The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism
A review of Carl Henry's, "The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism," by Dr. Douglas Groothuis.
Henry, Carl F.H., The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Originally published 1947; reprinted, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003. 89 pp. Paperback.
Small books by great authors can bring large rewards in short order. Such is the case with this diminutive classic on evangelical identity and vision by the late theologian, philosopher, and journalist, Carl F. H. Henry. Richard Mouw, Christian philosopher and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote in his preface to the new edition that this is no museum piece; it remains a bracing charge to conservative Protestants today. Dr. Henry, who was translated to glory in late 2003, was a key founder of the evangelical movement, a prolific author, and a tireless activist for Kingdom causes. Dr. Henry was at the hub of three pivotal evangelical institutions. He served as a founding faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary (before it removed biblical inerrancy from its doctrinal statement), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Christianity Today (which has moved from the theological vision Henry laid out as its first editor).
Charles Colson credits Henry as being a key mentor, and Henry served on the board of Colson’s Prison Fellowship for many years. Henry’s six-volume work, God, Revelation, and Authority (1976-1983), his magum opus, covers most of the topics of systematic theology and also delves deeply into philosophical theology, ethics, and contemporary culture. (It is still available in paperback from Crossway Publishers.) Reading the first four of these volumes in 1981 (the final two volumes were released in 1983) in preparation for an intensive summer class on contemporary theology with Carl Henry was one of the highlights of my education; and it has served as a significant foundation for my Christian worldview.
This thin volume of 89 pages, published originally in 1947, helped launch what we now call the evangelical movement (then called neo-evangelicalism) by distinguishing it from the failures of fundamentalism. (The formation of Denver Seminary was part of the neo-evangelical movement as well, but that is another story, part of which may be found in Bruce Shelley’s volume, Transformed by Love: The Vernon Grounds Story.) Fundamentalism had nobly retained orthodoxy in the face of secularizing pressures that turned some Christians into theological liberals. Nevertheless, Fundamentalism suffered from a rather constricted (if not jaundiced) vision of the place of Christianity in the modern world.
Henry begins the book by lamenting the fact that Fundamentalists did not address significant social ills. Speaking to more than one hundred evangelical pastors, he asked, “How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social ills as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management, or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing a framework in which you think [a] solution is possible” (p. 4). Not a hand went up, Henry reports.
Henry was properly scandalized that a supernatural worldview rooted in an inspired and inerrant Bible and grounded in a crucified and resurrected Lord of the universe would withdraw from the great matters of social justice and limit itself to personal salvation and codes of personal conduct. He called for a wider and deeper vision of Christianity as a world-changing world-challenging force–a contender in both the world of ideas and the world of action. Despite its withdrawal from matters of public policy into a subjective pietism, historically “Christianity embraced a life view as well as a world view; it was socially as will as philosophically pertinent” (p. 18).
In order to recapture this mandate, Henry charts a course that steers between the social pessimism and sectarianism of fundamentalism and the desupernaturalized social gospel of liberalism. Neither captures the biblical imperative to bring the fullness of God’s truth to the totality of life. “A Christianity without a passion to turn the world upside down is not reflective of apostolic Christianity” (16). Whatever the details of one’s eschatology, the Christian worldview impels believers out into the world for the cause of Christ, to bring truth and justice into every area of life. Henry believes that both “in Old Testament and New Testament thought there is but one sure foundation for a lasting civilization, and its cornerstone is a vital knowledge of the redemptive God” (31). Henry goes on to summarize the Ten Commandments, claming them as universal imperatives. “And no culture can hope to fulfill such high prerequisites, minus a relationship with that God, holy and redemptive, who is the precondition for their very disclosure to man” (32). Henry deftly invokes the teachings of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul to ground his point that “there is no room here for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man” (35). Christianity is a universal message for the whole person–personally, culturally, and politically.
In an important chapter called, “The Apprehension Over Kingdom Preaching,” Henry articulates a short but convincing theology that takes the kingdom to be both a present and future reality. As such the power of God’s kingdom wrought through Jesus Christ is real now, but we await its culmination at the eschaton. This argument is aimed at Dispensationists who took the kingdom to be entirely future, and so discounted the possibility of significant kingdom advances before the return of Christ. ( Henry’s summary is consonant with the significant work of G. E. Ladd on this subject.) Henry marshals strong but telling words against this theological error: “Fundamentalist workers substituted a familiarity with the prophetic teaching of the Bible for an aggressive effort to proclaim Christ as the potent answer to the dissolution of world culture. As a consequence, they trained enlightened spectators, rather than empowered ambassadors. Prophetic conference, rather than pentecostal challenge, was their forte” (45). Today we might add “enraptured best-sellers” to evangelicalism’s forte.
In “The Struggle for a New World Mind,” Henry champions the cause of an evangelical intellectual engagement with the secular world. He discerned two major challenges. First, evangelicalism must “develop a competent literature in every field of study, on every level from the grade school through the university, which adequately presents each subject with its implications from the Christian as well as the nonChristian points of view” (68). Second, evangelicalism must build up Christian institutions of learning to counteract the entrenched secularism of state education. This means the redistribution of funds from massive church structures (that sit empty most of the week) to educational endeavors. Like J. Gesham Machen before him, Henry argues that the when Christians offer credible Christian perspectives to the culture at large, people “are more easily reached for Christ than those who have made a deliberate break with Christian standards, because they can be reminded that Christian ethics cannot be retained apart from Christian metaphysics. To the extent that any society is leavened with Christian conviction, it becomes a more hospitable environment for Christian expansion” (71). Machen, a key conservative apologist in the Fundamentalist-Modernist split (and not the target of any of Henry’s criticisms), thundered forth the same message in 1912 in a message called “The Scientific Preparation of the Minster:”
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the wold to be controlled by ideas which…prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. (Published in The Princeton Theological Review, Volume XI, 1913)
This summons to develop a compelling Christian mind and broadcast its deliverances to the culture at large could not be more needed than it is today, when the very concept of objective, absolute, and universal truth is being corroded by the irrational acids of postmodernism.
Tragically, some contemporary evangelicals enamored of postmodernist attractions have dismissed the one who was often called “the Dean of evangelical theologians” as a benighted rationalist, whose intellectual efforts ill fit the non-rational postmodern world. A thoughtful reading of this pivotal document in the history of modern evangelicalism should prove them all wrong. Carl F. H. Henry continues to speak truth even from the grave–if we only have ears to hear.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy