It was in 1966 when Iain Murray’s book The Forgotten Spurgeon was first published. Murray explains that one of the main reasons why he decided to write this book was to “throw light on the reasons which have given rise to the superficial image of Spurgeon as a genial Victorian pulpiteer.” Murray argued that what was central to Spurgeon’s life was often ignored in biographies of him–namely that of his commitment to Calvinism. Throughout his book, Murray elaborates on three main controversies–Hyper-Calvinism/Arminianism (1850s), Baptismal Regeneration (1864), and the Down-Grade (1887-91). As a result of the efforts of Murray, Spurgeon was cast in a different light than had been seen before.
I believe that there could be a case for The Forgotten Henry–Carl F. H. Henry, that is. Henry is without a doubt one of the greatest evangelical minds of the 20th century. He is rightly to be remembered for his magnificent work, God, Revelation & Authority, and of course his influence on neo-Evangelicalism (and founding editor of Christianity Today). Today, Henry’s mind is being remembered in a number of ways, not the least of which are three centers names after him, namely The Henry Institute (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), The Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership (Union University). It is widely argued from the likes of scholars such as David Wells that Carl Henry is probably the most under-appreciated theologians in recent church history, and having the opportunity to read through some of his massive works, I believe his assessment is quite right. It has been three and a half years since Henry left us, and in this short period of time, I fear as a young evangelical, his life and legacy is going largely unnoticed and unappreciated among my generation.
Yet it is not Henry’s mind that I believe is being forgotten in the 21st century. Rather, it is his conscience. It is not his defense of inerrancy and revelation that are being shelved, it is his evangelical social ethic. Sixty years ago (1947), Henry wrote a little piece, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which landed as a bombshell on the fundamentalist movement. I don’t think Henry realized at the time the kind of impact this book was going to have, and this is evident in the fact that every 20 years following The Uneasy Conscience, Henry published his reflections on the evangelical social ethic. 2007 marks the third, twenty-year cycle, and Henry is no longer here to reminisce and share his probing analysis. While I am in no way whatsoever qualified to pick up that mantle, I do hope to do my part in remembering a legacy of Henry that is quickly becoming forgotten in my generation.
Throughout his life, Henry wrote extensively on the evangelical social responsibility, authoring several books and dozens of articles. In addition, Henry was instrumental in numerous confessions and statements regarding the new evangelical conscience and how we should understand the social implications of the gospel from a biblical standpoint (examples of this include the 1966 Berlin Statement, 1970 Frankfurt Declaration, 1973 Chicago Declaration, 1974 Lausanne Covenant, 1982 Statement on Evangelism and Social Responsibility, and the 1989 Manila Manifesto). Put simply, Henry was a surgeon for social change, and there has never been a more important time to remember Henry than today.
Right now in the evangelical world, we are inundated with charity concerts, rubberband bracelets, television commercials, and websites that are promoting benevolence, fighting injustice, and caring for the poor. How are we to evaluate and understand what is before us today, for example, in the Emerging Church’s critique of modern evangelicalism with a call for a more robust orthopraxy? Are the claims that the evangelical left espousing a modern-day Social Gospel historically accurate? What is the relationship of evangelism and social concern? These questions are just some of the reasons why we need to be uneasy still and once again remember Henry.
Carl Henry probably is not the first person you think about as a poster boy when it comes to social reform or evangelical social ethic. No, Henry never wore a soul-patch, holey jeans, tattoo, or a rubberband bracelet around his wrist. But I’ll tell you where he did wear it. He wore it in his words and bore it in his conscience. He spoke plainly about the failure of Fundamentalism as modern-day priests and levites while at the same time denouncing the Social Gospel of Protestant Liberalism (and its cousin, the Neo-Orthodox social ethic of Tillich, Niebuhr, et al). But as a good surgeon, he did not just diagnose the problem; he provided the cure through an evangelical theological framework for social action that is neither naively post-millennial nor other-worldly dispensational. Friends, we have remembered the making of a great theological mind. I believe it’s time that we remember the making of a great evangelical conscience.
For the past 3-4 months, I had been planning on writing about The Forgotten Henry here on my blog. However, after having discussed this project with some close friends and professors, I was encouraged to take this project offline in hopes that this writing project could one day be published. As it stands, I plan to begin this semester and finish (Lord willing) by the end of 2008. Right now I am guessing that it will be around 175-200 pages long. In the days ahead, I hope to share bits and pieces from my research for discussion. I would love to hear your thoughts on this future project and appreciate any feedback you can give me (either in the comments or via email). In conclusion, let me bring 1947 to bear on 2007 with a word from Henry that still rings ever true:
“Today, Protestant Fundamentalism although heir-apparent to the supernaturalist gospel of the Biblical and Reformation minds, is a stranger, in its predominant spirit, to the vigorous social interest of its ideological forebears. . . . The apostolic Gospel stands divorced from a passion to right the world. The Christian social imperative is today in the hands of those who understand it in sub-Christian terms” (Uneasy Conscience, 39).
Let us remember the social interests of our ideological forebears.
Let us remember Carl F.H. Henry.
Remembering Henry (some links):
The Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding (TEDS)
The Henry Institute (SBTS)
Carl F.H. Center for Christian Leadership (Union)
The Carl F.H. Henry Memorial Page (Wheaton)
Carl F.H. Henry’s Published Works
Southern Baptist Journal of Theology vol. 8 no. 4 (Winter 2004) (Tribute to Henry)
The Life and Theology of Carl F.H. Henry (Steve Weaver)
Carl F.H. Henry on Amazon (books)