by John D. Hannah, Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary; Ph.D., University of Texas–Dallas. Department Chairman and Professor of Historical Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.
John Flipse Walvoord was born on May 1, 1910, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the third and last child of John Garrett Walvoord and Mary Flipse Walvoord.1 He benefited immensely from the security provided by a stable family that believed in education and religious training. John’s father, though he entered high school after his twentieth birthday, obtained a normal-school education that allowed him to become a teacher in the Horace Mann School in Sheboygan and, later, a principal. Eventually, he obtained a degree from the University of Wisconsin and served as a school superintendent.
The Christ-centered nature of the Walvoord home was evident even before John was born. Because of severe health problems, doctors had advised his mother to consider an abortion; however, a firm conviction that the Lord had given this child persuaded the parents to continue the pregnancy. Mary not only survived the pregnancy, but lived to be 102. The Walvoords were members of the First Presbyterian Church, where John’s father served as an elder and Sunday-school superintendent. At the age of nine, John joined the church, having committed the Westminster Shorter Catechism to memory. Three years later he began to read the Bible daily, though, as he confesses, a true religious awakening had not occurred; the endeavor was motivated by a determination to attain righteousness through works. In 1925 the family moved to Racine, where John’s father became the principal of a junior high school.
During high school not only did John excel in academics and athletics, but his religious training bore fruit in a profound personal attachment to the Christian faith. The family joined the Union Gospel Tabernacle, now the Racine Bible Church, a nondenominational, independent body. Having been impressed in Sheboygan by a retired Baptist minister who spoke to First Presbyterian’s youth group in 1922, John had a year later answered an altar call and made a commitment to full-time Christian work. This appears, however, to have been more an evidence of the Spirit’s wooing than of his redemptive work, because it was only after moving to Racine that John came to an evangelical conversion.
While studying Galatians with a church group led by William McCarrell, who would later be among the founders of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (1930), John came to an awareness of the full sufficiency of the free grace of Christ apart from any human endeavors. He cryptically commented, “If I was not saved before, I was saved then.”2
In 1928 Walvoord entered Wheaton College, a private Christian liberal-arts institution under the presidency of J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. There Walvoord pursued a rigorous course of study, majoring in Greek and minoring in Latin, excelled in athletics (football and track), and was a member of the debate team which won the Illinois championship in 1930 and 1931. In addition, he was president of the college’s Christian Endeavor and the missionary volunteer band (his desire to serve as a missionary in China or India likely sprang from this involvement).
With some additional course work one summer at the University of Colorado, he was able to complete his undergraduate degree in 1931 with honors. Because of his Presbyterian heritage, Walvoord considered taking graduate studies at Princeton Seminary, but then he turned in another direction. At about that time Lewis Sperry Chafer, president of the Evangelical Theological College (now Dallas Theological Seminary) and a cleric in the Presbyterian church, had come to speak at the Union Gospel Tabernacle and made a deep impression on Walvoord.3 Further, Buswell, who had received a D.D. from the Evangelical Theological College in 1927 (Chafer had received the same degree from Wheaton the previous year) recommended the Dallas school over Princeton.4 The theological affinity between Wheaton and the Evangelical Theological College (e.g., an aversion to both modernism and the fanatical fringe of evangelicalism known as fundamentalism,5 a shared Presbyterian heritage, premillennialism,6 and the Keswick tradition),7 as well as a summer program that the Evangelical Theological College conducted in Wheaton’s facilities for a brief period, made Wheaton a conduit to Dallas at that time. Ten percent of the B.A. students who entered the Evangelical Theological College between 1924 and 1929 were from Wheaton; that figure increased to 35 percent between 1930 and 1935. Wheaton was by far the richest source of the seminary’s entrants. 8 Upon entering the Evangelical Theological College, a school with an eclectic heritage rooted in the Bible conference movement of the late nineteenth century (hence the unique stress on survey of the English Bible and the Keswick concept of progressive sanctification), Reformed understandings of soteriology that were in some respects shaped by Saumurian Calvinism, and Darbyite dispensationalism and modern premillennialism—a syncretism in tune with the heritage of the Union Gospel Tabernacle and Wheaton College (though Buswell rejected Chafer’s dispensationalism)—Walvoord pursued a regular curriculum of seminary studies, graduating with both a Th.B. and a Th.M. degree in 1934. 9 He was particularly impressed in his training by Chafer, professor of systematic theology; Harry A. Ironside, a visiting professor of Bible who was of Brethren affiliation; and Henry Theissen, the Greek teacher who had arrived in 1931 and left for Wheaton College in 1935—the only Ph.D. on the faculty at that time.
