“Secular writers have begun to discover theology.” This verdict by Boston College politics professor Alan Wolfe appears in his New York Times review of economist Benjamin M. Friedman’s new book on the Arminian roots of capitalism. Wolfe relates that “if someone had told me that a former chairman of the Harvard economics department would write a major work on Calvinism and its influence, you would have had to consider me a skeptic.” But then, Friedman is hardly alone as a nontheologian taking theology seriously for understanding his own discipline. Noting other examples of taking theology seriously in secular disciplines, Wolfe concludes, “Employed by a Catholic university, I found theology a far more humanistic discipline than political science.”
Roger that. Just yesterday I found in my in-box a notice to members from the American Academy of Religion denouncing the Capitol Hill insurrection. Weeks after just about every serious and not-so-serious person in America had commented publicly on the calamity, the learned society apparently reached agreement that the nation was still awaiting its solemn verdict. And the judgment was a predictably progressive screed that could have been (and was in fact) proffered by any university department. Gone are the days, it seems, when someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a liberal theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr to explain original sin in order to help him get his arms around the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler. Today, theologians themselves would most likely punt to psychologists, social historians, or cultural anthropologists—or play one on TV.
A Queen Dethroned
Though there are a few great exceptions, the most toxic major in college today is religious studies. For a very long time, academic study of religion and theology has been the province not of liberals but of radicals united by an utter contempt for traditional religious communities in which many students were reared. Since such radical theologies now dominate mainline churches as well, it is increasingly the case that fewer students are in fact reared in such backgrounds. Thus the exhilarating era of theological bra-burning is over. Nobody really cares what religion or theology professors think. But, apparently, some astute colleagues in other departments still believe that theology matters.
In terms of the long history of academia, this is a recent development. The theology department was the cradle of the European university. What we call the hard sciences were then called natural philosophy, which was a handmaiden to theology. The most important academic debates for a millennium were theological ones. Nearly any major figure in the history of all the disciplines we group under “the arts, sciences, and letters” was trained in theology. Most scientists were priests; and psychology, political thought, architecture, and medicine were all dependent on the “queen of sciences.” Even Copernican cosmology was an in-house controversy among scientists who were still considered in some way also theologians. Just as medieval abbeys were the nursery of evolving universities, new theological academies—seminaries—became the nucleus of universities in the Reformation. When Edward VI and Archbishop Cranmer wanted to deepen and expand the Reformation’s impact on England, they persuaded leaders Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli to immigrate: the one dispatched to reform Cambridge and the other, Oxford.
The same is true in colonial America. Two years after the organization in 1636 of a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the training of ministers, clergyman John Harvard gave his library and name to the fledgling institution. There, future pastors learned the Bible in its original languages and the systematic theology of Puritan William Ames. They also read classical and Roman authors and followed with interest advances in wider scholarship, especially the sciences. Whenever universities began to move away from orthodoxy, they usually began in the theology faculty. This was true at Harvard, which eventually shifted toward Arminian and then, very quickly thereafter, to Unitarian sentiments. So, the disgruntled orthodox went off to found Andover-Newton and Yale. Meanwhile, Presbyterians in the middle colonies established a seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, which became the nucleus of Princeton College.
Eventually, many who came to these seminaries wanted to pursue fields other than ministry. It seemed expedient in some cases to separate the divinity school from the undergraduate college. But then the Enlightenment washed upon American shores. The principal leaders of this movement, especially in Germany, were also seminarians. In fact, nearly all of them were Lutheran pietists preparing for the ministry. Critical of orthodoxy, they began to rethink the doctrine of God, the Trinity, and the deity of Christ, as well as supernatural miracles, the atonement, and justification through faith alone. Instead, they came to believe that the main business in religion is inwardness and universal morality. The “inner light” of mystical movements became the “inner reason” of the Enlightenment. As a consequence, authority shifted from an external word to an inner autonomy.
Reared in pietism, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) contrasted “universal religion” (i.e., moral duty) with “ecclesiastical faiths” (doctrinal orthodoxy). In his mature philosophy, Kant argued that we can’t know God through reason or revelation, but we must presuppose his existence as necessary for morality. What this meant for theological education is that theology no longer had any basis as an academic discipline in the university. We may know the phenomena of religion (what people believe about God and how that affects them and their societies), but not objective truths about God himself.
