Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Monthly Archive: May 2011



May 2011



Short Blogging Sabbatical

Written by , Posted in Missions, SBC

This will be my last post for about three weeks. I’m taking a short blogging sabbatical. For the first two weeks in June, I will be co-leading a Southeastern Seminary mission trip to a predominantly Muslim country. We will be working with some of our denominational missionaries to share the gospel and encourage some new converts who are preparing for baptism. Please pray that the Lord of the harvest would bless our labors in this country; less than 1% of her 164 million citizens are evangelical believers.

After I return to the states, our family will be vacationing in Florida. Though I’ll have internet access during that week and will likely be following the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix, I will not be blogging. I hope to return to the blogosphere on or around June 20.



May 2011



John Piper Interviews Rick Warren

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Theology

You may remember the stir it created last year when John Piper announced that Rick Warren would be speaking at the 2010 Desiring God Pastor’s Conference. Some folks were very concerned that Piper was compromising the gospel by sharing the platform with Warren. Others appreciated that Piper was willing to invite someone outside the normal types of speakers one expects at a Desiring God conference in particular and reformed conferences in general. Collin Hansen had some helpful thoughts about the issue in an April 2010 article for Christianity Today’s website.

As it turns out, Warren was unable to attend the conference because of family illnesses, but Piper promised that the two men would sit down for a video interview about doctrine. The long-awaited interview has finally been recorded and was posted this morning at Desiring God’s website. I hope the interview fosters an ongoing conversation among evangelicals (including Southern Baptists) about such issues as the doctrines of grace, various preaching styles, and how much our desire to reach unbelievers should shape our corporate worship gatherings.



May 2011



Harold John Ockenga and Pastor-Theologians: An Interview with Owen Strachan, Part 2

Written by , Posted in History, Ministry, SBC, Theology

This is the second half of an interview with Boyce College professor Owen Strachan. We’re discussing the twentieth-century pastor-theologian and evangelical statesman Harold John Ockenga. We’re also discussing the ongoing importance of pastor-theologians. You can read the first part of the interview here.

Nathan Finn: We are both involved in various ways with The Gospel Coalition. Do you think TGC is one attempt to recapture the spirit of Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham for the twenty-first century?

Owen Strachan: Absolutely. Tim Keller has talked about TGC attempting to revive and inhabit what he calls “classic evangelicalism,” which was developed by the three evangelical horsemen you just mentioned, with Ockenga as the statesman, Henry as the theologian, and Graham as the evangelist and public face of the movement. I personally see early neo-evangelicalism as a positive initiative, and so I am glad to see others picking up the mantle. There really is something powerful in evangelical unity and cobelligerence, in coming together around a doctrinal core for the purposes of advancing the gospel and strengthening the church. There are other aims that can be accomplished as well in such unity. My own dissertation focuses on how Ockenga and others stimulated a new interest in the life of the mind and the production of a potent theological and cultural apologetic that would provide an answer to skepticism and teach Christians how to take intellectual dominion of the world. I stand behind such a program and appreciate what the neo-evangelicals did along these lines. Of course, I think it is essential that groups uniting across denominational lines adhere closely to a theological core and vision. It also seems good for those cooperating based on common soteriology and missiology to make clear that such cooperation in no way minimizes the importance of the scriptural ordinances. TGC in my limited estimation is aware of these pitfalls and has thus far sidestepped them, in part because leaders like Don Carson knew Carl Henry very well and no doubt learned from him. I see a bright future for such ventures where they avoid the soft doctrinal core of neo-evangelicalism and the big-box evangelical tendency to downplay baptism and the Lord’s supper, which Christ has given his church for its identity, its witness, and its accountability to God. We need strong local churches anchored in confessional traditions; we also stand to thrive when like-minded believers unite for strategic purposes, as witnessed in early neo-evangelicalism in the form of Fuller Theological Seminary, Christianity Today, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

NAF: We are both Southern Baptists. In recent years, I’ve sensed a renewed emphasis in the SBC on the importance of pastor-theologians. Do you sense this as well, or am I just confused?

OS: You are not confused. Let not your mind be troubled. I see exactly what you see, and it thrills me. There is a growing and widespread interest in this historic model of the pastorate, exemplified by the ministries of such historic figures as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Criswell, Lloyd-Jones, Dever, and Piper. The younger generation of SBC students and pastors (and young evangelicals more broadly) has learned at the literary feet of many of these figures. They see a direct connection between the growth they have experienced through such ministry and the work these figures put into learning well in order to know the Scriptures and teach them with excellence. The important thing is always that the Word is preached. But when the word is handled skillfully and with excellence, Christians stand to thrive and flourish and brim with health. The younger generation has seen this, they’ve benefited from exceptional theological ministry in their own lives from a wide range of pastor-theologians, and they themselves hunger not simply to preach moral homilies and inspiring stories but to feed the people meat and not milk in order that they would take Christocentric dominion of all the earth and “remanate” glory to the author of life, as Edwards put it (there’s your mandatory Jonathan Edwards reference, Nathan!). The vision, if I may put it rather colloquially, sells itself. The proof is in the pudding. Provided pastors do not grow enamored with degrees or see themselves as undertaking theological training in order to host exclusivistic book clubs devoted to obscure passages of Hegel or Barth, this cycle will only continue–pastor-theologians who have devoted themselves to intensive study feeding people rich meals, who are in turn stirred to do the same. Theology is not airy; theology is practical. As Ligon Duncan said at Together for the Gospel some years back, “doctrine is for life.” Many today understand this and hunger to know more theology in order to know God more.

This whole movement is a massive sign of health in the SBC and the modern church. May it only continue, and may the students pouring into the schools at which you and I teach, sister schools, only spread the vision further.

NAF: Besides your forthcoming dissertation, what are some good resources you’d recommend for those who want to know more about Ockenga?

OS: Resources are scarce. Thankfully, Garth Rosell of Gordon-Conwell has written an engaging and informative text on Ockenga entitled The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. That is the first and best place to go. John Marion Adams wrote a dissertation on Ockenga entitled “The Making of a Neo-Evangelical Statesman: The Case of Harold John Ockenga” that is quite good. Carpenter’s Revive Us Again has helpful material. George Marsden’s novel-like Reforming Fundamentalism includes a good deal of material on the pastor-theologian. These resources are a place to start.

NAF: Besides the Piper-Carson book, what about resources for those who are committed to being pastor-theologians (or theologians who are also pastors)?

OS: There aren’t a ton of resources here, either. I would go to Douglas Sweeney’s Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word for starters. He has several words at the close of the book about the need for pastor-theologians. Doug has really helped to shape my vision for this topic. Bruce Gordon’s Calvin will shed light on the topic. Brooks Holifield’s God’s Ambassadors and Gentlemen Theologians have some rich material on this subject. There is a great need for further writing and thinking on this topic.

Thank you for the chance to respond to these questions, Nathan. Really appreciate it—and your ministry at Southeastern.



May 2011



Harold John Ockenga and Pastor-Theologians: An Interview with Owen Strachan, Part 1

Written by , Posted in History, Ministry, SBC, Theology

Many of the most important thinkers in Christian history were pastor-theologians-pastors or other clergy who wrote theology from and for the church. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in pastor-theologians among evangelicals, including Southern Baptists. In my opinion, this is a most encouraging trend. One of the main reasons I serve as a seminary professor is because of a burden to help equip a generation of pastor-theologians and other theologically minded gospel ministers.

Owen Strachan shares the same burden. Owen serves as Instructor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. He also blogs at his personal website. Owen is completing a PhD in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Prior to joining the Boyce faculty, Owen served as the Managing Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the founding Associate Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS. He’s also a fellow for the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology, which according to its website is “an organization dedicated to assisting pastor-theologians in producing biblical and theological scholarship for the ecclesial renewal of theology and the theological renewal of the church.”

Owen is the co-author of the five-volume The Essential Edwards Collection (Moody Press, 2010). He is also co-editor of The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry (Crossway, 2011). Jonathan Edwards was, of course, the most famous pastor-theologian in American history and a role model for many contemporary pastor-theologians. The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor includes core chapters from John Piper and Don Carson. Piper is arguably the most prominent pastor-theologian among contemporary evangelicals while Carson is a role model for those who, like me, desire to be pastorally minded academic theologians.

Owen is writing his doctoral dissertation on the twentieth-century pastor-theologian Harold John Ockenga, the long-time pastor of Park Street Church in Boston and the founding president of two important evangelical seminaries. Today, Ockenga is a regrettably little-known figure, but he was arguably the most influential evangelical of the past century not named Billy Graham. Owen has graciously agreed to an interview on Ockenga’s life and legacy and the ongoing importance of pastor-theologians. Today’s post includes the first part of the interview. The second half of the interview will be published tomorrow.


Nathan Finn: When I teach on twentieth century evangelicalism, I find that virtually none of my students have ever heard of Harold John Ockenga. Who was Ockenga and why should we care about him?

