Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Contest: The Top Living Theologians

In 2001 Time magazine named Stanley Hauerwas as “America’s Best Theologian.” Hauerwas famously replied that “best” is not a theological category. He’s right–not just being modest–but maybe we can take “best” as a short-hand for “faithful, creative, and extraordinarily helpful in providing insight for the church’s teaching and living.” And we in the churches should honor those who are that kind of “great teacher,”–and not just when they are dead, even though the test of time is hugely important.

So, how about it theo-bloggers and biblio-bloggers and interested others? Without necessarily ranking them exactly, who would make the cut among “top living theologians?” We can define “theologian” broadly to include biblical scholars and ethicists and theologically-interested philosophers and church historians. Pastor-theologians and bishops are fair game if they have written materials that are influential, not just restricting ourselves to tenured academics. One major rule: You have to have actually read (or heard sermons or papers by) the person(s) you nominate. That way we might try this again in a year or two and see if people’s selections change based on new reading.

Let’s make two categories for entries: Global (list up to 10 living theologians from around the world that you consider the most important), and National (list up to 5 “best” living theologians in one’s home nation). You can give reasons for your choices, but keep them brief–two sentences at most. (That’s a hard restriction for me!) The results won’t settle anything, but may get us all reading people we aren’t reading now and thereby increase the parameters of our theological conversations. At any rate, I thought it might prove fun. My entries are below–and I won’t attempt to rank them beyond having made the top 10 and top 5 categories.

Global: Top Living Theologians From Around the World

  • Jürgen Moltmann (German Reformed ) If “best” WERE a theological category, Moltmann would have my vote for best living theologian, period.
  • Hans Küng (German Catholic).
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg (German Lutheran).
  • Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Capetown (Church of the Province of Southern Africa–Anglican), retired.
  • Mercy Amba Odoyuye (Ghana, Protestant [Methodist?] feminist theologian and ecumenical leader)
  • Leonardo Boff (Brazilian Catholic), one of the most brilliant and compassionate of liberation theologians. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) silenced him in 1985 for his book, The Church: Charism and Power, showing that THIS pope needs theology lessons from Boff. He left the Franciscan order and the priesthood in 1992 when Rome threatened to silence him a second time in order to prevent him from attending the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Jon Sobrino, S.J. (Spanish-born Jesuit liberation theologian in El Salvador)–the voice of El Salvador’s Christian poor.
  • José Miguéz Bonino (Methodist liberation theologian from Argentina).
  • Paul Fiddes (English Baptist), Principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford University.
  • Nicholas Lash (English Catholic), a laicized former priest who is now married; former Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Creative, brilliant, post-liberal.

United States: Top Living U. S. Theologians.

  • Stanley Hauerwas (Methodist–or is he now Episcopalian?). Time is hardly the best judge of these things, but this time they got lucky and definitely picked one of, if not “the” most important current theologians. Hauerwas, by his own admission, writes sloppily and with much hyperbole–and deliberately seeks to provoke. So, I find him annoying, frustrating, and irritating–and also wonderful with some of the best theological instincts I’ve seen anywhere.
  • Miroslav Volf (Croatian born Pentecostal turned Presbyterian).
  • James H. Cone (Methodist–Pioneer in Black Liberation Theology).
  • J. Deotis Roberts( Baptist–The other great pioneer in Black Liberation Theology).
  • George Hunsinger (Presbyterian–Barthian pacifist and political radical).

Well, those are my picks, although I am leaving out MANY “runner ups.” I look forward to reading your picks–and critiques of mine.


December 9, 2006 - Posted by | theology


  1. I definitely haven’t read as much as you have, Michael, but here’s my list, just for fun:

    Moltmann, for his theology of hope!
    Peter Storey, S. African Methodist bishop and leader in anti-apartheid movement, chaplain to Nelson Mandella, uses Walter Wink’s theology of powers.
    Tutu, because he has and is living it so well
    Rowan Williams, theologian AND churchman, poet, and preacher; ABoC
    Sam Wells, constructed Christian ethic around theme of improvisation, British
    N. T. Wright, seemlessly combines biblical scholarship, history, theology, and cultural analysis
    David Ford, “overwhelming!”
    George Lindbeck, I know he’s American, but he’s world-class – born in China -postliberal, cultural-linguistic
    Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian and liturgical scholar, author of Doxology, Eucharist and Eschatology
    John Milbank, “radical orthodox” theologian; Trinity, ontology,

