Twentieth-Century Theologians: A New Introduction to Modern Christian Thought, Philip Kennedy, I. B. Tauris 2010 (ISBN 978-1-84511-956-0), xvi + 368 pp., pb £17.99 and hb £54.50
Twentieth-Century Theologians: A New Introduction to Modern Christian Thought by Philip Kennedy offers a rare and accessible overview of the most influential theologians within a century that witnessed an unprecedented amount of both human suffering and progress. With clear and concise prose, this book includes helpful summaries of the lives and theologies of select twentieth-century theologians. The list includes the prominent and classic figures such as Harnack, Barth, Tillich, Rahner, and Moltmann. In an impressive manner, the text also covers less frequently discussed thinkers such as D. Day and M. Daly. Even more importantly, Kennedy takes great care to offer a global theological perspective throughout the last century by discussing the theology of the Rainbow Spirit Elders of the Aboriginal people, Mercy Amba Oduyoye of Ghana, and Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka. This book serves as a useful resource for the classroom as well as the everyday reader who wishes to gain a greater understanding of theology throughout the past century. With an inclusion of Roman Catholic, Jesuit, Anglo-Catholic, and Protestant thinkers, this book does not emphasize any specific Christian tradition. Those who possess little to no theological education will appreciate Kennedy’s indispensable definitions of the most common theological terms weaved throughout the chapters as well as the short glossary at the end.
Kennedy’s main project is to set these theologians within the context of the war, famine, disease, and brutal hardship that was all too familiar to the twentieth century. The harsh realities in which they lived deeply impacted their theology. This influence, Kennedy believes, reveals a trend throughout all the works of the theologians discussed. His thesis is clearly stated: ‘the greatest theologians of the twentieth century were the most negative’ (p. 11). This negativity surfaced in two ways. First, the theologians of the twentieth century were apophatic in that they believed God could only be described using negative propositions. God can only be understood by what He is not rather than what He is. Second, theologians of this time period were ‘acutely aware of the bleak and harrowing negativity of human (and animal) suffering’ (p. 11). Theologians who found the most reception were those most concerned about the suffering of their time period while simultaneously offering a modest account of one’s ability to speak about God. Keeping these two directions in mind, Kennedy evaluates each theologian in the proceeding chapters through this specific lens of negativity in relation to statements about God and humanity.
While much ink has been spilled concerning the theologians of the twentieth century, few books emphasize the particular events within their lives. Kennedy notes that his book intentionally offers ‘an impression of the kinds of people who articulated theologies in the twentieth century, and the historical circumstances that determined the ways they spoke … texts are always tinctured by their contexts’ (p. 306). This book is not only theological but also biographical. In every chapter, Kennedy offers helpful insights into the lives of each theologian before accessing their theology and key works. As such, this book properly understands that the events and actions of each individual theologian are directly and explicitly connected to their beliefs. This holistic account helps readers to gain a fuller grasp of each theologian discussed. On a minor note, while each chapter contains such an all-encompassing picture of various theologians, they are not altogether random and disjointed. Upon a cursory glance, most might assume that Twentieth Century Theologians is an assortment of separated essays. However, Kennedy subtly inserts crucial transitions and informed remarks that aid the reader in piecing together a narrative of twentieth-century theology.
There is only one criticism necessary to mention. Kennedy’s ‘working hypothesis’ of this book is to boldly argue that the greatest problem for theology is human suffering (p. xi). In the third sentence of the preamble, Kennedy ironically writes that ‘a theologian is someone who tries to talk about God – always without success’ (p. vii). Rather than highlighting the inability of theology to adequately speak about its object and content – the Triune God – Kennedy prefers to maintain that the essential problem for theology is to give an answer for the abused, neglected, and suffering people within the world. Despite this position, Kennedy fails to argue how this is a particular problem for Christian theology in particular rather than all religion in general. Kennedy goes further to warn that in order for theology to be relevant, it must attend to the issues of suffering and injustice that plague humanity. If any theology is ‘indifferent to the poor’ then it will be ‘irrelevant to God as well’ (p. 315). Kennedy is right to emphasize the importance of suffering and injustice to the Christian God as witnessed in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. However, these concerns are a consequence of theology rather than a condition for its existence. Otherwise, there would be nothing particular about the Christian religion. If the essential concern of theology is human suffering, it cannot rightly be called theology but rather ‘theodicy’, ‘apologetics’, or ‘anthropology’. When the primary task of a discipline is to speak about human beings, it cannot claim to be theology. If theology is to remain true to its definition, it must always stay concerned with tending to what God has said about Himself. Even though one might disagree with Kennedy’s basic presuppositions regarding the nature of theology, every reader will find both challenge and benefit from his unwavering concern for the suffering of humanity.