It took a little while in America, but by about the middle of the nineteenth century, janitors were scraping off “Theology Department” from the entrance to replace it with “Religion Department.” The queen had been demoted to a lady-in-waiting, a servant of disciplines over which she once reigned. In fact, her empire reduced rather quickly to a host of new territories that, having lost their center, became increasingly balkanized. Ironically, many churches that insisted on keeping their colleges and universities became increasingly secularized themselves.
Today, growing numbers of Americans—and Europeans—consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” While this development can hardly be attributed exclusively to the location of theology or religion in the university, it’s at least in my experience precisely in that department where one is most likely to find faculty who embrace that basic self-identification. Where theology once concerned the truths that, for all the debates, we considered most certain and worthy of knowing, its academic study became governed by relativism. There is no “chief end of man” and even if there were, we cannot know it. Instead, we know what makes us happy here and now. Not even Kant’s “pure religion” of universal morality is sustainable, which the Köningsberg philosopher should have known. The only “truths” in this field are subjective, based on the empirical and not-so-empirical research of other disciplines such as cultural anthropology, social psychology, economics, and maybe political history. And the only value that such knowledge has for us today is how we can use it for a purely secular “flourishing.”
From this brief summary, I don’t mean to suggest that theology should be unyoked from other disciplines. It never has been. Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Galileo, Luther nor Newton ever thought it could be. And in fact, it’s not today, either. The study of religion in the universities today is toxic, not because it learns from other fields (the “Book of Nature”), but because it is itself committed largely to the religion of metaphysical naturalism it promotes with evangelistic zeal and enforces with inquisitorial powers. Truth be told, the average mainline theologian or religion professor does not actually share Kant’s epistemic skepticism, but seems to have very dogmatic beliefs about God, humanity, salvation, and eschatology. And that’s why, in large measure at least, most people—including their own colleagues in other fields—don’t bother to read their books. Apart from help coming up with lectionary sermons, does anyone still read The Christian Century?
And now, for something completely different. For the rest of this article, I want to focus on the revival of theology—even Reformation theology—today. I have been blessed by the Lord to see this phenomenon up close over the past four decades. Under the direction of Dr. James M. Boice, the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology spawned a litter of smaller venues across the nation. Founded in the hinterlands of western Pennsylvania in 1971, R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries broadened the movement of grassroots Reformed theology. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God (1973) became the first theology best-seller of a generation. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Theology may be more or less moribund in the university, but it thrives where it did during the Reformation: in homes, schools, churches, and parachurch networks. Reflecting different social locations, mainline academics tend to assume a trickle-down theory of change, while evangelicals tend to be populists. The Reformation, however, was both a university movement and a popular phenomenon. Getting that circulation right is more a matter of God’s secret providence than anything that could be engineered—and there are signs of this circulation in evangelical theology today.
Much has been said in our circles, pro and con, about the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement of recent decades. Evangelicals have never been short on young and restless, but in conservative Protestantism “Reformed” was sort of a nasty word. To many it meant “tribalism.”
Fundamentalism was tribalistic in its own way. The vision of J. Gresham Machen and others was to recover the fundamental truths of the Christian faith—its supernatural core—from the wreckage of the modernism described above. Even hostile secular critics observed then and since that Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism was not only equal but superior to the programmatic essays of the latter. That vision was short-lived, however. Grounded mostly in Arminian revivalism, dispensational premillennialism, and an anti-intellectual biblicism, it nevertheless played down “secondary” doctrines that Reformed folks—as Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and others—actually consider pretty important. Fundamentalists had no trouble fighting for things they believe in. It was just that there was not much interest in theology or history. After all, theologians had ruined everything.
This muting of theological distinctives was true doubly for neo-evangelicalism. Seeing itself as the soul of the nation, American Protestantism had long suppressed confessional differences in order to maintain its moral and institutional hegemony. Basically a conservative movement within mainline denominations, neo-evangelicalism was embarrassed by its fundy cousin and wouldn’t tolerate further divisions over confessional wrangling. Make no mistake: it wasn’t a matter of courage. Nor was it a matter of anti-intellectualism. A cursory examination of early Christianity Today issues—with contributors from Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Methodist traditions—disabuses one against this verdict. It was simply that the pan-evangelical alliance could brook no controversies that might threaten the movement. That’s the problem with movements as opposed to churches. Intellectually, neo-evangelicalism tended to sympathize with Reformation traditions. In the pew, however, the default setting of the movement itself was largely the same as that of fundamentalism: vaguely Arminian, pietistic, and revivalistic.
