A 37-year Study in History

Anne B. Doll

Dr. Garth Rosell turns to an oft quoted declaration from the 16th century Reformers, “soli Deo gloria,” to describe the work of Gordon-Conwell. Translated “for the glory of God alone,” these words, for Garth, embody the seminary’s “center of life”—today, and throughout his 37-year tenure as Professor of Church History.

On August 1, 2015, he will retire from the seminary to begin the next chapter in his life of service to God. During his nearly four decades at Gordon-Conwell, he has worked for six presidents, witnessed the creation of three campuses and taught at all four. He has also served in numerous leadership positions, including nearly a decade as the seminary’s Academic Dean, and 17 years as Chair of the Division of Christian Thought and Director of the Harold John Ockenga Institute.

He has also seen the development of many major initiatives such as the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and the Hispanic Ministries Program, and he was instrumental in helping to create both the Doctor of Ministry Program and the Harold John Ockenga Institute, a vital seminary bridge to the Church and culture.

But Garth eschews mention of his own contributions, pointing instead to the “God who redeemed me and called me to this great privilege of teaching here.” And he under- lines his “absolutely enormous joy and delight in serving in a Christ-centered seminary where God is honored and the Word is studied carefully and clearly.”
In what he is calling “simply a new phase of life,” Garth will be writing a book about Gordon-Conwell, telling the story “of why God in His providence planted the school in this part of the world.” Already he is conducting research for that project.

“Our seminary,” he says, “was the outgrowth, in large measure, of a great spiritual awakening,” a resurgent evangelicalism in the 1940s that started in movements such as Youth for Christ, InterVarsity, the Navigators and others. “That revival among America’s young people spilled over into the 1950s and spread not only throughout the cities of North America but also literally around the globe, most notably through the work of seminary founder Billy Graham, who has been such a wonderful gift to the Church and to all of us...As Shaw notes in his book, Global Awakening, those 20th century revivals laid the foundation for the growth of the Church literally around the world.”

Dr. Rosell adds that the vision of leaders who established the seminary, particularly Dr. Graham and Dr. Harold John Ockenga, “not only shaped us in our early years, but continues to guide us and point us in the right direction today....unlike many institutions that tend to drift from their founding principles into very different directions.”

Certainly included in that vision, he says, would be the centrality of God’s Word, studied in the original languages to gain understanding, and then applied to every part of life; the great missionary mandate to spread the gospel around the world; the renewal of the Church through the preaching of God’s Word; the power of the gospel to transform people through the cross of Christ; the trans- formation of culture through Christian influence as “salt and light,” and the raising up of a whole new generation of Christian leaders, men and women with good educations and a burning love for Jesus.

He admits that the seminary experienced difficult times over the span of his tenure. “There are always in life and in institutional structures, triumphs and trials, good moments and bad. But here’s where our deep commitment to the faithfulness of God, the absolute certainty of God’s Truth, the call of God to holiness and high moral standards, the biblical guidance we have—all of these sustain us in the middle of normal institutional pressure.”

After a lifetime in the classroom, Dr. Rosell contends that “good teaching begins where our love for students converges with our love for the subject we are studying in such a manner as to make that material come alive and applicable to their lives and ministries. And in a seminary, certainly you have to love the Scriptures and the Lord of the Scriptures, who is our God and our Master.

“Perhaps the essence of teaching comes back to the kind of person you are. It’s the sharing of things you’ve been privileged to learn, that God has been teaching you... that you want others to encounter and perhaps, by the power of the Spirit, to enable them to take shape in other lives. Christ is our model here. Christ was the master teacher whose message was clear, rang true and was life sustaining and life transforming. To be privileged to be a conveyor of that message that Christ came to give, that we are to teach, live by, try to model...all of us wish we could do that more effectively...

Quote: “...good teaching begins where our love for students converges with our love for the subject we are studying in such a manner as to make that material come alive and applicable to their lives and ministries.”

“I think at the core of teaching, as in any ministry, it is the work of the Holy Spirit who teaches us and opens our eyes and empowers us to do the work. I think that’s why Christ told his disciples, in that powerful section of Acts, to stay in Jerusalem until they were empowered from on high to do ministry, including teaching. It was to enable weak and faltering souls like ourselves to communicate that which God can turn into such useful things for those who learn.”

As a church historian, Garth sees the current culture as “moving increasingly into a period that looks very much like the time of the early Church, the time prior to the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It’s a period in which Christianity is growing and vital, but oftentimes persecuted,” he explains. “The Church is working in a society that is very religious, but very resistant to the absolute claims of Christ on people’s lives. So we learn from the great saints and martyrs of the early Church what it means to serve God faithfully in an increasingly hostile world.”


His overarching sense, he adds, “is that we need to fortify ourselves, our students need to fortify themselves, by knowing the Scriptures more thoroughly. We need to memorize them, put them in our hearts, so that if the day ever comes when we don’t have access to our Scriptures, as is true in some parts of the world today, we will have them readily in our minds.”

Garth likewise urges memorization of hymns, which he says for centuries served as the theology book for the Church. “And I would add the need to recover some of the power of the great creeds, confessions and catechisms of the Church... and to produce new ones, so that we can give to the next generation a language to talk about the faith in the midst of a much more questioning and un- accepting world. And, of course, we need to be men and women of prayer, in our day more than ever.”

Dr. Rosell counts among his very highest joys “the wonderful friendships that my time at the seminary has al- lowed me to share with faculty colleagues. He also rejoices in sustained friendships forged with students over the years “who are now so effectively serving the Lord.”

He is enthusiastic about the seminary’s many international programs, including President Dennis Hollinger’s current initiatives in China, and also about the growing population of “amazing international students who are coming to us from all over the globe. Many are already established leaders within their home areas. They are receiving additional training here so that they can carry it back to grow the Church, and help organize new educational initiatives and new ministries in their home countries.”

And he is “very heartened by the arrival of so many bright, well educated, gifted young faculty members who are the next generation of those who teach here. It seems to me that Gordon-Conwell has an unusually bright and hopeful future, in part because of these outstanding new colleagues.”

Always the historian, Garth adds, “I cannot help but be reminded of the famous quotation attributed to Adoniram Judson: ‘The future is as bright as the promises of God.’”