Eric Miller on Carl F. H. Henry’s Vision for Evangelicalism
From his years as a Wheaton College student in the 1930s, to his long tenure as a leading Evangelical theologian and spokesman, to his death in 2003 at the age of ninety, Carl F. H. Henry proclaimed a single bold conviction that might be summarized thus: Human history and hope center on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Evangelical Protestantism is its most faithful expression in our troubled, momentous times.
For Christians, the first part remains unproblematic, of course. It is the second part that even self-identifying Evangelicals—let alone other Christians—may find audacious. What, in twenty-first-century America, does it mean to be an “Evangelical”? And how could anyone claim that Evangelical Protestantism, whatever it is, fares so favorably when placed alongside older, more sturdy incarnations of Christian faith? These days, many Protestants to the left and to the right of Henry have their doubts about the meaning and usefulness of the term Evangelical.
Henry didn’t. He wore it with a sense of honor. Why?
What Henry in his 1986 autobiography called a mere “tract” is, as it turns out, the book he is today best remembered for: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1947 . “Fundamentalism” was the label then attached to those early-twentieth-century English-speaking Protestants who, in the face of the powerful arguments of modernist intellectuals, resolutely affirmed the central doctrines of the historic Christian faith and fought for their theological veracity and ecclesiastical necessity within their denominations.
Henry, born in 1913, was their admirer and heir. As a new convert, he had witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s the Fundamentalists’ declining academic, ecclesiastical, and cultural fortunes, and in The Uneasy Conscience he tried to call them back and push them forward. His book aggressively called conservatives, in the face of fragmentation within Protestantism and geopolitical catastrophe without, to embrace both each other and the radical social implications of the gospel they confessed.
“The time has come now for Fundamentalism to speak with an ecumenical outlook and voice,” he insisted. “If it speaks in terms of the historic Biblical tradition, rather than in the name of secondary accretions or of eschatological biases on which Evangelicals divide, it can refashion the modern mind.”
It was a great hope, this vision of triumphal unity, and as he came into his own as an Evangelical intellectual in the 1950s, he continued to press for it, with the steady conviction that to fail to achieve this unity was to fail the gospel itself. Moving reluctantly in 1956 from his teaching post at Fuller Seminary to become the founding editor of Christianity Today (CT), he effectively guided, at huge personal and scholarly cost, an effort to bring conservative Protestants—now called Evangelicals—together once more.
The Dutch Calvinist theologian G. C. Berkouwer registered the mood of these men in the lead article of the inaugural issue of CT, where he declared that “the struggle around orthodoxy, which took such fierce form in the nineteenth century, is not a thing that belongs only to the past.” It was this “struggle around orthodoxy” that they self-consciously joined, writing and thinking against the backdrop of a social crisis they believed to be rooted in the West’s collective turning away from the Christian faith. They joined hands, Protestants of many varieties, to face together a civilization whose most brilliant thinkers dismissed their way of seeing and thinking with little more than a scoff.
And so, crucially, for Henry and those near him, the term “Evangelical” had an extroverted, outward thrust: the Evangelical endeavor was not centered on preaching to conservatives, but rather on winning those beyond their borders. Being Evangelical, in Henry’s mind, was not about internal renewal so much as external thrust. He and his editorial cohort fashioned CT accordingly.
They were, in many respects, unimaginably successful. At the start, each bi-weekly issue of CT was sent to 160,000 Protestant ministers and seminary students (thanks to the generous patronage of Sun Oil magnate J. Howard Pew); at the end of the first year, the number of paid subscriptions was at 38,000—some 4,000 beyond the total of their more established, liberal rival, the Christian Century.
Within a short time, Henry was able to attract respected scholars and churchmen from outside the Evangelical orbit as occasional (and strategically useful) contributors. They joined an able cadre of Evangelical writers to help establish the magazine and its constituency in the public eye.
That peculiar Protestant entity formerly known as “Fundamentalism” had begun to speak with an “ecumenical outlook and voice.” Fuller Seminary Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer spoke for many when, in a letter to Henry in 1959, he opined that “something is being done through your magazine which has not been done before in this century, and the whole Protestant scene in America has been profoundly affected by its astonishing success.” By 1967 the magazine would reach a high of 163,000 paid subscribers, an enviable number by any standard, and Henry would be fully established as the leading intellectual of the movement.
