Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis
Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2013. Paperback. 222 pages with Scripture index. $17.99. ISBN-10: 1433530627; ISBN-13: 978-1433530623.
A book of this stripe desperately needed to be written, given the intellectually devalued state of so much evangelicalism (if that term retains any determinate meaning). Given the philosophical, apologetic, and theological decline so evident in postmodern, post-liberal, mystical, and post-rational versions of evangelicalism, a return to Carl Henry’s robust rational account of evangelicalism is a needed tonic. The man is too important to bury in a few footnotes
An author should rise to the accession of the seriousness of the topic engaged. Some subjects at some times call for serious and even prophetic treatment. The need for evangelicals to reclaim the genius of Dr. Carl F. H. Henry is one such topic, as Professor Thornbury rightly claims. To make my point, please indulge me a few autobiographical comments.
In the summer 1981, while working for a campus ministry, I found that New College, Berkeley (now defunct) was offering a three-week course on Modern Theology taught by Carl Henry. Having read The Remaking of the Modern Mind and part of volume one of his God, Revelation, and Authority (1976), I seized the moment and began to prepare. Having vast quantities of time that summer for intellectual leisure, I purchased the other three volumes then in print (the series ran to six volumes, ending in 1983), and began in earnest a systematic reading of this herculean work. I read slowly, took notes, and was compelled to learn as much as possible from this magnum opus. Henry’s greatness was on clear display: an encyclopedic knowledge of theology, biblical studies, and philosophy combined with a heartfelt love for God and concern for the church’s mission in the world of ideas. It was intoxicating and deeply rewarding. I arrived at New College with these volumes carefully read and richly resonating in my soul. Now I would meet the master philosopher-theologian. I was not disappointed, but thrilled to hear his daily three-hour lectures to be followed by my long study sessions and the writing of a fifty-page paper on process theology. During this hothouse experience, I also heard Dr. Henry preach and give a masterful message on biblical inerrancy to a group of pastors of various theological persuasions.
Carl Henry made an indelible mark on my soul. Reading the first four volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority, was a theological education in and of itself (and I do not hold any theological degrees). Henry situated historic orthodoxy in relation to all the major contenders, particularly the ponderous thought of Karl Barth. He defended orthodoxy thoroughly, without rancor, but with insistence. After all, God’s truth was on the line. I later read most of volumes five and six as well, and am planning to reread the entire set, some thirty years later. (Great books demand re-reading, as C.S. Lewis sagaciously observed.)
As a long-time professor of philosophy at an evangelical seminary (and an adjunct at secular schools), I cannot but recommend Henry to my students. Further, my immersion in Carl Henry enriched my apologetic engagement in campus ministry from 1981-1984, before I attended graduate school. In time I differed with Dr. Henry’s apologetic method and especially his case against natural theology, which was very similar to that of one of his major mentors, Gordon H. Clark. Especially redolent has been his astutely-argued, meticulously-nuanced, and necessary articulation of the meaning of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. This was a tonic to my mind, given that I had wondered about this doctrine after my exposure to the teachings of Clark Pinnock two years before at New College, Berkeley. Over the years, I found that Christian scholars such as Alister McGrath, Robert Webber, and others rejected much of Dr. Henry work because he was a “rationalist,” whose view of reason was far too high and whose philosophy of biblical revelation was too propositional. (The alternative to the propositional is the non-cognitive.) Henry, they claimed, should be relegated to the status of a learned, but curious, and ultimately irrelevant, relic—a relic fit for a theological museum because of his standing in shaping evangelicalism. Yet he should not be deemed as part of the canon of theological greats of the Twentieth Century. I found these dismissive comments as ignorant, arrogant, and egregious. These ejaculations were akin to deploying a defective pea shooter against a world-class armored tank. The tank stands and advances, even as many ignorantly applaud the underachieving pea shooters.
Now comes Professor Thornbury to set the record straight—to rehabilitate Dr. Henry’s legacy, and to apply Henry’s deepest insights to matters theological today: epistemology, theology proper, inerrancy culture, and evangelicalism in general. I had high hopes for this young college president’s book—hopes that were quickly dashed on rocks of a ragged, sloppy, and, at worst, excruciating book. These are strong words, and may seem out of place for an academic review. But please read on.
