Harold Oceknga is a name that is all but forgotten—both in the world at large and in modern Evangelicalism. There is some reason his memory has passed from our collective memory because he was born in 1905 and passed away in 1985. In order to understand modern Evangelicalism—both its more conservative and liberal wing—it is necessary to know how we got here, and Harold Ockenga’s role in our history.
Ockenga helped found organizations such as Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals. Through these efforts, and others, Ockenga became a part of a group of leaders who began a movement known as “Neo-Evangelicalism.”
Fundamentalism and Neo-Evangelicalism
Neo-evangelicalism came out of a movement known as fundamentalism in the 1940s. Before then those who found themselves in either the fundamentalist or evangelical camp were both fundamentalists. These were people who reacted against the 20th century modernist movement that denied the supernatural elements of Christianity.
What separated neo-evangelicalism from fundamentalism was, at least at first, not doctrinal disputes. They were united in the fundamentals of the faith: the virgin birth, the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, and the inerrancy of Scripture. Ockenga, in the 1947 convocation address at Fuller Seminary, attacked the doctrine of separatism (the tendency of fundamentalists to separate fellowship with corrupt denominations) when he said, “Now there are those who exist in the world simply it seems to attack others, and to derogate others, and to drag them down, and to besmirch them. Our men [the men of Fuller Seminary and likely the neo-evangelicals broadly] will have no time for that kind of negativism” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 65).
Elsewhere in the convocation Ockenga further separates neo-evangelicalism from fundamentalism: “we do not believe and we repudiate the ‘come-out-ism’ movement” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 64). George Marsden comments on this repudiation: “Here was a direct attack on the McIntire camp in its insistence that separatism was basic to fundamentalism” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 64).
The Background for the Divide
But why did Ockenga choose to separate from fundamentalism? Besides truly thinking fundamentalists separated too quickly from those they disagreed with, Ockenga was also feeling pressure from the liberal-leaning PCUSA. Ockenga was a member of the Presbytery of Pittsburgh at the time, and the Presbytery of Los Angeles was threatening his membership because he did not have permission to minister in the bounds of the Presbytery of Los Angeles. This threatened Ockenga’s Presbyterian ordination. And this same situation was also happening at the same time for several of Fuller’s other faculty members.
Perhaps the biggest trouble that Ockenga faced was that the Presbytery of Los Angeles had voted not to allow its members to attend Fuller Seminary because of the hostilities that had arisen between themselves and Fuller. This means, as Marsden puts it, “that Presbyterian students from southern California who attended Fuller would pay the price of losing their presbytery’s support as well as closing out future local prospects” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 64).
With conflict brewing on his left, Ockenga sought to lessen the heat by causing another conflict on his right—with fundamentalism. Hence, according to Marsden, Ockenga’s attack on and separation from fundamentalism in the 1947 convocation address.
A Light on a Hill
Commenting on these events at Fuller Seminary, Marsden sees a pattern that continued at least through Fuller’s early decades, and, very likely, is still happening in evangelicalism today:
A pattern was now set that would continue through Fuller Seminary’s first several decades. The school would aspire to be a force for renewal and broadening of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The seminary was, in a sense, like the original American Puritan experiment, meant to be a light on a hill (this time in the new world of California), a beacon signaling a new stage in world civilization. Yet the ideological hill on which the seminary was situated had long, steep slopes and deep valleys on the other side. One of the valleys was inhabited by strict fundamentalists, the other by Protestant liberals. The seminary faced in two directions at once, but to residents of either valley it appeared somewhat alien (Reforming Fundamentalism, 67).
Evangelicalism today is made up of a broad coalition of denominations, ministries, and influential leaders. To change Marsden’s light on a hill analogy, the liberal denominations are on the far theological left while fundamentalism still occupies the conservative right, and evangelicals still occupy the middle space in between these poles. Along this spectrum some liberal-leaning evangelicals are closer to the liberal denominations while others are closer to the fundamentalists. Modern flash points are homosexual “marriage,” the inerrancy of Scripture, and the role women in ministry.
A large part of the difficulty in many of these debates is that evangelicalism, unlike Catholicism, does not have an authority structure. Therefore, as Marsden points out, popular opinion rules (Reforming Fundamentalism, 291).
If you want to hear smarter folks than me opine on this subject, check out this podcast over at Mere Orthodoxy.