Social Engagement Before It was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 2)

Carl F. H. Henry
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This is part 2 of 6 on a look at Carl Henry’s model for evangelical engagement with secular society, one in which I think we urgently need to reconsider.

Through 20th Century’s second half, Carl Henry echoed a consistent clarion call for a revival of justice seeking among conservative Christians, urging them to reach out to the hurting world.  But why was such a call necessary?  Did not God’s kingdom rupture the break between heaven and earth with Jesus’ inaugural message of good news to the poor?There can be no doubt the early church turned the entire known world upside down in a little over three centuries.  This did not happen through quiet devotion and the exclusive privilege of monastic withdrawal, rather it was an all-consuming passion for the Gospel and its’ ability to cut through any and every human cultural difference.  Simply put, the early church was convinced Jesus Christ was the “one Lord of humanity, with the only adequate relief for man’s needs.”

The apostolic forebears of today’s church saw the world transformed not by charting a course of social reform, but by furnishing foundational principles of moral dynamics for human interaction, and counting on regeneration as the only lasting improvement.

Therefore, conversion and social needs, the physical and spiritual, could not be separated.  It leaves one stretching the head in wonder at what went wrong in the 20th Century.

The problem as Henry saw it lay with faulty views of humanity.  He proposes evangelicism proceed with a view of human nature he refers to as a “sober optimism, grounded not only in the assurance of the ultimate triumph of righteousness, but also in the conviction that divine redemption can be a potent factor in any age.”  Henry declares the Christian must speak to and live in front of the secular world as a “new man” proclaiming,

“God is the true King; that God’s faithful and gracious action toward man puts his seal on the dignity of the individual; that the coming kingdom is not merely a future possibility but is already in some sense actual; that even in the political arena God’s main concern is not ideology, isms or ideals, but rather persons and their relationships to God and to one another. While the orders of creation and preservation are permanent, the present structures are not necessarily so. The latter must be challenged, can and ought to be changed to remedy the afflictions of the oppressed.”

Indeed, if Christians are to truly live out their calling as defined by the purpose of the Messiah’s first sermon so long ago, how can even one stand by “when multitudes of human beings are woefully impoverished or oppressed by powers eroding the dignity and worth of their existence.”

Therefore, rather then trying to gain power and enforce favorable legislation by strength of will, Christians would do well to regain the identify of voluntary submission and suffering which one the hearts of the Greco-Roman world many centuries ago.

Speaking of the character of this “new man,” Henry writes, “Nothing less than the self-humbling of Jesus Christ whose self-abasement becomes the ground of…redemption is the larger backdrop for this subordination. In the light of his example the subordination of his followers is fitting and definitive.”

By refusing the posture of power, the “new man” points toward his creator and redeemer as reason for hope and his confidence rather then to his own abilities.  Such actions tell the world the Lord Jesus Christ is more than just a tribal good luck charm, but the Master of All Things from whom all aspects of life flow and are held together.  It shows both disbelieving friends and enemies that Christ holds their fate as well as that of his children.

It is quite a bold claim Christians in the mold of Henry make. To be a “new man” is to infer and assume all other men are somehow old-fashioned, if not wholly incompetent or inferior.  It is such thinking that often makes Christians extremely unpopular.  Exclusive truth claims of any kind make the relativistic skin crawl of today’s post-modern culture makers.  On what basis can followers of Christ possibly make such a claim along with risking such alienation from the prevalent worldview?  For Henry the answer lay with his doctrine of revelation concerning who God is and the manner of his actions in human history.  He writes,

“It is in fact through the revelation of the living God and his purpose in the creation of man in responsible freedom that we know…history is “one and undivided” or for that matter, that nature is one and everywhere interrelated. The Bible depicts the entire creation as the sphere of his lordship and rule and this providentially bracketed world and history of mankind as the central arena for the redemptive acts of God.”

Thus as the steward of the revelatory receptacle, Holy Scripture, the Christian can accurately speak truth to any and all realm of human life.  If God is one, his creation one, and his revelation one, there can be nothing misleading or culturally irrelevant in this revelation to the modern human plight.  A person with knowledge of the Bible can therefore confidentially teach others at the very least general principles for politics, education, diplomacy, or business just well as for spiritual peace.

Next time we will look at how exactly the “new man” (or woman) is to act and live in a fallen world.

Sources: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Henry; Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority vol. 1 and 4; Carl F.H. Henry, “Footnotes: Gospel and Society,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1974.

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4 thoughts on “Social Engagement Before It was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 2)

  1. I’m looking forward to your next post, because I’m very curious to hear what this “new man” is supposed to do. I tend to get nervous when I hear people say that we need more religion in our politics and government. I think if unbelievers are going to see Christianity as an authority, then more needs to be said about how the Bible can be viewed as an actual revelation from God.

    Also, I’m glad to see that humanitarianism is important to you. Do you believe that it’s proper for the government to assist in these kinds of things, or do you think that is forcing morality on others? Specifically, do you think programs like the recent healthcare legislation, welfare, Social Security, etc, are good things? I live in the South, and most Christians around here are hard-core Republicans who oppose entitlement programs. Just wondering how you view those things.

    Thanks!

  2. Thanks for you comments. To your first point, I am not arguing that we need a more religious government, but more religious people in government to influence the “moral dynamics” as Henry put it. Take abortion for example. Perhaps instead of trying to overturn Roe v. Wade through force of will and political power, Christians in high places should do everything they can to convince women it is better for their health and well being to not have abortions, and the church as whole can work to make abortion irrelevant by offering to adapt any number of babies. That is what I mean by influencing the moral dynamic of an argument. Truth through submission instead of wielding political power. I hope you will keep reading. I think this point will become more clear in my later posts.

    As to the government benefit programs, my general answer is tentatively and generally yes I support them. It would be great if churches and nonprofits could handle everything, but that is simply not the world we live in. I understand all these issues are complicated and Christians can and will come down on both sides. Thus a measure of humility is always needed. I too live in mostly Southern and Republican circles and many of their concerns are valid. Certainly, government needs to remain reasonable solvent and avoid shameless power grabs, but it seems to me that all too often opposition to these issues is more of a cultural boundary marker for people than it is actual policy disagreement. Its like it doesn’t really matter what the truth or best course is as long as “they” are wrong and “we” are right. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Thanks for reading.

    Ben

    1. Thanks for the reply! I appreciate the nuanced perspective you offer on these things.

      Certainly, government needs to remain reasonable solvent and avoid shameless power grabs, but it seems to me that all too often opposition to these issues is more of a cultural boundary marker for people than it is actual policy disagreement. Its like it doesn’t really matter what the truth or best course is as long as “they” are wrong and “we” are right.

      Totally agree with this. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have right now. There’s too much polarization, and not enough genuine efforts to find the best way forward.

      Perhaps instead of trying to overturn Roe v. Wade through force of will and political power, Christians in high places should do everything they can to convince women it is better for their health and well being to not have abortions, and the church as whole can work to make abortion irrelevant by offering to adapt any number of babies.

      I agree with this too. I’m not a Christian, and I’m not a political conservative, but I’m no fan of abortion either. To be clear, I don’t think that anyone is an actual fan of it. But yes, if we want to reduce the number of abortions that occur in this country, there are several things we can do that have nothing to do with Roe v. Wade. Not only can we (as a society, not just churches) do everything we can to make adoptions simpler and less expensive, but we can do more to educate women, help provide birth control, and offer social services that can help them avoid the pregnancy to begin with.

      I appreciate your take on this so far, and I look forward to reading your next posts.

      Thanks!

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