Carl Henry Was Right
I have an account to settle with Carl Henry. It is too late to personally settle it with him—although I hope the Lord eventually gives me the chance to do that in the hereafter. For now, though, I can at least set the record straight in the pages of this magazine, which Dr. Henry served so capably as Christianity Today's first editor.
The story starts in the fall of 1967 when, as a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, I received a phone call from Henry. A few weeks before I had sent an essay to him, outlining what I took to be a proper evangelical approach to the sub-discipline of social ethics. Henry told me that he very much liked my piece for its critique of liberal Protestantism's approach to the field, and wanted to publish it. He had only one revision to suggest—a minor one, he insisted. At the point where I said that it was indeed important for the church to on occasion take a stand on some specific question of social justice, he preferred to have me speak of the need for individual Christians to take such a stand.
The essay was the first piece I had ever submitted to any periodical beyond the world of on-campus publications. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get this kind of personal attention from one of my evangelical heroes. But I was also troubled by the change he was proposing. This was a period in my life when I had often felt alienated from evangelicalism because of what I saw as its failure to properly address issues raised by the civil rights struggle and the war in Southeast Asia. As a corrective, I wanted the church, as church, to acknowledge its obligation to speak to such matters. So I responded by telling Henry that I did not see his proposed change as a minor bit of editing. As much as I would be honored to see my essay appear as an article in Christianity Today, I said, I could not approve the formulation he was suggesting.
Henry thanked me for my time, and the conversation ended. But over the next two weeks he called several times, on each occasion urging me to accept some revision. At one point, for example, he asked me to approve a statement to the effect that the church should regularly articulate general principles that bear on social concerns, leaving it up to individuals to actively apply those principles to social specifics. I rejected that way of putting the case.
His final call set forth what he presented as some compromises. And I accepted them, albeit with some reluctance. Thus, where I had referred to "the church's duty" to address the topic of civil rights, he had substituted a revision that spoke, with some ambiguity, of a "Christian duty with respect to the civil rights of human beings."
And while he kept my insistence that the church itself must on occasion address social specifics, he limited its role to the making of negative pronouncements. He had me saying that the church can say "no" to things that are happening in the economic and political realms, without mentioning anything about the church legitimately endorsing specific remedial policies or practices.
Here is how the case was put in the published version of my essay: "[I]t is often necessary for the church to take an unequivocal stand against prevailing economic, social, and political conditions, even where it is practically impossible to offer any solution" in terms that don't draw on extra-theological "'theoretical and empirical' analysis."
Five principles of engagement
In his biography, Confessions of a Theologian, Henry makes it clear that there was much going on in the background during the time we were having those phone conversations. He goes into much detail about how, during this period, he was attempting to take on social issues in a reasonable manner in his editorial role, while also pleasing J. Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company, who was contributing much-needed funding for the magazine.