph Ratzinger, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas).


A few of the people suggested for inclusion are scarcely known.  For example, James Henry Thornwell, an American theologian who was suggested once, is not covered in Wikipedia although 402 other American theologians are covered.  [Note: I believe the person who made this suggestion may have meant to suggest James Henley Thornwell who is a well-known Presbyterian theologian who was instrumental in the founding of the “Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America,” and who was an important proponent of slavery.]


Paul the Apostle was mentioned three times, and Jesus once, despite Trevin’s suggestion that New Testament era figures not be listed.  Even after Trevin posted his list, five additional people expressed their belief that Paul should be listed, and two people thought New Testament author John should be listed as well.


Here are all 103 suggestions made by a group of people pretty knowledgeable in theology before the “winners” were announced:


(Listed first by number of “votes,” and then alphabetically by name.)


1.      Augustine, 354-430 (17)

2.      John Calvin, 1509-1564 (15)

3.      Thomas Aquinas, c. 1225-1274 (10)

4.      Karl Barth, 1886-1968 (9)

5.      Martin Luther, 1483-1546 (9)

6.      C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, 1898-1963 (5)

7.      Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758 (5)

8.      Athanasius of Alexandria (or Athanasius the Great), c. 293-373 (4)

9.      John Wesley, 1703-1791 (3)

10.       Paul the Apostle (3)

11.       Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945 (2)

12.       Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, 1768-1834 (2)

13.       John Owen, 1616-1683 (2)

14.       Anselm, c. 1033-1109 (1)

15.       Arthur W. Pink, 1886-1952 (1)

16.       Cyril of Alexandria, c. 378 - 444 (1)

17.       George Eldon Ladd, 1911-1982 (1)

18.       Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 120-c. 202 (1)

19.       James (or Jacob or Jacobus) Arminius, 1560-1609 (1)

20.       James Henry [Henley?] Thornwell, 1812-1862, if “Henley” (1)

21.       Jerome, c. 347-420 (1)

22.       Jesus (1)

23.       Joseph Ratzinger, 1927- (1)

24.       Matthew Henry, 1662-1714 (1)

25.       Miroslav Volf, 1956- (1)

26.       N.T. (Nicholas Thomas) Wright, 1948- (1)

27.       Reinhold (or Karl Paul Reinhold) Niebuhr, 1892-1971 (1)

28.       Rudolf Karl Bultmann, 1884-1976 (1)

29.       Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855 (1)

30.       Stanley Hauerwas, 1940- (1)


At about this time, Trevin Wax announced his list, which, as indicated above, he had compiled with the assistance of discussions with seminary students, professors, and theologians.  Here are Trevin Wax’s choices along with some summary information he provided.  Note that Trevin’s material below is copyrighted.



Top Five Most Important Christian Theologians


© Copyright by Trevin Wax



This week, I devoted one post each day to the Top 5 Most Important Theologians in Christian history. Below are the five I considered to have been most influential.  They are given in chronological sequence; no attempt has been made to list them in order of decreasing or increasing importance.


1.      Athanasius of Alexandria, 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.


Some 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 



2.      Augustine of Hippo, 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


Some 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.”


Related Posts:

·        A Look at Augustine’s Confessions

·        Augustine: The Early Years

·        Augustine’s Fruitless Pursuit

·        Augustine’s Conversion

·        Augustine: Let Me Know You



3.      Thomas Aquinas, 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


Some 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.”



4.      John Calvin, 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


Some 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.”


·        “God cannot be comprehended by us, except as far as he accommodates himself to our standard.”


·        “It was Christ’s task to swallow up death. Who but Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of the world and air. Who but a power higher than the world and air could do this? Therefore, our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only begotten Son.”


·        “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.”


·        “Keep hold of both of these points: our prayers are anticipated by God in his freedom, yet, what we ask we gain by prayer.”


·        “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.”


·        “True religion and worship of God arise out of faith, so that no one duly serves God save him who has been educated in his school.”


·        “The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.”


5.      Karl Barth,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


Some 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 the 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.”


© Copyright by Trevin Wax


Trevin also included his own list of eight theologians as worthy of “Honorable Mention.”  Here is his presentation of that list (also copyrighted material):




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?


© Copyright by Trevin Wax



During and after the time when Trevin Wax posted his own choices (as above) for the “Top Five Most Important Christian Theologians,” comments were made by bloggers regarding people who should either have been included or excluded.  Here are some of the comments, and the gist of some others:


“It was a toss-up between Athanasius and Irenaeus. I eventually went with Athanasius (at Scot McKnight’s behest) due to the influence of Trinitarianism. Irenaeus definitely deserves an ‘honorable mention’ – most especially for his refutation of Gnosticism and his atonement theory of ‘recapitulation’.

“Athanasius, I believe, has the most lasting influence however. Every time we talk about the Trinity in a biblical way, we are carrying on the legacy that Athanasius bequeathed us.”








       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 Controversy & kept popping up in the study of history.

       Leo & Cyril for their work leading up to Chalcedon.”























Summary of suggestions made
after Trevin published his list


Individuals not on Trevin Wax’s list of “Top Five” who received support after Trevin’s list was published.


There was advocacy for:


      Paul (5)

      Irenaeus, c. 120-c. 202 (2)

      John (2)

      Martin Luther, 1483-1546  (2)

      James Arminius (or Jacob, or Jacobus), 1560-1609  (1)

      Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758 (1)

      Origen, c. 185-254 (1)


·        The following people to receive “Honorable Mention”

      Cyril of Alexandria, c. 378-444 (2)

      Gregory of Nazianzen, c. 325-389 (2)

      Gregory of Nyssa, c. 335-c. 394 (2)

      Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus), c.160-c. 220 (2)

      A.W. (Aiden Wilson) Tozer, 1897-1963 (1)

      Basil the Great (or Basil of Caesarea), 330-379 (1)

      Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153 (1)

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945 (1)

      Erasmus (or Desiderius Erasmus), c. 1466-1536 (1)

      Hans Urs von Balthasar, 1905-1988 (1)

      Isaak Dorner, 1809-1884 (1)

      John of Damascus, c. 676-749 (1)

      Leo 1 (or Leo the Great), c. 400-461 (1)

      Maximus the Confessor, c. 580-662 (1)

      N.T. (Nicholas Thomas) Wright, 1948- (1)

      Pseudo-Dionysius, late 5th to early 5th century (1)

      Ulrich Zwingli (or Huldrych Zwingli), 1484-1531 (1)


·        The following people to be given consideration

      Brian McLaren, 1956- (1)

      Charles G. Finney, 1792-1875 (1)

      C.H. (Charles Hadden) Spurgeon, 1834-1892 (1)

      Donald Miller, 1971- (1)

      Emil Brunner, 1889-1966 (1)

      Hans Urs von Balthasar, 1905-1988 (1)

      John Fullerton MacArthur, Jr., 1939-  (1)

      Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910 (1)

      N.T. (Nicholas Thomas) Wright, 1948- (1)

      P.T. (Peter Taylor) Forsyth, 1848-1921 (1)

      Phillip Doddridge, 1702-1751  (1)

      Ravi Zacharias, 1946- (1)

      R.C. (Robert Charles) Sproul (Sr.), 1939- (1)

      Rob (Robert Holmes) Bell (Jr.), 1970- (1)

      Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1950- (1)

      Shane Claiborne, 1975- (1)

      Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855 (1)

      Watchman Nee, 1903-1972 (1)

      Wayne Grudem, 1948- (1)