E. J. Carnell and the Mad Race for Relevance

Because Wheaton College is frequently associated with C.S. Lewis, whose papers are archived on campus at the Marion E. Wade Center, the popular English author is often humorously invoked as its patron saint. But the appellation could just as aptly fit Dr. Edward John Carnell, whose academic objectives, directly or indirectly, color the mission statements of nearly all accredited American evangelical liberal arts institutions. As theologian, philosopher and professor, Carnell played a crucial role in the development of contemporary evangelicalism, believing that conservative Christians too often failed to intellectually engage with the challenges posed by modernism. Widely networked among prominent American evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century, the movements of his extraordinary career can be seen in the various collections, books and files maintained by Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections.  

Junior Class Photo, Wheaton College (Tower, 1940)

Carnell was born in Antigo, Wisconsin, June 29, 1919, the son of a Baptist minister. He enrolled at Wheaton College in 1937, graduating cum laude in 1941, majoring in philosophy under the tutelage of the celebrated Dr. Gordon H. Clark, Reformed scholar and author. In an undated letter from Carnell’s student biographical file, he described Clark’s influence as “one of the greatest contributing factors to account for my present conviction of the truth of the philosophy of Jesus Christ, which is sufficient for the soul.” To support his studies at Wheaton College, Carnell also worked as a chef in the dining hall.  

Following Wheaton, Carnell matriculated at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he received the 1943 William Brenton Greene Prize in Apologetics. Serving from 1945-47 as the pastor of the Baptist Church at Marblehead, Massachusetts, Carnell completed his graduate work in theology at Harvard Divinity School, earning his doctorate in 1948. He also completed graduate work in philosophy at Boston University. Serving from 1945-48 as professor of philosophy and philosophy of religion at Gordon College, Carnell was appointed to the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1948, teaching in the joint fields of apologetics and systematic theology. 

Dr. Harold J. Ockenga places a gold medallion around the neck of Dr. E.J. Carnell, inaugurating him as the second president of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1954. Founder Dr. Charles Fuller looks on(College Archives photograph)

Exercising competent, creative leadership in the classroom, he was appointed as the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1954, serving in that capacity until 1959, when he stepped down due to the stresses of his job to resume his role as professor of ethics and philosophy. During his tenure as president, Carnell advanced faculty appointments, library acquisitions and secured financial stability. 

Balancing a thin line between conservatism and liberalism, Carnell sought to stimulate scholarly interaction with secular ideologies from a scriptural perspective. Although Carnell criticized fundamentalist views of theology and biblical criticism, some colleagues felt he did not go far enough and should altogether abandon his commitment to biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Carnell reflected on this dilemma to Dr. Harold Lindsell, friend and colleague: 

One of my difficulties is that I have sort of painted myself into a corner. I know perfectly well that the literalism of a century ago — both Catholic and Protestant — needs careful rethinking, but I also know perfectly well that our rethinking is all in vain unless we stay within the guidelines provided by the Scripture’s view of itself. The upshot is that I end up (so it seems) being a liberal in the eyes of the literalists, and a literalist in the eyes of those who have joined the mad race for relevance.

Letter to Harold Lindsell, September 26, 1966. (Collection 192, Folder 9-5)

Lecturing widely while also publishing books like An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (1948) and The Case for Orthodox Theology (1959), Carnell’s mission did not proceed without opposition. He drew sharp criticism from fundamentalist leaders like editor and evangelist Dr. John R. Rice, who issued a warning to churches against the incursion of “New Evangelicalism”:

Fuller Theological Seminary has been greatly affected [by New Evangelicalism]. Dr. Harold Ockenga, the first president, announced openly, “We are not out-comers…” that is, the school was not intended to train people to come out of denominations controlled by modernists. Dr. Carnell, the new president, recommends the Revised Standard Version of the Bible instead of other translations made by Bible-believing scholars, and so do a number of other professors there, and Dr. Fuller defends them in this in a letter which I have seen…There are some noble, good men at Fuller, but the “New Evangelical” influence is strong. 

The Sword of the Lord, September 26, 1958 (Evangelism & Missions Journal Collections)

Rice’s admonition proved remarkably prescient in the years following, as Fuller’s position on inerrancy drifted from Carnell’s more traditional stance – or continued on the course on which he set it — leading to the publication of Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1978) and The Bible in the Balance (1979). Lindsell, one of the founding faculty members of Fuller Theological Seminary, incorporated extensive footnotes and quotes in these books as he bluntly criticized the institution’s acceptance of higher critical methodology. 

Echoing the conflict described by Carnell more than a decade earlier, Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible ignited new conversations across the evangelical world. Collection 192: Papers of Harold Lindsell shows the wide interest in this debate, with examples of the varied responses to the publication from prominent evangelical leaders like Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, F. F. Bruce, Francis Schaeffer, René Padilla, Billy Graham, and Harold J. Ockenga.

If questions about the efficacy of worldly separatism and red-hot revivalism had been quietly percolating throughout the halls of certain segments of 1940s Christian academia, Carnell’s public ministry lent voice and direction to their concerns. Whatever his flaws or strengths, his pioneering vision rose to dominance in curriculum used throughout the classrooms of conservative Protestant higher learning, including, and perhaps especially, that of his alma mater, Wheaton College. 

E.J. Carnell preaches in the Wheaton College chapel, 1959. (College Archive Photograph A3887)

How did Carnell feel about Wheaton College? Biographer Rudolph Nelson relates an incident from The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell (1987): 

“Fourteen years after his graduation from Wheaton, returning to speak in chapel as an Illustrious Alumnus, president of a sister institution, Carnell expressed gratitude to Wheaton for its permanent impact on his life in three areas: scholarship, discipline and personal relationships. In the first category, he noted that whereas he learned more in graduate school than he did at Wheaton, he did not have to unlearn anything. In the second category, he hailed Wheaton for inculcating in him the meaning of time and the dignity of labor. The college, he said, taught him to be the steward of the minute. Finally, on the third point, he expressed his appreciation for Wheaton as “a family where love prevails.”‘

Carnell (second to the left in back row) with his dormmates at ‘Collegiate Hall,’ hosted by Mrs. and Mr. Patton. (Tower, 1939)

Facing hostile resistance from various factions while also struggling with longstanding depression, E.J. Carnell turned to barbituates, eventuating in his death by overdose in 1967 at a hotel in Oakland while attending the National Workshop for Christian Unity. Carnell was survived by his wife and two children.

Seeking to summarize the legacy of E. J. Carnell’s life and work, Dr. David Allan Hubbard reflected,  

Edward John Carnell set a bright example for us in three areas: scholarship, educational outlook, and churchmanship. His fertile mind and ready pen blazed fresh theological trails as he sought to defend and proclaim the Christian faith as a world and life view…A legion of evangelicals around the world owe to him their love of the faith and their loyalty to the Church.

Dr. Edward John Carnell memorial pamphlet (College Archives Biographical File: Carnell, E. J.)

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