Crystal has tagged me for a Best Contemporary Theology Meme. What are you trying to do Crystal, get me in trouble with the CDF or my local bishop by exposing me for having read materials that would probably be on the Index of Forbidden Books? ;-) Is there still an Index of Forbidden Books...?
As I mentioned to Crystal in one of the threads below, I haven’t been reading much current speculative theology. My reading about religion tends to center around spiritual reading, history, scripture, doctrine & apologetics, and biblical scholarship. It seems to me that in the last 25 years, with the “Third Historical Jesus Quest” well underway, that the biblical scholars have had a bigger influence on the public consciousness than theologians in any case.
If you were to ask me who my favorite Catholic Theologians of the 20th century were, I’d probably list Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner, all of who published the great bulk of their work more than 25 years ago, and here lies a problem... The current relationship between Catholic theologians and the Roman Curia is probably as bad and as wide apart now at this point in history as it ever has been. Ever since theologians like Kung, Schillebeeckx, Boff and Curran have been investigated, censured or silenced, there has been a sort of damper put on speculative theology. The last two popes have been decent theologians in their own right, with Joseph Ratzinger being a first-rate theologian, but in my view, the role of the pope is not to be the theologian-in-chief of the Church. That, of course, is a whole topic for discussion in and of itself. I suppose there certainly are theologians within the Catholic tradition to study, like Hans Urs Von Balthasar, John Shea and John Fisher… I’ve been reminding myself that I need to take the time to read The Analogical Imagination by David Tracy, which is highly regarded.
As far as progressive Protestant theologians are concerned, I confess I am woefully ignorant beyond Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong, and it appears to me that “retro” reformed theology seems to be very much in vogue with evangelicals these days, with popular works for the mass market by R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Hank Hanegraaff, Norman Geisler, J.I. Packer, Robert Reymond, and so forth, taking precedence.
So having said all that, I’ll list a few books, which in my lowly and under-educated opinion I consider to have been very important over the last 25 years.
Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders 1977
I’m going to cheat a little bit and go back almost 30 years instead of 25. I think Sanders’ book may have been one of the most important books to come out regarding Christian origins in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Sanders’ work was mirrored around the same time by Krister Stendahl, and they were the primary influences on what would become the so-called New Perspective on Paul. (According to this link about Stendahl, in his essay The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, he claimed “the quest of the plagued conscience began with Augustine whose Confessions are the first great document in the history of introspective conscience… and that prior to Augustine, the church had read Paul accurately in terms of the question, what does the Messiah's arrival mean for (a) the law (not legalism) and (b) the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? Since Augustine, the church has misread Paul in terms of the question, how can I find a gracious God?”)
Sanders was important because he was able to mount a challenge to what had been the prevailing view in Pauline scholarship for centuries. The prevailing scholarship until that time had St Paul presenting Judaism as a religion of works righteousness, in which a man tries to earn God's acceptance through works of piety and good deeds, and that the Law for them was something arid, burdensome, and a curse, because it could not be kept completely. The Jew becomes a metaphor for "the religious man" who is contrasted unfavorably to the Christian who relies fully upon the grace of God. Therefore, “good” Christianity was a religion of freedom and “bad” Judaism was a religion of legalism.
Sanders knew that this was a caricature, a straw man cutout of Judaism. He knew that for a 1st century Jew, the keeping of the law was not a means to earn salvation but to maintain oneself in the Covenant. Sanders called this Covenantal Nomism. The question for St. Paul, according to the New Perspective scholars, is not the fate of the individual sinner standing alone in judgement before God, but in corporate terms of Jews and Gentiles. Who’s in and who’s out? Who participates? The Jews were waiting for a redeemer, the Messiah. The Gentiles were beyond all hope. Christ came for both. The problem facing St. Paul and the early Church was how they were going to bring all of these Gentiles into what had been an exclusively Jewish movement. If he said that righteousness was from the Law, he would be excluding Gentiles, or at the very best, forever relegating them to second-class status. He knew that trying to force the Gentiles under the Law, which was foreign to them, and never meant for them, wasn't going to work. He knew that it would be inevitable that they would slide back into their pagan ways.
The New Perspective work has been followed up on in some fashion by other scholars such as James G. Dunn, John Gager, N.T. Wright, James Carroll, and Brendon Byrne. I think that the New Perspective on Paul has great ecumenical possibilities for discussion between Catholics and Protestants, particularly around the thorny question of St. Paul’s doctrine on Justification, which has historically most divided us.
More importantly, the New Perspective had aided theologians and also the “Third Historical Quest” in underscoring the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the Apostles. The sensitive treatment of Judaism by the New Perspective scholars has also created a climate in which Jewish scholars have finally felt that they can enter into an irenic discussion with Christians about Jesus and Christianity. Jewish scholars such as Geza Vermes, Amy Jill-Levine, Daniel Boyarin, Alan Segal and others, have written fascinating books about their take on the New Testament (see more on that below).