With missionary service in mind, Walvoord engaged himself in Christian ministry on the weekends and in the summers organized vacation Bible schools in rural areas of the Midwest. Having secured an application to serve with the China Inland Mission, a dream of his mother’s for him, he sought God’s guidance, but he met only silence; he turned to the possibility of a pastorate, but there was no sense of the Lord’s leading. 10 Under Chafer’s influence he made the decision to enter the doctoral program and assume the pastorate of the Rosen Heights Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth (now Northwest Bible Church). He completed the Th.D. degree in 1936 and then sought a pastorate in the Midwest.
At this point Chafer offered Walvoord a position as registrar and associate professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary (the new name of the Evangelical Theological College). 11 Walvoord sensed the direction of God to accept that position and commuted from his pastorate in Fort Worth. Finding the registrar’s office disorganized and records nearly nonexistent, he plunged himself into his duties; with an amazing combination of diligence and productivity, he excelled as a learned teacher, administrator, and pastor. In 1939 Walvoord married Geraldine Lundgren of Geneva, Illinois, after an acquaintanceship that spanned seven years; the couple had four sons—John Edward, James Randall, Timothy, and Paul. In addition to a bewildering array of commitments, he served as moderator of the Fort Worth Presbytery twice and as permanent clerk for ten years. He also began classes at Texas Christian University and was granted an A.M. degree in philosophy in 1945. He had wrestled with the possibility of seeking a two-year leave of absence from Dallas to pursue a Ph.D. degree in philosophy at Princeton University; however, the strain of federally mandated year-round classes during the war years made Chafer reluctant to lose his services.
Chafer’s declining health, as evidenced by heart problems, limited his labors, making it clear that he could no longer single-handedly direct the institution. The solution was to bring his protégé into a more prominent role, though Walvoord already had numerous duties, including serving as the secretary of the faculty (1940–45). While continuing with his responsibilities in the Department of Systematic Theology, he became assistant to the president in 1945. The function of the new position was far beyond that of an assistant; in addition to assuming oversight of a mountain of institutional correspondence, he served as chairman of the faculty and director of publicity. He also took over an increasing portion of Chafer’s ministry at Bible conferences.12
The death of Chafer on August 22, 1952, left the institution bereft of its first and only president. This was a crucial period, for the seminary was in the midst of its first building project since 1929. Walvoord was appointed president of the seminary and promoted to professor of systematic theology.13 He was installed formally in February 1953 at the dedication of Chafer Chapel.14 Because of the increasing burdens of his seminary duties, he had resigned from the Rosen Heights Presbyterian Church in 1950. He subsequently joined the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, leaving the Presbyterian Church in the United States.15 Taking over the leadership of the seminary from a man who had enjoyed an enormous reputation in the ranks of dispensational premillennialists, and who had occupied the presidency for twenty-eight years, required courage and strength. Walvoord would lead the school as president for thirty-three years, retiring from the post to accept emeritus status as chancellor in 1986. He had served on its faculty for fifty years. 16 In those years of pressing presidential duties, he emerged as a foremost scholar and writer in the field of eschatological studies. He was recognized for his achievements by both a D.D. degree from Wheaton College in 1960 and a Litt.D. from Liberty Baptist Seminary in 1984.
