The Legacy of Carl F.H. Henry: An Evangelical’s Evangelical
newsroomadminOctober 09, 2013
by Rory Tyer, with Chris Donato & Geoffrey Fulkerson
“Whoever lacks the initiative to read books stifles his own selfhood,” proclaimed Carl F. H. Henry on a blustery October day in 1985, as he dedicated his ten-thousand-plus volume collection to Rolfing Library. Spoken in characteristic Henry fashion, each word, each clause, each sentence was chosen carefully—the craft of a writer first and public speaker second. But while Dr. Henry was often called “the thinking man’s Billy Graham,” he did not suffer from the bookish elitism found in many halls of academia. Rather, his intellect was capacious, his confidence in the gospel unmoved, and his spirit generous in transcending the superficial barriers that had been erected by a separatist mentality.
Although not an ideal figure in the current age of sound bites, Carl Henry knew about the power of the pen. His 1947 Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism galvanized him as a leader in the blossoming U.S. evangelical church and has served a catalyst for evangelical activism up to this day. His magnum opus, the six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority, became the benchmark for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture for several generations.
However significant Dr. Henry’s books might have been in the formation of the evangelical heritage, it was his conviction about the utter truthfulness of the Book and its implications for all of life, Christian and “pagan” alike, that stood at the hallmark of his life’s achievement. And this returns us to that rather ordinary autumn day, when Dr. Henry dedicated his personal collection to Rolfing Library. That event—inconspicuous both in the history of Trinity International University and in the life of Carl F. H. Henry— nonetheless represents the relationship between this man and this institution: the life of the mind that necessarily leads to cultural engagement as an essential trait of Christian identity.
Moreover, if books and mind and, consequently, social action are inextricably bound together, and if their unity is what ties Trinity to Dr. Henry, it is even more so the Book that forged this pact of identities, which led Dr. Henry to both give Trinity his single largest gift and his personal archives (now housed in the basement of Rodine). All our books and social causes Dr. Henry would see as vanity, if it does not conform to the pattern of truth set before us in revelation, most clearly evident in Jesus Christ and preserved for us today in the spirit-penned Scriptures. Dr. Henry’s life-achievement, and Trinity’s institutional identity, is bound with this simple proposition: Christians must be continually engaged in explicating and defending the reliability and authority of the Bible. Why? Because it is in the Scripture’s gospel that the only hope for the coming “twilight of a great civilization”1 can be found.
UNEASY CONSCIENCE AND THE RISE OF EVANGELICALISM
Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was born on January 22, 1913, and was born again in 1933 while working as a journalist in New York. His conversion was a powerful experience that eventually led him into full-time ministry, earning degrees first at Wheaton College and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then Boston University. Evangelical institutions (publishers, parachurch organizations, schools, and seminaries) are numerous in North America today, but at that time most Christian institutions were shaped either by liberal theology—and these were the most culturally prominent ones—or by a separatist reaction to that theology by fundamentalists. The ethos of organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and, later, Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today (of which Dr. Henry was first dean and a founding editor, respectively), was shaped by the conviction that liberal theology, and the currents of modernity that gave rise to it, ought to be critically engaged rather than ignored or demonized. Henry applauded the NAE for its “determination to rise above a protest mentality and to shape a positive program,”2 and similar convictions would continue to shape Dr. Henry’s work throughout his life.
It was in the early stages of these movements of evangelical resurgence that Dr. Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). Originally meant, in his words, as “a tract for the times,”3 Uneasy Conscience is widely recognized as essential reading for anyone wanting to understand post-World War II North American evangelicalism. Culturally it is dated; theologically it is not. The book’s main thesis is that fundamentalism had, or ought to have had, an “uneasy conscience” because of its separatist and reactionary approach to modernity. Henry thought that the separatists had essentially conceded to the liberal churches their adoption of the culture’s entirely this-worldly view of the universe and relegated the gospel to the shelf of private devotion. In other words, they had given up the world: while retaining a high view of Scripture, it appeared as if God’s revelation had no bearing on the world at large, no principles to apply to the world’s social issues. On the other hand, those liberal churches who capitulated to modernity still presented a public theology to and for the world, but in the end, it was indistinguishable from their “pagan” counterparts because it was not ultimately founded on the gospel.
One significant ramification of orthodox Christians’ retreat from the public sphere was the unfortunate separation of the saving message of the gospel from the urgency of intellectual and cultural engagement, or what we would today call “social justice” concerns (although Henry would hope for stronger focus on the intellectual side of this engagement than is currently happening). For Henry, both proclamation of the gospel and participation in social activism are Christian imperatives because they flow necessarily from the fact that God is sovereign, the fact that this world is God’s world. “We are motivated in a mission to a world that God the Creator made and sustains. We sing, ‘This is my Father’s world,’ and well we may. Day after day it mirrors the Creator’s glory. . . . We glory in God’s sovereign rule over the universe.”4 The fundamentalists were conceding the world, and the liberal churches were conceding the gospel. Both had conceded a robust doctrine of God’s revelation from which faith and action flow, and a theological vacuum was waiting to be filled.
