In simplest of words, theology is the study of religions and religious beliefs. Some scholars choose to call it the science of deities and divinity. But atheistic scholars do not very much approve of theology as a viable branch of study or ‘science’. Nevertheless, theology has been helping religious people understand, follow and even reform their religions with time. The great theologians in history have acted like a guiding star to bring changes in religious beliefs and rituals. And in the course of past several centuries, the major religions in the world have been modified mainly because of these theologians. This essay aims at illuminating the main contributions of ten great Christian theologians and their impact on Christianity as a whole.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria is considered to be the Father of Orthodoxy in the Eastern Orthodoxy (Barnes, “Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire”). Born in Alexandria, he started analyzing Christianity in his early twenties and apparently became a prominent theologian whose episcopate lasted forty five years (328 AD to 373 AD). He is quite deservingly regarded as a great Christian saint whose feast day is celebrated on different dates till present day.
The main contributions of Saint Athanasius to Christian theology are his precious writings and his strong opposition to Arianism to defend Trinitaniarism. Some of his greatest works like Orations Against the Arians, Letters to Serapion and On the Holy Spirit were aimed to strengthen his argument against Arianism (Kannengiesser, 204-214). He identified the twenty-seven same books of the New Testament which are in use till present day. Not only that, he was the first person to do so in history. His words still resonate and are considered to be venerable. He conveyed that the Son of God became man so that we might become God (Nathan, “The Spirituality of Athanasius”). His ideas were moral. His work On the Incarnation of the Word of God is considered to be legendary in the history of Christian literature. His followers swore to his teachings which were based on traditional Christian beliefs and supported the Holy Trinity strongly. The preaching and words of Saint Athanasius fetched him titles like ‘Father of the Canon’ by the Protestants and one of the four Eastern Doctors of the Church.
Augustine of Hippo
Born in 354 AD, Saint Augustine was a great theologian and writer whose works helped shape the Western Christianity. The terms like original sins and just war were created by him (Brown, Augustine of Hippo). These concepts are still believed in by Christians. Saint Augustine is believed to have established anew the ancient Faith. Manichaeism and the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus shaped his philosophies before he converted to Christianity. He therefore had a unique methodology to arrive at a philosophy or belief. He emphasized that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom (Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine). He also taught about salvation along with divine grace. Hence, even Protestants regard Saint Augustine of Hippo as one of the theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
One of his most vital contributions to Christianity was the development of the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God. He wrote a book titled City of God is considered to be a legendary piece of literature in the history of Christianity which stressed the concept of Trinity. That is why, he is considered to be a foremost saint and Doctor of the Church by Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion (Clark, Augustine). He was so significant in Christian theology that though the Eastern Orthodox Church did not approve of his concepts of original sin, the doctrine of grace and predestination, they still respect him as St. Augustine the Blessed.
His ideas are followed and believed in by many till date. Though he always accentuated that Christians should be pacifists but he did not approve of tolerating injustice. Any violence that is necessary to oppose the wrong was not a sin in Saint Augustine’s opinion (Deane, 1963). He also asserted that humans have a natural tendency to do evil but it should be controlled. He did not support the killing of Jews but his views about women were too orthodox and partial. Citing the example of Eve giving Adam the apple to eat, Augustine used to believe that sin entered the world because man, the spirit did not exercise control over woman, the flesh (Burke, p 545-565). But otherwise, his teachings are usually worth admiration by Christians till date.
John of Damascus
Saint John of Damascus was much more than just a great Christian theologian. Christened ‘Doctor of Assumption’ by Catholic Church and ‘The last of the Fathers’ by Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint John was the one blessed with knowledge of law, music and philosophy. It is also believed that he served as Chief Commander to a Muslim caliph and had knowledge of The Holy Quran. Hence, his contributions to theology are diverse (Louth, “St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology”).
His greatest contributions to Christianity were his precious writings and his diligent support to protect the Holy images. In the 8th century AD, iconoclasm was noticed. It was a movement aimed at demeaning and strongly opposing the Holy Icons and Images which were rendered to be respectable or worth worshiping. John of Damascus came to a prominent role here in protecting the status of Holy icons. He defeated the Byzantine Emperor Leo III to oppose iconoclasm. He not only wrote great works like ‘Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images’ but presented an example of how to stand for one’s faith. This inspired many Christians to fight against iconoclasm.
