70 Years Ago: Harold John Ockenga’s Opening Convocation Address to Fuller Theological Seminary

Opening Convocation Address to Fuller Theological Seminary (excerpt)

By Harold John Ockenga (October 1, 1947)

“The Challenge to the Christian Culture of the West”

My topic is the challenge to the Christian culture of the West. I use that word West in two senses—first, in the larger historic, cultural, and ethical sense, namely, dealing with Western civilization; and also in the lesser sense of dealing with America’s West, the final West of America and what I believe may prove to be the final embodiment of Western civilization, namely, the civilization of the West Coast of the United States of America.

It has impressed me on numerous visits to the coast that here we have an unparalleled opportunity educationally. Here we have the recrudescence of a culture. We have not only a recrudescence of what we call “Western culture” but we have the birth of an American culture that is strictly indigenous to these parts. Now it is being backed by a new wealth, by industry, by institutions of learning, Christian and otherwise, by biblical institutes—and all institutions are anxious to begin with the West that they might grow with the West in this large increase of influence in our nation. Why, then, should the West forever look to the East for its preachers? Why should it be, as it has been in part at least, a theological vacuum? Why has it not to date entered its maturity of Christian leadership so that it will in turn send forth those who may blaze the trail of theological and ecclesiastical and religious thinking in our own day? The hour for the West to enter its maturity theologically is come.

Now we believe that the design to found a theological institution in Southern California will enable us to enter upon the ground of this growing and influential civilization of America’s West. We believe that we have an opportunity here not of looking alone to the spirit of the age, nor to depend upon some other group for those who shall formulate the Christian influence of this area, but to formulate it here, that out of the West may come those leaders in spiritual things to do the will of God. We are glad! I am glad particularly that God has put it into the heart of Dr. Fuller, a man upon whom the Lord has put his stamp in evangelistic endeavor in this day as he has on few other men of this generation or any generation; a man who has been able to preach to the multitudes and know that there have been converted and turned to the Lord not only hundreds but thousands of people throughout America; a man to whose voice I suppose more people listen every week than to any other preacher in this generation. Now here is an enterprise which will surpass anything that has happened in this kind of evangelistic work in the past. I believe that we are faced with an opportunity in the training of young men to enter the critical situation this hour.

You might ask the question, “Well what do you mean when you speak of Western civilization?” Well, I mean those great Christian principles which have been infused into society over centuries, and which now are bearing their fruit. You all are aware of the concept of the infinite value of individual man, which concept is being battered about in these days by men who do not believe in its source nor believe in the principles which underlie it but will talk about the infinite dignity of the individual; that concept, I say, is born out of the Hebrew-Christian tradition. Then, beyond that, comes the concept also of responsibility to God which has resulted in the moral fiber of our Christian thinking, the moral fiber of the masses of the people in which they have been responsible unto God and divine law for the incorporation of the ideas and responsibilities thereof, and then the expression of those principles, ideals, and practices in a community life. Now we have seen in the centuries that are past a gradual growth of this culture. We have seen the seed of this civilization come from a little seemingly insignificant thing until it spread abroad throughout Europe, bore its fruit, came to its great harvest time, until in our day we have the heritage of the centuries of Christian teaching.

But we are not only the heirs of the Reformation culture, but we are today inheriting to a great extent the results of the return to heathendom through the Renaissance and the influence of rationalism, or the authority of the human mind above all else.

Let me illustrate that to you from what has taken place in Germany. Germany was the nation of the Reformation. Germany expressed in a way that probably no other country expressed the courage and the conviction of Reformation Christianity so that millions of people were swept into the Reformation, and people, priests, and princes were willing to pay the tremendous price, sometimes of death, sometimes of loss of possessions, sometimes of loss of position for the convictions of historic, primitive Christianity.

This Germany became the seat of the rationalistic movement as well. This non-Christian influence was caught up by German thinkers, and if I had time tonight and you had the disposition to listen, I would develop that series of thought as it was first taken by Immanuel Kant.

