Harold Ockenga and the New Evangelical Movement he Founded
The following is a review of the book The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism by Garth M. Rosell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). Rosell is the son of Merv Rosell, an evangelist who associated with Ockenga, Graham, and other leaders of the New Evangelical movement.
OCKENGA WAS THE FOUNDER OF THE NEW EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT AND ENUNCIATED THAT MOVEMENT’S REJECTION OF SEPARATION
Harold Ockenga (1905-85) was possibly the most influential evangelical leader of the 20th century. He was pastor of the prominent Park Street Church in Boston, founder of the National Association of Evangelicals, co-founder and first president of Fuller Theological Seminary, first president of the World Evangelical Fellowship, president of Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and chairman of the board and one-time editor of Christianity Today.
In the 1950s Ockenga helped found the New Evangelical movement that rejected separatism and aimed at a more positive and pragmatic philosophy as opposed to the negativism and isolation of fundamentalism.
In a speech he gave in 1947 at the founding of Fuller Seminary, Ockenga said:
“We repudiate the ‘Come-outist’ movement which brands all Denominations as apostate. We expect to be positive in our emphasis, except where error so exists that it is necessary for us to point it out in order to declare the truth. The positive emphasis will be on the broad doctrinal basis of a low Calvinism” (p. 176).
“Neo-evangelicalism was born ... in connection with a convocation address which I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism, this address REPUDIATED ITS ECCLESIOLOGY AND ITS SOCIAL THEORY. The ringing call for A REPUDIATION OF SEPARATISM AND THE SUMMONS TO SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT received a hearty response from many evangelicals. The name caught on and spokesmen such as Drs. Harold Lindsell, Carl F.H. Henry, Edward Carnell, and Gleason Archer supported this viewpoint. We had no intention of launching a movement, but found that the emphasis attracted widespread support and exercised great influence. Neo-evangelicalism... DIFFERENT FROM FUNDAMENTALISM IN ITS REPUDIATION OF SEPARATISM AND ITS DETERMINATION TO ENGAGE ITSELF IN THE THEOLOGICAL DIALOGUE OF THE DAY. IT HAD A NEW EMPHASIS UPON THE APPLICATION OF THE GOSPEL TO THE SOCIOLOGICAL, POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC AREAS OF LIFE. Neo-evangelicals emphasized the restatement of Christian theology in accordance with the need of the times, the REENGAGEMENT IN THE THEOLOGICAL DEBATE, THE RECAPTURE OF DENOMINATIONAL LEADERSHIP, AND THE REEXAMINATION OF THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS SUCH AS THE ANTIQUITY OF MAN, THE UNIVERSALITY OF THE FLOOD, GOD'S METHOD OF CREATION, AND OTHERS” (Ockenga, foreword to Harold Lindsell’s book The Battle for the Bible).
Ockenga represented the changing mood of the sons of the old fundamentalists. They were tired of exposing error and separating from modernistic, compromised denominations and churches.
That new generation of evangelicals determined to abandon a militant Bible stance. Instead, they would pursue dialogue, intellectualism, and appeasement. They determined to stay within apostate denominations to attempt to change things from within rather than practice biblical separation. The New Evangelical would dialogue with those who teach error rather than proclaim the Word of God boldly and without compromise. The New Evangelical would meet the proud humanist and the haughty liberal on their own turf with human scholarship rather than follow the humble path of being counted a fool for Christ’s sake by standing simply upon the Bible. New Evangelical leaders also determined to start a “rethinking process” whereby the old paths were to be continually reassessed in light of new goals, methods, and ideology.
New Evangelicalism has swept the globe. Today it is no exaggeration to say that those who call themselves evangelicals are New Evangelicals; the terms have become synonymous. Old-line evangelicals, with rare exceptions, either have aligned with the fundamentalist movement or have adopted New Evangelicalism. The evangelical movement today is the New Evangelical movement. For all practical purposes, they are the same.
