Thursday, September 27, 2012

Listomania: Theologian Biographies

What would a blog be without lists? Here's my first one.

The topic: My favorite biographies of theologians (note, I didn't say the best available biographies, but rather, the ones that I've most enjoyed).

1. Peter Brown -- Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. This is indeed one of the finest books I've ever read. Simply essential, a masterwork. Since most everyone out there seems to agree with me on this, I don't really need to say more.

2. Roland H. Bainton -- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. This choice may surprise some Luther aficionados, but in my estimation, this book delivers. The purist would perhaps lift up Oberman's work over Bainton's. Both, indeed, have a privileged place on our bookshelf -- the one in the living room, where most of the really good stuff (excepting Barth) can be found.

I think the attraction of Bainton for me is colored by a positive memory: In 2000 -- back before the terrorists had starting turning all of us into terrorists, torturers and the like -- I took a delightful study trip exploring famous Luther sites in Germany. The facilitator was the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring of TCU's Brite Divinity School. Prof. Boring assigned us two books for background reading -- the Bainton bio and the Dillenberger anthology. This pairing offers what is, probably, the most painless introduction to Luther you can get. I caught a G.I. bug when we were staying in Göttingen and was leveled flat out barfing miserable. You might say it was a bad case of Lutheran Anfectung.

Prof. Boring schlepped out in the middle of the night to the only emergency pharmacy in town to acquire medicine for me. For this virtuous deed, he had to endure the taunt of "Das ist nicht in Ordnung!" from the piqued pharmacist. One appreciates American pragmatism at such moments.

3. David Daniell -- William Tyndale: A Biography. Daniell is virtually a one-man guild of scholarship on the too-little-known English reformer. This book emerges, clearly, from a deep love for and devotion to its subject. It is a delight and a must read for anyone interested in the history of English vernacular Bible translations.

The work has two problems: One is the paucity of actual information we have on the elusive Tyndale. Daniell handles this lacuna admirably by giving quite a bit of background detail on early 16th century Oxford and Cambridge, Erasmus, etc. One also meets Thomas More in these pages (but, if you're a devout Roman Catholic, let me warn you: You aren't going to like the portrayal too much).

The other problem is that Daniell's apologetic fervor for his subject pushes the work dangerous close to hagiography. Now, I'll fess up and say that Tyndale is one of my heroes, so I don't mind it too much. But some of the exposition tends in the direction of suggesting "a greater than Luther is here."

4. William J. Bowsma -- John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. This very readable book presents Calvin as a man of his own times. The portrait is about one half intellectual history and one half existential psychology. The consensus out there is that Bernard Cottret's biography is the standard work so far in this area (see this Calvin enthusiast, for example). I will admit, with embarrassment, that I had taken a copy of this out of the library but got kind of "Calvined out" that fall and ended up returning it unfinished. But Christmas is just around the corner!

5. Eberhard Busch -- Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.  I would be remiss not to mention this text. My list was about to give you the false impression that I'm a Reformation historian and not a troubled (post)modernist like everybody else. Not so. The 20th century is my go-to period, for better or worse. This is the standard work for probing the life of the most important theologian since Schleiermacher.

But this is not an easy read. Because of his tremendous archival work, Busch is one of the most important Barth scholars alive today. This is a chronologically ordered rendition of biographical materials drawn, mostly, from Barth's own writings and tied together in a loose narrative framework. It is not a critical biography. Such a work, to my knowledge, does not exist. For my part, I really consider this more of a primary source than a secondary evaluation of Barth. But the material here is crucial for setting Barth in his historical context.

6. Richard Wightman Fox -- Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography.  Who would have guessed that this country's most important Protestant public intellectual of the past century was a driven workaholic with a persistent German-American immigrant's anxiety about fitting into American culture? An amazing, brilliant and (in some respect) tortured figure emerges from these pages: Deeply ethical, with a profound sense of political realism, with an early passion for social and economic justice so vigorous that it is vulnerable to morphing into the disillusioned cynicism of an old warrior. Nieburhr's life story is a window into every important social and political crisis from World War I to Vietnam.

To-Do List

In addition to Cottret, here are a couple other books I have dipped into without having yet finished them (but I hope to remedy that shortly): Diarmaid McCulloch's Thomas Cramner and George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards.


  1. Bowsma's book is good, but I find it far more useful read topically. In general (i.e., in this book on Calvin and in other contexts) he is excellent on humanism.

  2. The humanism question is an interesting angle. A work on Lefèvre d’Étaples sits (unread so far) on my shelf. I love Luther, but Calvin's "early modern" side is part of what I find so fascinating about him. Why is every topic that interests me so freaking broad?