Presidency of Dallas Theological Seminary
The contribution of John Walvoord as a theologian cannot be separated from either the institution he directed and defined for over three decades or his large scholarly output following John Nelson Darby, James Hall Brookes, C. I. Scofield, and Lewis Sperry Chafer in the defense and delineation of dispensational premillennialism. The seminary emerged in the context of the theological and social trauma that polarized several of the Northern denominations at the turn of the present century. Deeply rooted in the reactionary Bible conference movement of the previous decades, the school was the fulfilment of Chafer’s aspirations. 17 An Ohioan of Presbyterian affiliation, Chafer had traveled extensively, beginning in the 1890s, as an evangelist’s assistant, then as an evangelist, and eventually as a popular Bible teacher. 18 The theological features of the school deeply reflect the religious experience of its founder, as well as one particular substratum of the evangelicalism of that day. 19 Through his travels, often with Scofield, and conversations with numerous pastors and colleagues, Chafer had become convinced that an entirely new departure was needed in ministerial training. 20 The standard theological curriculum had three glaring deficiencies: failure to provide an intensive study of each book of the Bible, 21 to foster the spiritual development of each student (particularly through the principles and interpretative insights associated with the Keswick and Northfield conferences), and to teach dispensationalism and premillennialism, which he felt provided singular insights for understanding and unfolding the simple, clear teachings of Scripture. 22 In essence Dallas Seminary sought to institutionalize the theological distinctives of the Bible conference movement; it was convinced that the theological malaise of the day could be remedied by biblically informed teachers. 23 An early announcement alerted prospective students that “the college has been established to meet a direct demand and to fill a widespread need because of its peculiar aims, one dominant feature of which is the thorough training in the Scriptures with special reference to expository preaching and teaching.” 24 This, Chafer averred, was the best defense of historical Christianity. As Walvoord succeeded Chafer, he was committed to continuing the basic emphases of the school.
He commented, “I tried not to change much. … In the beginning we really concentrated on keeping stability, maintaining the educational distinctives.” 25 Yet at the same time it was necessary to organize for the future. Chafer’s years at the helm had been dominated by the Great Depression and World War II. “Times had changed,” Walvoord would later recall. “We were in the post-war boom. Previously the Depression had made survival the goal. It was time to move ahead.” And the Walvoord years did evidence enormous changes in the institution. 26
The most pressing immediate need was the financial plight of the school. Almost from its inception the seminary had faced financial shortfalls, even though there were annual deliverances. 27 The new president was able, by instituting some simple measures such as telling the school’s donors of its needs and charging a modest tuition, to balance the budget, pay off the debt, and launch into an aggressive building program that would transform the campus. 28 At his inauguration in 1953, Chafer Chapel, the first new building since 1929, was dedicated. The Walvoord administration witnessed an almost continuous acquisition of properties and more buildings. Mosher Library was completed in 1960, and a large residence hall, a former YWCA near the campus, was secured in 1969. In the 1970s new buildings, the Todd Building in 1972 and Academic II in 1974, literally refocused the seminary to face toward Live Oak Street. The Timothy Walvoord Building, a student union, completed the main campus in 1982. 29 What had started out as two structures along a single street has now become seven major academic buildings encompassing an entire city block. There are also various apartments and offices in the immediate environs. The immense growth of the campus was in direct response to an enormous era of growth in the student population. From a student body of 281 in 1953, the size of the school rose to 1,647 in the spring of 1986. Particularly impressive is the fact that the school was able to post financial surpluses during the era of huge growth.30
In addition to the campus and student body, the faculty grew substantially, reaching an apex of seventy-one in 1986. This is indicative of the educational progress during Walvoord’s tenure. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the school, and most indicative of its direction, was the acquisition in 1969 of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. 31 Two new departments were added to the school: the Department of Christian Education (1958) and the Department of World Missions (1963). 32 The 1970s witnessed an explosion of academic programs. In 1972 a summer program was instituted, and in 1974 a winter term was added so that classes would be conducted year-round. 33 In that year two further changes were effected. First, the board approved the first new degree program since 1931. The new program, the master of arts in biblical studies, was a two-year course that waived the traditional language requirements. Second, women were admitted into this program, the first time they were permitted student status. 34 (By 1986 women were permitted to enter most of the school’s degree programs.) Also, a lay institute taught by students was started as an evening program. In 1980 a program leading to the D.Min. degree was inaugurated; subsequently, several additional M.A. programs were introduced (e.g., cross-cultural ministries, Christian education).35
As president of Dallas Seminary, Walvoord proved to be a man of vision who projected the aura of confidence and stability. In the words of Howard Hendricks, a longtime faculty member: “I think Dr. Walvoord’s educational philosophy has been one of vision. He has articulated a vision for the future that was lacking in 1952. He has built one of the stronger teams in terms of the faculty that I have seen in any Christian school. He built a base of continuity in terms of faculty that is almost unheard of. And he was committed to quality.” 36 In comparing the three presidents, it might be argued that Chafer was a visionary who felt an acute need for an exclusively premillenarian, dispensationalist school; he established the first such institution in the country. Walvoord brought it from financial distress to numerical and academic prominence; while maintaining Chafer’s vision, he equipped the seminary to prepare pastors, leaders, and teachers for a narrow segment of American evangelicalism. 37 The administration of Donald Campbell (1986) has sought to position the school to become a voice in a wider spectrum of the evangelical movement. Chafer gave birth to the school, Walvoord made it into a world-class institution, and Campbell has sought to bring it into the center of American Christianity.