Now anybody who followed that development of thought was bound to come out at one place, and that place was where Adolf Hitler emerged in his book called Mein Kampf. When that thing began to be taught and brought to the minds of the people of Germany what happened? Well, first of all, they were negatively prepared because a spiritual movement of unbelief had taken place in the repudiation of the Word of God. They denied its authority and the Reformation teachings, they debased man because of higher criticism, the rejection of the Word, the repudiation of the deity of Christ, the repudiation of the supernatural—and the German population was left helpless without a true abiding religion and it succumbed to the teaching of the Nazi theology and philosophy. Here you had then an intellectual development that prepared the way for two great world wars.

Then we had another development in Germany, in the realm of morals. Now whenever an individual follows the line of thought that ultimately repudiates God and enthrones the mind of man, he must adopt what we call “relativism of thought and action.” In other words, there is then no such thing as an authority that stands above him of an eternal moral law of an eternal Person such as God, or of a religion. What happens is that he himself becomes the ultimate authority and he may judge what is right and wrong in relationship to a particular situation. Germans taught their women that the highest thing they could do was to cohabit with their soldiers and bring forth children for the German race and the German destiny, and Hitler and his crowd led by Hess broke the moral fiber of the German people until the German people condoned and taught as correct the things that the moral law says are wrong. That was true also in reference to honesty. They signed certain agreements, the agreements not to violate the territory of Belgium, the agreement at Munich, and others, which they repudiated.

Now if there is a God upon the throne, if there’s righteousness in the universe, if this is a moral universe with morality at its heart, then we ought to expect that God would have done something about it, and I hold to you this day that the greatest proof that there is a God upon the throne and this is a moral universe, and that there is such a thing as righteousness, is the fact that God brought to pass a judgment on Europe and particularly upon the German people.

I do not speak without sympathy. I came back a few weeks ago from a long tour under the United States Government investigating the conditions in Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, with an entree to the ambassadors and the generals and the president of France and the foreign ministers, and the preachers and the pope and the World Council of Churches, and everybody that anyone could possibly want to see.

In Europe today there is destruction that is beyond the conception of the imagination. Now I speak with total sympathy for the German people, for the Italian people, and for others, but I want to say this, that what has come upon the German people and others, they deserve.

Here you have before the eyes of the world a demonstration of the fact that there is a God upon the throne, that there is a moral universe and nations are judged before the bar of God’s judgment now, not in some judgment to come. Individuals will be judged there, but nations are judged now, and Germany has reaped the harvest of what it has sown intellectually, socially, spiritually; it has that harvest at this present time.

But I would say this to you, that the same processes that brought Germany low are the processes that are working in the United States at the present time. What I have said about Germany in its intellectual development could be repeated out of the teachings of the leading educators of America in this day. Here comes the message to America—America, which is experiencing today that inner rupture of its character and culture, that inner division with vast multitudes of our people following that secularistic, rationalistic lie of “scientific naturalism” in the repudiation of God and God’s law. I tell you on the authority of the Word of God and with the full sweep of history behind us that in the proportion that America does that and the church has to withdraw itself to a separated community again, and there enters a time of hostility of the world and the persecution of the anti-Christian forces, in that percentage we will open ourselves up to the kind of judgment that God brought upon Europe from which we escaped almost unscathed in this nation.

The philosophers say we have reached the eventide of the West; the end of an age; the crisis of an era; the conclusion of a civilization. We fling the challenge of the Christian gospel. There’s a task to be done and that task is not going to be done by the ordinary Christian alone. It’s going to be done by those who are prepared to do it. It must be done by the rethinking and the restating of the fundamental thesis and principles of a Western culture. There must be today men who have the time and the energy and the inclination and the ability and the support to be able to redefine Christian thinking and to fling it forth into the faces of these unbelievers everywhere. We need men who can in an intellectually respectable way present an apology for God, and for the world, and for the soul, and for salvation, and for the doctrine of sin, and of retribution and of judgment, and of the immortality of the soul, and of eternal life; these things must be brought out so that our young men and those who are going to take the places of leadership shall once again believe in the eternal law of an eternal God.