He had his concerns—plenty of them, as his 1967 book Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis made clear. Published after the Berlin Conference on World Evangelicalism (sponsored by CT as part of what Henry called a “tenth anniversary project” and attracting some 1,100 delegates from more than 100 countries), the book expressed Henry’s continued hope for a deepening Evangelical ecumenism, centered on the evangelistic mission of the Church.
As usual, he spoke in a prophetic voice: “If Evangelical Christians do not join heart to heart, will to will, and mind to mind across their multitudinous fences, and do not deepen their loyalties to the Risen Lord of the Church, they may well become—by the year 2000—a wilderness cult in a secular society with no more public significance than the ancient Essenes in the Dead Sea caves. In either event the tragic suppression of the evangel would abandon modern civilization to the new Dark Ages.”
Henry’s sense of looming crisis was prescient. It is no coincidence that in the 1970s his influence began to crest, as the shape of Evangelicalism, and America itself, shifted in ways that impeded the sort of unity, identity, and confidence that he had been working to forge for more than three decades—an identity grounded in the conviction that to be Evangelical was the most important identifier any Christian could embrace.
One crisis he did not foresee was his exit from the magazine in 1968, a circumstance that to this day remains somewhat mysterious. Afterwards, as he began work on long-delayed scholarly projects, he watched, more remotely now, as Evangelicals reasserted themselves in increasingly boisterous, sometimes impressive ways: the rise of an Evangelical Left (with spokesmen like Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, each of whom continues to speak loudly and widely today), the rise of an Evangelical Right (speaking even more loudly and widely today), the rise of a Christian recording industry, the rise of a Christian College Coalition, and the rise of countless new Evangelical churches, parachurch agencies, and media outlets.
It was remarkable growth, to be sure. But was it the sort of unified front Henry had hoped for? Not exactly—as indicated by the fact that many of those rising were decidedly ambivalent about his pioneering efforts.
Some baby-boomers coming of age in the sixties and seventies criticized his politics as being too conservative and inadequately responsive to matters of race, class, sex, and political economy. For others, Henry was not conservative enough: he had too much regard for the state, was too tolerant of ideological diversity, and too cautious in his treatment of issues like abortion (he granted what in 1982 he termed “an ethical basis for voluntary abortion in cases of incest and rape”). To the next generation of Evangelicals, Henry was now the “careful moderate,” in political scientist Robert Booth Fowler’s words, acknowledged as a “trailblazer” and then pushed to the side.
Fracturing left and right, Evangelicals reflected the broader political divisions that convulsed the country as the political and cultural consensus of the Cold War era collapsed. The era of the “culture wars” was underway. But the political disputes among Evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s pale compared to the heavy theological combat that was being joined.
The “Battle for the Bible” among Evangelicals again turned Henry into the man in the middle. According to some scholars, he was clinging needlessly to the outmoded doctrine of inerrancy, while for others he was insufficiently combative in his public defense of it. Reflecting years later on his work at CT, he recalled that “at no time during my editorship did we escalate the doctrine of inerrancy into a test of Evangelical authenticity.”
Yearning for an elusive Evangelical unity, he continued to maintain, as he hopefully put it in 1987, that “a basic theological consensus survives,” centered on “the self-revealing God and Christ’s gospel authorized by inspired Scripture.” This, for him, was the core of Evangelical identity.
But was it identity enough? By the 1990s, doubts about the desirability of Henry’s vision of a robust Evangelical ecumenism were mounting on all sides. As the rise of a politics of identity caused increasing fractures in American public life, Evangelicals likewise became more attuned to their particular ecclesiastical and theological traditions. These explorations of ecclesiastical identity are seen nowhere more clearly than in a 1991 book published by InterVarsity Press, The Varieties of Evangelicalism, in which scholars from twelve American Protestant traditions weighed and measured the relationship of their denominations with Evangelicalism.
