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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Review of Owen Strachan Awakening the Evangelical Mind

Awakening the Evangelical Mind
An Intellectual History Of The Neo-Evangelical Movement
Owen Strachan
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015
ISBN 9780310520795
240 pp; Hbk, £15.99

In 1994, Mark Noll wrote that ‘The the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind'. His complaint echoed that of Harry Blamires who in 1963 wrote more starkly: ‘There is no longer a Christian mind’. This was typified in the approach of evangelist Billy Sunday: 'I don’t know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit does about ping-pong … but I’m on the way to glory.' (72) However, as recent years have shown that scholars such as Noll, Alvin Plantinga, George Marsden, have demonstrated that there is a distinctly evangelical scholarship and that Christianity can hold its place at the academic table. Here Strachan traces this awakening to the work of Harold Ockenga, Edward Carnell, Carl Henry and those who Strachan designates as the ‘Cambridge Christians’ (these include Kenneth Katzner and George Eldon Ladd). I found this designation confusing at first because none of them did go to Cambridge University, but it becomes clear he means Cambridge, MA. The clear hero of Strachan’s story is Ockenga, he writes:
Ockenga’s name has slipped the evangelical memory. In this time, however, he was a movement leader of nearly unparalleled influence. … Ockenga must be reevaluated and restored to the position of prominence he enjoyed in his own. No other figure save for [Billy] Graham played a larger role in envisioning the cornerstone institutions of neo-evangelicalism; no figure, including Graham, did more than Ockenga to run, establish, and invigorate the premier institutions of the movement. (p 23)
This work is obviously focussed on the North American situation - as evidenced by his Cambridge designation - and on big personalities. It reinforces the notion that evangelicalism has tended to be personality-driven. Elsewhere Christians such as Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven and H. G. Stoker have clearly demonstrated what Christian scholarship looks like. Unfortunately, their voices have often been unheard. Hence, Strachan writes of a reawakening rather than a rediscovery.

The impetus or catalyst for this work appears to be the discovery of archival letters, writings and documents of Ockenga, Henry and Carnell. Strachan worked at the Carl F. Henry Center for Theological Understanding and has been able to access letters and documents from many of the key players.  The strength of this is that we are given new insights into these men but the weakness is that it can become something of a patchwork of the material gleaned from the archives. For example, we are given several extracts from letters to Ockenga’s one-time girlfriend Virginia Ray - but then suddenly Ockenga is married to Audrey Williamson. The only mention of the marriage is in a footnote which references Ockenga’s Who Who application.

The period in which Ockenga and Carnell operated was initially not a great time for evangelicals. As Douglas Frank has pointed out evangelicals entered the twentieth century as ‘Less than conquerors’. They were caught in conflict with both fundamentalists and modernists. It was the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 that marked the distinction between fundamentalists and (neo)evangelicals. The Scopes trial in 1923 and the end of Prohibition in 1933 were not high spots! Yet, the 30s saw a proliferation of Bible schools (75). It was then in the 40s around the Boston area that saw a number of soon to be influential evangelicals flourish. These included Samuel Schultz, Kenneth Kantzer, Merrill Tenney, John Gerstner, Burton Goddard, Roger Nicole, Terelle Crum, Edward John Carnell, Gleason Archer, George Eldon Ladd, Paul King Jewett, George Turner, J. Harold Greenlee, Jack P. Lewis, Lemoine Lewis, Lloyd Dean, and Glenn Barker (77). Most of them came, Daniel-like, into the modernist den of Harvard to study. Ockenga was clearly a great influence on these budding evangelical scholars. 

The strength of the book is the highlighting of the importance of the Plymouth Scholars’ Conferences launched by Ockenga in 1944 (Chapter 4) and the initiative of Crusade University by Henry (Chapter 6). The Plymouth Conferences at first led to grand visions and the intention to have an annual lectureship, a series of Old and New Testament commentaries printed by a ‘reputable publisher’, and a conservative version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia; sadly none of these materialised. As Strachan notes: ‘Aside from a few press releases, we can trace few public products of the gatherings themselves’ (103). 

At the first meeting of  the Evangelical Theological Society in 1949, Henry was the keynote speaker. He called for ‘distinctly Christian scholarship’ (122). His call was for the establishment of an evangelical Harvard. Strachan narrates the story of the plans to form what became known as Crusade University. Sadly, it never materialised. In part for lack of funding and disagreement over the geographical location, but it seems primarily because those involved could agree on the level of morality that was to be imposed on the campus students. Sadly, this reflects the narrow parochial, moral approach of many evangelicals. This chapter makes for a fascinating but ultimately, sad reading - let us hope lessons will be learned from it.

As Strachan notes in his introduction:
In Awakening the Evangelical Mind, we eavesdrop on the founding fathers of scholarly neo-evangelicalism as they share their frustration with one another over fundamentalism’s perceived academic shortcomings. We see their intellectual insecurity, their sometimes preening ambition, their considerable interest in proving themselves before a non-Christian audience that likely took less stock of the group than they might have wanted to admit. This is a quixotic, lively, and conflicted story. It is full of contradictions and paradoxes. (24)
Particularly with its discussions on the Plymouth conferences and Crusade University it makes an important contribution to the history of neo-evangelicalism. The Ockenga-Carnell-Henries in different ways paved the way for other evangelical academics, not least because they helped establish the NAE, Fuller Theological College, The Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (IFACS), Christianity Today, and the Evangelical Theological Society; it is good to see that they are being honoured in this book. 

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