Saying goodbye to a mentor and friend

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, South Dakota. 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 I was 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. (I could give lots of examples and you would agree, but that’s not my purpose here.)

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 of magazines like Eternity and Christianity Today and books by leading evangelical authors like Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm) that much of what I had been taught (much of it contradictory) 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 balanced, sane, evangelical theology and 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–especially whenever I go to Sioux Falls. I will still go to Trail Ridge (Retirement) Village to visit another beloved mentor and friend–Roger Fredrickson. And, of couse, Dr. Powell’s widow Ardice. But I feel like a milestone has been passed with Dr. Powell’s passing.


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  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,

    Sorry for the loss of your friend and mentor. Dr. Powell sounds like a wonderful person. You mention Gerald Borchert in the post. He was at SBTS when I was there. He published a book in 1987, Assurance and Warning, that was carried by the seminary bookstore. I could not believe my eyes when I came across that book, somewhat hidden in the back shelves. I was working out an Arminian understanding of salvation at the time, which was hard to do in a Southern Baptist context. Dr. Borchert’s book gave me hope that I was not alone.
    Thanks for a post to which many of us seminary grads can relate. I am reminded of professors who invested in me and I am thankful.

  • Well said! To God be all the praise for Dr. Powell’s great influence on the lives of countless students – ours included! We also remember Dr. Fredrickson! Thanks for this tribute!

  • J.E. Edwards

    My condolences, Roger. Amazing the people the Lord puts in our path to bring us closer to Him and cause us to pursue Him more.

  • Peace of Christ Pastor Roger!

    I wonder if some publisher of the Lord here in Brazil, already in contact to publish the book Myths and Realities.

    I wonder if the Laurence M. Vance is a fan of Open Theism?

    If you can answer me by email.

    A hug!

    • rogereolson

      Some of my books are published in Brazil by Editora Vida, Editora Cultura Crista and Thomas Nelson Brasil. I don’t know about Arminian Theology. Contact InterVarsity Press through their web site and ask whether it is being translated into Portugese for publication in Brazil.

  • Steve Rogers

    Roger, you have described our Bible college experience with painful accuracy. Thank God for Dr. Powell who nurtured you toward balance and health and kept the gift alive in you. We are all benefactors of his influence in your life.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Steve. Did you hear that Paul Pluimer passed away that same day (Tuesday, August 7)? He was a bright spot in my OBSC experience.

      • Steve Rogers

        Yes. His life is an amazing story.

  • Bev Mitchell

    It makes us all think of how many tremendously effective servants of God are out there whom we have never even met. Sorry for your loss but rejoice in the memories you share.

  • Nathan Hitchcock

    Centered, kind words, for a centered, kind man. Thanks, Roger.

    I only knew him for the last decade of his life, but Dr. Powell impressed me with his evangelical charisma and generosity. That more of us professors might receive a portion of his spirit!

  • David T. Priestley

    Here’s my Dr. Powell story to show the integrity of our “elder brother.” I was in the ten class of seminarians he welcomed to NABS (fall of ’59/class of ’62). He was my academic advisor but a much less influential sounding board, though he and Walter Wessel (NT) showed me that a Christian had to be a rigorous thinker. Fundamentalist though I would have called myself, I had been raised where questions were OK; and if an answer wasn’t in hand, I got pointers where to look (or listen). Already while in SDState College, I read DBonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Life Together (double-whammy). Dr. Powell was in the CFHHenry and GELadd “neo” evangelical cluster; but he shared that generation’s suspicion of neo-orthodoxy, DB along with Barth and Brunner. I objected to his slurs against DB for his “religionless Christianity,” not because I had read Letters & Papers from Prison, but because of the first two books. Several times I said in class and conversation that DB wasn’t selling the farm; he sounded to me like my kind of people. Some years later during a conversation, he thanked me for challenging him; my objection had made him read COD and LT and convinced him that DB deserved my defense, not his (Powell’s) disparagement. By the time you matriculated, Powell had also done a sabbatical study of Brunner; and I understand he became a much more nuanced critic and appreciater of neo-orthodoxy. But making a point of telling me that my counters to his comments about DB had forced him to read DB which had changed his mind illustrates the graciousness of that godly man whom I had learned to trust as his student. (Incidentally, while you and many of my schoolmates remember his saliva spray, I remember the minute handwriting on a 3 x 5 index card that was all he brought as lecture notes). Though dead, he yet speaks, at least to many of his students. He was one of God’s gifts to me, also.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for adding that. It also reminded me how he would come into class, open Brunner’s Dogmatics, and look at us intently and say “This is GOOD stuff!”

  • Eriberto (Eddie) Soto

    Thank you for these reflkections on Dr. Ralph Powell. I had him for theology classes when I was at North American Baptist Seminary (1981 and 1982). He was a great help and blessing to me intellectually and spiritually. I am so thankful to have had him as a professor and praise God that today he his face to face with Jesus!! Eddie Soto – MDiv. 1982