The mid-century Evangelical coalition began, upon closer examination, to look “Reformed” to some, to the exclusion of Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and African-American denominations of various sorts. Ironically, for some confessional Presbyterians, Evangelicalism, far from being Reformed, had become an unwitting carrier of the demons of modernity. For the sake of the survival of their own tradition, these conservatives urged near-total separation from it.
In short, the popular image of Evangelicals in the 1980s and 1990s as a powerful electoral and consumer bloc was accurate only from a distance. Closer examination revealed that behind the seemingly united front were division, diversity, and disunity, produced by powerful centrifugal forces. At its best, this moment of confused resurgence spawned serious searching for historical and communal depth; at its worst, it yielded an all-too-familiar shallowness and cynicism, born of the deadly failure to achieve, both within and among the varying denominations and organizations, unity and depth. For many observers, the crisis that Henry had long prophesied had arrived.
The end of the Cold War helped to bring the West into a new era, one that we have taken to calling, clumsily, “postmodernity”: a time when most traditional forms of union and wholeness—whether civilizations, nations, religions, or sexes—have come under radical attack at all levels. Given these atmospheric conditions, it is not surprising that scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens have directed the same sort of searching suspicion at Evangelicalism as they have at the nation itself. In many respects, it deserves it.
Like so many Evangelicals of his generation, Henry tended to take for granted the ability of Christians to achieve a high, healthy level of communal cohesion irrespective of creed, confession, or geographical location. Failing adequately to grasp the historically contingent nature of the communal elements—the practices, rituals, social forms—that Christian formation requires, he relied too heavily on the ecclesial elevation of Scripture alone to forge Christian communities.
Yes, as he put it in 1957, “the awareness of biblical revelation as relevant to the whole of life grants contemporary civilization the living prospect of a rationally satisfying explanation of human aspirations and problems.” But how do we live, day to day, this “rationally satisfying explanation”?
This is the sort of question we today find ourselves facing again and again. We long for the kind of cultural and communal richness, rooted deeply in the past, that might shape us into a people able to keep the faith, and keep it well, in these daunting times. Henry’s generation sought this communal richness in the restoration of what they thought of as “Western civilization.” Fifty years later, we know that such a restoration is far from likely, and, as our continual quests for “community” attest, we are struggling to fill a void that feels increasingly deep and dark.
Is it possible that Evangelicalism as a religious tradition is somehow responsible for a measure of this, our contemporary malaise? Perhaps. The spiritual and theological vitality that Evangelicals like Henry have called for may actually, in a sad irony, be at odds with the grand vision they promote. Put simply, the histories of our race reveal that unity, whether in families, nations, or churches, only becomes durable and sound when, paradoxically, it honors the personal, communal, and even intellectual particularity that is always present when humans flourish.
To the extent that Evangelicals have pushed to the side the healthy ecclesiastical and theological particularities of their constituents, to that extent they may have damaged the very elements that deep catholicity requires. On this view, Evangelicalism, with its tendency to issue simplifying calls to unity, may be as much a dissolver of traditions as a tradition in its own right.
But if in our day we have discovered the need for particularity, surely, as the fracturing of human communities continues apace, we are rediscovering that particularity alone leaves us incomplete, that we cannot abide the absence of a unity deep and true. We, broken creatures of God, were made for wholeness, a wholeness woven with care from the delicate fabric of our personal and communal identities.
The Agency of Wholeness
What is the Church to be if not the agency and foretaste of this wholeness? Seen from this vantage point, Evangelicalism at its best reflects the wholesome catholic impulses of each of our not-so-discrete Christian traditions: the yearning of true believers across these temporal divisions for the unity for which Christ himself prayed—a unity always beyond our reach, yet necessary all the same.
Some are called to serve the cause of unity, others the work of building particular communions. Few in the history of American Protestantism have served the cause of unity so well as Carl Henry. By urging Christians to wage together what he once termed the “age-old battle against unbelief,” he called us to a present and future catholicity premised on the sovereign rule of the Son of God: the beneficent King of a realm that will, one day, be unified on earth as it is in heaven. There are worse visions to champion.
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