Where Did The Theologians Go?

The nineteenth century seems to be the zenith of Presbyterian and Reformed theology in the United States. That is seemingly a bold statement, but I’d like you to just examine a short list of the American theologians that were all operating within a very short period of time:

  1. Benjamin Morgan Palmer
  2. John L. Girardeau
  3. R. L. Dabney
  4. James Henley Thornwell
  5. Charles Hodge
  6. B.B. Warfield
  7. A.A. Hodge
  8. William Swan Plumer
  9. William G.T. Shedd

All of these men were active theologians between 1800 and 1900 (Warfield’s life straddles over into the early twentieth century); in fact, nearly all of them were active in the last half of the nineteenth century. And by active I mean that that they were all engaged in teaching and writing. Three of them were professors at Princeton Theologian Seminary during its best years. Thornwell, Palmer, and Girardeau were professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, the Princeton of the South. Two of these giants (Thornwell and Charles Hodge) engaged in debates questions of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and the validity of Roman Catholic baptism that are still at the center of conversations on those subjects even today.B.B. Warfield was easily the most prolific; his collected writings span 13 densely packed volumes. James Henley Thornwell may have been the greatest of them all, followed only by Girardeau, whose name is almost totally unknown today.

Think about this with me: in the space of eighty years, at the most, the church produced nine of the most gifted theologians in its history here in the United States. Several of them wrote works that are still the final word on several debated topics of theology.

What theologians of the same caliber has the church produced in the last fifty years? The following list are all the names I can think of:

  1. J.I. Packer
  2. Morton H. Smith
  3. Cornelius Van Til
  4. John Murray

Now if you reduce this list down to theologians that were born in the United States, your only left with one: Morton H. Smith. Packer is a Brit, Van Til was born in the Netherlands, and John Murray was born and raised in Scotland!

Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the United States simply aren’t producing theologians anymore.

Would anyone like to offer a possible explanation for why that is the case?

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