Ockenga was born and raised in Chicago, and his family belonged to the Methodist church. Sensing a call to pastoral ministry, he attended Taylor University in Indiana (a Methodist institution) graduating in 1927. He then enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. However his theological studies there were interupted when he, along with many conservative students followed those members of the faculty - such as J. Gresham Machen - who withdrew from Princeton to establish the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. Ockenga graduated from Westminster 1930 and later received a PhD in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 1939.
Ockenga became a significant leader in what became known as Neo-evangelicalism or the New Evangelicalism. The roots of this are found in the theological controversy between Protestant Fundamentalists and Protestant Liberals in the earlier part of the Twentieth century. While Ockenga sided with the fundamentalists in reaction to theological liberalism, he with others, such as Carl Henry, Harold Lindsell, Wilbur Smith, and Edward John Carnell, became dismayed with the growing militant isolationism of the fundamentalists.
In an effort to redress these concerns Ockenga and J. Elwin Wright of the New England Fellowship established a new organization known as the National Association of Evangelicals. Ockenga served as its founding president from 1942-1944. Those affiliated with the association were interested in maintaining many of the biblical concerns that fundamentalism held to. However they also sought to direct conservative Christianity away from the anti-cultural and anti-intellectual tendencies which began to typify fundamentalists.
This effort continued in the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The principal founding figures of Fuller Seminary included Charles E. Fuller (radio evangelist), Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Harold Lindsell.
In the foreword to The Battle For the Bible by Harold Lindsell, Ockenga gave his view of the term neo-evangelicalism:
"Neo-evangelicalism was born in 1948 in connection with a convocation address which I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism, this address repudiated its ecclesiology and its social theory. The ringing call for a repudiation of separatism and the summons to social involvement received a hearty response from many Evangelicals. ... It differed from fundamentalism in its repudiation of separatism and its determination to engage itself in the theological dialogue of the day. It had a new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life." When Ockenga retired from Park Street church in 1969 he was appointed president of Gordon College and Divinity School. Reflective of the desires he had in establishing Fuller seminary, Ockenga was instrumental in negotiating the merger of Gordon Divinity School with the Conwell School of Theology. He collaborated with men such as J. Howard Pew, Billy Graham and Walter Martin in establishing Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Ockenga served as its president from 1970-79.
Joel A. Carpenter, ed. Two Reformers of Fundamentalism: Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988).
Harold Lindsell, Park Street Prophet: A Life of Harold John Ockenga (Wheaton: Van Kampen Press, 1951).
The personal library and papers of Harold John Ockenga are archived at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987).
James DeForest Murch, Cooperation without Compromise: A History of the National Association of Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1956).
Stephen J. Nichols, ed. J. Gresham Machen's the Gospel and the Modern World and Other Short Writings (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2005) - includes correspondence between Machen and Ockenga.