Chapter one begins with a sick thud when Thornbury sets an authorial tone (or pathos) that does not befit serious scholarship. His opening anecdote about “glam-rock” attempts to be clever, but fails. It also fails to adroitly advance the thesis of the book. Great (or even good) books may have bad starts, but in this case, the start is the substance.
However, Thornbury correctly laments and decries the near disappearance of Henry’s work and method in contemporary evangelicalism. In particular, he mourns the loss of philosophical prolegomena—including epistemology, theological method, and philosophical theology—in recent theological works by evangelicals. He mentions Wayne Grudem’s popular Systematic Theology as a prime offender. I unhappily noticed this defect when the work first appeared. It is orthodox and biblically-supported. I agree with most of its doctrines; but it does not cognitively situate itself in our pluralistic world of alien ideas. This was one of Dr. Henry’s (and Francis Schaeffer’s) fortes. Both were always concerned with gaining a respectful hearing from the non-Christian world and by comparing biblical revelation and historic orthodoxy with intellectual rivals, both secular and religious. That is, the approach was philosophical. This noble tradition continues in the work of Millard Erickson, who has just released a third edition of his modern classic, Christian Theology (Baker, 2013); and in Integrative Theology (three volumes) by Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest (Zondervan, 1996-2002).
One theme that unites all of these theologians is a burden to find the proper method for discerning truth about God, man, the cosmos, salvation, and history/eschatology. They do not merely extract a Christian worldview from Scripture; they defend it apologetically (1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3). While postmodernists want to bracket epistemology issues (thus insuring their own principled and pious ignorance) and fideists don’t think epistemology matters (or is dangerous as “worldly philosophy”), astute theologians embrace the challenge of epistemology and submit to its rigors. If Jesus Christ came “to make the Father known” (John 1:18; see also Hebrews 1), then the subject of knowledge in general and theological knowledge in particular should not be avoided by anyone passionate about extending the Kingdom of God under the Lordship of Christ Jesus to the whole of life (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17).
Ironically, while Thornbury wants to enlist Dr. Henry to fill the chasm left by theologians who abandon (or vilify) prolegomena, this is exactly what Thornbury himself does in the disappointing second chapter, “Epistemology Matters.” In a paragraph that is, at best, off-putting, he avers that volume one of Dr. Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority, should be pushed aside, since it is hopelessly esoteric and, consequently, irrelevant. The tone of this one-paragraph dismissal is both arrogant and flippant. Worse yet, it is flatly false and disrespectful to Dr. Henry’s meticulously measured philosophy of knowledge. Before coming back to this offending paragraph in more detail, let me say more about volume one of God, Revelation, and Authority.
Volume One: “God Who Speaks and Shows, Preliminary Considerations,” is foundational to the five long and rich volumes to follow. Again, perhaps the reader will allow some philosophical autobiography. I read the majority of his book in the summer of 1981, while working in campus ministry. My philosophical credential was a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Oregon (Eugene) in 1979, having graduating with a mediocre grade point average. I read the Volume One very carefully, taking copious notes and making comments in the margins. The ponderous volume had small print and no subtitles, charts, or diagrams. As I poured over the text, I was elated to find a philosophically-acute and theologically-informed knowledge of and critique of Kant’s epistemology (which had flummoxed me as an undergraduate). Further, Henry articulated a fine-tuned epistemology of his own, emphasizing a priori knowledge (rationalism, in the technical philosophical sense) and the failure of both empiricism and transcendental idealism (Kant’s view) to avoid skepticism and to deliver knowledge. Henry drew heavily on the earlier work of Gordon H. Clark, but expanded on it impressively. I was riveted by every page and found none of it inaccessible to my modestly-educated mind. Every one of the twenty-four chapters of that 409-page-book was profoundly pertinent to Christian witness and the advance of the Kingdom of God into the crucial world of ideas and arguments. Henry was intellectually fearless without being cocky. He dug deep, thought widely, but wrote intelligibly. After all, he began his professional career as a journalist. He assumed some rudimentary philosophical and theological knowledge, but never wrote merely to display his arcane academic assets—as many sadly do.
