Where Have All The Theologians Gone?

On a recent visit to a bookstore in Gothenburg, I came across an early edition of Bonaventure’s commentary on Lombard’s Sentences. The following week in Copenhagen I bought a 1586 edition of Thomas’s Summa. Re-visiting those works caused me to ask myself, “Where have all the theologians gone today?” By “theologians,” I do not mean it in the sense of “everyone’s a theologian” but rather in the more technical sense concerning someone who is a trained theologian, a person who has distinguished themselves by their education, credentials, publications, and churchmanship.  

In my view, the church today is not producing enough theologians of the intellectual caliber of those who lived in the Medieval or Early Modern eras. Not even close. I don’t pretend to speak as a theologian. I am a pastor who likes theology, but I am not technically a theologian. Yet, I think I have enough awareness of theology and its historical development to know that for the 100s of eminent divines alive in the 1600s, for example, we have comparatively few today who could be called their intellectual equals.

If you don’t believe me, see how many professors of theology today could pass this Cambridge theological exam for undergraduates from 1855.

What are some of the reasons for the dearth of first-class theologians today? I shall offer a few thoughts, though I think the full picture is a worthwhile discussion.

First, there is a lack of rigorous linguistic training from a young age, especially in North America. Many M.Div graduates finish their degree barely knowing basic Greek and Hebrew. Most finish their degrees almost always speaking and reading only English. To catch up they have a long, painful road to travel.

At a conference in Dordrecht years ago I spent time talking to a colleague. I learned he was a native Italian speaker who spoke flawless English and decided to do his PhD in German. Besides that, he spoke and wrote in French and Latin. He could read classical Greek, Koine Greek, and Hebrew. I have other European friends with similar skills.

I think it was Gisbertus Voetius who would meet a friend for coffee, and they would speak in classical Greek just to brush up. In other words, these are the sort of linguistic skills that are typically needed to be a first-class theologian. Today we have folk writing works on Systematic theology who seem to only cite English sources! You can sense quickly when they are unable to work with primary sources in foreign languages because they are relying constantly on secondary literature that is almost always written in the English language. Knowing Latin, French and German are non-negotiables, I think, for a truly worthwhile contribution to the growing body of volumes on Systematic theology. If you cannot access and interact with some of the best thinkers from history your own work will necessarily suffer.

So, one reason we are lacking a large body of top theologians today is due to poor linguistic training. We need a renewed commitment to Christian humanism (and scholasticism).

Second, there is a lack of rigorous theological and philosophical training. Getting an M.Div or a Ph.D isn’t terribly difficult today. Obviously, there are some academic programs (much) tougher than others, but Seminary training in America, for example, is so expensive in some places that I fear many students are overwhelmed with debt or they are working long hours in grocery stores. Notwithstanding that, the rigor of the average seminary experience seems to be less demanding than what is needed. If I had my way, I’d ban all Seminary students from social media for three years while they devote themselves to massive amounts of reading and training in languages.

Not just the linguistic abilities, but the philosophical abilities of our older theologians were far better. One simply could not do theology at a high level if they did not have philosophical training. Aristotle is a must, if only to understand what theologians before the Enlightenment were talking about with their various concepts and terms. There’s a certain “language” of the Early Modern Period and you start to pick up on the various concepts and terms the more you read sources from which our divines were drawing from. In depth knowledge of St. Thomas is required if only to make sense of a lot of Reformed theology.

One also needs to be extremely well-read in the history of theology. I was acutely reminded of this when editing Charnock: he was not ashamed to show his critical dependence upon the wider Christian tradition. It may be today that there are works out there by individuals who are biting off a bit more than they can chew. They are attempting great things, but their work is so reliant on secondary literature that one wonders if they have done the necessary work to be able to discourse on such weighty topics. The pressure to publish is perhaps causing some to publish prematurely. In the last few years, I tried my hand at a work that was going to be a large tome on Protestant scholastic theology, but upon further reflection it is nowhere near the level it needs to be for publication and the 80,000 words or so I have written are not going to see the light of day any year soon. It’s another reminder to me that pastors can’t be (good) scholars!

Third, we are generally too distracted today. Some could be good theologians except they seem to spend too much time on social media. Like vendors setting up their shop each day, some appear to log on to twitter and spend hours having conversations, debates, fights, etc. I am not suggesting they are wrong or sinning, but it is hard to be a top theologian if you are spending hours a day on social media ruminating on theology, politics, sports, etc. The sheer volume of reading to become a top theologian will likely require limited and careful use of social media. For many, that is too much of a price to pay: so theology is treated more like a hobby when in fact it is urgent, demanding, painstaking, and consuming. Some of our best old theologians had to worry – quite literally – of enemies wishing to kill them, but today we worry about someone blocking us on twitter.

Fourth, in North America, one can be thought of as a great theologian because there has been a lowering of standards of what constitutes a theologian. We think of theologians as those who write popular books on theology. Some who are pastoral simplifiers of theological truths have an important role to play for the church, but we often mistake such for theologians. Readability for a mass group, often driven by monetization, has meant a general lowering of the bar of what was once much higher in our conception of a theologian. Or, to put it another way, theologians should almost never be popular celebrities or popular pastors, which means some of the good theologians today are unknown to the person in the pew. Those who can, in the long run, advance our thinking in key areas are exceedingly rare today, but that is precisely what we need.

In the past, especially before the Enlightenment, some of the best and brightest desired to be theologians. They were the “rock stars” of the day, and the church generally made sure they were trained well. Often these men carried significant political power as well since all theology was political and all politics was theological. We have gone from theology being the “queen of the sciences” to the “maid of the sciences.” The church does not apparently value great theologians, either, or they would do a better job of helping their best and brightest more than they currently do. This may explain why – and this may be a bitter pill to swallow for some – there are some stellar Roman Catholic theologians today, despite being critically wrong on some key doctrines. What Reformed theologian today can hold a candle to Thomas Joseph White on the doctrine of God?

So where have all the theologians gone? They died a long time ago, but God raises the dead!

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.