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A Conversation with Doug Sweeney about Carl F. H. Henry

newsroomadminJuly 29, 2013

We recently sat down with Dr. Doug Sweeney, Chair of the Church History department and Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, in his office for an informal chat about Carl Henry’s life, legacy, and relationship to TEDS for a forthcoming article in the Trinity Magazine. Dr. Sweeney has written extensively on evangelical identity and history, and we found his off-the-cuff reflections be very helpful, so he graciously agreed to have them published.

What are some of the more significant changes that you feel have happened in evangelicalism since Dr. Henry’s death? And did he anticipate these in his work?

The most significant changes in the evangelical movement since Dr. Henry’s death are changes that he saw at the end of his life, and worried about. When Dr. Henry came of age and became an important leader in the evangelical movement, there was still a widespread sense—it wasn’t quite accurate, but I think a lot of people felt it was true—that he and the other leaders of what we call the “neo-evangelical resurgence” really were representing thoughtful evangelicals everywhere. By the end of his life, however, Dr. Henry recognized that the evangelical movement had diversified to such an extent that there’s no way any one person could represent it publicly. And that made Dr. Henry a little uneasy, not because he was afraid of diversity but because some of the diversity he saw was pretty heterodox, and he wanted evangelicalism to mean something significant theologically. He didn’t want it up for grabs.

So there was a struggle at the end of his life that he and other leaders from his generation felt; they felt a certain sense of responsibility, even before God, to steer this ship well. But he recognized at a certain point that there was just no way that he could get most evangelicals to follow what he did, and that concerned him.

Does it seem to you that the things that make Protestant Evangelicalism what it is actually might, in the long term, be working to undermine the ability of leadership to coalesce and direct a movement like that?

Unpack that one more level so that I know what you’re thinking.

Think about, for instance, how in recent decades several high-profile Protestant evangelicals have converted to Roman Catholicism. Correct or incorrect, there is a thing that Roman Catholicism seems to supply that they saw as lacking. It makes me wonder, in the long term, if what we saw in the “golden age” when Henry and others were perceived as leaders is almost an accident of history that’s not repeatable; or at least if it’s repeatable it won’t be something that we can engineer or foresee.

I think there are some real tensions here that have given shape to our movement for a long time. Church historians like to say that modern evangelicalism—the kind that’s intentionally interdenominational and cooperative—emerged out of the revivals of the 18th century. And that was a funny period of time for a movement like ours to emerge, because its most significant thought leaders were state church ministers, who were used to, and really didn’t oppose very strenuously, a top-down way of thinking about how to lead a movement. John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards disagreed some of the time on matters of doctrine and polity, but two of them [Wesley and Whitefield] were ordained in the Church of England, and one of them [Edwards] was ordained in the state church of Massachusetts that descended from the Puritans. They were tax-supported ministers whose jobs came with a built-in cultural authority that they didn’t mind having. But at the same time, their message at the revivals was, “You’ve got to be born again; you can’t just inherit your Christian faith; there are problems in these state churches because we have too many people who get baptized and raised up in these churches and just assume they’re right with God, and they’re not.” And that message—and I think this is part of what you’re talking about—undermined their status as authorities, because it encouraged people to take responsibility for their own faith: their conversion, their walk with God, their devotional life, and to a certain extent their doctrine.

Now I don’t think classical Protestantism from the Reformation period, or even good evangelical theology from the period of the revivals, intended to champion a “right of private judgment” (the notion that every individual in this movement has the right to make up his own theology and do what he wants). But you can see how their message, and then the agreement to disagree on so many secondary matters, led eventually to a great amount of diversification (especially after the old state churches were disestablished and churches had to market themselves to fill the pews on Sundays, as a result of which leaders began to soft-pedal tradition and emphasize creativity, cultural relevance, and so on). You can see how the evangelical message of revival undermined the ability of evangelical leaders to control their own movement.

