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The 5 Most Influential Theologians in Church History

Author: Michael Vlach

The most influential theologians in Church History.

They are the Big 5–the five most influential theologians in the history of the church. Together, their lives and teachings have affected religious and political systems and have dramatically changed or contributed to how people understand theology.

Although differing at times on significant points of doctrine, these five theologians share certain things in common. Each has written a massive number of volumes revealing their views on the major areas of doctrine. Second, each has significantly shaped how people view theology, not only in their era, but in the centuries after they lived. Third, each theologian has made such a significant contribution to theology that no serious discussion of Christian doctrine can safely ignore them or their teachings.

Who are these theologians who have left the biggest footprints on the path of church history?

We list them in chronological order:

1. AUGUSTINE (354–430)

By far, Augustine of Hippo was the most important theologian of the Patristic Era. He wrote hundreds of works including City of God and On the Trinity. He was the first theologian to thoroughly address the doctrines of man and salvation. Augustine taught that all people are born with original sin and that God predestines those whom He will save. Augustine also made huge contributions in the areas of the church and prophecy. In his battle with the Donatists, Augustine argued that people who lapsed because of persecution should be allowed back into church fellowship. Augustine is also known as “the father of amillennialism” since he promoted the idea that Satan is currently bound and that the millennium of Revelation 20 is being fulfilled in the present age. Many of his views carried over into the Middle Ages and became accepted as the orthodox positions of the church. Today, both Roman Catholics and Protestants often claim this greatest theologian of antiquity as support for their views.

2. THOMAS AQUINAS (1225–1274)

The greatest theologian of the Medieval Era, Thomas Aquinas developed a system of theology that became synonymous with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Aquinas merged Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, and in so doing, argued for a strong relationship between faith and reason. A strong proponent of natural revelation and the ability of nature to teach truths about God, Aquinas argued that God’s existence and attributes could be proven through reason and observation of the created order. Aquinas produced 18 large volumes of theology. His most significant work was his massive Summa Theologiae (“summation of theology”). When the Protestant Reformation challenged Roman Catholicism, the Catholic Church drew upon the writings of Aquinas in drafting the decrees of the Council of Trent.

3. MARTIN LUTHER (1483–1546)

Little did this Augustinian monk know that when he nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517 that he would set in motion a chain of events that would change the course of history. The Protestant Reformation, of which Luther was the primary mover, forever changed the religious and political landscape of the Western world. Luther’s contributions to theology are many. He rejected the idea that church tradition was equal to Scripture in authority. He also questioned the authority of the papacy. Luther argued that there were two marks of the church–the Word preached and the sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper rightly applied. Luther’s most important contribution was his insistence that justification was based on faith alone, apart from works. The Lutheran denomination was based on his teachings. Both Life magazine and Biography of the Millennium (which aired on the A&E network) listed Luther as the third most important person of the millennium.

4. JOHN CALVIN (1509–64)

If Luther was the primary starter of the Reformation, John Calvin was its main theologian. With the precision of a surgeon, Calvin systematically expounded the major doctrines of the Protestant Reformation including the three solas–sola fide (“faith alone”), sola gratia (“grace alone”) and sola scriptura (“scripture alone”). He also taught the doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God. Calvin also ably defended that justification was a legal declaration of God and not a process of becoming right with God. In addition to his commentaries, this French theologian is most known for his work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin eventually became known as the Father of Reformed and Presbyterian theology. The popular designation “five points of Calvinism” is linked to the beliefs of John Calvin. Many today claim Calvin as a major influence in how they view theology.

5. KARL BARTH (1886–1968)

Though perhaps a notch below the other four theologians mentioned in this article, Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, rightly takes his place as one of the most influential theologians in church history.  The most influential theologians in church history Barth exposed the bankruptcy of Protestant liberalism and ushered in the era of neo-orthodoxy. In stark contrast to the liberal overemphasis on God’s immanence, Barth stressed the absolute transcendence of God. Also in contrast to liberalism, Barth stressed that God was the main agent in salvation, not man. Barth took a strong objective approach to the doctrine of salvation. According to Barth, Christ objectively united the entire human race to Himself and wrought salvation for all by His victory on the cross. Barth is also known for his strong emphasis on Christology, which for him was the cornerstone of all areas of theology. Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics records the teachings of this influential theologian. When Barth died in 1968, volume 13 was unfinished. Evangelicals, liberal Protestants, and Catholics often refer to Barth in serious discussions of theology.

These are the Big 5–Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth.

Those who desire to be serious students of theology should become acquainted with the basic teachings of these five men. Students researching a particular area of doctrine such as salvation or the church should also search to see what these five theologians said about that subject. Doing so does not mean that one will necessarily embrace all that these five wrote, but having a familiarity with their teachings will add depth to one’s knowledge and will reveal a keen sensitivity to the major movers in church history.


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