Ernest Pickering observed: “Part of the current confusion regarding New Evangelicalism stems from the fact that there is now little difference between evangelicalism and New Evangelicalism. The principles of the original New Evangelicalism have become so universally accepted by those who refer to themselves as evangelicals that any distinctions which might have been made years ago are all but lost. It is no doubt true to state that ‘Ockenga’s designation of the new movement as New or Neo-Evangelical was abbreviated to Evangelical. ... Thus today we speak of this branch of conservative Christianity simply as the Evangelical movement’” (The Tragedy of Compromise, p. 96).
OCKENGA WAS A POWERFUL INFLUENCE ON BILLY GRAHAM
Billy Graham is without question the popular face of New Evangelicalism. Historian George Marsden said that a good definition of an evangelical is simply “anyone who likes Billy Graham” (The Surprising Work of God, p. 18). But while Billy Graham is the popular face of New Evangelicalism, Harold Ockenga was the brain behind the movement. At Ockenga’s funeral in 1985, Graham said, “He was a giant among giants. Nobody outside of my family influenced me more than he did. I never made a major decision without first calling and asking his advice and counsel” (p. 17).
OCKENGA WAS YOUNG
New Evangelicalism was founded by young men. When Ockenga renounced separatism he was in his 30s. One reporter observed that the leaders of the Billy Graham crusade in Boston, in 1950 where Ockenga had a central role, “were nearly all in their twenties and early thirties” (p. 138). It was the Boston crusade that “established Billy Graham’s reputation as the outstanding evangelist of his time” (p. 147).
Young men have zeal and vision, but they lack experience and wisdom, and they should be influenced by older men who have a large measure of these important things.
History is repeating itself today in the fundamentalist movement with the “younger fundamentalists” questioning separatism.
OCKENGA WAS A SEPARATIST DURING THE EARLY PART OF HIS MINISTRY
In 1929, Ockenga left Princeton Theological Seminary because of its theological modernism. He followed J. Gresham Machen and other conservative Presbyterians out of Princeton and continued his studies at the newly established Westminster Theological Seminary. In those days, Ockenga wrote:
“Princeton has changed and can never be the same, so they set forth to organize a new seminary which would be true to God’s Word. ... I left Princeton, an assured degree, an assured Fellowship which would send me to Europe, and all the material advantages and came here to Westminster Theological school. It was a question of taking a definite stand for Christ and we have done it, but at great cost” (pp. 58, 59).
In the early days of his pastorate at Park Street Church in Boston beginning in 1936, Ockenga said that separation was necessary.
“Tragic as it is, the controversy between Christianity and Modernism is necessary. ... [If] the present, powerless, depleted, diminished Church is again to enjoy God’s blessing and receive times of refreshing from on high, that Church must purify itself from the hoary heresies of antiquity and from the questionable ethics of many of its leaders. ... Then it falls to us to withdraw all membership, influence and financial support from Modernistic organizations and throw it one hundred percent toward Bible Christianity” (p. 88).
This was a bold stand, but eventually Ockenga bent under pressure and found a more pragmatic way than simple faithfulness to God’s Word. He would turn away from the charge that was given at his ordination by J. Gresham Machen. Preaching on the threatening letter that came to King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 19, Machen charged Ockenga to take a stand for truth and not to fear controversy. Machen said:
“Today, all over the world, public opinion is overwhelmingly against the gospel of Jesus Christ [even among those who dominate] the life and machinery of the churches. ... If we are not standing in opposition in the presence of a hostile world, we are no true disciples of Jesus Christ. The teaching of our Lord is full of controversy--because he set his righteousness sharply in opposition to the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. ... when the Spirit moves in power in the Church of Jesus Christ ... the miserable, feeble talk about the avoidance of controversy on the part of Christian men and preachers of Jesus Christ, will all be swept away as with a mighty flood. A man on fire with a message never speaks in a way like that; never speaks with the indifferent manner of the world, but proclaims his gospel in the presence of the world of enemies, briefly and nobly in the presence of everything that is lifted up against the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 68).
