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Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry

Darryl G. Hart

Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019, ix + 419 pages, $23.00.

Billy Graham may have been the media sensation that gave post-World War II evangelicalism coherence at a popular level, but Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) was the figure who supplied much of the movement’s intellectual substance. The son of German immigrants, Henry grew up on Long Island and after high school worked as a journalist in nearby Suffolk County. His conversion to Christianity as a young adult sent him to Wheaton College, then presided over by J. Oliver Buswell. There, Henry sat under Gordon H. Clark’s teaching and received a B.A. (1938) and a M.A. (1940). From Wheaton he attended Northern Baptist Seminary and was ordained in the Northern Baptist Convention (1941). Henry hoped to be a theologian and pursued doctoral studies at Boston University where he received a Ph.D. in theology (1949). Contacts with Harold John Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Congregational Church in Boston, proved to be important. Although Henry’s first academic position was at Northern Baptist Seminary where he taught between 1947 and 1949, Ockenga asked him to teach theology at the newly founded Fuller Theological Seminary.

In 1949 Henry joined the faculty in Pasadena and held the seminary’s first post in theology and officially entered the neo-evangelical movement. From there Henry had a front row seat at the expansion of institutional evangelicalism. He assumed leadership positions in the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Theological Society, attended the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin and the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, became a lecturer-at-large for World Vision International (in addition to guest lectureships at, among others, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and served on the board of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. As Timothy George writes in his tribute (included in this volume), “Henry was enormously successful as an evangelical networker” (376).

Arguably, the most significant of Henry’s connections was his tenure as founding editor of Christianity Today (1956–1968). That appointment is the reason for this collection of essays, many of which were first published while Henry edited the magazine. Again, according to George, “no one was more pivotal to the emerging movement than Carl F. H. Henry.” His intellectual prowess is one reason for that estimate, though it turns out that Henry’s ideas sometimes ran afoul of Christianity Today’s management. The book is in some sense an ironic tribute to a theologian and pundit whose arguments and manner did not suit the movement he sought to serve. According to Molly Worthen in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (2014), J. Howard Pew, a chief patron of the magazine, thought Henry was taking Christianity Today too far in the direction of social activism. Pew even referred to Henry as a “socialist” (66).

Henry’s independence of mind and comprehensive outlook may have been responsible for his critics’ objections, and they are certainly plain to see in this book. One conviction that guided his theological judgments was a ringing condemnation of Protestant liberalism. Henry kept abreast of theological developments, from Schleiermacher to John C. Bennett, and understood that J. Gresham Machen and Karl Barth had exposed liberal novelties as little more than theological gestures, often on the defensive and timid in its affirmations.

He also monitored developments in theological education, thanks to his own training and experience at Fuller, and defended the propriety of seminaries maintaining doctrinal standards as the basis for faculty appointments and institutional mission. The issue, Henry held, was not between theological commitment and academic freedom, but whether in the absence of “commitment to the intelligible revealed truth of God,” theological educators “can long preserve sense for either freedom or academia” (262).

His reflections also ran to politics. Here Henry carved out a political conservatism that drew on evangelical convictions. For instance, he was cautious about the language of human rights that drove international treaty organizations (such as the United Nations) without also reconsidering the importance of “human duties” (281). When it came to questions of character for evaluating politicians, Henry contended that some matters of private conduct had “no bearing on qualifications for the presidency” (359). At the same time, American politics needed both “better persons” and better policies. Political realities, he argued, “often force us to choose the lesser of two evils” (363). This was not something he saw in Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine, an evangelical publication on the political Left. Henry complained that Sojourners “never speaks on abortion, promotes military disarmament, and tends to blame America for the ills of the world” (353).

What may be most intriguing to contemporary readers are Henry’s reflections on evangelical identity. At a time when the 2016 evangelical vote for Donald Trump sent scholars and journalists in search of definition that could explain the outcome, Henry’s own doubts about evangelical identity from four decades ago sound remarkably prophetic. In 1972 he wrote that defining an evangelical “is becoming no less difficult in America than defining a Jew in Israel” (59). That did not mean that Henry was at all hesitant to identify evangelicalism with “the doctrinal positions recovered by the Protestant Reformers and their devotion to an authentic biblical faith” (60). By 1980 he took stock of the popularity of evangelicalism and worried that the movement was “going nowhere.” “Evangelical Christianity in our generation has come out of the closet,” he wrote. “It has yet to discover what it means to come confrontationally and creatively into the culture” (88). That sort of assessment showed Henry’s unwillingness to be simply a cheerleader for the movement in which he labored. He was a strategist and a thinker. That meant that he wrote, as this collection indicates, about tactics to enhance evangelical influence as well as with a critical eye for deviations from doctrinal affirmations.

In his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark A. Noll remarked that Carl Henry was more of a journalist than a theologian. That verdict may look more negative today compared to twenty-five years ago when evangelical historians, philosophers, sociologists, and biblical scholars were coming into their own. Henry was part of an older generation of evangelical thinkers that did not enter the ranks of the secular academy the way that Noll and others did. And yet, if evangelicalism had had more gatekeepers like Henry, people who had serious theological convictions and an eye to broader social and intellectual trends, the movement may have turned out better than it has. Debatable is the title of this book, as if Henry were truly the “architect” of evangelicalism. The constellation of organizations and parachurch ministries that tried to fit under the tent of post-World War II evangelicalism, to mix metaphors, had too many cooks for its own good. But as these essays show, somewhere on the menu was a dish as hearty as it was nutritional—its chef was Carl F. H. Henry.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2020.

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