Urbana, InterVarsity, and Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) swept through youth groups like mine. I admired Billy Graham, John Stott, Tom Skinner, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Tony Campollo. But, being a little bookish, I joined the “dead theologians society” and soon came into contact with some living ones. In my early teens, I attended my first Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (PCRT) led by James Boice, who from that time on became a mentor. He introduced me to R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, and others who would mark my life as they would so many others. The PCRT was for me a yearly Super Bowl. The rest of the year, I felt like it was pretty lonely being Reformed in America. I began reading The Presbyterian Guardian (later merged with the Presbyterian Journal). Founded by J. Gresham Machen, the de facto magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was cheaply printed, unattractive, and packed with amazing insight on every page. Rifling through the phone book, I found a meager entry for a Bible study by a Reformed Presbyterian pastor who helped answer my questions and lead me to great sources. That was then.
This has now changed—a lot. As I look back on my experience in a conservative but mostly Arminian evangelical world, I am amazed by the extent to which the Lord has prospered the growth of seeds planted by those faithful servants. Many of those same churches and schools I attended that had been skittish of Reformed theology are today rather open to it.
Young and restless, to be sure—but Reformed? Let’s set aside for the moment debates over what that label means. There’s no doubt that this movement, most recognizable today under the umbrella of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), has had a phenomenal impact. For many younger pastors and church leaders today, it has been a major gateway to a biblically grounded, Christ-centered, and gospel-driven theology. Targeting pastors, TGC is right at that middle part of the funnel between academic theology and the person in the pew. It is not a church, but it plays a crucial mediating role, which is what a good parachurch organization is supposed to do.
In fact, a movement is helpful only to the extent that it knows this. A broad movement must decide on certain principles of unity for a coalition but shouldn’t mistake this as the “primary things” or “gospel issues” while demoting crucial doctrines to secondary status. You don’t have to agree on everything to be part of a coalition, but church unity is deeper, broader, and richer.
Organizations like TGC or WHI are at their best when they don’t pretend to be a church, seeing themselves instead as a like-minded association of people from different churches. As I argued above, the idea of an “American Church” or an “Evangelical Church” is a Platonic idea. It has been the Achilles heel of American Protestantism, which neo-evangelicals tried to rehabilitate. The upside of Christ-centeredness and the gospel is that people actually come to understand who God is and why it matters. The downside is that not everything is a “gospel issue.” There is more to Christ than the atonement. The incarnation is part of the gospel, too. And there is more to the Trinity than the Second Person. And there is more to the Christian faith than the gospel.
If you don’t have the gospel and Christ at the center, then everything is lost. But you have to think about everything in light of the Trinity, for example, or even your Christology gets fuzzy. And you have to think about the Trinity in light of the way Christians in the past have discussed this central truth, because they have the age lines in their faces to prove that they had to battle heresies of their day that reappear with only cosmetic changes in other eras, including our own. The Trinity is a “gospel issue.” The church is a “gospel issue.” The sacraments are a “gospel issue.” That is why Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist churches have not been able to become one visible body.
Even things that are not considered a “gospel issue” are important. Jesus’ Great Commission is to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Evangelicals stood up for the gospel again and again in the past but often lacked both the depth and expansiveness of the Christian faith, so that while the frontline was valiant, the backfield was a bit sketchy. It never takes long for a new generation to make the same plays, especially when it doesn’t know what went wrong in the backfield.
Making deep confessional commitments secondary to a movement-mentality will always end up watering down even the principles on which the movement initially agreed. For example, “Reformed,” having suffered the divisions of liberal apostasy, is now at risk of being absorbed into a “Five-Point Calvinism.” Not our confession, but Jonathan Edwards, becomes the tie that binds. Movements like YRR are introducing mainstream evangelicals to a richer and more Christ-centered emphasis—and to deeper resources of the Reformation traditions that many churches in those traditions have forgotten or taken for granted. At the same time, it’s hoped that the fruit will be more than a more Reformation-infused American Protestantism; it’s hoped that it will be a rich dialogue between different confessional traditions on issues that still divide us. If we don’t appreciate the differences that divide us, reducing them to nonessentials, then we won’t grow deeply in our own convictions on those same issues. But let me conclude this section on a justly positive note: Groups like TGC, WHI, and Ligonier are playing a major role in awakening an interest in theology not only in the United States but around the world.
