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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  • Wayne Cook

    There hasn’t been a serious intellectual theologian since Francis Schaeffer. Lots of names out there, but no beacons. Evangelical Christianity today has been largely successful in stopping them from speaking. The church is pretty good at kicking wounded yet today. I know a fair number of Phd’s…none of them could fill the shoes of Schaeffer.

    • cken

      Part of the problem is you don’t have to be all that bright to get your Piled higher and deeper (Phd) in recent decades. The result is we get remixes or esoteric religious fantasy from them. Original thinking creating a synthesis between theology and the real world has long been a lost art. Such a synthesis done well creates a synergistic effect and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Let us hope someone arises who knows ancient theology (the bible), science, and the real world.

    • John Hutchinson

      I can give you a few reasons:

      He will have to transcend the locale, times, and heritage from whence that individual comes. Schaeffer benefitted
      by being an American in a European milieu. Your current intellectual theologians are stinking of Americanism (e.g. Wayne Grudem’s “Politics – According to the Bible” (2010)), and haven’t caught up with the transformative ideas of
      Schaeffer of the 1970s, let alone contend with that which is 35+ years later.

      He will be a broad thinker like Schaeffer, who joins several notions together without being too concerned with dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”; rather than a nose-to-the-text scholar-pastor or pastor-scholar, every present preacher and theologian is promoting.

      He will speak the language of cultural Athens, rather than cultural Jerusalem. Exegesis and hermeneutics, although necessary, will take an equal stage with logic, reason, and empirical evidence. His faith will be sufficiently strong not to be afraid of reading the most unChristian of writings. His take on the Gospel will begin on
      the existence and knowability of truth, rather than that of sin.

      He will not likely be a seminarian, who in the name of credentials and good-standing, toe the ecclesiastical
      party line, and whose knowledge is so myopic. Rather, he will be from outside the mainstream of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, while remaining very much in the heart of Biblical orthodoxy. Therefore, the visible orthodox church, which is still singing of “Glory Days”, will become his greatest foe and impediment. He will be a prophet, with a saturnine rage against the obtuseness, folly, and conceit of the current establishment. If that individual wants to get published, that person will have to circumvent the Christian gatekeepers. He will need testicles of steel; and probably a bulletproof vest, not to protect him from the secularists, but from those of the ecclesiastical orthodoxy.

      He will require an audience who is sufficiently unsatisfied with the status quo.

      I do despair.

  • SD

    Christians must come to grips with the impact of globalization on religious thought. No longer is an exclusivist “we have the RIGHT religion, all others are WRONG” viable. Religion was warped to support the building of cultural identities and even “us vs. them” mentalities in the past. The teachings of Christ became less important than believing in his God-hood and the story around him. Muslims, Buddhists, and others were all wrong – false religions, false teachings, dangerous paths away from God. In the future, religion has to grapple with the fact that in different cultural worlds the same kind of ideas have led to different stories, beliefs and religious dramas. The feeling of connection – the heartfelt belief in being touched by the spirit – is similar across these religious traditions. Is it possible to be a Christian but to reject the theology of exclusivness (the one true faith)? Can one say “I hold this to be true,” but not judge others on anything but principle, rather than which story they believe in? Secularism thrives because compared to exclusive religious beliefs (which seems to make salvation more a matter of birthplace than anything else), it makes more sense. It is more believable. To counter that in an era of increasing globalization Christians (and Muslims, etc.) must confront the fact that their embrace of exclusivest theology may actually doom their future.

  • cken

    It is axiomatic there are many intelligent thinking Christians out there. Unfortunately far too many are seeking what they can’t get in organized religion. They are called SBNRs. What we need is to get back to the God of the gospels and the apostolic area. Today we tend to worship a remote God who is somewhere up there in some place we call Heaven. That is a dead God. The God I worship is alive in the here and now. He is the God described in Ephesians 4:6. He is a God who talks to us in a variety of ways the same way He talked to people in the Bible. We have just gotten really bad at listening. Unfortunately organized religion seems not to care about our spiritual maturity or the closeness of our relationship to God.

    All they seemingly want is a preacher who is a good enough salesman to fill the pews and the coffers. This of course gives the rulers at the top of the organized food chain time to come up with and or discard more rules they claim are based on the Bible but are really a function of the culture and their own bias. Organized religion is a corrupt evil beast and has been for almost 1700 years when Christianity first sold out to the politicians. And don’t get me started on modern apologetics.

Walking in God’s Wisdom: Psalm 5:8
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