This was a true and mighty challenge, but Ockenga ultimately renounced it, and the evangelical world has become a traitor to the truth by its unwillingness to earnestly contend for the whole counsel of God and to separate from the enemies of the Word of God.
OCKENGA WAS A PROTESTANT
It is important to understand that the evangelical movement is fundamentally a Protestant movement. This is why it has the universal view of the church and is careless about the mode of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, usually allowing for infant baptism and sacramentalism. Ockenga began his ministry as a Methodist but he easily changed over to Presbyterian. In fact, he said, “I will now have had the experience of ordination from a Methodist Bishop and from a Presbyterian Presbytery” (p. 64).
OCKENGA BOUGHT INTO THE ERROR THAT THERE ARE “UNESSENTIAL DOCTRINAL DIFFERENCES”
After arriving in Boston, Ockenga participated in the New England Fellowship and was influenced by its founder and president J. Elwin Wright, who sought for an evangelical ecumenism. Wright warned against “carping and unkind criticism of our brethren of like precious faith” (p. 96), not acknowledging that criticism does not have to be unkind and in fact is necessary in order to maintain doctrinal and moral purity (Proverbs 6:23). Paul criticized false teachers and compromisers repeatedly in his epistles.
Wright was “a tireless advocate for evangelical cooperation” (p. 89), but the only way that churches that hold different doctrines can associate in joint ministries such as evangelism is to downplay their differences. We are told that the various denominations that participated in the New England Fellowship (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Holiness, Pentecostal, etc.) were able to “submerge their unessential differences” (p. 90). These differences consisted of things such as the gifts of the Spirit, eternal security, modes of baptism, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, ecclesiology, women preachers, sinless perfection, and sovereign election.
These are called “secondary” or “peripheral” doctrines, but they are never treated as such in Scripture. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the churches to teach “them to observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
Paul did not preface the last half of his epistles with the words, “Now, dear readers, I am going to give you some unessential doctrine and it is not necessary to take this as seriously as what I wrote previously.”
In fact, when the apostle wrote to Timothy to instruct him in church doctrine he concluded with these words:
“I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; that thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:13-14).
Timothy was instructed to keep the commandment of 1 Timothy without spot. That refers to attention to the details. Timothy was to honor and obey everything the apostle had delivered to him by divine inspiration. And this epistle contains many things that are considered “secondary” by evangelicals, such as standards for pastors and deacons, the woman’s role in the church, and support and discipline of elders. We know that not everything in the Bible is of equal importance, but everything has some importance, and we do not have the authority to set aside some things in order to have a wider fellowship and broader ministry. That is treachery to God’s Word. Saul lost his kingship because he did not honor all of the Word of God (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
The New England Fellowship had a powerful influence on the formation of The National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, and Ockenga was a chief player. He traveled across the country meeting with Christian leaders and encouraging them to support the new organization and its inclusive philosophy, and he became its first president.
From the beginning, Ockenga supported the inclusion of Pentecostals in spite of their heresies pertaining to Spirit baptism, filling, and gifts, among others.
The philosophy of “secondary” doctrine has become the working philosophy of modern-day evangelicalism, but it is a damnable thing that has caused great spiritual destruction.
OCKENGA HELD TO MANY GOOD THINGS BUT HE DID NOT SEE THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO MAINTAIN THE TRUTH IF ONE’S ASSOCIATIONS ARE CORRUPT
The Bible warns, “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33), but Harold Ockenga did not take this to heart and instead renounced separatism and called for the infiltration of modernistic denominations and institutions, and this oversight and disobedience has resulted in the ruin of evangelicalism.
Ockenga was “open to cooperation whenever it could be done without theological compromise” (p. 158), but it is impossible to cooperate with error without theological compromise.
The corruption that has spread throughout evangelicalism over the past half century is well documented and is admitted by some of the more candid and honest evangelicals:
Harold Lindsell, who was vice-president of Fuller Seminary and editor of Christianity Today, said in 1985: “Evangelicalism today is in a sad state of disarray. ... It is clear that evangelicalism is now broader and shallower, and is becoming more so. Evangelicalism’s children are in the process of forsaking the faith of their fathers” (Christian News, Dec. 2, 1985).