    Hauerwas: still a United Methodist, but attends Episcopal Church; as a professor at Duke, people would sit out in the hallways just so they could overhear his lectures. one of the few professors who changed people’s lives
    Richard Hays, does the exegesis that Hauerwas would do if he weren’t biblically lazy
    Walter Bruggemann, creative teacher of Old Testament with apprciation of New Testament, not limited by narrow historical criticism; always fresh, rich, dyanmic
    Marva Dawn, prolific writer combining bibilcal studies and theology, cultural criticism (or is she a Canadian?)
    Eugene Peterson, his commentary on Revelation is priceless, writes with the heart of a pastor and poet

    Comment by Jonathan | December 9, 2006

  2. Well, Jonathan, your post names many of my “runners up.” Marva Dawn lives in Washington state and, although MAYBE she was born in Canada, she is a U.S. citizen. Hmm., speaking of Canadians, how could leave out Douglas John Hall?

    I’ve heard of Storey, but haven’t read him. I don’t know Sam Wells. Agree about Wright. Milbank is too Constantinian for me.

    Agree about Hays & Brueggemann, especially the latter.

    Thanks for playing: Pass it on–promises to be fun.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 9, 2006

  3. Great idea, Michael. It’s tough sticking to living theologians as I have to miss Gunton off of my national list and Yoder off of my global one. Nevertheless, I’ll get to this when I can.

    (Btw, Hauerwas certainly refers to himself as an Anglican now.)

    Comment by graham old | December 9, 2006

  4. Graham, I know! We’ve lost so many brilliant and pious minds in the last decade or so: Yoder, McClendon, Gunton, Stanley Grenz, John Paul II, Hans Frei, etc.
    But if I didn’t make the rule about living theologians, we’d have tons of entries about Augustine and Aquinas, etc.–and that’s a different kind of game for another time.

    As for Hauerwas’ ecclesiology, I was not surprised. Despite calling himself a “Mennonite camp follower,” he has had a strong bent toward Rome for years–but is divorced and remarried and his 2nd wife is a Methodist minister. I think Canterbury is as close to Rome as he can get!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 9, 2006

  5. Hi Michael,

    For national, I would definitely second your nomination for James Cone as he has profoundly enhanced my understanding of the Black church (both here in the Bahamas as well as back in the States) as well as the nature of racism in my own life and Eurocentric theological tradition.

    Second, I would add Justo González, the Cuban American scholar of historical theology. While Justo is perhaps best known for his work in liberation historiography and its application to general church history, he’s also done some creative work in biblical studies, applying his historical method to his commentary on Acts. Also, his Three Months devotional series shows that he can communicate profound theological truths to lay people as well as fellow scholars.

    On that note, I should also mention Miguel De La Torre whose works like Reading the Bible from the Margins, also bring profound theological insights to a more general audience (e.g., college freshmen) but has done fascinating work in other areas such as Christian ethics and work on reconciliation between U.S.- and resident-Cubans.

    Fourthly, John Perkins, who is the founder of the Christian Community Development Association, is a pastor-theologian that cannot be overlooked. While Perkins writings are primarily autobiographical and practical (e.g., how to), his lifetime of living out and promoting the 3Rs (relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution) of Community Development has generated a broad evangelical movement committed to doing hands on holistic ministry, primarily in Americas inner-cities. Perkins is not exactly a household name amongst evangelicals, but his holistic theology is an important alternative to the anti-P&J strands of evangelicalism that seem to dominate public discourse today.

    Finally, I have greatly appreciated the biblical exegesis of urban missiologist Ray Bakke–a pastor-theologian–who always seems to dig insightful stuff up out of scripture where one would least expect to find it.

    On the global level I’ve been profoundly influenced by the liberation theologies of Latin America and, more recently, the Caribbean. Most Caribbean theologians are pretty obscure and their writings are limited so it is difficult to define a “best” from our region.

