Who will we be talking about 50 years from now?

One of things I love about teaching is being able to ask students questions that I don’t know the answer to. It’s fun. I get to throw something out there and see what the class comes up with. If they come up with something particularly insightful, and if my level of sanctification is running particularly low that day, I can pretend that I was steering them toward that conclusion all along. Makes me look like a genius. Teaching is fabulous.

One of the questions that I like to throw out to my church history class when we get to the twentieth century is, “Who do you think we’ll still be talking about 50 years from now?” Of course, in many ways, that is a very challenging question. How many of the theological giants of the 1950s are we still talking about? There are a few, but the majority of the “heavy hitters” of that generation have fallen into a quiet obscurity. And, that’s the way things usually go. Very few biblical and theological scholars rise to the level that their work is still being discussed 2-3 generations later. But, I like to toss the question out there and see what comes back.

I was reminded of this the other day when someone mentioned in a casual conversation that he thought NT Wright would be one of those people whose work would stand the test of time. He wasn’t saying that he thought NT Wright was the best and brightest of today’s Christian thinkers, nor was he saying that he thought NT Wright’s work was correct on every point. He was simply saying that NT Wright has had such an impact on biblical and theological studies that he would likely be the focus of discussion for generations to come.

So, acting like the teacher in front of the class, I want to toss this one back to you. What do you think? Of the Christian theologians, biblical scholars, speakers, and writers currently living (or, I guess we can cheat a little and include any who have died within the last ten years or so), which one(s) do you think we will still be talking about 50 years from now? Who do you think has (or will have by the end of his/her career) made such an impact on Christian thought that future generations will not be able to avoid talking about them? And, do you think NT Wright will be one of them?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 8, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Since I am the one who said Wright let me repeat it here: Wright. Also, J.D.G. Dunn has said a lot of things that while likely not likely influential in the long run will need to be challenged so he may have some length. Maybe Pannenburg, Moltmann, and Kung. Maybe amongst American evangelicals Carson, possibly Piper. Probably some African, Latin, and Asian theologians we are not paying attention to now but tho will emerge as more important as global Christianity focuses less and less here and more and more there.

    • Notice that I intentionally did not name you as my source for the comment on NT Wright.

      I’d have to disagree on Kung and Pannenberg. I don’t think Kung’s work has held up well over the last couple of decades, let alone the decades to come. Pannenberg has surprised me a little. Ten years ago I would have certainly thought he belonged in the discussion, now I don’t think so. Moltmann has more potential, but largely because of his influence on third world and “minority” theologians. If that influence holds, his theology could grow in importance as theirs does.

      Good comment about the importance of other theological perspectives. I would not be at all surprised to find out that the theologians we’re talking about 50 years from now are not the ones that we’d expect.

  2. Great question. Your comment about the heavy-lifters from 50 years ago being quietly obscure now is spot on (whither Bultmann? Tillich? Bernard Ramm?). Maybe Wright, but probably (?) more for his work on the resurrection than on NPP.

    Who will students read (or at least name check) in 2060?Wildcards: Stanley Hauerwas and/or William Cavanaugh. While not a theologian, Alvin Plantinga has been pretty important for philosophy of religion, so I’ll sneak him in. I’ll not hazard a guess beyond those (though I won’t have to answer for my responses, either:-)

    • What? Doesn’t everyone have the complete works of Paul Tillich on their shelves? Hauerwas is a great suggestion. He’d be on my list. As would Plantinga. He’d argue that theology and philosophy are not really distinct enterprises, so I don’t think he’d mind being included in the discussion.

      Cavanaugh is an interesting suggestion. For those not familiar with him, can you give a sentence or two on why you think he’s worth considering?

  3. William Cavanaugh is a Catholic theologian at some small school in Minnesota (I think). He studied with Hauerwas (but doesn’t cuss like him:). Where I think (hope) he will get traction, and so still be read in 50 years, is for his work on the relationship of “religion” to the “state.” He makes the argument that it is a myth that the state functions as a rational protector of the people from irrational religion which inevitably tends towards violence. He keyed off of the wars of religion in Europe, and argues that in fact this is the time when “religion” as a separable category of culture was created. Before that time, what we recognize as religion was inseparable from any other aspect of the social order. But the state “created” religion to validate its own exist of saving us from religious violence, etc. But the state has a tendency (ironically) to function as a surrogate religion in place of true faith by offering its own kind of salvation, eschatology, etc. And, lots more violence than “religion,” too.

