Dr. OckengaAbout Dr. Ockenga

Unforgettable name. Unforgettable impact.

By Philip Byers '08


Access the online materials of the Ockenga Institute at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and one of the first things you'll see is a pronunciation guide.  Never mind that Harold John Ockenga '27 was one of evangelicalism's leading figures in the twentieth century.  Not twenty-five years after his death, most Christians can't even pronounce his name.

Don't think I'm scolding you.  Until Dr. Habecker '68 referenced Ockenga in a chapel address, I had never heard of him either.  That day I sat fascinated as the President listed Dr. Ockenga's contributions:

  • Pastor at Boston's influential Park Street Church for thirty-three years
  • Founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals
  • Co-founder and first president of Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Acting president at Gordon College and first president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a key player in the creation of the periodical Christianity Today.

Still, bullet points can be deceiving - just how influential was Harold Ockenga?  Perhaps nothing illustrates his impact as well as the eulogy delivered on his behalf by the Rev. Billy Graham.  There, Graham testified that "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."

What a testimony!  And as I learned more about Dr. Ockenga with the help of Garth Rosell's authoritative biography, The Surprising Work of God, I could easily understand Graham's statement.  What I could not understand was his relative anonymity.  How could such an accomplished man have faded into seeming obscurity?

The question is rooted in the things he did, but I believe the answer is rooted in the man he was and the God he served.

Looking at his impressive resume, one might assume that Ockenga was driven by an ambitious desire for personal acclaim, but it couldn't be further from the truth.  In fact, Ockenga railed against personal ambitions, refusing to believe "that any of us who profess to love the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and to stand within the shadow of the cross" could allow "personal ambition" or "pet doctrine" to stand in the way of gospel progress.  Stressing the point, he asserted that "this millstone of rugged independence in which individual leaders must be the whole hog or none, must be utterly repudiated by every one of us."

Better than most, Harold Ockenga understood that the severity of the gospel message can rest upon the reputation of no mere human.  Only the God-man, Jesus Christ, will suffice.  To Ockenga, Jesus Christ was more than central - He was singular, the sole overarching reality.  The celebration of "his Deity, his miracles, his messiahship, and his imminent death as Saviour" were the foundational components that motivated Ockenga's manifold expressions of brotherly love.  So forget personal ambition.  Harold Ockenga's only ambition was that the name of Jesus would rest on the lips of the masses.

Ock-n-ga.  Twenty-five years later, and we can't even pronounce it.  If I let myself think about it too much, it could really bother me.  But it probably shouldn't.  I think he would have preferred it that way.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Philip Byers '08 is a graduate student in Taylor's Master of Arts in Higher Education program. His sources/acknowledgements for this article include: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christianity Today, and United Action Press.

Ockenga at Taylor

On several occasions, Harold John Ockenga told Jay Kesler '58, "You know, I owe more to that little college in Indiana than any other place in my life."  During his Taylor years, Ockenga, according to Rosell's The Surprising Work of God, traveled with the Taylor Evangelistic Team and developed a passionate prayer and devotional life.  Shortly before he graduated, he wrote, "Never was prayer so satisfying as now, or so powerful.  It seems that this is my very life and I revel in it.  Glory to God.  I have had greater times of ecstasy but this is the best of all."

This article was featured in the "Impact", the Winter 2009 issue of Taylor Magazine