Right up until the early twentieth century, at least in Britain and America, theological books—even by conservatives—were published by the leading houses in London and New York. As the century progressed, they became the province mostly of companies owned by mainline denominations, and now these are in financial trouble. In sharp contrast, evangelical theology is a booming business, at least in the United States. When I was growing up and cutting my teeth on Christian doctrine, most evangelical publishers were interested in a farrago of Amish fiction and end-times conspiracies that seemed closely related in genre. There were a few republications of solid classics with ugly covers (mostly by quite small houses), commentaries, and some very helpful Bible study aids.
Needless to say, this has changed significantly for the better. Many of those same publishers now have impressive imprints not only for Bible studies and commentaries but for academic theology. Since a number of these houses are owned by secular companies, there must be a market for this proliferation of divisions with “Academic” after their trade name. In fact, a number of secular publishing giants have added theology divisions or acquired respected brands. The same goes for theological journals. Although I don’t have any supporting data, my sense is that there are more such entities in the world today and that they thrive on contributors from a more conservative Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox orientation. And the majority of writers as well as publishers appear to be from the United States. This sense was confirmed for me in a recent doctoral defense in which I was an external examiner. It was an engagement with the late John Webster, a friend to many of us engaged in this project, and was deeply informed by the Reformed and ecumenical heritage. The thesis was so good that I suggested it should be published. The internal examiner, a leading and quite liberal Scottish theologian, concurred. But which publisher? After offering several names, both of us realized that they were all publishers in the United States.
Not only is there a noticeable spike in interest among younger Christians in theology, but they’re also better informed than previous generations. In Protestant and Roman Catholic academia, liberal and conservative, the twentieth century continued the previous century’s scorn of “scholasticism” in particular and historical theology in general. The rage was various “theologies of”—theology of liberation, feminism, existence, absolute concern, death-of-god. There was a panoply of “posts” as well: postmodern, post-Christian, post-religious, post-secular, and so on. Creativity was actually pretty dim. Theology was like a refrigerator of leftovers variously combined into meals.
In more conservative circles, exegesis remained on a firm footing. Evangelicals were already among the most highly regarded biblical scholars. The latest repackaged Bultmannian porridge from mainline presses today can’t compete with the breadth and depth of Craig S. Keener’s Christobiography, for example. It is indeed a good day for evangelical biblical scholarship, and it has been for a while. Only now, however, are we seeing a resurgence in theology to match.
In 1997, leading New Testament scholar Francis Watson pointed that a major reason for the chasm between biblical studies and theology in the Anglophone world is the dominance of evangelicals in the field.
Pietism always tended to set the Bible in opposition to the church and official dogmas, with fateful results in Protestant liberalism. Yet that tendency remains in much of evangelical biblical scholarship today, Watson contends.
Even in conservative Reformed schools, the attitude toward historical theology ranged often from respectful glance to indifference to outright suspicion. And “Reformation theology” tended to be recast according to the emphases and eccentricities of a particular contemporary agenda. One need not consult the Reformed systems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because they are either irrelevant to our contemporary world or, worse, returned to the dregs of popery. In contrast with Reformed theologians elsewhere, American Calvinists were enamored of Jonathan Edwards but in the main had scant firsthand knowledge of the confessional theology he was shaped by and in some ways departed from.
Moreover, a number of prominent evangelical theologians repristinated Socinian and liberal Protestant critiques of classical theism, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and final judgment. Poorly informed by the actual arguments of traditional orthodoxy, these critiques created a straw opponent. Not only historical theology but also philosophy is essential if we want to know how doctrines were formulated from exegesis to system. No one comes to the Bible alone, without philosophical and theological presuppositions formed within a particular context. We need to be aware not only of those presuppositions in other biblical interpreters but also in ourselves.
Having been in the middle of some of these debates, I’m cheered to see the tide turning. Especially in Reformed and Lutheran circles, there is a significant trend of ressourcement or “retrieval.” Precisely in encountering the great orthodox systems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have come to discover medieval theologians and, behind them, patristic sources. Of course, there is always the danger of veering from the faith by intellectualism and pandering to the academy. However, some of the dominant evangelical systematic theologians of the past fifty years, especially in the United States, have been cut off to some degree from the aid of philosophy and historical theology—which is, after all, the history of modern biblical interpretation. The recent kerfuffle over the Trinity in the Evangelical Theological Society is a good place to see this change. Embracing a biblicistic method unchecked by the consensus of long debates, big mistakes were made on this crucial doctrine and on the divine attributes. Those who vocally said so were mostly younger scholars sensitive both to exegesis and to the actual arguments put forward by our orthodox forebears.
