The Christian church has been graced with brilliant and influential thinkers since its inception. A list of “who’s who” in Christian scholarship would be long and diverse in terms of scholarly disciplines. To whet your appetite in the areas of theology and philosophy, here’s a snapshot of six “straight A” thinkers.
By “straight A,” I mean two things. First, I’m noting that these thinkers were all brilliant scholars (no doubt, they would’ve received straight A report cards in today’s grading system) and accomplished philosophers and theologians who advanced Western civilization in general, and Christianity in particular. Second, all of these distinguished Christian scholars’ names begin with the letter “A.” So they’re Christendom’s A-Team!
Here’s a brief summary of the “straight A” Christian theologians and philosophers from ancient and medieval Christendom and what they are known for:
- Athanasius (ca. 296–373), Defender of Orthodoxy
Athanasius is one of the most honored theologians in church history. His articulation and defense of essential Christian doctrine earned him the title “Father of Orthodoxy.” With his rare combination of a tenacious character and depth of theological insight, Athanasius championed the doctrine of the incarnation at a time when the faith was extremely vulnerable to heretical attack.
- Ambrose (ca. 340–397), The Great Orator
Ambrose is recognized as a Doctor of the Catholic Church and is known as one of the great orators in Christian history. A classically educated scholar, he helped introduce Greek Christian thinkers to the Latin West. Ambrose served as a skilled church theologian and bishop. Ambrose was deeply influential in the conversion of St. Augustine and later baptized him into the faith.
- Augustine (354–430), Greatest Author of Antiquity
Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside the New Testament authors. History knows him as a theologian, philosopher, church bishop, and a gifted and tenacious defender of orthodox Christianity. Having penned more than five million words, Augustine was the most prolific author of antiquity. He wrote several books that are considered both Christian and literary classics, including Confessions and The City of God.
- Anselm (1033–1109), Integrator of Faith and Reason
Anselm of Canterbury is honored as a Doctor of the Catholic Church and has been recognized as the greatest Christian thinker between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He is well-known for his understanding of the relationship between faith and reason and for formulating one of the most distinctive arguments ever—the ontological argument—for the existence of God.
- Abelard (1079–1142), The Medieval Logician
Peter Abelard is considered one of the great scholars of the Christian Middle Ages. As a French scholastic philosopher, he contributed significantly to such fields as logic and the problem of universals. As a theologian, his extravagant life and controversial beliefs were sometimes criticized by the church, but he still made contributions in Christian doctrine and practice.
- Aquinas (1225–1274), The Catholic Philosopher
Thomas Aquinas may have possessed the brightest mind in the history of Christendom. A medieval scholastic philosopher and theologian, Aquinas’s system of thought (called “Thomism”) was declared the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. In a lifespan of fewer than 50 years, he wrote voluminously and masterfully defended classical Christian theism.
In the modern world, people sometimes ask whether the Christian faith is compatible with reason. But for most of Western civilization, the greatest intellectuals were also people of deep Christian faith. Today’s Christians could greatly benefit from knowing about these scholars of Christendom’s ancient and medieval past.
My faith is uplifted by knowing that these people affirmed the same historic Christian truths that I do.
Reflections: Your Turn
Who is your favorite Christian thinker of the past outside of the Bible? What lessons can today’s believers learn from earlier Christians?
For more in-depth articles that highlight these men’s lives, writings, and contributions to Christendom, see:
- “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Athanasius” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Augustine” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Anselm” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “Think Again: Christianity’s Relationship to Reason” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Thomas Aquinas” by Kenneth Samples (article)