One of the main contributions of John of Damascus which is in effect till today is his hymns. A structured hymn form used in the Eastern Orthodox Church services owes it to Saint John (Shahid, 2009). Another great contribution of him to the Christian theology is the Fountain of Knowledge or The Fountain of Wisdom he taught. This was the first work of Scholasticism in the Eastern Christianity and hence, extremely reverent. The philosophical chapters of this book called as Dialectic give an insight and preface to understand the underlying knowledge. The second part of this book called as Concerning Heresy explains the heresy of Islam and constitutes one of the first Christian refutations of Islam. The third part called as An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith is a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers.
Anselm of Laon
Anselm of Laon was a French theologian who is chiefly renowned for his contribution to Biblical hermeneutics. He was born in a simple family in the eleventh century. Being taught by some prominent religious teachers of that era, he was already in the process of being primed for theology in is early ages.
Anselm commenced his role of teaching at the Cathedral School of Laon in 1080 AD (Lindberg, Science in the Middle Ages). After almost three decades, he was appointed as the Dean and Chancellor of the Cathedral. Eventually, he became one of the two archdeacons of Laon. His teachings soon gathered popularity making him a known theologian in Europe.
His major contribution to Christian theology was an intellectual movement so unique and unforeseen that it was called as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages. He along with his followers and scholars enriched the biblical hermeneutics. Anselm developed a system of the Glossa Ordinaria to elaborate the great Scriptures (Lindberg, Science in the Middle Ages). Now the verses were more easily understandable and referenced. This movement was accepted by several other scholars and hence, helped strengthen theology.
Anselm was also an accomplished writer who produced several published and unpublished works. He died in 1117 AD.
Born in 1225 AD, Thomas Aquinas was a great Italian saint, philosopher and theologian. His incalculably instrumental philosophies, teachings and writings fetched him the titles like Doctor Angelicus and the Church’s greatest philosopher and theologian (Clark, 2000). This multitalented saint supported Natural Theology but his philosophies and works on ethics, natural law, metaphysics and political theory gradually gave rise to the Modern theology. And his influence on Western philosophy is seen till date.
One of the main reasons why Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy prevails in modern times is that he considered faith as well as reason to be the tools to process data for theology (McLnerny & O’Callaghan, “Saint Thomas Aquinas”). He appeals to even contemporary scholars from 21st century because of the rationality in his ideas. He considered theology to be a science. Like Saint Augustine of Hippo, he too believed in the concept of Just War i.e. the use of violence for self-defense or any other good purpose is justified. He was a talented writer who compiled great works like the Summa Theologica and the Summa contra Gentiles (Kreeft, 1990). He also wrote commentaries on Aristotle's works, including On the Soul, Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics. Under the guidance of Pope, it was his works which made for the fundamental study for those sought priesthood or religious leadership. The disciples such as Canon law, Catholic philosophy, history, liturgy and theology looked up to his works for reference (Davies, 1993).
Born on 10th November 1483, Martin Luther was a remarkable German theologian and a Catholic priest. He is best known for his pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation in 16th century (Atkinsons, p 352). The reason why he is famous till date as a respectful figure in the history of Christian theology is that he was extremely rational in his approach. Many people used to blindly follow Church and priests, hence getting victimized to its corruption. But Martin Luther emerged as a strong opponent of those corruptive practices. He strongly condemned the claim that money could be given to Church to escape from God's punishment for. Many such bizarre practices were preached by churches to fool the blind followers. Martin Luther orated that the salvation is not negotiable with money; it is not earned by good deeds but received only as a free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He challenged the authority of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church after observing the malpractices prevailing in society in the name of religion (Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History).
Martin Luther was a man who preached to have faith but with eyes opened. He was a great hymn-writer and composed many of those to inspire people to live a better religious life free from superstitions. It was his hymns that led to the practice of singing in churches. He also translated the Bible in local vernacular so that people could themselves read, understand and analyze it (Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings). The Luther Bible gladly had a great impression on the German culture and social practices. He also changed one prevailing practice of celibacy by marrying and exemplifying the practice of clerical marriage in Protestants. However, he was associated with anti-Jewish ideologies in his later years. But otherwise, he was a great monk and reformer who revived Christianity.
Born on 10th of July, 1509, John Calvin was a French theologian (Cottred, Calvin: Biographie). He was a focal figure in the development of Calvinism, a new and more rational system of Christian theology. He broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 AD. He worked as a pastor during the Protestant Reformation but moved to Switzerland after a religious hostility against the Protestants. He was also a polemic and apologetic writer who worded his ideas efficiently to preach Calvinism; he published the first edition of his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. His commentaries on the Bible and some other religious books fetched him a lot of popularity and controversy. He was also motivated by some of the teachings of Saint Augustine and hence developed the concepts of the doctrine of predestination, salvation and the absolute sovereignty of God. And hence it added to the Calvinism.