It was the goal of Lutheran and Reformed scholastics to demonstrate not only differences but wide areas of continuity with the whole Christian tradition. One work by the Anglican Puritan William Perkins is titled The Reformed Catholic, and Franciscus Junius wrote an important Reformed defense of the Trinity against contemporary Socinians called A Defense of the Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity. These older theologians were as likely to appropriate an argument from the Cappadocian fathers as from Luther or Calvin. Again, at first one could count contemporary scholars of this ilk on one hand. But this is no longer the case. Lutherans like Robert Preus and Reformed scholar Richard Muller were soon joined by a choir of colleagues and students. A good example of this fruitful development is the programmatic title by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015).
In my humble opinion, seminaries offer another indicator of theological depth and maturity. As conservatives, we’re always waiting for the fateful news that another bastion has fallen, and there is plenty of history to justify that anxiety. But we must dispel the rumor that infidelity is the only thing that starts in the seminaries. Without being too specific, I may again draw merely on my own observations.
Apart from a handful of conservative Reformed seminaries, the lion’s share of theological education over the last half-century or more has belonged to the neo-evangelical mainstream. In such contexts, the curriculum is not united by a particular confessional orientation. In some cases, in fact, Christian doctrine, biblical languages, and a commitment to the church’s pastoral ministry have taken a backseat to cultural anthropology, psychology, business, politics, and a host of electives such as “Sports Ministry” or advanced professional degrees such as the DMin. In many of the cases where this shift occurred, a familiar path is exposed that we have seen in liberal Protestantism. It’s not because of theology but because of the abandonment of theology for more ostensibly interesting and relevant pursuits that some evangelical seminaries have lost their way.
The renaissance of interest in Reformation theology among younger generations is felt in the improvement and growth of seminaries that are intentionally committed to a curriculum that takes them deeper into it. I detect more interest in theology—indeed, Reformed theology—in a number of conservative evangelical seminaries. Moreover, there are more Reformed seminaries. And the ones particularly thriving right now are the most dedicated to confessional integrity.
In the Trenches
There is still a wide gap between academic theology and the life of the church. Indeed, it reflects a wider gap in American society between elite and popular culture. The disparagement of theology among many evangelical brothers and sisters is bound up with a wariness, if not hostility, toward intellectuals (especially academics) more generally. Given the history, this is understandable. Even here, however, I see the tide turning a bit. After all, the impetus for the revival of Reformation theology today came not from academic theologians but from pastors and teachers. That, in turn, has yielded a crop of theologians working in the academy as well as the church. This is the circulation that needs to continue and widen in order to see greater interest in theology on the ground.
Across the evangelical world today, doctrine is subordinated to practical, especially social and political, concerns. Even on these issues, though, the substance is thin. For those on the Left and the Right, it’s primarily action on a set of predictable policies that matters. Again, this is due at least partly to the paucity of theological reflection on distinctively Christian teachings. Evangelical engagement compares poorly with Roman Catholic social thought. For a culture war, an army is required—one’s platoon matters little. Roman Catholics have centuries of deliberation on the relevance of the imago Dei and natural law as well as the light of Scripture. For children of the Reformation, this heritage of patristic and medieval thought belongs as much to us as it does to Rome. This was at least the view of the great theological systems of our forebears. Reformed theologians like Johannes Althusius related covenant theology to political thought and in the process played a major role in modern constitutional theory. If we read them on these topics, we also meet Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, Gratian, Anselm and Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus and Irenaeus. The deeper we go into this attic, the more treasures we find for a more robust—and indeed more Christian—approach to social and political engagement.
Even here, though, there are signs of better days. For example, there is David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Eerdmans, 2009). His more recent Politics after Christendom (Zondervan Academic, 2020) is a good example of applying theory to practice for general readers. But projects like this grow out of a deeply informed connection with Scripture and the history of theological reflection. In the trenches, pastors and teachers are, of course, the mediators of theology to the rest of Christ’s body. Academic publishing serves seminaries, which in turn serve churches. Ideally, seminary professors should be ordained ministers, with their instruction as an extension of their call to the church. In turn, churches should afford pastors sabbaticals not only for reading commentaries and preparing sermons but for working through their stack of “must-read” theology books. This is essential for the pastor’s health and for that of the whole congregation. It is here, in the local church and in the home, where theology touches ground and transforms lives.
Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Footnotes:1. Alan Wolfe, review of The Religious Roots of Our Free Enterprise System, by Benjamin M. Friedman, New York Times, January 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/26/books/review/religion-and-the-rise-of-capitalism-benjamin-m-friedman.html.
2. Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 141.