    Here is a good starting place:
    http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin_mag/articles/35-23_cavanaugh.html

  4. I included Kung not so much for his theologizing as much as his continual “thorn-in-the-flesh” vocation to the papacy. He is a “Protestant Catholic” to the point where many Catholics just find him annoying. Other Catholics (esp. American Catholics?) seem to see him as a spokesperson.

    I think he will still be talked about because I think progressive Catholics will use some of his arguments against the Papacy and for a more inclusive “catholic” Catholicism. He may even be used by Catholics who favor religious pluralism. Finally, he will be used by Protestants who love to quote anyone who jabs the idea of the Papacy.

  5. In part I disagree with Pat that Wright’s NPP contributions won’t last. There is one important bridge he has built that scholars will use for many years to come—Paul and the gospels. His reading of Paul allows someone to go back and read Matthew without having to dismiss half of what Jesus said as either “in a different dispensation” or “setting the bar so high that people see their need for Messiah”, both readings that someone say, “OK, but that doesn’t sound like the author’s point”.

  6. Fair enough, Brian. I might be wrong on NTW. His contributions to NPP are significant and noteworthy. But I’m not confident that NPP will last or be conversation worthy in 50 years as far as that goes (e.g. Bultmann was the last guy to tell us how to really read Paul through new historical/philosophical lenses). Ridderbos and Vos do the job for me in connecting Paul and Jesus in ways that seem less tenuous theologically than Wright’s approach or the reductionistic “Lutheran” approaches.

  7. I agree that the NPP will be a thing of the past but neither do I ever see Pauline studies as going back to BEPS (before E.P. Sanders). I have not spent anytime with Ridderbos or Vos so I cannot speak to that.

  8. Let me see if I can prime the pump a bit more. What about evangelical theologians like Packer and Stott (from a prior generation) or Vanhoozer and Grenz (from the younger generation). Any other leading evangelicals come to mind?

    And, from other Christian traditions, what about Pope Benedict XVI (particularly when he was just known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), Edward Schillebeeckx, or John Zizioulas? Will we still be talking about them in 50 years? Any other Catholic or Orthodox theologians come to mind?

  9. I like Ratzinger and Zizioulas for it. Jaroslav Pelikan perhaps. I may be biased, but I do think they’ll still be using Dr. Wallace’s Greek syntax 50 years from now.

  10. I’ll throw out another wild card: (Orthodox) David Bentley Hart. He has the chops, but save for “Beauty of the Infinite,” he has not done anything other than commentary. I already mentioned Cavanaugh (Catholic). Evangelicals…too hard to say.
    Packer will be read, I suspect. As will Stott. Same for Eugene Peterson (e.g. Long Obedience, Contemplative Pastor).

    Evangelical historians like Noll and Marsden will be glossed in 50 years, too.

  11. Good call on Hart. I was hoping someone would mention him. I agree that he has not done enough yet, but he’s certainly worth discussing.

    I’m a little intrigued that we have not mentioned Rowan Williams or Robert Jenson yet. They are unquestionably among the more prominent theologians of the last 20 years.

  12. Ok, I’ll take the bait and chime in with a couple of guys I’m pretty sure we’ll be talking about fifty years from now. Call me a bandwagon junkie, but Piper would be on my list. I don’t think there is a guy in the last fifty years who has had the impact on reformed theology inside of the church like him. He’s one of the few academic minds that lives and breathes from behind the pulpit. He does more than just theologizing and philosophizing and actually connects both to the life and culture that the laity lives within. He’s in the trenches answering the tough questions. I would also throw out Karl Barth. Here’s a guy I knew nothing about eight months ago, and since reading several of his works have realized that he built a good portion of the protestant playground we’re playing in. This was a guy who almost single-handedly swung the church back from liberalism. I think his influence will hang around. I’ll also agree with J.I. Packer and John Stott. What about Dallas Willard? Outside of the theological realm, lets not forget Glenn Beck who was voted one of the 100 most influential people of our day. 🙂

  13. I agree that Piper should be on the list. Historically speaking, it’s always difficult to know when a popular figure like Piper will still be getting talked about 50 years later. There were a lot of influential churchmen 50 years ago that most of us have never heard of. But, Piper’s significance and writings suggest that he’s a good possibility.

    Barth is cheating. He died too long ago. I have no question that we’ll still be talking about him in 50 years, but he’s in another category (i.e. the ‘dead guys’ category).

  14. Enjoyed reading the various posts to a most interesting question. There are, however, some great theologians from the Lutheran tradition. Marc mentioned Robert Jensen, but there are some on the more conservative side of Lutheranism.

    • We’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Did you have some specific theologians or biblical scholars in mind?

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