    One of my favorites is Nathaniel Samuel Murrell (UNC, Wilmington) of Grenada, who is a biblical scholar and has specialized in Caribbean hermeneutics. Perhaps his most creative theological effort has been through his dialogue with Rastafarian biblical interpretation as he seeks to find ways to explore liberation from an authentically Caribbean perspective.

    Here in the Bahamas, Kirkley Sands–an Anglican priest and lecturer at College of the Bahamas–has done some interesting historical work on the interaction of the traditional African worldview with the Anglican prayer book and how that has shaped the development of Bahamian culture.

    J. Emmette Weir–a longtime Methodist pastor and district superintendent–has written some articles pointing the way towards a “Bahamian Emancipation Theology,” a term he has borrowed from Kortright Davis–an Antiguan scholar at Howard University Divinity School.

    William Watt, from Dominica, also a Methodist and former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies has made some important contributions to CT as well.

    Unlike liberation theologies elsewhere in the world, Caribbean theology (which dates its formal origins back to the early 1970s) has simply not grown like other movements have. Most of its adherents are pastor-theologians or expatriate academics whose writings remain obscure in their own region and are often not much better known outside of the region. So doubt any of them will make the final cut for “best” theologians on a global level and, as I already said, its going to hard to define a “best” even at the regional level, since “best” often just means “only.”

    Comment by haitianministries | December 10, 2006

  6. Great insights, Daniel. I have known Miguel as a personal friend since seminary. I would have expected you to mention Noel Erskine as a Carribbean theologian now at Candler/Emory.

    I read much of Justo Gonzalez and also Perkins.

    I know OF Bakke, but haven’t read him. My missiology views were greatly influenced by Orlando Costas who died very prematurely.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 10, 2006

  7. Erskine is good, his work hasn’t resonated with me the same way as the others that I mentioned. But, yes, he should be on the list of nominees.

    Costas, who is a graduate of my alm mater–the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico Recinto de San Germán–is a well respected Latin American missiologist worth mentioning as well. But, alas, I haven’t read anything of his yet (though I’ve got one of his books sitting on my “to read” shelf) so I think the contest rules prohibit me from nominating him.

    Comment by haitianministries | December 10, 2006

  8. Greg Boyd is not methodologically sophisticated, but he is a very good communicator.

    I think LeRon Shultz deserves mention as a rising star in theology, as also does Alistair McGrath and Alvin Plantinga and Alisdaire McGrath.

    I would also include Jurgen Habermas, as I do not hold that the distinction between theology and philosophy is so meaningful in these postmodern days.


    Comment by DLW | December 10, 2006

  9. Yes, if the contest were of rising stars I would certainly have included Shultz. I expect many to name Alister McGrath. I think the other Alisdair you mean is Alasdair MacIntyre. He and Plantinga are excellent Christian philosophers and, you’re right, the lines between Christian theology and philosophy are fluid, but neither really reflects much on the content of Christian doctrines.
    As for Habermas, I think you mean Gary Habermas the conservative Christian philosopher. Jurgen Habermas is a heterodox Marxist of the Frankfurt school and not, to my knowledge, a theist, never mind a confessing Christian. Or has he had a recent conversion?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 10, 2006

  10. Wow, I found this difficult – though it’s possible that I take some distractions a little too seriously!

    British (in the end I had far more for this list than global and allowed myself 10 for each on my blog!):

    Rowan Williams
    NT Wright
    Tom Smail
    John Hick
    Kenneth Leech (Urban theologian and Anglican priest)


    Jurgen Moltmann (Competition is none!)
    Gustavo Gutiérrez
    Hans Kung
    Walter Bruggemann
    Stanley Hauerwas
    Leonardo Boff
    Miroslav Volf
    John Zizioulas
    Gordon Kaufman
    Phyllis Trible

    Honourable mention should go to the following who came painfully close to making it:

    James Cone
    Amos Yong
    Eberhard Jungel
    Donald Bloesch
    John Milbank (more for influence than personal liking)
    Thomas F. Torrance
    John Hick
    John Webster
    Oliver O’Donovan

    Comment by graham old | December 10, 2006

  11. For global, I’d definitely add Eberhard Jüngel. And for the US, I’d definitely add Robert W. Jenson and Wentzel van Huyssteen.

