Review of “Theology for Armchair Theologians” Series

This review will be a bit different from my normal one. I will here be providing short reviews of three volumes in Westminster’s Theology for Armchair Theologians series. The titles which will be discussed are:

The volume on the Niebuhr brothers is from Scott Paeth. The Niebuhr brothers have been some of the more influential twentieth-century theologians that the USA has produced. Paeth provides a detailed introduction to Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, with a particularly useful section on how their thinking was formed and changed by World War II. While the brothers shared a lot of the same background and experience, they of course diverged from each other on many matters of theology. Paeth is aware of this and rightly treats them as distinct theologians, noting places where they were at variance with each other (e.g. what they thought on whether God is involved in history or not). What I found particularly interesting was the brothers different views on the isolationism of the US in those days, and how they each opted to approach the issue of war: Richard seemed more interested in the idea of war and what it entails, while Reinhold was more focused upon what was to be done in light of war.

The volume on John Knox is written by Suzanne McDonald. Before reading this book, all I really knew about John Knox is that he was a turbulent reformer, a nemesis to Queen Mary, and a leader of the Scottish Reformation (and basically the founder of the Church of Scotland). In fact, McDonald says that, “You can’t trace the history of the Scottish Reformation – a defining moment in Scotland’s story – without placing the towering figure of Knox close to the center, theologically and politically.” Each chapter is divided into two sections: the first section discusses the historical context of a period of time in Knox’s life (e.g. providing details on the ruling monarchs), and the second section then providing details on works that Knox penned during this period. All in all, I learnt quite a bit about the Scottish Reformation and Protestantism in Scotland from this book. Also, I think McDonald does a fine job at presenting the complexity of Knox and the ambivalent figure that he was.

The volume on Dorothy Day is written by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. Day is my favorite Catholic theologian to read about. Though, she is not exactly a theologian in the traditional sense of the word, i.e., someone chained to their desk producing lofty academic works on obscure theological topics. Instead, Day was entirely about living with those on the margins and helping them. In short, she was a real theologian. And this is what the author focuses upon: she reveals Day’s deep dedication to living out the kingdom of God and her vision of what radical discipleship to Christ entails. This isn’t a book that romanticizes Day by providing a hagiographical retelling of her life, for Hinson-Hasty reveals the tumultuous history of Dorothy Day in all her imperfections.

Overall I enjoyed the Armchair Theologians series. I wasn’t expecting much because I think that introductory series all too often dumb things down to such an extent that they provide an inaccurate image of whatever issue they cover. But these three volumes that I read were quite good. If you want to learn about a theologian, but don’t want to read a theologian’s entire oeuvre, then I think Westminster’s Armchair Theologians series will be a useful (and inexpensive) tool.

2 responses

  1. Interesting to see that they continued with more volumes in this series. I’ve had a mix response to other works in this series which I reviewed over at my blog. But thanks for your review!

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