The Man Who Birthed Evangelicalism
The Man Who Birthed Evangelicalism
One hundred years after his birth and a decade after his death, is it time to revisit Carl F.H. Henry? For many, the first question very well may be "Carl who?"
The answer is, the Carl Henry who invented post-World War II evangelicalism, the evangelicalism we are still in large measure living with today. If you want to understand the core passions of contemporary evangelicalism, you have to understand the passions of Carl Henry.
Henry did not invent post-war evangelicalism all by himself, of course. He had lots of help from Harold John Ockenga, the Strategist; Billy Graham, the Evangelist; Bill Bright, the Activist; Francis Schaeffer, the Apologist; and many others. But it was Henry more than anyone else who argued the case and set forth a compelling intellectual apologetic for what was called in those days the New Evangelicalism.
Henry did this not only from professorship at Fuller Theological Seminary and his chair as the first editor of Christianity Today, but also through a series of impressive books beginning with The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism and culminating in the six-volume God, Revelation and Authority. GRAis still the most sustained theological epistemology by any American theologian. It deserves to be read more than it is, but it is not easy to read. Theologian Millard Erickson once said, with a twinkle in his eye, "I love Carl Henry's work. It's extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English!"
The last volume of GRA was published in 1983. Since then there have been several sea changes in hermeneutics and linguistics that a Henry redivivus would need (and want) to respond to. Still, some new theologians, like Greg Thornbury, think it's time we engage Henry again. Thornbury unabashedly declares in his new book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, that "I want to make Carl Henry cool again!" Thornbury knows that it's a hard sell, but he ably puts Henry in dialogue with his critics both within and outside of the evangelical family. This is true to the spirit of Henry himself, who engaged in a productive exchanges with the neo-orthodox Karl Barth and the postliberal theologian Hans Frei, among others. (There is a subtext to Thornbury's retrieval project: Henry is too easily caricatured and presented in a one-dimensional way because he is not read and studied.)
I will not speak of St. Carl Henry, for his blind spots and foibles are too well known to those who knew and loved him. He did not suffer fools gladly and was sometimes dismissive of others. His time at CT was tempestuous and did not end well from his perspective. Still, he continued to believe, as he told me near the end of his life, that CT was the best thing going to fulfill the vision that he and Billy Graham had in 1956 for a magazine of evangelical conviction that would be "(a) transcontinental, (b) interdenominational, (c) theologically affirmative, (d) socially aggressive and (e) irenic."
Henry was immersed as a Baptist in 1939, but the water was not too deep. Denominational loyalty was never a priority for him, though he supported the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and had a shaping influence on many rising SBC leaders at the time, including Richard Land and Albert Mohler.
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