Social Engagement Before It Was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 3)

Carl F. H. Henry
Carl F. H. Henry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is Part 3 of 6 dealing with Carl Henry’s model for appropriate Christian engagement with political issues.

Last time we discussed and determined that for Henry Christians are to be “new women” and “new men” in society because of redemption in Christ and life in the Spirit.  The question then is how is the “new man” to act in a fallen society when armed with the burden of propositional revelation?  Henry was not content to let him sit on the sidelines, ideally meditating in bucolic pastures while a desperate, deceived planet burned around him. In nearly all of his major works throughout his career he repeatedly called for a “new society” made up of the “regenerate church, which as a colony of heaven and has citizenship in two worlds.”  Hope and liberation in this “new society” flow not from hope in the latest ideology or political philosophy, but from, “the biblically defined new covenant and the requirement and content of the kingdom of God which indispensably includes an inner conformity of the human heart to the law of God.”

In other words, social problems all flow from sin, and true hope can only flow from individual redemption.

Therefore, the hallmarks of this “new society” then are to be first and foremost, service and voluntary subjugation to others that others might be freed from sin and its societal entrapment.  Far from the atomistic experience of 20th Century fundamentalism and often times of evangelicism today, the salvation of an individual soul has vast ramifications for the secular community because it drastically effects the way the redeemed acts when engaged with his or her world.  As Henry describes it,

“The fellowship of the faithful—humble men and women taking a new stand in the midst of history—reflects to an unwilling world the coming glorious kingdom. Possessed and conscious of a social character and direction, and politically concerned and relevant, the church of Christ Jesus emerges as a new organism in history that embraces Jews and Gentiles alike; its message, in fact its very presence, announces to the world that Christ has shattered mankind’s enslavement by and to idolatrous powers. A special distinctive of the new community is its transcendence over the hostility between Jew and Gentile and it’s melding into a new humanity all those reconciled through fulfillment of the law in the cross of Christ.”           (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol 4)

The social ramifications of Henry’s “new man” paradigm and its’ corollary the “new society” are enormous for the sinful systems of the world, precisely because in the Gospel sinful conditions melt away as sinners are redeemed one by one.

Understanding this model of the “new society” provides the crucial underpinnings for Carl Henry’s vision of Christian political engagement and social activism.

First, in order to have a political impact over the long term, Christians must penetrate the cultural making centers of academia as well as education in general.  This begins with geographic location.  Far too many of evangelicism’s centers, publishing houses, schools, and influential leaders are insulated from America’s centers of culture and power by distance.  Henry led on this point by example, locating the headquarters for Christianity Today in Washington, D.C ., overlooking the lawn of the White House.  Fuller Seminary, in the midst of the West Coast cultural factory gained such a reputation by the 21st Century that it was featured by The Los Angeles Times for a story on Christian higher education.   To this end, he also envisioned a great evangelical university of the highest academic quality in the metro New York City area, a dream never realized.

Secondly, the Church must never lose identification with the poor.  Even if the Gospel is not, and it’s not, meant to be interpreted primarily on materialistic terms, Christians need to be wary not to ever confuse the, “warped social situation with the fixed and inviolable order of creation.”

Of course, this does not mean only the financially poor, but the wholly broken, or better yet the “poor in spirit.”

In other words, the church must be a place where present grace, both spiritual and physical, is taught and offered until the final restoration of all things.

Carl Henry’s warning on this point is timely, “Whenever the church becomes a society whose lifestyle and interests center mainly in the, “haves” over against the “have not’s,” it threatens and obscures its identification with the needy and oppressed. Of course, it is not devoted only to the poor in the Marxist sense of a class-conscious society; it is nonetheless to be identified with the poor, and that not simply in a paternalistic way. In a profoundly deeper than Marxian sense Christ’s church is the Church of the Universal Poor.”          (Conversations with Carl Henry)

In other words, the church had better always find itself on the side of those without power, the humble in both finance, influence, and spirit.

