Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher



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.