“Dr. Henry was the ‘Great Recoverer’ of social justice and the gospel and the relationship between them,” notes Dr. John Woodbridge, research professor of church history at TEDS and personal friend of Henry. Not surprisingly, Henry came under attack from both sides: the separatists railed against him for championing a united evangelical witness; the liberal churches mocked him for his insistence on biblical authority and inerrancy.
But the times have changed.
North American evangelical identity has undergone several transformations since the publication of Uneasy Conscience— for better and worse, as Henry himself lamented up to the time of his death. During Henry’s day, social justice causes and political activism were dominated by theologically liberal Christians; today it is evangelical Christians who are on the front lines of many ministries of justice and mercy, and this trend continues to grow. Furthermore, the existence of conservative evangelicals as a significant voting bloc— unthinkable to many in the 1940s—has been assumed since at least the 1970s; current debates center not on their existence as a political force but on their identity and trajectory. All this is tempered, however, by Henry’s prophetic call for his fellow evangelicals to remain steadfast in upholding a robust doctrine of Scripture (which must include authority and inerrancy), as well as fighting the temptation to become lax with respect to deep theological matters. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming an ugly hybrid of the old separatism (not interested in defending the faith, or offering a public theology to and for the world) and liberalism (accommodating to the prevailing “pagan” worldview).
While there are many figures and organizations that led the way—including Billy Graham, the Lausanne Congress, World Vision, the now-defunct Moral Majority, and many others—Dr. Henry’s influence was great. Indeed, “his approach,” says Paul House, “forces believers into the difficult world of constantly forming a truly biblical worldview truly relevant to the times.”5
HENRY, TRINITY, AND THE FUTURE OF EVANGELICAL IDENTITY
Following Dr. Henry’s retirement from Christianity Today in 1968, he spent the remaining years of his career as a scholar-at-large teaching and lecturing around the world. Although he was never a full-time faculty member at Trinity, he taught at least one class a semester here for over a decade. “He taught at many schools,” says Doug Sweeney, professor of church history at TEDS, about Dr. Henry’s post-CT years, “but I think TEDS was his favorite.” This claim is substantiated by Dr. Henry’s financial and personal endowment mentioned earlier. Trinity’s commitment—not least through the leadership of Dr. Kenneth Kantzer (founding dean of TEDS and editor of Christianity Today from 1977–82)—to the very things Henry articulated most forcefully in God, Revelation, and Authority gave him confidence in its education and its foundation for intellectual and cultural engagement.
In 1991, Drs. Henry and Kantzer were hosted by Drs. John Woodbridge and D. A. Carson for a Christian Thought lecture series titled “American Evangelicalism: Past, Present, and Future.” Both Henry and Kantzer had been instrumental architects of post-WWII evangelicalism, and spoke at length about its historical contexts and the necessity of reaffirming the authority and inerrancy of the Bible in the face of an increasingly diversifying movement. Henry praised Kantzer and Trinity, saying, “It is precisely Dr. Kantzer’s stand for the truthfulness of Scripture, for the importance of a full-orbed Christian world and life view, and for bold fulfillment of Christ’s missionary mandate in our pluralistic society that has made Trinity a significant factor in American Christianity.”6
Most illuminating, however, is the Q & A following both lectures, in which Carson asks both Henry and Kantzer numerous questions about evangelical identity and prospects.7 Their comments, now more than twenty years old, are prescient. Henry notes, for instance, that many minority evangelicals feel excluded from evangelical organizations and schools, and speculates that white evangelicals would be a minority within evangelicalism within a decade; Kantzer notes how charismatic believers helped correct a lack of teaching on the Holy Spirit. Henry’s ministry was a global ministry, and he believed that the authority and inerrancy of Scripture could anchor a gospel-centered evangelical ethos that transcended geographic and ethnic boundaries. Sweeney, elaborating on Henry’s commitment to evangelical identity, follows this thought: “Evangelicalism at its best has been intentionally collaborative, intentionally international, inter-ethnic, and interdenominational. 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.”
In short, the hope of the gospel given to us through God’s authoritative Word, which Trinity has sought to uphold and which Henry had seen the liberal churches give away, provides the necessary foundation upon which all Christian aspirations regarding the transformation of God’s world rest. Indeed, “whereas what passes for modernity soon calls for postmodernity, the truths of the Bible remain an unrivaled and abiding stimulus for constructive cultural engagement and for a personal walk with God.”8 Evangelicals can “still make gains that exceed any made this side of the apostolic age, including the Reformation,” Henry said in a subsequent interview, pointing to the absolute necessity of vigorous engagement with the world, submitted to the living Word of God. “But they will come only in the context of the bended knee and the throbbing heart.”9
1 See Henry’s book of the same name, Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward Neo-Paganism (Crossway, 1988).↩
2 Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Word Books, 1986), 106.↩
3 Ibid., 113.↩
4 Carl F. H. Henry, gods of this age or God of The Ages? ed. R. Albert Mohler (Broadman & Holman, 1994), 286.↩
5 Paul House, “Remaking the Modern Mind: Revisiting Carl Henry’s Theological Vision,” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (vol. 8, Winter 2004), 8.↩
9 Carl F. H. Henry, “Standing on the Promises,” Christianity Today, September 16, 1996, 35.↩