I was just reading a book out this year by Gregory Alan Thornbury (Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry). One of the things he highlights is the centrality of epistemology to Henry’s theological work, and at one point he laments two trends that he sees: on the one hand there’s a disparaging of a particular epistemological commitment (foundationalism); on the other hand, the work’s simply not being done by many theologians. From your perspective as a church historian, could you see a revival or renewal of a robust evangelical coalition apart from a renewed focus on epistemology? Do you agree that those things are closely knit?

When we talk about epistemology in this way, we’re abstracted at least one level up from where most evangelicals are most of the time. But if what you mean is: can evangelicals everywhere really unite effectively without agreeing on the nature of Scripture and the primacy of Scripture for norming our doctrine and practice—that’s also a Henry-esque way of speaking—I would say no. It would be difficult for evangelicals to work well together without that kind of epistemological agreement. Because if you don’t have that, you’ll have a lot of evangelicals who will wander from traditional Christianity, often without even knowing it, with little to no concern about, or even understanding of, some basic matters of Christian orthodoxy. Dr. Henry found it important to emphasize that God has revealed himself in Scripture in some pretty clear ways, in propositions that we should live by. As Dr. Vanhoozer points out, God has revealed himself in the Bible in several other ways as well—not just propositionally—and that’s true, very true. But for Henry, it was important to emphasize that there are propositions in the Bible, and that they’re the basis of our faith, the foundation of our faith. Using older Christian language, they’re the cardinal doctrines of our faith. Biblical orthodoxy has always been important to evangelicals. So if, or as, the evangelical movement loses its traditional epistemological moorings, it will be more and more difficult for the movement to cohere. There are a lot of traditional or doctrinally conservative evangelicals who won’t cooperate with folks who aren’t. And insofar as a lot of the more popular, trend-setting kinds of evangelical leaders aren’t interested anymore in rooting themselves in orthodox traditions, and don’t want to commit to such a “foundationalist” platform, our movement will continue to disintegrate (as an intellectual movement, anyway).

When defining “evangelical,” a lot of people appeal to Bebbington’s fourfold classification. How would Dr. Henry have agreed or disagreed with that?

He would have added more. Dr. Bebbington does not affirm biblical inerrancy, and for Dr. Henry that was huge. I may be putting words in Henry’s mouth here, but I think it’s probably fair to say that he wanted evangelicals to agree on more matters of Bible doctrine than are part of Bebbington’s fourfold classification.

The quadrilateral that you get from Bebbington is a helpful one because it doesn’t exclude many people. It allows one to define evangelicalism simply and then move on to social history without overdefining the subject or making people feel uneasy about the way it’s been defined. The four elements of Bebbington’s definition are biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Two of those [biblicism and crucicentrism] are explicitly theological, which made Henry happy. Dr. Henry was all about conversionism and activism too, of course; in fact, the Henry that everybody likes is the Henry of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which is what inspired his generation of evangelicals to activism. But I think Henry’s “unease” about the quadrilateral would’ve had to do with its biblicism and crucicentrism. For Henry, it’s not just a commitment to the importance of the Bible that should be emphasized, but a certain kind of commitment to the importance of the Bible, one that was articulated in greater detail than you get from Bebbington by classical Protestant leaders and their heirs. And it’s more than just being a cross-centered person that was important to Dr. Henry; he would’ve wanted to defend the centrality of a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement.

So he was more doctrinal, and more combative, than Bebbington in defining evangelicalism.

Talk to me broadly about Henry’s relationship with TEDS.

He was a major figure at TEDS for a long time, and here John Woodbridge and Don Carson would be a lot better on the details since they lived through many of them. After Henry was done teaching at Fuller and serving as the founding editor of Christianity Today, he traveled the world as an itinerant teacher and preacher (with the help of World Vision). He taught at many schools, but I think TEDS was his favorite. He taught here a lot, spoke in chapel a lot, and left TEDS a lot of money when he died (which surprised nearly everyone). He identified with TEDS in a post-Fuller kind of way, for after Fuller gave up its commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture Henry became upset. He worried that Fuller, and perhaps much of the evangelical movement, was losing its moorings in traditional Christian orthodoxy, and he appreciated TEDS for adding ballast to the ship.

