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The Man Who Birthed Evangelicalism

Carl Henry's complex legacy, 100 years after his birth.

by Timothy George

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. GRA is 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.

But his concern for what he called "the evangelical church" extended far and wide. He wanted to strike a blow for the faith wherever he could. He was one of the great evangelical networkers of his day. He chaired the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism, which led to the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne. He trotted the globe for Christ, wearing a suit bought in Majorca, horn-rimmed glasses from Singapore, shoes resoled in Korea, and carrying a well-worn beret he bought in Spain along with a Bible rebound in the Philippines.

If Henry is to get a hearing from today's evangelical pastors and leaders, it will likely be because he modeled the coinherence of the historic orthodox faith, including an unbroken doctrine of Scripture, and the compassion of Christ for every person, each and every one made in the image of God. His work with World Vision made him keenly aware of the suffering of children. His service on the board of Prison Fellowship gave him a burden for those behind bars as well as their families. He knew what God could do for those whose minds and hearts had been touched by the good news of the gospel. He was also an ardent advocate for the unborn. The fact that younger evangelicals today are increasingly pro-life owes something at least to Henry and his peers, who dared to speak out on behalf of those children still waiting to be born when it was more chic to equivocate or remain silent.

Carl Henry was a classic evangelical par excellence. He believed, loved, and proclaimed the Bible as God's Word written. Jesus Christ was the object of his love. His activism for Christ and the gospel knew no bounds. But above all he knew what it meant to be born again.

The last time Henry spoke at Beeson Divinity School, he could not stand. But we shall never forget the talk he gave from a chair in chapel. He described how, as a 20-year-old, he received Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. "Into the darkness of my young life, he put bright stars that still shine and sparkle. After that encounter, I walked the world with God as my Friend."

As published by Christanity Today (online): 1/22/2013

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School, and author of Reading Scripture with the Reformers (IVP).