Now brace yourself for what Thornbury writes about this august and learned volume, that which establishes the underpinning and sets the appropriately exacting conceptual tone for all the volumes that follow.
Volume 1 (Preliminary Considerations) was a terrible leadoff batter. Esoteric and turgid, the book was extremely difficult to get through, and it reads more like a Windows computer manual of insider theological and philosophical agenda than an introduction into the defining convictions of evangelical theology. What a shame. The best approach is to set aside volume 1 and dive right into volume 2… (60).
When flippancy meets profundity the result is often absurdity. Consider five issues:
First, the metaphor of “leadoff batter” is inept and silly. Volume one was the epistemic and methodological foundation for what was to come. Leadoff batters bat first, but they in no way serve the same purpose in baseball as a prolegomena does for a major theological-philosophical work. But the garish glibness continues.
Second, even if the book was “difficult to get through” (which it was not for me), this is irrelevant to its purpose. Significant topics often require demanding treatments. The Book of Hebrews is difficult reading in places, and it is Holy Scripture. Every discipline—from philosophy to sociology to plumbing—requires and employs its own terminology and conventions. Dr. Henry, unlike many murky philosophers and theologians, did not use terms idiosyncratically or imprecisely. He does not show off his learning ostentatiously; nor is his writing redundant or cumbersome. His arguments are well-stated and well-documented (even when I disagree with him). He astutely addresses a long tradition of theology, philosophy, biblical studies, and cultural analysis (see chapter one, “The Crisis of Truth and Word”). The work is lucid, not turgid; it is expository, not esoteric.
Third, Thornbury’s simile that volume one reads like “a Windows computer manual of insider theological and philosophical agenda…” is not even grammatical. How can there be a “computer manual of…agenda”? We can here blame both the writer and editor for this misstep. But, worse yet, Volume One was written to insiders in the sense that it is addressed to serious students of theology, philosophy, biblical studies, and apologetics. It is not a graphic novel; it needs no graphs or charts; and it is not Theology for Dummies.
Fourth, it is insulting to Henry’s erudition and the gravity of the issues addressed to say that Volume One is “a shame.” One may have neither the learning nor the stamina to read volume one with the comprehension and appreciation that it is entitled to, but that imputes no shame to Dr. Henry. Rather, the shame resides closer to home. (It is remarkable that Thornbury, writing an entire book on Carl Henry, confesses his own inability to fathom one of Henry’s pivotal volumes.)
Fifth, if we take the author’s advice and “set aside volume one,” we commit two more errors: (1) We insult the author himself, who never intended the foundational material to be swept aside with a shrug. (2) Further, why try to climb Henry’s theological ladder without benefit of the first several rungs? Perhaps some can accomplish this, but why try? Why erroneously edit the lifelong labor of an encyclopedic Christian mind?
For these five reasons, Thornbury’s proposed redaction of God, Revelation, and Authority borders on bathos. Given this methodological maltreatment of Henry’s logical system, it is difficult to summon the desire to go on. I am tempted to end the review here. But a few more paragraphs may be in order.
Thornbury further exhibits philosophical imprudence in his discussion of Henry’s philosophy in relation to foundationalism, a term Thornbury never defines (but which I will below). After stating a very clear passage where Henry grounds all knowledge in God’s revelation, Thornbury issues the follow jumble of words:
In this sense, then, Henry defies the foundationalist level that some have recently attempted to place upon him by, a trend that began with Hans Frei’s response to Henry’s critique of narrative theology. Unfortunately for Henry’s legacy, the impression stuck and has been repeated by…postliberal writers such as George Hunsinger. Certainly, evangelical neo-Thomists such as Norman Geisler and R.C. Sproul might be surprised, to say the least, at the notion that Henry is somehow a cobelligerent with them in the realm of foundationalist apologetics and epistemology. For Henry, there is no neutral, antiseptic path to knowledge. Knowledge properly defined, is permitted, made accessible, and circumscribed by God himself (55; and the discussions on pages 100 and 154 do not help).
It is hard to know where to begin detangling this convoluted, poorly written, and just plain wrong passage.
