Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry?
by gregory alan thornbury
crossway, 224 pages, $17.99

Gregory Alan Thornbury wants to make Carl F. H. Henry “cool again.” The newly elected president of King’s College in New York City, he sees Henry as a “cipher” for Evangelicalism’s future. Though Evangelicals face challenges from all sides”fundamentalists on the right, liberals and neo-orthodox on the left, Thomists behind, and postliberals, postconservatives, and postmoderns in front”Evangelicals are, he suggests, a self-loathing and philosophically trendy lot, who tend to neglect the classical Evangelicalism of their forebears in favor of postmodern or otherwise revisionist forms of inquiry. Recovering Classical Evangelicalism is not a lament for a bygone era but a call for ­ ressourcement .

In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism , published in 1947, Henry rebuked fundamentalists for their social apathy, separatism, and lack of engagement with the world, which he insisted did not square with biblical teaching. Those who agreed with him came to be called Evangelicals, and he served as their theological sage and voice during the latter half of the century. In God, Revelation and Authority , his six-volume magnum opus published from 1976 to 1983, he espoused a brand of theological realism in which Scripture is a “reservoir and conduit of divine truth” and in which God communicates rationally to human beings using “comprehensible ideas and meaningful words.”

By the 1970s, Henry’s influence was towering. Time magazine’s Richard Ostling called him the leading theologian of the Evangelical movement, and in the New York Times Kenneth Briggs called God, Revelation and Authority the “most influential” theological tract of its day. Timothy George argued that Henry and Billy Graham were the two most formative shapers of the Evangelical movement. Henry’s ideas shaped the work of the major Evangelical theologians of the next generation, such as Gordon R. Lewis, Millard ­Erickson, and Bruce ­Demarest, and the work even of the generation after that, including ­Thornbury himself and ­Russell Moore, now head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Yet with the rise of postliberal and postconservative critiques of propositional theology, Henry’s influence has waned significantly. His critics”of whom there are many”now view him and especially God, Revelation and Authority as theological relics.

They are wrong to do so. (As Georg Lichtenberg once noted, “When a book and a head come into collision, and one sounds hollow, is it always the book?”) Henry’s signal contributions to Evangelical theology, Thornbury argues, possess enduring relevance, especially his reminder that Evangelical theology needs philosophical foundations. In Thornbury’s words, “If the philosophical foundations are not taken seriously once again, if our explanations of the gospel are not rooted in reality, we lose. We lose big.”

Henry was a metaphysical realist who held to a correspondence theory of truth and an epistemological realist who believed that all knowledge finds its source in the God who reveals. In response to critics who trace the roots of propositional theology to some sort of Cartesian foundationalism or Enlightenment modernism, Thornbury argues that Henry’s approach is rooted in the Great Tradition and supported by the best of the Fathers and Reformers.

For him, every justified true belief is enabled either by common or by special grace. Scripture offers descriptively true statements (propositional truths) about God, statements that comport with reality and that should be abstracted from Scripture and mediated to the reader conceptually and verbally (propositional theology). He rejected any hermeneutic that might subvert Scripture’s propositional truth claims.

“This,” Thornbury argues, “is the essential disjunction of Henry’s entire argument and what he perceives as the fundamental question of modern theology: Either the Bible is the transcendently objective, divinely inspired, God-ordained authority and final word for all standards of truth and value, or the Bible is not and all of life is thus relative and culturally conditioned and thus incoherent.”

For just this reason Thornbury surmises that Henry’s epistemology rules out the narrative approaches of postliberals such as Hans Frei and Evangelicals such as Kevin ­Vanhoozer and Michael Horton, the analogical view of religious language held by many Catholic and Protestant theologians, and the appropriation of speech-act theory for understanding divine ­revelation. He also remains skeptical of the significance of genre for biblical interpretation.

Likewise, Henry’s concern to uphold biblical authority led him to rebuke Evangelicals for ignoring biblical teaching on the social and cultural implications of the gospel. Most fundamentalists and many conservative Evangelicals so feared the danger of a “social gospel” that they divorced themselves from social concerns. In so doing, they lost their rootedness in the Hebrew-Christian ethical tradition.

