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Those alive when the twentieth century began lived in a world that had been and still was experiencing unprecedented change. Longstanding empires had fallen. Others were reaching the height of their power as colonialism was at its peak. The wars caused by all of these events seemed never-ending. Additionally, the Second Industrial Revolution was creating massive social and economic changes as people fled the farms and filled the cities. Philosophically, the academy was still coming to grips with the questions of authority associated with the rise of modernity. Little did anyone then know, however, that the changes they had already witnessed would be almost nothing compared to what the twentieth century would bring.

Doctrinal Shifts in Europe and America

Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, questions of authority had remained at the forefront of philosophical and theological thinking. The authority of Scripture and/or the church was no longer taken for granted by most, but what was the alternative? Many Enlightenment thinkers had placed human reason in that exalted role, but others, such as those influenced by Romanticism, reacted against this. Christian theologians were forced to answer as well. In the nineteenth century, the father of German liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, proposed inward religious feeling as his authority. Several prominent Anglicans attempted to find authority in early Christian history, creating the Oxford Movement. The Roman Catholic Church established the dogma of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1869–70). Yet, in the midst of all this, there were still many, such as the Reformed theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary, who continued to defend the authority of the Bible.

As the twentieth century began, this dynamic continued. German liberalism continued to develop and to attempt to adapt to modern ways of thought. Adolf von Harnack, for example, published his What Is Christianity? in 1901, arguing that the inner truth of Christianity remained firm despite the fact that its external doctrinal form had been undergoing change since the first century. At the same time, the German History of Religions School was coming into its own with its claims that Christianity was a syncretistic combination of Jewish thought, mystery religions, and Stoic philosophy. The crisis in the cities caused by massive urbanization led to the rise of the social gospel under the leadership of theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch. This Protestant liberalism would not remain unchallenged, however. After World War I, a number of German theologians, including Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Rudolf Bultmann, reacted against liberal theology, developing what would come to be known as dialectical theology. These men differed with German liberalism primarily on the relationship of history and faith, but the differences among them would ultimately lead each of them in different directions. Bultmann would develop his theology along the lines of existential philosophy and would have an enormous influence especially in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but the most influential theologian among the dialectical theologians would prove to be Karl Barth, whose Neoorthodoxy continues to influence theologians of all stripes to this very day.

For several decades . . . Reformed theology was something of a small underground reality.

After the devastation of World War II, political theology developed, especially in the writings of Jürgen Moltmann. His work would heavily influence the rise and development of various forms of liberation theology (Latin American liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, etc.). These liberation theologies had as their goal the remaking of the social order politically, economically, and culturally. A number of liberation theologians combined their vision for a new social order with a doctrine of God based on the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Process theology, as it was developed by philosophical theologians such as Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb, was a radical redefinition of the traditional doctrine of God. In process theology, God has both an unchanging eternal aspect of His nature and a continually changing or becoming aspect of His nature. Process theology views God as something like the “soul” of the world, as it were, and is therefore identified with panentheism.

Doctrinal Shifts Within Evangelicalism

Twentieth-century evangelical theology also experienced several significant developments. Dispensational theology, which had begun in Britain under the leadership of John Nelson Darby, began to spread in the United States through Bible conferences and the establishment of Bible colleges. Dispensational theology is based on the idea that there are two peoples of God, Israel and the church. It is best known for its distinctive eschatological doctrines, including the pretribulation rapture of the church. Dispensational theology received its most significant push in 1909 with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensational theology became the majority view in American evangelicalism for much of the twentieth century through the teaching of theologians such as John F. Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost.

The strongest challenger numerically to the supremacy of dispensational theology in the twentieth century was Pentecostalism. Early Pentecostals were characterized by a belief in a second work of God in the lives of believers—the baptism of the Holy Spirit, confirmed by the gift of speaking in tongues. Early Pentecostals believed these tongues were real foreign languages, but many contemporary Pentecostals will identify tongues with one form or another of ecstatic speech or angelic languages. In the 1960s and 1970s, the charismatic movement arose because of the influence of Pentecostalism on many evangelicals from different denominations. Ultimately, Pentecostalism became one of the fastest-growing movements in the history of the church and has now spread to every part of the globe.

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.

Ethics in Flux

Turning the Other Cheek

Keep Reading The Twentieth Century

From the May 2020 Issue
May 2020 Issue