By Roger Olson
When I look back over my life and career, I can confidently say there was no more important influence on my theological development than Dr. Ralph Powell who passed away at age 96 on August 7 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
He was not a theological genius (in the usual sense of the term — a great innovater) or productive writer (I think he had one or two scholarly articles published). But he was one of the best teachers of balanced, sane, spiritually profound, insightful, wise evangelical theology I have ever known or heard of.
Dr. Powell taught theology at North American Baptist Seminary (the new name of the German Department of Rochester Theological Seminary where Walter Rauschenbusch taught) when it moved from New York to South Dakota. He earned his Th.D. degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and taught theology at NABS from 1950 to 1981.
I was his student in several theology courses during my student years at NABS in the 1970s and fortunate enough to be in Sioux Falls when his retirement party was held in 1981 and I attended it.
I visited Dr. Powell and his wife many times after that. Virtually every time I found myself in Sioux Falls I felt drawn to visit him. Stan Grenz, whose father was Dr. Powell’s pastor for some years, and I dedicated our book Who Needs Theology? to him.
I could tell many stories about Dr. Powell — as could any of his former students. He was a most dramatic lecturer with a very peculiar accent and he spit when he lectured. Here’s one memorable quote from one of his systematic theology lectures: “If it takes reading these [non-evangelical] theologians to sting you into appreciating the richness of your evangelical heritage, then, so be it! Be stung!” (Some students complained that he made us read Barth, Brunner, Tillich and other non-evangelical theologians.) When he said “Be stung!” he leaned way over the podium towards the students and saliva flew out of his mouth.
I remember that he served involuntarily as interim dean of the seminary when Gerald Borchert left NABS (a great loss to the seminary). Dr. Powell said to me: “Roger, never forget this. The road to scholarly perdition is paved with the stones of administration.” I have never forgotten and have steadfastly resisted any attempts to get me involved in administrative duties.
I remember one day during his systematic theology lecture on Luther’s idea of the “hidden God” he went over to the windows and hid behind the curtains, occasionally peeking out at us with that unique grin of his. I was absolutely captivated by him — not because of his style but because of his wisdom and piety. I spent many hours in his office talking theology with him. I’m sure I drove him crazy with my questions, but he was always patient.
I came to NABS a confused, bewildered, deeply troubled young Bible college graduate. The Bible college I attended specialized in “Christian” anti-intellectualism. I wouldn’t even call it fundamentalist; it didn’t deserve such an august label.
Many of my professors (not all, thank God) took the approach to education expressed in the German saying “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” I was labeled a rebel just for asking questions my teachers couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. I had to educate myself by reading books and seeking out those few instructors who did deserve the posts they held for special help.
I came away from Bible college with no theology at all, just a bag of Bible verses and unquestionable (but highly dubious) dogmas. And a load of shame put on me by teachers, fellow students and administrators for daring to ask questions and challenge nonsense.
Seminary, especially Dr. Powell, rescued me from utter theological ruin which was quickly leading me to spiritual ruin. Cognitive dissonance was the general rule of my mind. I knew from my own reading that much of what I had been taught was unintelligible nonsense and I had not been taught any method of theological discernment or construction.
I really didn’t know where to turn. Dr. Powell rescued me. He became my trusted mentor and friend and life-long example of how to develop a balanced, sane, evangelical theology and how to teach it.
If any of my students over 30 years think I did them any good at all, Dr. Powell gets much of the credit. I will miss him greatly. I feel like a milestone has been passed with Dr. Powell’s passing.