    (In my view, the three best living theologians are Pannenberg, Jüngel and Jenson.)

    Comment by Ben Myers | December 10, 2006

  12. Ben, you’d really have Jenson in your top three? Ahead of Moltmann?

    Comment by graham old | December 10, 2006

  13. I was wondering when someone would nominate Jungel. I couldn’t because my own rules limited me to people I’ve read and the only thing (so far) I’ve read by Jungel is his Barth: A Theological Legacy. Good, but not enough for an assessment.

    Jenson is just too Lutheran for this Anabaptist. I’ve heard of Wentzel van Huyssteen, but know nothing except the name.
    Pannenberg is brilliant, I agree. My commitments as an Anabaptist and a social ethicist though keep me with greatest appreciation for those whose theology has the strongest connections to ethics & discipleship–to the poor and/or to nonviolence. Thus, I am always going to be drawn most to political and liberation theologies.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 10, 2006

  14. world:

    NT Wright
    Gustavo Gutierez
    John Milbank
    Leonardo Boff
    John Zizioulas


    Stanley Hauerwas
    Walter Bruggemann
    Miroslav Volf
    LeRon Shults (I’m biased…he was my teacher)

    Comment by Mark | December 11, 2006

  15. DLW of the Anti-Manichaeist sent me this by email as he apparently had difficulty posting here for some reason:

    Habermas calls himself a methodological atheist, but he has become one of the key apologists for Christianity in Europe. See [html not accepted because of broken tags. search at DLW’s blog.]I think such a statement ranks him as almost among Christian theologians. Apparently, he has become an afficionado of Thomas Aquinas.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 11, 2006

  16. Hi Graham — yes, I like Moltmann a lot, but I’d definitely put Robert Jenson ahead of him. Obviously Moltmann is much more popular and influential, but (in my view) Jenson is a more profound and more creative thinker.

    Comment by Ben Myers | December 11, 2006

  17. Here and here are the Habermas posts.


    Comment by DLW | December 11, 2006

  18. As I’ve thought more, here is the list I should have given…


    Rene Girard
    Alasdair MacIntyre
    Jurgen Moltmann
    NT Wright
    Gustavo Gutierez
    John Milbank
    Leonardo Boff
    John Zizioulas
    Wolfhart Pannenberg
    Oliver O’Donovan


    Stanley Hauerwas
    Walter Bruggemann
    Miroslav Volf
    Harvey Cox
    Denny Weaver

    Comment by Mark | December 12, 2006

  19. How about adding Pinnock? or Roger Olson!
    I indeed like Olson.

    Comment by Jason | November 28, 2008

  20. I also like Gonzalez.

    Comment by Jason | November 28, 2008

  21. […] Similary, Michael L. Westmoreland-White of the Christian Peace blog Levellers opined his list of the most influential living theologians from outside the United States: […]

    Pingback by Poll: Who is the Most Influential Living Theologian From Outside of the US? « Road to Priesthood | July 25, 2009

  22. on Boff particularly you expressed your highest wit and grit of anti catholicsism…i see that as unnecessary..shame on you

    Comment by Urban | October 28, 2009

  23. How about these names, i know they definitely toe the lines of philosophy, biblical studies etc:

    John Caputo – syracuse
    Jean-Luc Marion – u. chicago
    Cornel West – princeton
    Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza – harvard
    Gary Dorrien – union seminary ny

    Comment by midwest10 | March 19, 2010

  24. and yes, i realize this hasn’t been posted on in over a year.

    Comment by midwest10 | March 19, 2010

  25. Hi Michael,

    I would like to suggest Fr. Peter Phan the wonderful Vitnamese/American theologian for his beautiful insights and the bravery of Fr Berrigan for his passion and faithfulness to the gospel values of Peace and Justice.

    On the Irish scene, the land of the saints and scholars, how about the moral theologians Frs. Fagan and Patrick Hannon? Too bad your fellow county man in Bardstown, Merton R.I.P. is not around he would win hands down!

    Comment by Aine Cassidy | April 16, 2010

  26. To the 2010 posters: I’ve discontinued this blog for my new one, Pilgrim Pathways, so I hadn’t seen your entries.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 22, 2010

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