Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Essential Theology Books of the Last 25 Years (1985-2010)

The Christian Century has asked a range of prominent contemporary Christian theologians to list their top 5 works in theology for the last 25 years.   CC  polled Stanley Hauerwas, Amos Yong, Emilie M. Townes, Lawrence S. Cunningham, Sarah Coakley, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, George Hunsinger, and Willie James Jennings.  Their results are here

It’s a good selection of thinkers and a good list, but I thought it’d be fun to poll the theoblogging and biblioblogging world for their picks.  Below are mine in no particular order.

  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996).  Won the Grawemeyer Award for religion.  Written in the wake of the Los Angeles uprising over an all white jury’s cynical aquittal of the racist police officers who beat Rodney King and in the wake of the ethnic cleansing in the civil war of the former Yugoslavia. (Volf is a Croatian-American.) Though not every part is equally satisfying, this is a powerful account of the necessity and difficulties of forgiveness.
  • J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008).   Even though modern theology and philosophy (since the days of European colonialism) are deeply involved in the construction of the flawed notion of race, the topic is usually ignored. Carter not only tackles it, but does it with more depth than I would have believed possible.  NO pastor (especially in the USA), evangelist, missionary, theologian or student of any theological discipline can afford to ignore this book.
  • Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (HarperOne, 1993).  The late Catherine LaCugna gives one of the most powerful accounts of the Trinity I’ve ever read and shows how deeply important it is for Christian living. Far too many Christians (whether liberal or conservative) think of the Trinity as a “numbers game” which is abstract and remote and of no essential importance for Christian faith–whatever lip service they give to it.  All of them should read LaCugna and reconsider.
  • John Howard Yoder, For the Nations:  Essays Evangelical and Public (Eerdmans, 1997; repr. Wipf and Stock, 2002).  The last book Yoder published before his untimely death in December 1997.  Demonstrates clearly that the Anabaptist engagement with the state and the wider culture is anything but a “sectarian withdrawal.”
  • James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology (3 vols.) (Abingdon Press, 1986; 1994; 2000).  In 3 concentrated and dense volumes (Ethics, Doctrine, Witness) McClendon forges a Baptist (and baptist) theology for the new millennium that is both deeply catholic and which explains and defends the (Ana)baptist perspective to those trained in mainline (Constantinian) theology–whether liberal or evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox.

I look forward to your picks and reasons.  Yes, it’s hard to limit to just 5, but that is part of the challenge.


October 4, 2010 - Posted by | book reviews, books, history of theology


  1. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

    Marcella Althaus-Reid: Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics

    Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming

    Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology

    Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology

    Comment by Jeremy | October 4, 2010 | Reply

    • It would be nice, Jeremy, to get reasons for these choices.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2010 | Reply

      • 1) The book that put womanist theology on the map. Also, Williams’ critique of the atonement is quite challenging. It also poses a serious critique of patriarchal black liberation theology and white feminist theology.

        2) This book offered a powerful critique of Latin American liberation theology. It also pushed gay and lesbian theology into a new generation by offering a queer theology that was entirely indecent in character.

        3) Easily the best book of process theology in the last 25 years. Keller offers a powerful re-reading of the creation story, and she argues that creation ex nihilo is not faithful to the Biblical witness. It’s a great combination of process thought, Biblical studies, and post-structural theory.

        4 & 5) I think are obvious.

        Comment by Jeremy | October 5, 2010

  2. Hauerwas had the best selection in my opinion.

    Here’s mine.

    Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 3 Volumes-beats me why not one of those 8 theologians listed this work.

    Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology

    Jurgen Moltmann, Coming of God-hm, or the Ways of Jesus Christ. but no, COG is one of the best books written on eschatology ever…and a lot of Moltmann’s themes converge here.

    Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

    N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

    I really wanted to include McCormack’s “orthodox and modern” but I think that would just be my own personal taste. But I do think McCormack is the most important interpreter today of the most important theologian of the past several hundred years so…

    Comment by Willie | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. I really need to get a hold of McClendon’s systematics I suppose.

    Comment by Willie | October 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes!

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  4. Sorry for hogging the messageboard with three replies in a row, but I thought the most interesting selection was Sarah Coakley’s for picking Swineburne’s book-arguments for the existence of God.