Owen Strachan: Harold John Ockenga (pronounced Ock-in-gay) was the John Piper of his day. He was a brilliant man, an unparalleled leader and institution builder who nonetheless loved pastoral ministry more than anything else. From Chicago, Ockenga went to Taylor University, Princeton Theological Seminary, just-formed Westminster Theological Seminary, and the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a PhD. At just 31 years of age, by the machinations of mentor J. Gresham Machen and others, Ockenga was tapped to be the successor to legendary pulpiteer A. Z. Conrad of Park Street Church of Boston’s Beacon Hill. Park Street was and is one of America’s most influential reformed congregations. Ockenga preached at the church for 33 years, feeding his people 45-minute sermons full of exegesis, theology, philosophy, and cultural commentary that he memorized and delivered flawlessly without a note. He was the founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the founding president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the founding board chairman of Christianity Today, and the first president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote twelve books, was awarded nine honorary degrees, and with Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry, ruled the roost of evangelicalism for a generation. He was married to Audrey and raised three children. For us not to know about Ockenga is like evangelicals in thirty years having no clue who John Piper was. He is a figure of almost peerless importance and deserves far more attention and analysis than he has received.

NAF: What first interested you in writing a dissertation on Ockenga? I thought all of Doug Sweeney’s students were required to write on Jonathan Edwards.

OS: Yes, I have left the reservation. One can only punch out of writing on JE if one publishes on him or names a son after him (I’m two for two). Edwards was an initial interest for me, but so much of the ground has been covered there that I felt it fruitful to try and find a relatively unexplored area of church history in order to keep my interest and serve the church. In other words, I did not wish to write on “Evidences of Speciesism in Jonathan Edwards’s 1740 sermons in Topsfield, Massachusetts.” I wanted a broader topic to sink my teeth into. Bad history jokes aside, I was reading Joel Carpenter’s engrossing Revive Us Again for a seminar on evangelical history with Shawn Wright at Southern Seminary and came across Ockenga. Carpenter paints a compelling sketch of Ockenga in the book, and I was hooked, because Ockenga was a pastor-theologian, a major player in his day, and a fruitful New England Christian—this last part won me over due to my Maine roots. There are so very few public bright lights in conservative New England Christianity in the last 150 years, and so I was both surprised and excited to learn more about Ockenga. In the footnote giving background on Ockenga, Carpenter wrote, and I quote from memory, “Relatively little has been written about Ockenga.” From that point in the spring of 2006 I knew I had my topic. This subject has more than held my attention for the last several years. I would be interested in working on a scholarly biography of Ockenga, but we will have to see if the Lord has that for me or someone else.



May 2011



Some Thoughts on Historical Revisionism

Written by , Posted in History, SBC

Many folks get nervous at the idea of historical revisionism. I think I understand why–they are concerned that scholars are playing fast-and-loose with history. And there are plenty of examples of historians doing just that. And yet, I agree with those who argue that all historians are revisionists. Hello, my name is Nathan Finn, and I am a historical revisionist.

Simply put, historians cannot tell a story without interpreting it. And we all have different perspectives, levels of training, access to relevant sources, logical acumen, etc. Furthermore, no one historian has omniscient understanding about historical events. So it is inevitable that different historian will make the case for different understandings of historical events, some of which are no doubt better than others. All of this, when done rightly, lends to better historical understanding.

Let’s use the founding of the SBC as an example. For the sake of space, I’ll limit the discussion to Baptist historians affiliated with a denominational college or seminary. For about a century, the dominant interpretation among Baptist historians was that the SBC was formed primarily because of differences in missions philosophy, specifically the question of missionary qualifications. It then became vogue for denominational historians to argue that the SBC was formed almost entirely because of southern support of slavery. In the past generation, historians have added further layers of nuance. Part of the missions debate surrounded the southern perception that the northern-controlled missions societies were fleecing Baptists in the South. And the slavery debate occurred in the context of other sectional differences between North and South, though slavery was surely the most obvious.

Most Baptist historians today agree that the SBC was formed as a result of a combination of factors, with slavery serving as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” that precipitated the final break between missionary Baptists in America. Historical revisionism has led us to this more nuanced, comprehensive understanding of the formation of the SBC. And there is no doubt further light for future historians to uncover.

Historian John Fea of Messiah College has written an excellent article for the Confessing History blog at Patheos titled “All Historians are Revisionists.” I think Fea gets it right. I am a revisionist historian because I’m a historian. My goal is to be an honest, coherent, competent, God-honoring revisionist historian.