One of his major contributions of Calvin was the reformation in Geneva. It was Calvin’s proposals that lead to the following four major changes in the ordinances of ministerial function: pastors to preach and to administer the sacraments; doctors to instruct believers in the faith; elders to provide discipline; and deacons to care for the poor and needy (Ganoczy, 2004). He was highly opposed for this reformation but he continued his efforts. Another of his greatest help to world (not only Christianity) was his motive to defend the rights of common people. He was a supporter of democracy and aristocracy in proper proportions for a just administration. He also emphasized the requirement to divide the political power in such a way that it cannot be misused by any particular group of aristocrats and priests.
Immanuel Kant was born on 22 April 1724. He was a renowned German philosopher and a predominant figure in the modern philosophy (Gulyga, Immanuel Kant: His Life and Thought). He was a strong supporter and user of reason which he used to explain the various issues pertaining to aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy and theology. He believed reason to be the deciding factor of morality.
His greatest contributions to Christian theology were his great writings which he used to express his profound understanding of philosophy. He was mainly a philosopher before a theologian. Many scholars believe that Kant revolutionized philosophy by interconnecting the epistemology of Transcendental Idealism and the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason.
He was a tremendous writer and produced many significant works like the Critique of Pure Reason. This book was a legendary account of how reason along with experience can be explain concepts that are inexplicable by traditional philosophy. His other great works such as the Critique of Practical Reason, the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Judgment. Kant supported the idea that aesthetic qualities and experience are subjective without pure reason being involved in its processing. He has explained it efficiently in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. The Philosophies on Kant on morality and politics were highly influential and hence, he is a prime figure in the history and development of philosophy. And in context of theology, he is still worth a mention because of the way in which he changed the Western philosophy (Allison, Kant's Theory of Taste).
Born on 10th October, 1560 AD, Jacob Arminius was a Dutch theologian. He worked as a
He developed his own set of opinions on the concepts of divine grace, predestination and free will through sermons on the Epistle of the Romans; his ideas were not in accordance with the Calvinism. Arminius improvised some of the Calvinistic concepts according to his beliefs and reformed it under a movement titled Arminianism (Bangs, p 25). Though this movement could not get at par with the popularity of Calvinism, Arminius continued to spread his words.
Arminius preached that the prevenient grace that has been conferred upon all by the holy spirit and this grace is sufficient for belief, in spite of our sinful corruption, and thus for salvation. Unfortunately, it was not in his lifetime that his ideas gained extreme popularity. After his death, the Five articles of the Remonstrants conveyed his ideas very efficiently.
Karl Barth was born on 10th of May, 1886. He was a Swiss theologian who is considered as the Greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century (Brown, Collinson & Wilkinson, 2012). Born in the modern era, he believed in God but also approached the logical way to understand a concept. That is why he transformed many ideologies and was accepted by those who seek rationality in everything. Karl Barth was a pastor initially who did not abide by the ideologies taught in the 19th-century European Protestantism. So, he rejected it and gave rise to his own theological views which he called dialectical. The revolutionizing theological ideas of barth made him a prominent figure and eventually a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany. Being a Christian did not make him an anti-Jewish person. He was strongly against Adolf Hitler and his cruel proceedings against the Jews. He was the author of Barmen Declaration which strongly opposed those Christians which supported any Nazi activity against the Jews. This feature of Karl Barth made him a venerable figure in the existing circumstances of Germany (McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development).
Barth was one influential writer. Other than Barmen’s Declaration and the Epistle to the Romans, he wrote the Church Dogmatics. This was a masterpiece which is still considered to be the source of much wisdom. It is indeed the most important contribution of Barth to theology. The thirteen-volume work of magnificent ideas and writing, Church Dogmatics is regarded as one of the most important theological works of the century. It focuses on the four major doctrines namely Revelation, God, Creation, and Atonement or Reconciliation.
All these great theologians along with their contributions to Christianity and philosophy are worth studying. A religion is always meant to organize men to live a better and morally righteous life in the pursuit of God. But it is the efforts of theologians and leaders to keep the motives of religion perfectly clear, impartial, just and unadulterated. In one way or the other, the theologians who have been discussed in the preceding pages have led to addition of great chapters to the history of religions. Not to forget, they also have attempted to eradicate the wrong practices and misbeliefs in society in the name of religion. Be it through accentuation of certain ideologies or reformation of some, these theologians have enriched the Christian philosophies with their teachings and interpretations of Holy Scriptures. Agreed that each argument and proposal of these people were not acceptable, but taking into account the positive ones can be really helpful in a deeper understanding of the religion.
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