A Man for All Evangelicals
The life of Vernon Grounds, who died September 12 at age 96, spanned the birth, growth, and maturation of the evangelical movement in North America. During his seven decades of ministry, he helped shape contemporary evangelicalism in significant ways: by building a key institution, Denver Seminary; by challenging evangelicals to wed social action to evangelism; and by pointing the way to a new and thoroughly Christian approach to psychology. But before he did those things, Grounds gave himself to preaching a reasoned and reasonable faith.
While a student at the newly formed Faith Theological Seminary in Delaware, Grounds became part of a group that included such later evangelical luminaries as Arthur Glasser, Kenneth Kantzer, Joseph Bayly, and Francis Schaeffer. The Faith Seminary community, like its theological guru Carl McIntire, was committed to defending the intellectual foundations of our supernatural faith.
While a young pastor in Paterson, New Jersey, Grounds produced his first book, The Reason for Our Hope, based on a series of radio talks. He ably made the case for faith in the supernatural Christ and the credibility of his Word. With this book, Grounds began his ongoing emphasis on apologetics. Over the next few years, in tandem with Edward John Carnell of the newly formed Fuller Theological Seminary, he was at the forefront of an intellectual renaissance among American evangelicals.
While pastoring in Paterson, Grounds also pursued a Ph.D. in psychology at Drew University. There he began writing a dissertation on "The Concept of Love in the Psychology of Sigmund Freud." It took him 20 years to complete the dissertation, but his topic presaged his engagement with culture and his break with fundamentalism.
Grounds's intellectual star power attracted a wider audience, leading him out of the pastorate to the newly formed Baptist Bible Seminary in New York, where, in the fall of 1945, he began as dean and professor of theology and apologetics. In 1951 he accepted a call to serve as dean and then president of Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary (later renamed Denver Seminary). He led that institution over the next 28 years, modeling "servant leadership" years before the phrase became popular. He inspired Denver's faculty, staff, and constituents and helped the seminary grow from 30 students to over 300. Remarkably, he accomplished this through periods of financial strain and vicious attacks from fundamentalists, while pursuing an itinerant ministry that led evangelical apologist Bernard Ramm to compare him to the peripatetic John Wesley.
Grounds penned these lines to describe the ethos of Denver Seminary: Here is no unanchored liberalism—freedom to think without commitment. Here is no encrusted dogmatism—commitment without freedom to think. Here is vibrant evangelicalism—commitment to think within the limits laid down in Scripture.
He took his own words to heart and went on to write five more books and nearly 200 articles related to the veracity of the Christian faith and its application to the needs and issues of the day—particularly in the widely divergent arenas of social ethics and Christian counseling. Without Grounds's contributions in these areas, evangelicalism as we know it would not exist.
During the 1960s, with its rapidly changing culture that was increasingly hostile to the gospel, Grounds challenged fortress-minded evangelicals to combine social action with personal conversion. In 1969 he published Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility, a short landmark work based on a 1967 series of lectures. In this book, which Ron Sider has called "far ahead of its time," Grounds declared the Savior's love for humanity as the driving force behind a "social justice" that Christians were to proclaim and practice.