Former Christianity Today editor and second dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Kenneth Kantzer died Thursday June 20. He was 85.
Kantzer was known as a biblical scholar, a caring professor, and a proven builder of influential organizations. "He was a very important figure in following up the pioneering work of the previous generation of evangelicals and in strengthening important institutions," said Mark Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. "Kantzer was a helper who maximized the work of others. He strengthened institutions to allow others to follow."
Kantzer, born in Detroit on March 29, 1917, is survived by his wife, Ruth, and two adult children, Mary Ruth Wilkinson of Galliano Island, British Columbia, and Dick of Pennington, New Jersey.
In high school, Kantzer rebelled against his Lutheran parents and their religion. He said in a 1996 Christianity Today interview that he considered himself an atheist until he met members of the League of Evangelical Students while attending Ashland College. "I would go to them with the question: How in the world do you believe all of this?" he recalled. "They would recommend books for me to read, and over the course of a year I came to a firm faith in Christ."
He received a master's degree in modern history from Ohio State University and continued his schooling at Faith Theological Seminary. He was ordained into the Evangelical Free Church of America, earned a doctorate from Harvard University, and studied theology in Germany and Switzerland.
The self-sacrificing builder
Kantzer taught theology at Wheaton College from 1946 until 1963. That year, John D. Woodbridge, research professor of church history at Trinity, was a student of Kantzer's. Upon graduation, Woodbridge's class left their senior gift to Kantzer.
"I don't know of many classes that leave their senior gifts to specific professors," Woodbridge told CT. "He was beloved. He was self-sacrificing, winsome, and a genuine example of a Christian life. He was the personification of the wise elder and like a second father to many. When you talked to him, you knew he was listening."
One of Kantzer's long-time ambitions was to write theological books. The senior class's gift was enough money that he could take a year off from teaching to do so. But Kantzer returned the gift and instead became dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
"It was a tremendous sacrifice," Woodbridge said. "We saw how much he wanted to take a year off to write. He consistently did this—sacrifice himself to build organizations."
Will Norton, president of Trinity from 1957 to 1964, said that the seminary at the time was struggling with its identity and was in desperate need for a strong leader.
"Kenneth Kantzer, with humility and commitment to Christ, provided the type of leadership that made Trinity a recognized center of evangelical scholarship, evangelism, and biblical missionary training," Norton said. "When I saw Kantzer, I appreciated him right away because he was warm hearted. He brought a fresh spirit to Trinity and credibility academically. He also embodied two important qualities for us, scriptural authority and missionary-mindedness."
Under his leadership, Trinity attracted respected scholars to the faculty, began a Ph.D. program in theology, and built a reputation for the school in strong theological teaching.
"The fruit of the life and ministry of Kenneth Kantzer is most clearly seen in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School," said D.A. Carson, Trinity research professor of New Testament, in a 2000 tribute for Trinity Magazine. "All over the world there are international students who quietly thank God for the rigor of thought and the personal empathy of Kenneth."
Years after his tenure as academic dean, Kantzer may have been re-evaluating his choice to work with organizations instead of writing theological texts. He asked Woodbridge, "Did I make the right decision?"
"When he asked, he was not trying to gather sympathy," Woodbridge said. "He had to weigh the fact that he was brilliant but was not able to be an evangelical academic. Instead, he chose to build up important evangelical organizations."
The editor to get the job done
In 1977, Kantzer accepted the editorship of Christianity Today in response to a request from Billy Graham. "I remember reading articles by him, and I remember hearing him lecture and speak before he probably knew who I was," said Graham in a 2000 tribute to Kantzer. "He is certainly one of the great theologians of this century. It was my privilege on behalf of the board to call him and ask him if he would be editor of Christianity Today."
As at Trinity, Kantzer stepped into Christianity Today at a time when important decisions had to be made and strong leadership was needed. "I never considered myself as primarily an editor," he said in the 1996 interview with CT. "I always considered myself as a theologian who was editing in order to do a job that needed to be done."
CT Corporate Editor Harold Myra said, "Ken took the editorial helm of Christianity Today at a crucial moment, bringing scholarship, pastoral wisdom, and passion for the evangelical cause. Later, he served as dean of the CT Institute and for many years gave us regular, highly valued counsel."
Kantzer said in 1996 that when he took over, the financial gifts supporting the then primarily academic publication were soon to run out. "The magazine had to be given more popular appeal if it were to survive," he said. "At the same time, I tried to keep the magazine theologically on track, to keep a focus on the evangelical world-and-life view, and to interact with movements and trends both inside and beyond evangelicalism. I think to a large extent that has been the motivating focus with CT ever since."
The "absent-minded," loving leader
Because Carol Thiessen's uncle had hired Kantzer at Wheaton years before, Kantzer said that her "theology must be okay" and he hired her as a CT copy editor in 1979. She stayed at the magazine for more than 20 years.
As editor of the magazine, Kantzer would often take home stacks of manuscripts to read, Thiessen said. But few returned to the office. "We really didn't know where they all could have gone to," Thiessen said. In fact, a CT contributor was at one point even commissioned to "poke around the Kantzer household for manuscripts."
"He was the quintessential absent-minded professor," she said. "He couldn't always remember names, but there was never one doubt that he cared about each person."
Kantzer left the editor's role at Christianity Today in 1982 but continued to serve as a consulting editor. He also served on the boards of many institutions, including Columbia Bible College and John Brown University. He wrote countless articles for magazines and several chapters for theological volumes. He taught at King's College, Gordon College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Fuller Summer School of Theology. At Trinity, he served as chancellor, director of the Ph.D. program, and officially retired as a professor in 1991.
Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, said that Kantzer was a beloved professor while at Wheaton but his legacy will live on beyond institutional walls. "He and a handful of others theologically anchored the evangelical movement for the last half of the 20th century," Litfin said. "When I think of Ken Kantzer, I think of speaking the truth in love. We will miss having that voice."
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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Also appearing on our site today:
CT Classic: Kenneth Kantzer Reflects on His History with the Magazine and the Evangelical Movement | At his retirement from Christianity Today, Kenneth Kantzer recalled the most significant changes on the Christian scene during his tenure.
Other CT articles by or about Kenneth Kantzer include:
Standing On The Promises | Former CT editors Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer evaluate evangelicalism in light of its twentieth-century developments. (Sept. 16, 1996)
Watching My Daughter 'Defect' | Part of being a good Christian is being a good citizen. (October 7, 1991)