We Need a Neo-Evangelical Shakedown in Our Time

Starting in the forties, neo-evangelicalism shook up America and American Christianity for over fifty years. We need to do it again.

By Owen Strachan Published on October 29, 2015

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.

It was Crusade University, however, that pulled his constellation of interests into one. In this project, his love for theology, education, cultural engagement, and the life of the mind met. When Henry wrote to Graham to brainstorm plans for the great Christian research university in the mid-1950s, he made clear that existing Christian schools had not adequately addressed themselves to their milieu:

They have not in any significant way thrown themselves into the cultural crisis, but have abandoned the effective articulation of Christianity in relationship to the great cultural issues — education, economics, politics, art, and even theology — to the non-evangelical groups. Their passion has been evangelism, missions, and Christian education in the narrow sense, but not really Christian education in the large.

In response, Henry wanted Crusade to draw a top-rate faculty. These scholars would not simply “have managed to wrest out a respectable PhD.” They would dedicate themselves to “scholarly earnestness and production (not to outside preaching), restless to supply textbooks in the various spheres of study, and thus productive of students who are fired by the same devotion to scholarship and research (the future Augustines and Anselms and Calvins).”

This was an invigorating vision. It never came to fruition. It shows that the neo-evangelicals did not suffer from small dreams. Even after they formed various new institutions, they sought the academic Holy Grail: an Ivy League-quality university. Though Crusade University never came to be, it is ironically in this failed effort that we most see just how unique Henry and his peers truly were, how grand the neo-evangelical intellectual vision was, and how tumultuous the evangelical movement proved to be.

The Question Before Us

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?

You could ask the question in a different way. Will the church today ground itself in the inerrant Word, and think and write and engage confidently with non-Christian thought? Or will it allow secularism to descend like a shadow over all the West? This question we cannot yet answer — though we know what the neo-evangelicals would say. Perhaps, if some contemporary Christians catch the vision afresh, we will see a “thorough shakedown” in our own time, just as, because of their dedication to the evangelical mind, Ockenga, Graham, and Henry saw a shakedown in theirs.


Owen Strachan’s Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement, is now available. David S. Dockery, president of Trinity International University, called the book “a remarkable account … brilliantly researched” and  “a masterful contribution.”

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