I learned about Carl F. H. Henry at the feet of my mentor Leroy Forlines, professor of theology at Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College) and author of books with titles such as The Quest for Truth and Classical Arminianism. Over the course of his career, Forlines taught his students the Henrician epistemology of God, Revelation, and Authority and the cultural mandate similar to what Henry outlined in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.
It was from my Arminian professor that I learned to love Henry, and that should be no surprise. Henry longed for vibrant faith, practice, and spirituality shared by all classic evangelicals—be they Arminian, Calvinist, Lutheran, or Anabaptist. He hoped for a transdenominational evangelical university that would bring together scholars from the various strands of confessional Protestantism.
This is the sort of program Henry modeled in the pages of Christianity Today. It’s what caused Free Will Baptists like Billy Melvin, Wesleyans like Dennis Kinlaw, Lutherans like Robert Preus, Anabaptists like Edmond Hiebert, and Arminian-leaning Dispensationalists like Norman Geisler to rally behind Henry in his defense Scripture’s truth claims and to sign on to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
My mentor loved Henry because, though Henry was a Calvinist and he an Arminian, they could put their differences aside in championing evangelical orthodoxy against a growing secularism, Protestant liberalism, and then-fashionable neo-orthodoxy. They could agree the Christian world-and-life-view had enormous implications—not just for a personal relationship with God, but also for culture and the created order as a whole.
My own love for Henry deepened when I was a student at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. Now that I look back on this time, it seems rather ironic—given current evangelical stereotypes—that a Free Will Baptist boy from the Deep South would be in the hotbed of Yale postliberalism, studying with George Lindbeck by day (and loving every minute of it) and leading the Divinity School Evangelical Fellowship in discussions of God, Revelation, and Authority by night.
Yet this “Reformed Arminian” had grown to love Henry’s brand of presuppositionalism and his compelling defense of the classic Protestant doctrine of biblical inspiration. I was drawn to his Reformed emphases on human depravity, penal substitionary atonement, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. I identified with his down-to-earth evangelical spirituality coupled with a broadly Reformed-Kuyperian approach to culture and the implications of the Christian world-and-life-view.
Simply put, Henry seemed to this young Arminian theological student to be a more biblically faithful model of epistemology, theology, and cultural engagement than the postliberalism and liberation theology I was encountering at Yale. Indeed, I always thought Lindbeck didn’t quite understand Henry. It seemed, in casting evangelical theology as merely “cognitive propositional,” Lindbeck missed the distinctiveness of Henry’s Reformed, faith-seeking-understanding epistemology. He seemed to be pigeonholing Henry and the mainstream evangelical tradition in a way that didn’t do them justice.
Now, 20 years later, postmodernity doesn’t seem so cool (at least to me) as it once did. It seems as though the evangelical academy is one of the few places where postliberalism is still in style (though its evangelical fans like to call it “postconservatism”). That’s why I recently enjoyed reading Greg Thornbury’s excellent new book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway, 2013). This work has the prospect of resurrecting Henry’s reputation among younger evangelicals. I hope as a result that our younger colleagues will actually read Henry, rather than just skimming his work and caricaturing him like so many evangelicals of my generation have done.
I think Henry would have liked what Thornbury is doing and would have felt well represented by his book. Thornbury highlights the fact that Henry represents a Reformational epistemology as well as a traditional understanding of the nature of truth as that which conforms to reality. This view of truth undergirds the historic Christian view that Holy Scripture is without error in all it affirms.
Thornbury rightly insists that Henry’s view of scriptural truthfulness isn’t the novel invention of 19th-century Cartesian foundationalists, Enlightenment modernists who had too strong a dose of rationalism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy. Instead, it’s common to historic Christianity from the Fathers up through the Reformers.
This is why evangelical Thomists like R. C. Sproul and Norman Geisler could join hands with those leaning more Augustinian in their epistemology, such as Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Ronald Nash, or Cornelius Van Til. They all shared the same traditional Christian approach to the truthfulness of Scripture as rational, propositional revelation from God.
Like these other thinkers, Henry never believed that the propositional character of special revelation—as important and non-negotiable as it is—exhausts the multiform character of divine revelation, as he and they are often caricatured as believing. Thornbury wants to resurrect this noble, classic evangelical understanding of divine truth and revelation for a younger audience. It will be healthy for younger evangelicals to let the clean sea breeze of classic evangelicalism blow through their minds. I believe this will help sweep away the cobwebs of well-worn postconservative clichés and stereotypes.
I do believe Henry would have responded favorably to the nuancing of some of his constructions in the light of postmodernity. (I also suspect Henry would find fruitful—and faithful—the ways scholars like Michael Horton and Malcolm Yarnell, whom Thornbury needlessly chides, have nuanced the Reformational epistemologies they received from their evangelical forebears.) Moreover, I think Henry would respond favorably to the proposals of Calvinist Don Carson (The Gagging of God) and Arminian Grant Osborne (The Hermeneutical Spiral), both of whom attempt to assert a classic evangelical view of revelation, truth, and hermeneutics in dialogue with postmodern thought.
Was Henry a man of his time who understood and communicated to his modernist interlocutors? Yes. But was he a captive to modernism? No. My hunch is that when our evangelical descendants look back on us in 100 years, the fact Henry was using a little too much rationalistic language and categories (a 300-year-old fad) isn’t going to look nearly as faddish as postmodernism, postliberalism, postconservatism, postfoundationalism, postpropositionalism, and all the other “post”-fads presently driving much of evangelical theological method.
Culture and Kingdom
But in addition to epistemic and theological considerations, Thornbury desires to resurrect Henry’s approach to culture and the kingdom so eloquently stated in The Uneasy Conscience. This is much needed in today’s evangelical environment, with people on the one hand calling for evangelicals to be silent for a time in the public square while those on the other hand redefining the mission of the church as much in terms of saving the whales as saving souls.
Henry’s view of the in-breaking kingdom of God as “already but not yet” made him critical of social-gospel liberals, whose over-realized eschatology made them place too much salvific significance on social justice and too little on evangelism. But he also believed his fundamentalist brothers and sisters didn’t sufficiently emphasize the “already” nature of the kingdom and so ignored the social and cultural implications of the gospel.
Henry’s life and ministry called 20th-century evangelicals back to a full-orbed Christian world-and-life-view that emphasized the Great Commission: making disciples and teaching them to live out Christ’s teachings. This is just the sort of balance we need in the current evangelical debates about the Christian’s role in society and public life.
Describing Henry as the man who “invented evangelicalism,” Timothy George says Henry wanted to foster a movement that was “transcontinental, interdenominational, theologically affirmative, socially aggressive, and irenic.” These are still worthy goals for a compelling, vibrant, theologically orthodox evangelical movement, and I believe a fresh reading and appreciation of Henry is just what we need to help us work toward these goals he valued so highly and embodied in his life and work.