We Need a Neo-Evangelical Shakedown in Our Time

The time when the evangelical mind awakened — the 1940s — requires our consideration today

“We find ourselves in a remarkably similar cultural moment, constrained as we are to the cultural sidelines. The evangelical mind exists, and even thrives, today. But the question before us in 2015 is this: Will we embrace our marginalization? Or will we, like the neo-evangelicals, dream fresh dreams, hatch fresh plans, and seek something altogether unexpected in our time?”

 

Mark Noll’s famous judgment that there is not “much of an evangelical mind” has opened many eyes to the need for serious Christian scholarship in our time. It has also obscured the real accomplishments of past evangelicals. He said it in 1994 and even in 2015, many believers feel a palpable sense of defeatism. The Big Bad Wolf of Secularism seems all too fearsome. Maybe it’s better to have another youth group lock-in, rather than train them in theology and Bible.

Christians haven’t always had this mindset, despite our anti-intellectual stereotype. As I explore in Awakening the Evangelical Mind, a group of brilliant young Christians joined together in 1940s Boston to think deeply, learn widely, and vindicate the faith. This pack of midcentury Protestants called themselves the “new evangelicals.” Led by pastor Harold Ockenga and theologian Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, and allied with evangelist Billy Graham, they championed a freshly intellectual and culturally engaged brand of evangelicalism that broke with the separationist, preeminently defensive program of fundamentalism.

Ockenga’s name has slipped the evangelical memory. His anonymity notwithstanding, he was the premier institution-builder of the period. Tall, tanned, and handsome, Ockenga ascended the sacred desk of Boston’s Park Street Church from 1936 to 1969, preaching sermons without a note in front of him. The well-heeled Boston pastor did not confine himself to his pulpit, but promoted an ascendant evangelicalism through such institutions as the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1942), Fuller Theological Seminary (founded in 1947), and Christianity Today (founded in 1956).

Intellectual Pilgrims

In the late 1940s, Ockenga linked up with a merry assemblage of graduate students who were essentially intellectual pilgrims to Harvard. This was a group of tremendous promise; it included future evangelical leaders like Henry, Edward John Carnell, John Gerstner, Kenneth Kantzer, and George Eldon Ladd. These and nearly a dozen other peers of similar make enrolled at the university (and nearby Boston University) to gain elite training and credentials.

In these early years, no one caught the burgeoning vision more than E. J. Carnell. A man with a high forehead who wore dark suits on hot days, Carnell completed two doctorates simultaneously in the late 1940s, earning one from Harvard and another from Boston University. “I am possessed with a whole-soul conviction,” he wrote to Ockenga, that the way to restore “the glory of the church of Jesus Christ is a thorough shakedown of our educational program, from the grade school to the graduate divisions of our universities.” Carnell and his peers sought not a tweaking of the Christian academy, but a “thorough shakedown” of the evangelical mind.

In retrospect, the ambitions of this group of young thinkers seems almost preposterous. No project led them so close to Icarus as the one they could not ultimately pull off: Crusade University. For the theologian Carl F. H. Henry, this was Ahab, the great white whale he stalked his whole life but could not capture. Henry was brilliant. Like Carnell, he earned two doctorates, and by his mid-thirties had written a short book entitled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) that quickly sold over 100,000 copies. He later wrote the six-volume series God, Revelation, and Authority, which every seminarian should read.

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