First, foundationalism claims that our knowledge is divided into two categories, foundational and non-foundational (or inferential) knowledge. Philosophers dispute what knowledge should be put in the foundations, but these foundational items need no justification based on other beliefs. That is, they are self-evident, logically necessary, incorrigible, evident to the senses, and so on (depending on which formulation of foundationalism one adopts). Other beliefs are based on foundational beliefs in various ways (deduction, induction, or abduction).
Second, Dr. Henry was a foundationalist. Without entering the contested terrain of which (if any) version of foundationalism is true—or even spelling out all the specifics of Henry’s view—let us consider one principal part of Henry’s approach. Like his mentor, Gordon Clark, Henry believed that the laws of logic—his primary focus was on the law of non-contradiction—were foundational to all knowledge. One cannot argue from X to the law of non-contradiction, since the law of non-contradiction is required for all thought, meaning, argument, and communication. That is, all truth-claims to knowledge must be tested by foundational logic. Put yet another way, the law of contradiction is a necessary and negative test for all truth-claims. This means that if any truth claim or set of truth claims contains one contradiction or more, it cannot be true. However, logical coherence is not a sufficient test for the truth of any given claim. (For another compelling and clear treatment of noncontradiction, see Ronald Nash, “The Law of Noncontradiction” in Life’s Ultimate Questions [Zondervan, 1999].)
Third, these foundational (and a priori) truths are not independent of God’s being; and a foundationalist need not be autonomous in his reasoning. This, by the way, includes the much-vilified Rene Descartes. On the contrary, Henry grounds logic in the Logos, the eternal second person of the Trinity (John 1:1). He develops a masterful account of Logos Christology in Volume Three. God, as Logos, is the infinite archetype of logic who creates finite human beings in his image and likeness who have the ability to use logic. God, as Logos, cannot contradict himself; nor can his revelation contain contradictions. Thus, logic is neither the creation of man, nor can it be placed posterior to the being of the Logos. Sadly, Thornbury does not seem to fathom any of this—or, at best, he wrongfully ignores it. The word “Logos” does not appear in the index.
Thornbury does his best to marshal Dr. Henry’s insights in the chapters that follow and to defend him against charges made by evangelical theologians. That is to be commended, and Thornbury knows his way around the basic issues of the discussion. But again, we find a major miscue. In the chapter “Culture Matters,” Thornbury rightly exposits Henry’s groundbreaking short work, The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism, but neglects the crucial first chapter of Henry’s supposedly “esoteric” Volume One of God, Revelation, and Authority, “The Crisis of Word and Truth,” which exegetes technological culture in relation to epistemology and biblical revelation. If “culture matters,” then Henry’s chapter matters; but Thornbury has already jettisoned it, as mentioned above. What a shame.
He extols, “Carson, Erickson, and Groothuis” as part of “a formidable host of scholars” who, like Henry, “understand that the gospel necessarily rests upon an articulable theory of truth” (41). I will leave myself out of the assessment, but agree with Thornbury’s judgment on Carson and Erickson. Thornbury says something similar on page 97, and rightly includes Albert Mohler. It is strange that Thornbury does not document the works to which he refers, and that he presumes his readers will recognize the authors by their last names only. He does not write D.A. Carson, Millard Erickson, or Douglas Groothuis. Many readers will infer this, but not all. The first names of Erickson and myself are given on page 97; but D.A. Carson, one of evangelicalism’s most distinguished contemporary New Testament scholars, is never properly identified, nor does his name appear in the index. In addition, Thornbury fails to give any footnotes to document what works he has in mind by these authors. Millard Erickson wrote a fine book called Truth or Consequences [Crossway, 2001] pertaining to postmodernism and D.A. Carson wrote a similar book called Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [Crossway, 2005]—to mention only two works of these prolific and insightful authors. This is simply careless scholarship.
Despite Thornbury’s noble intent, given his overly jocular tone, his lack of documentation, and his omission or dismissal of essential epistemological concerns, we must look elsewhere for a work rightly commending Dr. Carl F. H. Henry’s pertinence to the renewal of evangelical theology. However, if this book manages to stimulate readers to take up Henry’s work for themselves and to critically heed his insights, it will serve at least an instrumental purpose.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy