John Wenham: An Appreciation

Recently, I had the opportunity to read the autobiography of the late British biblical scholar, John Wenham,  entitled Facing Hell: The Story of a Nobody.  I had tracked down this out-of-print book largely because I was under the impression that it focused on the development of Wenham’s  doctrine of hell. For most of his adult life, he was an outspoken (though soft-spoken)  proponent of a view called ‘conditional immortality’, sometimes referred to as annihilationism, to which I also subscribe. This view, in short, holds that those who are not saved by Christ’s work are not punished eternally in hell, but are eventually destroyed there as the consequence for their sin and rejection of God’s offer of eternal life.

Because it is such a minority view in evangelical circles, I was interested in observing how Wenham’s adherence to this position practically impacted his pastoral ministry and I also wanted to learn how he responded to those who held to the traditional Augustinian view of eternal conscious torment.  Alas, Facing Hell turned out to be somewhat falsely advertised.  Though his developing views on the topic of judgment occasionally come up in the course of Wenham’s life story, it is not until page 229 that conditionalism becomes a central focus, and then, the section only lasts for 35 pages.  The author had described the genesis of this book in the preface as arising from the following intention:

I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.  I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.

Sadly, I would say that this intention failed to guide the book that resulted from it, though his short defense of conditional immortality in Facing Hell is quite cogent and well-stated, and will accordingly serve as an asset in the history of theological support for this position.  However, what I did discover in this book is the story of a wonderfully earnest Christian thinker, who played an important role in the history of evangelical movement in the 20th century, and whose example deserves to be commemorated by subsequent generations of Christ followers.

At one point in the book, Wenham says, ‘I have felt at times that I am a forgotten man’ and in the preface, he describes himself as ‘a person of most limited gifts, a mere nobody’, ‘an ordinary person’, and ‘third rate’.  After reading this book, I would disagree with his humble self-assessment, though I do admire the spirit in which he offers it.  In the following post, I would like to highlight some of the many extraordinary facets of the life of John Wenham that I discovered in his autobiography.

At least, 35 pages of facing hell

First, it must be pointed out that it certainly makes sense that he considers himself ‘forgotten’ when compared to some of his friends and colleagues, since he served alongside some of the greatest names in 20th century evangelical thought:

  • Along with John Stott, J.I. Packer, and others, Wenham founded the Latimer House, an evangelical research center near Oxford University, designed to promote conservative Christian views in the midst of the liberal theological intelligentsia and to advance the evangelical voice in the Anglican church (thanks to Dom Vincent for the explanation of the purpose of the Latimer House, which I had a difficult time discovering!).
  • While serving as Warden of the Latimer House from 1970-73, Wenham had the opportunity to influence many students at Oxford.  At one point in his book, Wenham writes, “Tom Wright says that it was I who suggested that he should take up academic work-though I don’t in the least remember the occasion.”  Many readers may recognize ‘Tom’ as N.T. Wright, one of the most influential evangelical voices in our time.
  • Wenham was also good friends with F.F. Bruce and taught at various times with R.T. France, Colin Brown, and Anthony Thistleton.
  • He is also the father of Old Testament scholar, Gordan Wenham, whom Tremper Longman has described as ‘one of the finest evangelical commentators today,’ as well as New Testament scholar David Wenham.

However, though many of these names may be well known, Wenham does not lavish attention on his connection with them.  Rather, he praises a number of men whose names may be obscure to us, but who deserve tremendous recognition for the influence they had on men like Stott, apologist Michael Green, and many others.  For instance, a leader in Wenham’s Inter-Varsity Fellowship, Douglas Johnson, is described as ‘though almost unknown to the world at large was one of the great influences on the church in the twentieth century–perhaps the greatest.’

Another significant figure in Wenham’s life, Eric Nash, who was called ‘Bash’, was characterised by Alister McGrath as having an evangelistic ministry to young men that ‘laid the nucleus for a new generation of Evangelical thinkers and leaders’.  As we have seen in the influence of Wenham on N.T. Wright, I believe that John Wenham is one of these figures who may not be remembered by large numbers of people, but who has had a tremendous influence on Christian history in the 20th century.

Some of Wenham’s writings are still held in high esteem within the evangelical community, including his Greek textbook, The Elements of New Testament Greek; his conservative defense of Scripture, Christ and the Bible (which was recently touted by Thomas Schreiner as being a “classic work on the authority of Scripture”); his harmonization of the gospel resurrection accounts, Easter Enigma; and Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, which supports patristic views on the authorship of the gospels and a very conservative dating of their order of composition.

This man was a classic conservative Bible scholar, well-regarded by some of the most traditionalist Christian thinkers, yet when he diverged from the party line on the subject of hell, somehow all of those conservative credentials and his profound understanding of Scripture vaporized into thin air and he became an antagonist against authentic evangelicalism, which is how he is portrayed in Al Mohler’s article in Hell Under Fire (where Mohler calls Wenham’s views on hell “hysterical”).

“My ability to view others charitably is THIS big.”

There, Mohler quotes from an article by John Ankerberg and John Weldon that lists out a number of annihilationists, such as John Stott, Philip Hughes, and Wenham, and follows with the tag: “and other well-known and reputedly evangelical leaders.”  These writers actually claim that “the doctrine of eternal punishment is the watershed between evangelical and non-evangelical thought.”  I’m not sure who elected these individuals to be the border guards of evangelicalism, but maligning men like Stott and Wenham as being “reputedly” evangelical in light of all that they have done for conservative Christian thought is a tactic that is not worthy of any true believer (see how I can use the same insinuating maneuver that they have?!).

Given what I have learned about John Wenham, his status as an evangelical is undeniable, his contribution to contemporary Christianity is invaluable, and I hope that his memory and influence will be lauded long after the Mohlers and Ankerbergs of Christianity have been revealed as the Joe McCarthy’s of a sad era in evangelical history.  I am proud to keep Wenham company in the ranks of a minority view on hell and I hope that I may in some small way help to contribute to his goal of sweeping away the traditionalist view of eternal conscious punishment in honor of the deeply thoughtful and fearlessly honest life that this man led for Christ and the truth.

UPDATE: I just came across an excerpt from John Stott’s biography which reveals a bit about the influence of John Wenham on Stott!