D. G. Hart has argued (in Deconstructing Evangelicalism) that “evangelicalism” doesn’t exist. Imagine Henry and Hart in conversation on this point.

Darryl Hart is a friend of mine, from way back. I think he’s onto something; but I think Henry would have liked to give him a smack down. [laughter] Let’s say this conversation is taking place in 1990, by which time Henry’s in his upper seventies. He’d say to Darryl, “Look, I’ve spent my whole life participating in these collaborative, interdenominational, oftentimes parachurch organizations in which people really have been working together as part of a movement that most would have recognized and appreciated. They disagreed on the finer points of theology, but they had pretty basic agreement on what it was that they had in common and what it was they were trying to do together.” So to assert that evangelicalism doesn’t exist, or that the word “evangelical” is not worth using, is ridiculous. For all the people in Henry’s world—and there were millions of them—it was the most important moniker for self-identification and, more importantly, for identifying the kind of kingdom work that they were about.

Darryl’s onto two things that have come up in this conversation so far. He’s onto the aspirations of the Henry-Graham generation of evangelicals. Darryl thinks those are the guys who invented evangelicalism; there was no such thing as the evangelical movement before them, but these guys were famous enough and big enough, and America was powerful and important enough on the world stage, that they could pretend like they were leading a global movement. In Darryl’s view, however, they were really just pretending. They couldn’t run the movement by themselves. The people they were leading disagreed about too much.

The other thing he’s been touching on—as a very Westminsterian, confessional Protestant who doesn’t care about being “evangelical” but does care about being Reformed and Presbyterian—is that a lot of people like himself, who grew up Baptist (I think) and gravitated toward old-school Presbyterianism, did so because they wanted to be more confessional. They got worried that the people in their world didn’t have moorings that were deep enough. The parachurch way of life fed their hearts, but it didn’t help their heads to identify with traditional Christianity. Again, I think that Hart is onto something important here.

But Dr. Henry, I think, would say: “Well, alright Darryl, how many Orthodox Presbyterians are there?” (I don’t know the latest numbers, but it’s a small denomination.) “And you’re willing to cooperate with which other groups? Maybe a few in the PCA and Missouri Synod? Well those of us who like the label ‘evangelical’ are engaged in important gospel work with tens of millions of people around the world, and are hoping to mobilize hundreds of millions. And not just people who, in a Eurocentric way, identify with confessions from the early modern West, but people who can get on board without having to feel like white people have to be in charge of everything.”

Does it seem to you that there is a tension between the very idea of galvanizing a movement, on the one hand, and the commitment to doctrinal correctness on the other?

Let me give you the short version of the sermon I preach on this all the time. And this isn’t taking the focus off of Henry—I think Henry preached basically the same sermon, maybe with a different tone, but the same message.

I think evangelicalism at its best has always been historic Christianity—biblical, apostolic, “small-c” catholic, orthodox Protestant Christianity—with an eighteenth-century twist that emerged from the Great Awakening. The twist was this. As top-down, state-church Christianity, and “Christendom” modes of thought about the expansion of Christian “territory,” began to wane in the West, a renewal message emerged: being personally converted, having intimate knowledge of God, having faith in both head and heart, a personal faith that changes your life, is essential to genuine Christianity. This message was informed by earlier developments in the church—Pietism, Puritanism, the “further reformation” in the Dutch Reformed church. But it really began to make a big, international difference during the eighteenth-century revivals.