    Comment by Willie | October 4, 2010 | Reply

    • That was weird, all right.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  5. My picks (hard to limit it to 5):

    1) John Howard Yoder – BODY POLITICS
    I’ve probably read it 25 times in the last decade and still find it challenging with each revisiting.

    2) J. Kameron Carter – RACE

    3) Willie Jennings – THE CHRISTIAN IMAGINATION. His emphasis on recovering the central role of place in theology is striking and well-developed.

    4) THE ESSENTIAL AGRARIAN READER – Norman Wirzba, ed.
    Not a traditional theology book, but certainly one that has powerfully impacted my theology and that of my church community.

    5) DOES GOD NEED THE CHURCH? – Gerhard Lohfink. IMO, the quintessential work on ecclesiology.

    Chris Smith
    The Englewood Review of Books

    Comment by Chris Smith | October 4, 2010 | Reply

  6. Why does everyone point to RACE? Yes, it’s wildly illuminating at times, but did anyone else find the style unnecessarily impenetrable?

    Comment by myles | October 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Probably because so many theology books are dense, but almost none deal with race and racism–which is like not dealing economic injustice.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 5, 2010 | Reply

  7. What was the L.A “uprising”? Was that where those drug gangs looted electronics stores, beat evil white truck drivers and got shot up by Korean grocery store owners? Are minorities actually capable of committing crimes or is rioting just a construction of the Man?

    Comment by Pensans | October 5, 2010 | Reply

    • I used the term “uprising” because that is how it is described by those who studied it, not because no evil things happened there. All the evils you mentioned took place. Further, Volf was horrified by them–as by the ethnic cleansins that was taking place simultaneously back in his homeland.

      You read far too much into the fact that I didn’t simply say “riots.” I think there was rioting and looting, but that this was not ALL that was going on in L.A.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 5, 2010 | Reply

  8. […] 5, 2010 by Lee Michael Westmoreland-White, riffing on this Christian Century article, asks folks to list “five essential theological […]

    Pingback by Five essential theology books « A Thinking Reed | October 5, 2010 | Reply

  9. This is really quick and off the top of my head….

    Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers [The book that has shaped my theology and ethics and their application to our world more than any other.]

    John Howard Yoder, The War of the Lamb [These essays remain extraordinarily fresh and deepen Yoder’s pacifist witness even more. I could also include Yoder’s Jewish-Christian Schism on my list.]

    Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery [Kaufman doesn’t get enough attention from peace theologians. This book makes a powerful case for pacifist theology that is thoroughly engaged with modern thought.]

    Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine [Of course, this isn’t really a theology book per se; I assume that Klein herself is an agnostic. But she does a great job of putting the past several decades in perspective for those who care about cultivating a humane world (which should be all theologians!).]

    J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement [A great resource for those who would apply their peace convictions to engaging the theological tradition.]

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | October 18, 2010 | Reply

    • I like all the choices except for Kaufman. I’ve never understood the fascination with Kaufman by Mennonites I otherwise respect. I find him to belong to the same category as Tillich and Gustafson–completely abstract theology that seems far removed from the life of the church–aimed at the “cultured despisers” of today. Boring.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 18, 2010 | Reply

      • Well, no accounting for taste….

        I’m certainly no fan of Tillich and Gustafson. But I actually think IN FACE OF MYSTERY is extraordinarily concrete–much more so, actually, than McClendon’s volume two.

        What I like about Kaufman is that his theology focuses on life in this world, not “theology” written by other theologians.

        Now, I read Kaufman and Yoder together. Yoder gets us into the Bible and faith community; Kaufman gets into the “bio-historical” realm. Either one without the other is lacking.

        Plus, Kaufman is a thoroughgoing pacifist and it shows. In this regard, he is much better than Volf, who makes movements toward peace but then takes it all back in the end with his violent God.

        Comment by Ted Grimsrud | October 19, 2010

      • I agree that the last chapter of Volf is unsatisfying, but he may still be a pacifist. His argument that God must be violent for humans to be nonviolent is very simlar to Millard Lind. Not happy with that, but it more easily accounts for some of the biblical material than otherwise.

        I haven’t read In Face of Mystery. The Kaufman I have read in his essay on theological method (in which God seems nothing more than a cultural-linguistic construct), his early historicist work (which is helpful and concrete) and the book on God in a nuclear age which is pacifist, but which seems to leave God powerless in the face of evil.

        Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 20, 2010

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