Reformed theology in the twentieth century experienced both ups and downs. Princeton Theological Seminary, which had been the bulwark of American Reformed theology in the nineteenth century, was gradually taken over by liberal theologians during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Out of the ashes, however, arose Westminster Theological Seminary under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen. Yet it remained a rather small school, so the intellectual leadership of evangelicalism during the middle of the twentieth century shifted to some degree to evangelicals such as Carl F.H. Henry. On occasion, however, evangelical and Reformed theologians would combine forces to deal with issues that concerned both. The debate over biblical inerrancy in the 1970s and 1980s is one important example. Conservative evangelicals were forced to deal with the denial of inerrancy in evangelical churches and seminaries. The result was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document that is still widely used in Christian circles.
A Resurgence of Reformed Theology
For several decades in the twentieth century, Reformed theology was something of a small underground reality. There were very few Reformed books being published. Reformed theologians were relatively unknown in the larger evangelical world. But beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, Reformed theology began a resurgence. In the 1950s, the Banner of Truth Trust began publishing a magazine and started to publish classic works of Reformed theology. Over time, other publishers would follow suit, with the result that thousands of books by classic and contemporary Reformed theologians are readily available today.
For much of the twentieth century, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was the only Reformed seminary of note in the United States. Dr. Francis Schaeffer, with his keen insights on culture, theology, and postmodernism, began his seminary education there. He would become a key figure in the early budding of the Reformed resurgence. In the 1960s, Reformed Theological Seminary was established in Jackson, Miss. Since that time, numerous other Reformed seminaries and campuses have been established. These Reformed seminaries have contributed to the rapid growth of Reformed denominations.
Scholars of twentieth-century evangelicalism often note the influence of Reformed parachurch organizations in the resurgence of Calvinism. In 1971, Dr. R.C. Sproul founded the Ligonier Valley Study Center in Ligonier, Pa., with the support of Dora Hillman and other Christian leaders in Pittsburgh. The study center was based on the model of Francis Schaeffer’s own European study center in Switzerland called L’Abri. In the early years of the Ligonier Valley Study Center, students attended lectures by teachers such as Dr. Sproul, Dr. John Gerstner, and other Reformed pastors and scholars. The lectures were recorded and distributed across the country and around the world. Through the work of the study center, later renamed Ligonier Ministries, and other groups, key tenets of Reformed theology including the five points of Calvinism and the five solas of the Reformation were more widely embraced in the larger evangelical movement by the end of the twentieth century.
Recent decades have seen increased interest in Reformed theology among young and old alike. New publishers are translating classic works of Reformed theology into English for the first time. Reformed scholars are at the forefront of work in Christian philosophy and historical theology. Problems remain, as they always will until Christ returns, but there is reason for encouragement in these contemporary developments, and even if we were seeing no outward reasons to be encouraged, we are still called to remain faithful to God’s Word and to press on in this and every century.