Uncommon Evangelical

Lessons from Carl Henry (1913–2003)

Article by

Guest Contributor

It is often difficult to know how to navigate between religious factions on the right and the left. To the right may be those who emphasize good doctrine but seem to stand at arm’s length from the world. To the left may be those who emphasize social engagement and activism but seem to have compromised theological fidelity.

Yet we are not the first generation of evangelicals to grapple with this tension. The evangelicals of the early twentieth century also found themselves uncomfortably sandwiched between two increasing extremes. But, by God’s providence, several evangelical theologians in the mid-twentieth century began championing a different way. The most influential of them was Carl F.H. Henry.

Henry was a brilliant theologian, journalist, seminary professor, and evangelical luminary, best known as the intellectual giant who served as the first editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, the magazine founded by Billy Graham. One of the magazine’s later editors, David Neff, said, “If we see Billy Graham as the great public face and generous spirit of the evangelical movement, Carl Henry was the brains.”

More than anyone else, Henry set forth compelling intellectual arguments in favor of a new strand of evangelicalism — an evangelicalism that combined passion for right doctrine with passion for cultural engagement. Henry emphasized both evangelism and social activism. He insisted that evangelicals prioritize both theological scholarship and practical ministry training. And he modeled how to properly challenge those with whom you disagree, calling evangelicals to do so with kindness and humility. Henry gives us a blueprint for how we can be committed to both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Fiery Bolt of Lightning

Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was born on January 2, 1913, to German immigrants and grew up in Long Island, New York. He was baptized in the Episcopal church and attended Sunday school, but religion was not important in the Henry household.

After graduating high school in 1929, Henry began work as a freelance reporter. Within three years, he was the editor of a major newspaper in Long Island. He had become a “hard-nosed journalist given to pagan pleasures,” as Timothy George writes in Essential Evangelicalism (9).

One day in 1933, however, Henry was sitting alone in his car during a violent storm, when a lightning strike frightened him. He described the experience like this:

A fiery bolt of lightning, like a giant flaming arrow, seemed to pin me to the driver’s seat, and a mighty roll of thunder unnerved me. When the fire fell, I knew instinctively the Great Archer had nailed me to my own footsteps. Looking back, it was as if the transcendent Tetragrammaton wished me to know that I could not save myself and that heaven’s intervention was my only hope. (Confessions of a Theologian, 45–46)

Soon after, Henry had a long conversation with a young evangelist named Gene Bedford. After that conversation, Henry embraced Jesus as Savior.

Henry enrolled at Wheaton College in 1935, where he met Helga Bender, the daughter of Baptist missionaries. Carl and Helga married in 1940, beginning a 63-year marriage. He also developed a friendship with fellow classmate Billy Graham during his Wheaton years. Their friendship would last a lifetime and yield much fruit.

After earning a BA and an MA from Wheaton as well as a BDiv and a ThD from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Henry pursued a PhD at Boston University. It was during his time in Boston that he strengthened his friendship with Harold John Ockenga, pastor of the historic Park Street Church. Together, Henry, Ockenga, and Graham became the three primary leaders of the resurgence of evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century.

New Kind of Evangelical

Henry and Ockenga wanted to propagate a new brand of evangelicalism that avoided the social pull to both left and right extremes. The proponents of this new strand — often called neo-evangelicals — wanted to be more socially conscious than the fundamentalism of the previous decades, even as they stood for the same basic doctrines. They also were willing to work across denominational lines, hoping for a broader coalition of Christian leaders.

Henry and Ockenga believed that Christianity had faltered culturally due to a lack of intellectual rigor among Christian leaders. The neo-evangelicals were convinced that if they were going to influence society, they needed to regain respect in academia. Evangelicalism would need to produce world-class scholars who could engage the elite intellectual centers, and thus “meet theological liberals on their own ground and beat them at their own game,” as Albert Mohler puts it.

With these goals in mind, Henry helped pioneer several key evangelical initiatives, including the National Association of Evangelicals (1942) and the Evangelical Theological Society (1949). In 1947, Ockenga and radio evangelist Charles Fuller launched Fuller Theological Seminary to be the flagship neo-evangelical institution, and they immediately recruited Henry to be the school’s founding dean. Henry remained on the faculty of Fuller until he became the first editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine in 1956. The magazine quickly became tremendously influential, largely due to Henry’s leadership.

