In what follows, Gregory Alan Thornbury, the new president of The King’s College in new york city, answers seven questions about 20th century theologian Carl F.H. Henry and his new book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry.
When did you first encounter Carl F.H. Henry (not necessarily in-person)?
GT: When I went to a Christian liberal arts college, and was really confronted in my first semester by a very winsome, articulate, biblical studies professor who was essentially trying to convert me to higher criticism of the Bible. I was reading people from Marcus J. Borge to Robert W. Funk from the Jesus Seminar and reading about Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. And this was a convulsion to me, coming from a really solid background. My father was a very well-read pastor, a scholar in his own right. But it shook me; my faith in the reliability and the authenticity of the Bible was shaken. I was close to going to the dark side. In many ways, it was kind of a Bart Ehrman scenario. My father gave me a list of scholars’ works to read. The one who really stuck in my head was Carl Henry. I went to the library and looked up God, Revelation and Authority. I was studying philosophy at the time. And so here was somebody with a titanic brain who was philosophically sophisticated and yet defended not only the general inspiration of the Bible but its inerrancy. And my faith rallied. I was like, “Listen, if this guy believes [the Bible is] true, I can believe it’s true.”
Why does Henry matter?
GT: I could give a litany of reasons. Anytime the church drifts — theologically, philosophically, culturally — we always wind up finding our way back to Henry. That’s what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s. People said “We don’t have any Southern Baptist scholars, per se, who have defended the inspiration and authority of the Bible.” So who did they go to? They went to J.I. Packer and Carl Henry.
And then the influence of his starting Christianity Today to offer vibrant engagement with the history of the church applied to contemporary problems. We’re all still trying to do that today, but Carl was sui generis in trying to get that going. So, we’re all still trying to be Carl Henry when we grow up.
What was going on around Henry that caused him to emphasize evangelical engagement?
GT: There are historical reasons why he matters. I think the Uneasy Conscious of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1948 right on the heels of World War II, was the evangelical equivalent of Barth’s commentary on the Book of Romans published in 1919. It was the bombshell that fell on the playground of the pastors of the time. What Henry said was, “Here we are post-World War II and the world is looking for answers — and they don’t want just parochial, pietistic answers. They’ve seen the holocaust, the worst horror the world has ever know. Where do we go from here?” Henry stared down weak-kneed church leaders at the time and said, “Unless you have confidence that the Bible speaks to everything — politics, economics, alliances and diplomacy, the environment, racial issues — we’re sunk; it’s over. Go home.”
So, Uneasy Conscience birthed neo-evangelicalism as a viable intellectual alternative. The way I put it is this: If Billy Graham was the heart of the evangelical movement, Carl Henry was the head.
What was Henry’s vision for evangelicalism?
GT: Henry’s vision for evangelicalism is that we once and for all reaffirm and demonstrate that a two-spheres kind of thinking related to Christianity and culture is a non-option. To say faith is separate from the socio- political and cultural predicaments of our time is not to receive the biblical witness. And so his vision for evangelicalism is an upbeat, confident, positive outlook saying that there is no way to outflank the genius of biblical revelation as applied to the crises of the age.
Why does Henry’s vision need recovering (where did it go)?
GT: It seems to me that evangelicalism as an identity has lost its shape — it doesn’t feel like a milieu anymore. When prominent thinkers convert to Roman Catholicism, they speak of return- ing “home” to the Great Tradition — it’s a milieu. Meanwhile, evangelicals are diffused, theologically and culturally, all over the map. Our worldview has, to quote the words of Paul Simon in his song “Call Me Al,” has “gone soft in the middle now … now that our role model is gone.” Even when we agree upon basic theological affirmations, I worry that we’re not quite sure why. What’s the philosophical basis for all of this stuff we believe? Do we know? Upon what basis? Carl Henry provided answers to all of these questions when he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, edited Christianity Today and penned God, Revelation, and Authority. So I thought, since the work has already been done, before we abandon these Henrynian notions, I just wanted to ask the question, “Are we sure we’re ready to abandon this way of thinking, folks?”
As I write in my book, Carl Henry contended that evangelicalism matters. Beyond our tribes, there is this sense of solidarity around a confidence in Scripture and vicarious atonement and the need for the world to repent and believe the gospel. One of the stories I tell in my book is from when Carl came to a Ph.D. seminar at Southern Seminary about contemporary theology. A student asked, “What is the great theological question of our time?” And Carl didn’t blink. He gave a very evangelistic answer; he said, “Have you met the risen Lord?”
We can’t be smarter than evangelism. And the embodiment of that evangelistic impulse is evangelicalism itself. It’s kind of like Benjamin Franklin at the Continental Congress when he said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.” We need to recover that solidarity with anybody who agrees with those basic affirmations.
What surprised you most during your writing of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism?
GT: Two things. First, Carl was reflective, mid-career, that he was not prophetic enough, forceful enough in the civil rights movement. He thought he could have done more. Although he was for civil rights, he felt as though Christianity Today could have done more at the time. So, he was self-effacing enough to admit that mistake. The second thing was not surprising, but as I read through Henry again, it was a bit of a sorrow that Henry really did close out his career quasi- depressed at what had happened in evangelicalism. He felt as though its prophetic mantle was co- opted by a political emphases with effort like the Moral Majority. He felt that the term “evangelical” came to mean something it was never intended to mean. Trying to recover classic evangelicalism, the very word itself is tarnished because of some of that legacy.
For someone new to Henry, where is a good place to start reading his work?
GT: Henry is at his clearest, most brief and, I think, at his best, in his Rutherford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh at Rutherford House. Crossway published it years ago in a slim little volume called Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief. That’s the place to start. And then the second thing is to read the 15 theses of God, Revelation, and Authority in volume two. Make a poster out of that, because it will buoy you. Then, thirdly, read my book.
The office of the president of The King’s College provided additional material for this interview.