In addition to directing the most prominent dispensationalist school in the country for over three decades, Walvoord has emerged as an eminent scholar in the realm of prophetical and eschatological studies. 38 Admittedly, his interests have been almost entirely apologetic and polemic as he attempted to define the school’s distinctive theology and defend it as a biblically warranted interpretation of Scripture. John Witmer has written of him, “Already nationally known as a theologian and Bible teacher when elected President of Dallas Seminary, Dr. Walvoord has increasingly grown through the years of his administration as a leading world spokesman for biblical Christianity.” 39 In addition to his growing prominence through ministry at various Bible conferences and churches, his stature in the modern premillennialist movement is evidenced by his service on the committee of scholars that produced the New Scofield Reference Bible in 1967, a revision of Scofield’s work of 1909 and 1917. 40 Far more important in the defense of modern dispensationalism (a more precise designation would be classical or traditional modern dispensationalism), however, has been his personal literary output.
Along with the presidency of the seminary, the editorship of Bibliotheca Sacra became one of Walvoord’s responsibilities. 41 For thirty-three years (1952–85), amidst huge administrative duties, he directed the journal in the defense of evangelical theology in general and dispensational premillennialism in particular. 42 He contributed a total of 127 articles. 43 Between 1937 and 1970 he contributed 93 articles, including 57 on eschatological issues, 18 on Christology, 7 on soteriology, and 6 on pneumatology. Between 1971 and 1980 he wrote 28 articles, 23 on eschatological themes and 5 on pneumatology. Finally, between 1981 and 1990 he prepared 6 articles, 5 on eschatology and 1 on pneumatology. Of the 127 articles, 85 were on eschatological themes. Accordingly, Campbell notes, “His subject is biblical eschatology, his field of specialization and expertise.” 44
Further, Walvoord has authored nineteen books: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (1943; revised in 1954 and 1958); The Return of the Lord (1955); The Thessalonian Epistles (1956); The Rapture Question (1957; revised in 1979); The Millennial Kingdom (1959); To Live Is Christ: An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (1961; reissued in 1971 as Philippians: Triumph in Christ); Israel in Prophecy (1962); The Church in Prophecy (1964); The Nations in Prophecy (1967; the last three were published together in 1988 as Israel, the Nations, and the Church in Prophecy ); Truth for Today (1963); The Revelation of Jesus Christ (1966); Jesus Christ Our Lord (1969); Daniel, the Key to Prophetic Revelation (1971); The Holy Spirit at Work Today (1973); Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (1974); Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis (1974; revised in 1990); The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (1976); The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (1990); and Major Bible Prophecies (1991). He has also edited several works: Inspiration and Interpretation (1957); Major Bible Themes (1974—a revision of Chafer’s 1926 volume by the same title); The Bib Sac Reader (1983—a collection of articles that had appeared in the journal between 1934 and 1983); The Bible Knowledge Commentary (1983—a two-volume work by the seminary faculty); and Systematic Theology (1988—a two-volume abridgment of Chafer’s eight-volume 1947–48 publication).
Our survey makes it quite evident where Walvoord invested his literary energies: “The titles of the writings indicate the emphasis of Dr. Walvoord’s thought and teaching. He has been an ardent exponent of the premillennial and dispensational system of theology.” 45 A friend has made an ironic, insightful comment on his work and its reception by American evangelicalism in general: “He never got the credit in my judgment for the thinker he is. In certain circles he has, but … the evangelical world at large—the world that thinks of itself as theologians—has never given him the credit he deserved. … When he was forty years old [when he was about to become president of the seminary], if he had addressed himself purely as a theologian, he might have done what no other man has ever done as a dispensationalist, and that is make Dispensationalism respectable [to the evangelical theologians].”46