Henry argued that biblical fidelity demands widespread intellectual and practical engagement with the pressing issues of the day. This sort of work goes beyond activism by engaging society and culture in all of their created complexity and seeking the sort of deep social healing and cultural reform that only the Gospel can bring.

Thornbury argues that we must revive Henry’s grand biblical vision for social and cultural engagement in light of the already-and-not-yet kingdom. “On every page, Henry has a laser-like focus on his central agenda: to undermine the marriage of Protestant Evangelicalism to apathy and willful ignorance of social evil.” Evangelicalism, Henry insisted, “by its nature, is more adequately equipped to take this stance than any other philosophical system.”

The brilliance of Thornbury’s book lies not only in his ability to translate Henry’s tortuously turgid prose and provide readers with a lucid and compelling distillation of his thought, but also in his development of Henry’s insight into the balance Evangelicalism must strike in order to preserve its potency and its relevance. This balance requires an irenic disposition but also the ability to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials, being strict about the former and giving liberty in the later. History makes clear that Evangelicals have had difficulty with this sort of distinction.

On the left, Evangelicals must avoid toddling through the ashes of revisionisms past, seeking a way to make the Evangelical project more “relevant” to the broader academy. One thinks of Open Theism and its appropriation of process theology (well past its sell-by date) or, more generally, of a kind of “openness” to the world that risks simply mirroring the popular culture it aims to transform. Not only do these mediating theologies undermine the Great Tradition, but they rarely win for their proponents any relevance.

On the right, we must also avoid slogging through the stagnant swamps of extreme theological conservatism, promoting an anti-intellectualism that refuses to engage the broader intellectual world and a factionalism that divides the Christian community and blunts its witness. One thinks of any number of fundamentalisms (including the exotic varieties one spots in my own Baptist tradition) that are willing to divide over views of the King James Bible, the timing of the rapture, or the placement of regeneration and conversion in one’s ordo salutis .

Both errors stem from the inability to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues and therefore to transcend liberalism and fundamentalism. Some doctrines are primary (for example, Nicene Christology), while others are secondary (the meaning and mode of baptism), and still others are tertiary ­(millennial views).

Liberals tend to see no doctrines as primary, being willing to sacrifice those that flout the spirit of the age, while fundamentalists tend to see all doctrines as primary. The former tendency relativizes the Great Tradition by vitiating its doctrines; the latter subverts it by flattening all doctrinal and practical categories while at the same time fostering disunity in the body of Christ.

Yet one must ask if Thornbury succeeds entirely in resurrecting Henry as a cipher for twenty-first-century Evangelical theology, because we must distinguish, in a way that Thornbury does not, between the timeless truths Henry proclaimed and the time-bound method he thought necessary to preserve and uphold those truths. Henry’s greatest theological ambitions would be ­better served today by employing some of the very methodologies he would reject.

For example, it seems that an analogical view of religious language succeeds in showing how the language of Christian teaching is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living, even though it falls short of describing God’s being with any sort of finality. Likewise, a modest narrative realism recognizes the biblical narrative as the true story of the whole world but attends to the shape of that narrative while asking the question of historical reference. Similarly, speech-act theory helps to ground the intention of the author and open up the way in which biblical teaching is both informational and transformational.

These criticisms do not muffle the gratitude we feel toward Henry and the promise he holds as a sage for twenty-first-century Evangelicals”or toward Thornbury, who has given us such a timely and lucid portrayal of Henry’s grand vision. Methodological criticisms aside, Henry’s was a muscular and sophisticated defense of biblical revelation and authority, combined with a healthy Evangelical ­ecumenism and a savvy social and cultural engagement.

Evangelicals of each generation must theologize anew, appropriating the faith once for all delivered to the saints in speaking to the challenges we face. Carl F. H. Henry did this in a way that, as Gregory Thornbury shows in this important book, his successors would be wise to follow.

Bruce Riley Ashford is provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary .

Articles by Bruce Riley Ashford

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