Lastly, when it comes to endorsing specific political initiatives, a distinction needs to be drawn between individual Christians and churches.  For churches, it is important to maintain general principles drawn from the contours of Scripture, but to avoid specific programs or candidates.  Raising an issue or even a political party as the Christian answer invites all kinds of unwarranted criticism of the faith, and all of Christianity gets the blame for any failures or mistakes whether fair or not.

Another reason for this is simply that political issues are complicated and genuine Christians can and do disagree.  In many cases more then one position may legitimately have Christian underpinnings and motivations.  How then can the entire faith be identified as one body?

This does not mean church leaders do not have a voice.  On the contrary, they have every right to speak against specific evils in society, as well as to spur their congregations to action.  They must not offer specific political solutions however, but instead propose a framework for creative implementation and problem-solving on the part of politically astute Christian individuals.

Individual Christians on the other hand can and should invest in the political process on any issue to the fullest extent of their gifts and passions making the case for truth to the secular world on its’ own terms.  A clear example may help make the church-individual difference more distinct.  The church should openly teach the clear meaning of Scripture that all humans are created in the image of God.  Individual Christians may then take whatever action they deem appropriate to live out this truth.  One may be elected to Congress and fight for anti-abortion legislation, while another might lead a rally against an overseas war.  The two might disagree politically but still recognizing the godly motivation of the other to honor human life as God created it.  The church meanwhile has not been co-opted by either initiative, and still managed to stand against culture and made the world a better place to live by providing the spiritual and moral inspiration for both people.

My next post will look at the implementation of this model in Carl Henry’s own life and work as well as its shortcomings.



For more see: Richard Mouw, “Carl Henry Was Right,” Christianity Today, February 2010; Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority, vol 4; Conversations with Carl Henry, Symposium Series, vol 1; Mavis M. Leung, “With What Is Evangelicism To Penetrate The World? A Study Of Carl Henry’s Envisioned Evangelicism,” Trinity Journal 27NS No. 2 (Fall 2006); Ted Olson, “Inside CT: Carl Henry’s Dream,” Christianity Today, February 2004; Interview of Henry by Christianity Today Institute, “Second Rock Music Church of Boulder,” Christianity Today, February 11, 1991.


3 thoughts on “Social Engagement Before It Was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 3)

  1. This is an interesting series; I’m glad you’re covering it.

    Several things went through my mind as I read it. I was reminded a bit of socialism in a way, and I’m glad you brought up Marxism. When you said that Henry believed the conversion of someone to Christianity made a vast impact on society because that person began living a changed life, I felt like that was a good point in theory. I think we all know Christians who blend in quite well with the rest of society. Unless they told you, you wouldn’t know they’re Christians. In this way, just like pure socialism, it sounded good in theory, but probably wouldn’t work in practice. But that might be something you plan to touch on later in the series.

    His identification with the poor is very interesting. Today, you typically only see that among African-American churches, or perhaps in some liberal, urban denominations. But there’s certainly a large contingent of Christianity that tends to side with the Republican Party. I’m interested to see where you go with this — and I have to admit, I’ve gotten a bit curious about your own political leanings too.

    There are times in these posts when I get the idea that you (and possibly Mr Henry) are staunch advocates of the separation between church and state. But at other times, I wonder if you would prefer more Christian influence in our political system. I hope that’s something you’ll cover as the posts continue.

    I gotta say, these are interesting posts, and they’re very well written. Keep up the good work!

  2. You make a good point. It is in theory. But I think that is true of most any system dealing with large numbers of people. Democracy is great in theory, but in reality it is messy and corruptible. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try it.

    I think your two points are related. Identification with the poor is at least one of the main ways Christians can overcome or address the problem you described with your first point. You are right the more liberal denominations do a much better job of this and that is unfortunate. I will not go so far as to say the the typical evangelical doesn’t care about the poor. Almost every active Christian I know has done something worthwhile in this area. The problem I think is this. Most suburban evangelicals don’t understand the systemic underpinnings still maintaining poverty and racial imbalances. They (we) see it as an individual issue. That is what the urban and mainline denominations get and most evangelicals don’t.

    I will continue with all these themes, but yes I am a staunch advocate of the separation of church and state.

    Thank you for your comments.

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