The Non-Violent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver 2001
I confess that I have not actually read this book by this Mennonite scholar , but have only read about it. I’ve listed it because the topic is important and compelling for me, and the idea is overdue. It is an attempt, as the title aptly states, to look beyond a violent meaning of the atonement (such as in the Satisfaction and Substitutionary model), and to look to see if a modified version of Christus Victor makes more sense.
We Drink From Our Own Wells by Gustavo Gutierrez 1984
Yeah, I like Liberation Theology. Want to make something out it? I believe that someday it will be vindicated. While I’m at it, what the heck, why not…? Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo Boff and Clovodis Boff 1987
A Church That Can and Cannot Change by John T. Noonan 2005
John T Noonan is a Catholic layman who is a judge on the US Federal Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, and the founder of the journal Natural Law Forum. He has also extensively studied and written about the history of Catholic moral teaching. Back in the sixties he wrote the definitive landmark study on the history of Church teaching on Contraception, from the 2nd century to the 20th. In this book he grapples with the question – Does change happen in Catholic moral teaching, and if it does, how does it happen? When is it valid change and when it invalid? The three issues he focuses on in the book are Church teachings on slavery, usury, and religious freedom. He answers in the affirmative that moral teachings can in fact change. The book does have its critics. His conclusions have been challenged in a respectful manner by Cardinal Avery Dulles, no lightweight himself.
Challenging books I recommend to others to read
I’ve always liked to read material that challenges my beliefs, as long as they are presented in a respectful way.
Quite a few writers over the last few years have built some up recognition and even fame by knocking over flimsy things like The Da Vinci Code, and slightly more challenging Gnostic things like The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Gospel of… whoever… In their apologetics, I have rarely seen anyone, with the possible exception of Ben Witherington, who takes on the more challenging material out there… the challenge form the quarter that always has been and always will be the most pointed and profound… As noted above, there have been several excellent Jewish scholars who have written about Jesus and the New Testament in recent years. The relationship between Jews and Christians throughout history has been long, bitter, and tragic, and I applaud that we live in an age when these scholars can feel free to present their cases in respectful dialogue with Christian scholars without opprobrium.
I hold to Nicene orthodoxy and to the Creed. Although I differ with them on the Incarnation and on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, I find that these scholars make their cases with honesty and conviction, excellent scholarship (as far as I can tell with my untrained eyes, admittedly), and in a spirit of irenicism and respect for Christian sensitivities and beliefs. We may not agree with their narrative, but is not a nonsensical or illogical narrative like the Da Vinci Code pottage. It has coherence. Even though I disagree with their ultimate conclusions, I think there is much benefit that Christians can take from reading them. To recapture the Jewishness of Jesus is accurate and essential, and I think I learned something new, and gained valuable insights about Jesus in ways that I had never thought of before from each of them.
The Authentic Gospel of Jesus and The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was born to Jewish parents who perished in the Holocaust. He was raised by Catholic foster parents and entered the priesthood, joining an order whose mission was to convert Jews. After studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Rabbinic writings, he reverted back to Judaism. In the Authentic Gospel.. he offers commentary and exegesis on all of the words spoken by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, in the way they would have been understood in Aramaic within his own culture. In The Changing Faces of Jesus, he works backward from the Gospel of John to the other Gospels and the writings of St. Paul to examine how Jesus would have been interpreted in each book in it’s own time. To Vermes, Jesus was a Galilean Holy Man, exorcist, healer and Hasid who was crucified for causing a disturbance (cleansing) in the Temple.
From Jesus to Christ and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen
To Paula Fredriksen, interpreting Jesus properly is a matter of What You See Is What You Get… Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet proclaiming the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God who was executed by the Romans for being what they considered he and his followers were claiming him to be – The King of The Jews. In the linked article, Fredriksen does a pretty good job of explaining and critiquing the other historical Jesus scholars as well.
The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor
James Tabor isn’t Jewish, but in his book he makes the case that the apocalyptic writings in Isaiah and Daniel indicate that Jesus and John the Baptist saw themselves as twin messiahs described in those texts, with Jesus being the royal Davidic Messiah, and John being the priestly Aaronic Messiah. He goes into a bit of speculation on the meaning of some ossuary finds he made with his students, and on the paternal ancestry of Jesus, but to me the most valuable thing in his book is his continuation of a recent trend to start recovering the forgotten man of the early Church – James the Just. According to Tabor and some others, Jesus’ “brother” James, the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church, was the royal successor to Jesus in this messianic dynasty, and his role was diminished and underplayed when the Pauline (Gentile) wing of the Church won out over the Jamesian (Jewish) wing.
What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills
This one is a tract, really. It’s very short, you can get through it in an evening or two. Wills, the bete noir of Catholic conservatives, takes his rips at the hierarchy as usual, but there is much in this book that is interesting and valuable.
I won't tag anyone specifically. Anyone who who'd like to put up a list, please feel free...