And for that reason, my friends, we are launching a theological seminary. We are gathering together professors who are scholars and students who are spiritually and intellectually alert, that they may be ready to enter this critical time in which we live. May I say just a word about our policy? We do not intend to be ecclesiastically bound. We will be free. But we are ecclesiastically positive. In our church relationships, though we are interdenominational, we do not believe and we repudiate the “come-out-ism” movement. We want our men to be so trained that when they come from a denomination, whatever that denomination is, they will go back into their denomination adequately prepared to preach the gospel and to defend the faith and to positively go forward in the work of God. We will not be negative. 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 will have no time for that kind of negativism. We want the positive presentation of the Christian faith in a critical world. By the grace of God we will have it. That means a positive presentation of the gospel. That means that in our doctrinal statement included in the charter we will have a statement whereby we believe the Bible to be the Word of God—the watershed of our modern movement one way or the other today is that factor! We will have a statement about the Trinity and the deity of Christ and his atoning work through his shed blood, and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and the unity of the church and these important things, but it will be positive and not a negative attitude. And socially we are determined that there will be a social theory and social attitude. It will not give in by default to the movements of this day which are occupying the places of leadership in the world. For my part, I am chagrined, chagrined, that we have allowed Romanism to step in with a social program that will make Romanism the challenging religious factor in Western civilization, and in particular in the United States.

We who believe the Bible and the supernatural power of God instead of in reformation have disassociated ourselves from the program of social reform from the matters of lawlessness and of inebriation, and of crime and of war, and of rape, and other things. We believe that Jesus is coming with all our hearts. But we believe that Jesus told us to “occupy” till he comes. By the grace of God we don’t intend to default for the sake of the generations that are to come.

Let me say something about the spiritual program. The Lord Jesus laid down his program and the trouble with so many of us is that we don’t follow his program. He placed missions first. Though we’ll stress the academic preparation of these young men to preach and to stand before the world in this hour unashamed, yet their first and primary task is to be missionaries to the world. The second thing is evangelists, because there is hardly any distinction between missionaries and evangelists. Mission of course, carries it abroad; evangelism wins people around about us everywhere. Then we want to see our men able to occupy pulpits, to present the full doctrine of Christian faith and do it across a series of years. The great denominations of today aren’t training enough preachers to fill their own pulpits. My denomination, according to some statistics published in its own magazine, is only training about sixty-eight percent of the preachers needed in its pulpits. The Methodists, according to a printed statement a short while ago, lacked over six thousand preachers to fill their pulpits. The Congregationalists aren’t beginning to train enough men to fill their pulpits. What are we going to do? Well, one of the Catholic priests wrote recently in one of the great Catholic weeklies and said: “Protestantism is doomed. They are closing an average of one church a day.” One church a day! We must have men who are born to preach, called to preach, trained to preach. Then who, under the unction of God, are so trained that when they go forth they may in this day face this terrible challenge of our secularized culture.

I visage a school—it will have hundreds of students—a school that will have sent forth a stream of literally hundreds of pastors, and evangelists, missionaries, and teachers who will be able in this hour to enter the fields that are going by default in the day in which we are living.

The time is shorter than you think. When I came back from Europe it was with words like these ringing in my ears. I don’t know how short. Nobody knows. We pray God it isn’t too short.

But, God has given us a time of respite. Europe is open—the greatest mission field in the world. India is still open in spite of the revolution. It may not be long. China is crying for missionaries, willing to take everything that comes of Bibles and Christian education. And the world today is secure? Now you say—Is it a time to be building a theological seminary when the world’s on fire? Such a question is legitimate. Well, if you don’t build a theological seminary and you don’t train the men, and you don’t send them out, who is going to do it? Are you going to do it? Is an untrained man going out? Who is going to occupy until Jesus comes? Listen to me, my friends, the quickest way to evangelize the world, the quickest way to enter the open field, the quickest way to do God’s work in the period of respite before us, before another holocaust takes place that everybody is predicting now, and only a few did some time ago, is to have divinely called, supernaturally born, spiritually equipped men of unction and power to go forth. We will not default. God help us, we will occupy till he comes.

Pray for the school, pray for these men, pray for the faculty, pray for Dr. Fuller, pray that the needed funds will come in because though we have launched an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars and have a fine start in every way, yet, my friends, it is only a beginning of what must be done. I say again, I envisage a school that can become the center of missions and evangelism on the basis of a gospel of which we need not to be ashamed, because we can give a reason for the hope that is within us, Who knows but that it has come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Excerpt originally published in The Bulletin 1, no. 1 (1947), Fuller Theological Seminary.