These initiatives led to an explosion in evangelical scholarship. Before the neo-evangelical movement, evangelicals heavily relied on nineteenth-century conservative scholarship. Evangelicals were mocked for “relying on book reprints,” as Roger Nicole says (quoted in Awakening the Evangelical Mind, 168). However, in the second half of the twentieth century, evangelical scholars “produced works on history, psychology, pastoral theology, homiletics, family relations, the devotional life, denominational distinctive, and scores of other subjects,” Nicole says. “The problem in 1945 was that we had relatively few new conservative books; the problem now is that there are so many that few people can afford to purchase all those they would like to own.” As evangelical scholarship exploded, Henry led the way, earning his nickname “the dean of the evangelicals.”

Henry wrote more than forty books and countless articles, essays, and reviews throughout his career. His magnum opus was the three-thousand page, six-volume work God, Revelation, and Authority. This remarkable work thoroughly explores epistemology, divine self-revelation, hermeneutics, authority, and the nature of truth. Gregory Alan Thornbury sums up the project by saying that Henry wanted to present a theology that was “epistemologically viable, methodologically coherent, biblically accurate, socially responsible, evangelistically oriented, and universally applied.”

What Can We Learn from Henry?

If Henry were alive today, what might he say to modern evangelicals? An examination of Henry’s life and writings gives us insight into how he might address us.

Evangelism

Henry’s first exhortation might be toward evangelism. He writes,

It would be a supreme act of lovelessness on the part of the Christian community to withhold from the body of humanity, lost in sin, the evangel that Christ died for sinners and that the new birth is available on the condition of personal repentance and faith. (Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis, 36)

Henry observed that far too many Christians had relegated evangelism to the professional evangelists — absolving themselves from any responsibility in the Great Commission by claiming that they weren’t gifted for the task.

During the early years of Fuller Seminary, Henry’s fervor for evangelism permeated the school’s culture. He fostered an “evangelistically alive missionary minded and warm collegial side of early Fuller community life,” as John Woodbridge puts it. Historian George Marsden has shared one student’s memory of Dr. Henry often arriving to lecture at early Saturday morning seminars looking “bedraggled in an old baggy overcoat [because] he would periodically spend half the night out in Los Angeles witnessing to derelicts and helping them find shelter” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 91). Henry was just as much an evangelist as he was a theologian or journalist.

“Henry was just as much an evangelist as he was a theologian or journalist.”

Henry balked at the idea that evangelism and theological studies were at odds. In his 1966 opening address to the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin, he proclaimed the urgent need for biblically faithful theologian-evangelists. He knew that evangelistic efforts uninformed by good theology would lead to doctrinal confusion and weak discipleship. But he also knew that when theologians lack evangelistic fervor, they become too insular and persnickety. Henry challenged the delegates to “become theologian evangelists, rather than to remain content as just theologians or just evangelists,” John Woodbridge writes (Essential Evangelicalism, 82).

Justice

In 1947, Henry published his most famous book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, in response to the idea that there were only two options for Protestants: theological liberalism or a culturally detached fundamentalism. This book was a clarion call for evangelicals to reject this false dichotomy.

Henry wanted evangelicals to lead the way in both theological integrity and social activism. He often said, “God is both the God of justice and justification.” Henry believed that the most important task was “the preaching of the gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration,” but he also believed that Christians ought to present the gospel “as the best solution of our problems, individual and social” (The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, 89).

God, in his self-revelation, gives us the best definition of justice. Therefore, Christians should be the greatest advocates for justice, on God’s terms, in any society — presenting God’s ways as the perfect picture of justice and righteousness. Henry writes, “Evangelicals know that injustice is reprehensible not simply because it is anti-human but because it is anti-God” (A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration, 14).

Uneasy Conscience challenged evangelical leaders to address justice-related issues and to condemn social evils such as racism, exploitation of labor, and aggressive warfare. According to Henry, we should not be able to “look with indifference upon miscarriages of justice in the law courts, usury, plundering the needy, failure to feed and clothe the poor, and over-charging for merchandise” (33). In true Kuyperian-fashion, he writes, “The evangelical missionary message cannot be measured for success by the number of converts only. The Christian message has a salting effect upon the earth. It aims at a re-created society” (84).