Francis Schaeffer, speaking at the 1976 National Association of Evangelicals convention, said: “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger in number if significant numbers of those under the name of ‘evangelical’ no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical?” (Schaeffer, “The Watershed of the Evangelical World: Biblical Inspiration”).
A 1996 Moody Press book entitled The Coming Evangelical Crisis documented the apostasy of Evangelicalism.
“... evangelicalism in the 1990s is an amalgam of diverse and often theologically ill-defined groups, institutions, and traditions. ... THE THEOLOGICAL UNITY THAT ONCE MARKED THE MOVEMENT HAS GIVEN WAY TO A THEOLOGICAL PLURALISM THAT WAS PRECISELY WHAT MANY OF THE FOUNDERS OF MODERN EVANGELICALISM HAD REJECTED IN MAINLINE PROTESTANTISM. ... Evangelicalism is not healthy in conviction or spiritual discipline. Our theological defenses have been let down, and the infusion of revisionist theologies has affected large segments of evangelicalism. Much damage has already been done, but a greater crisis yet threatens” (R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical What’s in a Name?” The Coming Evangelical Crisis, 1996, pp. 32, 33, 36).
Consider just a few specific examples of doctrines that Ockenga believed that were given up by his sons and daughters in the New Evangelical movement.
Ockenga believed in the infallible inspiration of the Bible and called this “the watershed of modern theological controversy” (The Surprising Work of God, p. 82). But he called on evangelicals to associate with those who deny the Bible’s infallibility, and as a result the movement has become riddled with unbelief.
Consider the testimony of Carl Henry in 1976: “A GROWING VANGUARD OF YOUNG GRADUATES OF EVANGELICAL COLLEGES WHO HOLD DOCTORATES FROM NON-EVANGELICAL DIVINITY CENTERS NOW QUESTION OR DISOWN INERRANCY and the doctrine is held less consistently by evangelical faculties. … Some retain the term and reassure supportive constituencies but nonetheless stretch the term’s meaning” (Carl F.H. Henry, pastor senior editor of Christianity Today, “Conflict Over Biblical Inerrancy,” Christianity Today, May 7, 1976).
In 1976 and 1979, Harold Lindsell published two volumes documenting the frightful downgrade of the Bible in evangelicalism. This careful documentation by a man who was in the inner circle of evangelicalism’s leadership for many decades left no doubt that the evangelical world of the last half of the twentieth century was deeply leavened with apostasy.
Lindsell said, “I must regretfully conclude that the term evangelical has been so debased that it has lost its usefulness. ... Forty years ago the term evangelical represented those who were theologically orthodox and who held to biblical inerrancy as one of the distinctives. ... WITHIN A DECADE OR SO NEOEVANGELICALISM . . . WAS BEING ASSAULTED FROM WITHIN BY INCREASING SKEPTICISM WITH REGARD TO BIBLICAL INFALLIBILITY OR INERRANCY” (Harold Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance, 1979, p. 319).
In 1978, Richard Quebedeaux warned: “... it is a well-known fact that A LARGE NUMBER, IF NOT MOST, OF THE COLLEGES AND SEMINARIES IN QUESTION NOW HAVE FACULTY WHO NO LONGER BELIEVE IN TOTAL INERRANCY...” (Quebedeaux, The Worldly Evangelicals, p. 30).
In 1983, Francis Schaeffer warned: “WITHIN EVANGELICALISM THERE ARE A GROWING NUMBER WHO ARE MODIFYING THEIR VIEWS ON THE INERRANCY OF THE BIBLE SO THAT THE FULL AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE IS COMPLETELY UNDERCUT. … Accommodation, accommodation. How the mindset of accommodation grows and expands. . . . With tears we must say that largely it is not there and that A LARGE SEGMENT OF THE EVANGELICAL WORLD HAS BECOME SEDUCED BY THE WORLD SPIRIT OF THIS PRESENT AGE” (Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, 1983, pp. 44,141).