Ever since then, evangelicalism (again, at its best) has been intentionally collaborative, intentionally international, inter-ethnic, and interdenominational. It has been a cooperative movement of people who enjoy working together in Christian ministry despite their differences, but whose entire faith needn’t be—and shouldn’t be—identified with only what they agree upon across their various boundaries. That kind of least-common-denominator approach to Christian identity can be pretty thin gruel for sustaining people spiritually. I’m a Lutheran. Let’s say you’re a Calvinist or a Wesleyan, or maybe a Pentecostal. My entire Christian identity is not wrapped up in what we agree upon in our parachurch activities. I don’t want your identity grounded only on what we can agree upon. But I do want us to work together. So there’s this balancing act that has always characterized the evangelical movement, and that should continue to characterize our sense of Christian identity. We need to be fed by the deep waters of our own denominational, churchly, and confessional traditions, even as we agree to disagree on secondary matters for the sake of working together for the gospel. We’re a movement that’s got people from all over the place. They’re not shallow or superficial theologically, but they’re not jerks either. [laughter] They really want to work together and collaborate. And I think that’s what the Whitefields, the Edwardses, and the Wesleys at their best were trying to promote. I think that’s what Henry was trying to promote.

That’s why, when I was hired at TEDS, people like Ken Kantzer and Carl Henry and Greg Waybright thought it was wonderful that they had a Lutheran that they could bring on the faculty. Not because they agreed with Luther on every point of doctrine, but because they wanted TEDS to be a place that was always fed by these older denominational traditions but that was characterized most visibly by gospel cooperation. I think that’s what Henry was really about; it’s just that, at the end of his life, he was worried that too many of the front-line evangelical leaders forgot all about the older streams that had been feeding them. They too easily seemed to pull their roots out of traditional Christianity so that they could be flexible in doing whatever the new thing was in the movement. Thus they muffled their movement’s genius. The genius of the movement has always been this both-and thing, this ability to combine tradition and ingenuity, orthodoxy and piety, the local church and the parachurch. And in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, there are very few people who are combining those things winsomely and effectively. These brothers and sisters are so interested in confessional purity, and the other boundaries around their sets, that they just can’t bring themselves to cooperate with Free Church, Baptist, Wesleyan, and other folks for the sake of doing kingdom work as the worldwide people of God. Too often today we see a tug-of-war between hyper-confessionalists on one side and hyper-pietistic, Bible-only, “we’re sick of fighting about doctrine so we don’t even care about that stuff anymore” folks on the other side. I think that on both ends of the spectrum we often lose what has made evangelicalism special, and what made Henry special.

Reading blogs and participating in various conversations, you typically find a few specific issues come up when discussing evangelical identity. I think inerrancy in particular is perceived to be a sticking point by some people. I do think a lot of people who disparage it don’t know it very well and haven’t read inerrancy’s best defenders (or don’t understand Henry’s position on it well). I think a lot of people, however, would say that they perceive that many who uphold inerrancy aren’t willing to cooperate with those who don’t. In your mind, how significant of a rift is that in the movement?

I think it’s significant. One of the reasons why Dr. Henry’s commitment to inerrancy and propositional truth was so often misunderstood, and so easily misconstrued, is that he was defending—sometimes in a confrontational way—this historic Christian doctrine in a foundationalist package during a period of time when the intellectual currents in the academy were moving people away from foundationalism and, in evangelical biblical studies, towards an appreciation of multiple genres in the Bible, a recognition of divinely-revealed elements in Scripture that aren’t best understood as propositions. So people who didn’t like Henry found it easy to caricature him as a rearguard, old-fashioned guy who didn’t quite get it. I think that was unfair. There was a certain element of fairness to it. I think there were certain things that Dr. Henry didn’t quite get. But in the main, it was unfair. I think we can have it both ways, and I think that Henry would agree. We can appreciate the poetic imagination of the psalmists; we can appreciate the mysterious nature of prophecy; we can appreciate some of the differences between the genre of biblical gospels and late-modern biographical methodological standards. We can do all of that and still believe that everything that God does say in Scripture is true and is reliable.

TEDS is participating in a conference at SBTS in September 2013 celebrating Henry’s life and legacy.


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