Politics

Henry called upon more evangelicals to call out injustice in their writings, believing this would change hearts and minds. He also knew, however, that merely changing minds was not enough. To inspire societal change, he knew Christians needed to help change policies too.

In his editorials, he often made arguments for specific pieces of legislation and policy changes. In Henry’s mind, it was not enough to simply get people to agree if such agreement did not lead to any practical effect. So, he was willing, as an editor, to publicly endorse specific ideas and frameworks in which the proper solutions to social ills could be found.

“Henry would challenge us to cut against the harmful ideologies of both the left and the right.”

The key for Henry, however, was to focus on ideas and frameworks rather than political parties. Henry would challenge us to cut against the harmful ideologies of both the left and the right. He would tell us to endorse good policies, regardless of which side of the aisle they come from, and he would warn evangelicals against becoming too loyal to one political party. Henry mostly agreed with conservative politics, but he insisted that evangelical leaders ought to avoid becoming mouthpieces for the conservative political movement in America. This put him at odds with the more conservative board members and financiers of Christianity Today, who wanted an outspoken politically conservative voice for the magazine’s editorials. This eventually cost Henry his job as editor-in-chief.

Henry understood the power of politics, but he also understood the limitations too. He knew that policy changes could go only so far in the effort to reshape society. If Henry were alive today, he would exhort us to be careful to not put too much stock in political efforts. He knew that evangelicals needed to pour their greatest energies into gospel preaching and evangelism.

Rhetoric

Along with greater social engagement, the neo-evangelicals wanted to strike a more positive tone than the fundamentalists of the previous generation. Henry did not shy away from giving scathing warnings whenever necessary, but he often voiced striking notes of optimism and hope.

In Uneasy Conscience, Henry asserts that evangelicals need to present their doctrine and ideas with a “dynamic to give it hope” (55). He wanted to engage with society, not just win an argument. After hearing the evangelical message, Henry wanted people to feel a sense of hope that there is indeed a better way.

He also understood that our rhetoric matters. He knew that irenic and hopeful rhetoric would allow him to build rapport with people who otherwise might discredit or ignore him. For Henry, however, being irenic and hopeful was not merely a tactic in some quest to win more people to his side. Rather, such rhetoric was theologically informed.

The ministry of Christ was personal and incarnational; therefore, Henry believed that the theologian must also be personal and incarnational. He wanted people to see the Savior through his life, so he sought to interact with others in the same manner as Christ. Timothy George, who spent significant time with Carl Henry, says, “The thing that stands out was his extraordinary humility and kindness toward others. . . . I never heard him speak in a bitter or disparaging way about anybody, not even those with whom he disagreed” (Essential Evangelicalism, 14). Modern evangelicals would be wise to follow Henry’s model.

Humble Giant

Marvin Olasky, former editor-in-chief of World magazine, shares an anecdote (recounted by Thornbury) from the life of Henry that gives us great insight into his humility.

For several years toward the end of his life, Henry wrote op-ed columns for World. Olasky said that every few weeks he would get a letter in the mail from Henry — typically a three-page article. And in each letter, Henry always included a self-addressed stamped postcard with the handwritten words: Accept or Reject. He never presumed that what he had to say was worthy of being published.

Henry was a remarkable leader and scholar. He was an impressive theologian. His evangelistic fervor was contagious. His kindness was sincere. His body of work is second to none in his generation. And his humility ran deep.

Soon after Henry’s death on December 7, 2003, David S. Dockery wrote this tribute: “Those who met him for the first time often stood in awe of his giant intellect. But soon, almost without exception, they became more impressed with his humility and gracious spirit.”

Banner Illustration taken from Essential Evangelicalism: The Enduring Influence of Carl F. H. Henry, edited by Matthew J. Hall and Owen Strachan, Copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

is a pastor at Cities Church, a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and host of Theology for the Rest of Us. He lives in Bloomington, Minnesota, with his wife, Malaina.