Consider, secondly, that Ockenga believed in the necessity of the new birth and called for clear evidence of conversion (p. 83). But he condemned the practice of separating from those who don’t believe this and who accept mere infant baptism and church membership as salvation. As a result, evangelicalism is riddled with pastors and church members that don’t have a biblical testimony of salvation.
Ockenga also believed in total abstinence and promoted a “five point program to end the production, distribution, and use of alcohol” (p. 172). He urged people to “talk with the children in the church and the home and warn them of the evils of drink” and challenged them to “write in your Bible, ‘I will abstain from all alcoholic beverages’” (p. 172). But he taught evangelicals to become more “culturally relative” and to associate with liberals who drink, and it is not surprising that his grandchildren in the faith, the emerging church, love to drink. (See “Emerging Church Loves to Drink” at the Way of Life web site.)
Ockenga believed that “only the atoning work of Christ on the cross was sufficient to forgive sins, tame the rebellious heart, and bring genuine peace with God” and that “consequently, the fundamental solution to human sinfulness and the starting point for all genuine social reform is the transforming power of the gospel” (p. 173). But because of the evil communications that have resulted from the disavowal of biblical separation, Ockenga’s grandchildren believe that the pursuit of social-justice issues apart from gospel preaching is perfectly legitimate. (See our book “The Emerging Church” for extensive documentation.)
There are many other things that Harold Ockenga and the other founders of New Evangelicalism believed that their children and grandchildren have either questioned or soundly rejected. This is very sad, but does not the Bible warn, “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
OCKENGA WAS WARNED
When Ockenga renounced separatism and compromised the position he had formerly held, he was warned and exhorted by his uncompromising brethren.
For example, his old friend and colleague Billy Hawks, wrote in December 1947:
“I I feel like weeping and lamenting and mourning over you. ... some of the things you are doing only cause me grief and heaviness of heart. [It] grieves me Harold to see you giving way here a little and there a little to policies that will be the ruination of our country. [You] ought to be a trumpet of God in America [yet you] are fast succumbing to the inclusivistic trends that will sink us into the sea of oblivion spiritually as surely as it has the countries across the sea. ... Combination is weakness! Separatism is Power! in the sight of God” (p. 177).
The same warning was given repeatedly to Billy Graham, but both he and Ockenga ignored it and mischaracterized the warnings as divisive hatemongering. (See the article “Graham Was Warned Many Times” at the Way of Life web site.)
OCKENGA AND HIS FELLOW NEW EVANGELICALS WERE HYPOCRITICAL ABOUT JUDGMENTALISM AND CRITICISM
Ockenga and his associates preached against judgmentalism and “criticism of the brethren.” Merv Rosell said, “I have persistently refused to become a party to criticism” (p. 159). They have refused to criticize Modernists and Romanists, but they have bitterly criticized Fundamentalists. They have labeled them Pharisees, Legalists, Hateful, Divisive, Non-intellectual, Mean-spirited, Hurtful to the Body of Christ, and many other things.
“I think that these fundamentalists are doing irreparable harm to our movement by identifying Christianity with ‘Thou shall not.’ They have lost all the joy out of Christianity and Christian living. They have made it negative. They are dividing to absurdity and I assure you that I myself will have nothing to do with that kind of movement” (p. 184).
Those are strong, hyper-critical, judgmental words, and they aren’t even true. I don’t know of any sound fundamentalist Bible believers that have lost all joy because they take the Bible seriously. Yes, there are plenty of negatives in the Bible and tons of “thou shalt nots,” but the fundamentalists that I have known these past 36 years have plenty of wholesome fun.
The fact is that the one great spiritual enemy that New Evangelicals consistently identify and attack are fundamentalist Bible believers. Their judgment of fundamentalists is merciless. This has been a consistent mark of New Evangelicalism for 60 years.
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