The Lasting Influence of Carl F.H. Henry

By Jesse M. Payne

Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 41


Carl F.H. Henry  | 1913–2003

Various interests occupied Carl F. H. Henry throughout his life.

He was a journalist as a young man, ascending the newspaper ranks as he covered athletics, politics, and local stories on Long Island. He was an illusionist, an act he trotted out at parties and gatherings. Later, travel consumed his schedule, and he was fascinated by the diversity that dots the globe.

More than anything, Henry was occupied by a singular fascination from his conversion in 1933 until his final breath in 2003. It gripped him early and did not relent. He was the happy captive of this amazing thought: the Trinitarian God of all creation saw fit to reveal himself to fallen man. God voluntarily spoke and revealed himself in the incarnate Son and inscripturated Word. Henry was a man of the Book, and a man amazed by the Book—not only for what it said but that it existed at all. God was under no obligation to present himself so clearly and graciously to his creation. God’s revelation was revolutionary for Henry’s world, and he recognized the ramifications of such a reality. It meant that the Bible, breathed out by God himself, was relevant for all areas of life. Nothing escapes its reach. This controlling thought led Henry to pen some of the most important contributions to American evangelicalism as he emerged as one of the movement’s key figures.

Carl F. H. Henry (1913—2003) was an American Baptist theologian primarily remembered for his writings on the nature of Scripture, the relationship between the church and wider culture, Christian ethics, and for his role in the establishment of important evangelical institutions in the mid-20th century, such as Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today. He also traveled the world providing theological education for pastors and students from China to Romania to Latin America.

What does Henry offer by way of encouragement and instruction today? Because of his massive output, it is impossible to summarize all that Henry affords in a few words, but certain themes do arise in his work, themes that continue to arise in our world today. Three of his convictions seem especially relevant in 2021: the power of the gospel, a theologically-informed mind and ministry, and a commitment to the Great Commission.

The Power of the Gospel

Henry understood that the gospel demands a personal response, but that it is not limited to an individual appropriation of biblical truths. He thought the gospel should shape people, families, churches, communities, and institutions. In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry highlighted the social dimension of the Kingdom of God, a dimension he thought was important for Christians to recognize and give attention to. One of his favorite designations for God was “The God of Justice and Justification.” Henry thought God spoke to both issues, and, therefore, Christians should as well.

As believers today grapple with issues surrounding the relationship between the church and the wider culture, politics, systemic social sin, the nature of justice, and the gospel’s ramifications for institutions and structures, Henry has much to offer. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism provides pertinent insight into these very issues—issues at the forefront of today’s dialogue. As one not easily pigeonholed into any contemporary ideological camp, Henry’s voice provides clear and compelling reflection on the very issues that confuse and divide evangelicals today—all from over 70 years before our current moment.

A Theologically-Informed Mind and Ministry

Much of Henry’s ministry was devoted to correcting aberrant views of Scripture that were gaining steam in American evangelicalism. He was convinced that to combat deviant theology, one needed to construct and articulate rich, rooted, and informed theological positions. He was not interested in simply tearing down; he wanted to produce thoughtful theological reflections that engaged the best of modern theology from around the world.

Christianity Today was designed to help translate advanced theological conversations into digestible articles for leaders and lay-readers. Why give himself to this project that consumed so much time and energy? Because he was convinced that Christians ought to think theologically about the issues of the day. He thought doctrine deserved a seat at the table of every Christian’s discipleship. Some of Henry’s work is theologically heavy and philosophically winding. I would not start with Volume I of God, Revelation and Authority, for instance. Nevertheless, Henry intended to draw attention to the importance of theological accuracy, faithfulness, and beauty for the Christian life.

A Commitment to the Great Commission

Throughout his career, Henry championed cooperation for the Great Commission. He kept the bumpers on various denominational lanes low because there was a greater game at play than denominational squabbling. He was a theologian; he took theological convictions seriously. He didn’t diminish or avoid them; he sought to cooperate, not quarrel. He included in his circle leaders from a wide swath of denominational backgrounds who affirmed the Reformation understanding of the gospel. He knew the danger of requiring rigid agreement to the nth degree. He saw that firsthand and was unimpressed by it. He was committed to a different path forward. Henry’s approach deserves continued attention, and, where possible, adoption.

Much more could be added regarding Henry’s importance for today. Reading him firsthand on these issues and more, one wonders, “How could he see this coming?” Pick up The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. It is a great place to start, and you will work through it at a good clip. He wrote reams of Christianity Today articles and editorials, available in their online database. God, Revelation and Authority awaits the willing reader. There you will encounter detailed and formidable doctrinal thought undertaken with a devotional heart. It is an investment, but the return on reading Henry firsthand is significant.

By God’s grace, that is what I did about ten years ago as a seminary student. I was fresh out of a secular English undergraduate program at a state university. I did not have the traumatic experience one often hears of; my faith wasn’t challenged at every turn. I did, however, leave with questions about how best to read texts—could I trust them? Did what the author intended matter, or was meaning constructed elsewhere—in my mind, experience, or community? I knew the Bible was God’s word, but I had some uncertainties about interpretation. My seminary professors helped iron out these wrinkles, but Carl F. H. Henry was the lasting influence I did not expect. Because of him, I too remain amazed that God has revealed himself to us in the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Scriptures. That thought has not relented yet, and I pray it never does.

 

Jesse M. Payne  | Discipleship Pastor, Lakeland Baptist Church, Lewisville, TX

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