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.