Social Engagement Before It Was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 4)

In order to enact these principles, Carl Henry sought for much of his career to build a

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

unified public face for evangelicism for social action and public engagement.  In fact, the self-description of Christianity Today at its’ founding in 1956 was as, “transdenominational literature speaking in a clear voice on behalf of evangelical Christianity.”  This is no doubt a noble intention, and it has probably had some of the intended effect of promoting moral dialogue and displaying for the world a truer model of justice then self-interest.

One problem however lies in a problem Henry addresses over and over, the independence and fragmentation so inherent in evangelical theology and practice.  Without a driving doctrine of leadership or ecclesiology, no one has the right to speak for evangelicals as a whole.  In fact, no one ever will due to the diversity of beliefs and practice.  Henry himself derides the central planning of Catholicism and Islam without realizing it is the only possible means of any unified religious thought on a large, societal scale.

In giving people direct access to God, evangelical theology has as a direct corollary, sealed off its adherents from compulsory participation in any supra-local church command structure.  So while a worthy goal, a unified face claiming to speak for all evangelicism is essentially made impossible by one of the very beliefs making evangelicals unique among Christians.

A second problem is the nature of justice.  Despite all of the strengths in his model, it does seem however there is an unhealthy notion of justice underlying much of it.  Henry rightly states based on Romans 13 government has a legitimate role to dispense justice.  However on many points he refuses to compensate for the fact that that justice is never perfect, and often working directly in opposition to perfection (i.e. utilizing repression and brutality).  Though government does reflect God’s justice, some doing so better than others, it is the duty of Christians to point people towards the coming, final kingdom which is the true standard of justice and from which all authority flows.

This point comes into view clearly with his discussion of war.  Henry dismisses Christian pacifists as not an accurate reflection of God’s justice because they might let evil devour unabated, and thus he argues a loving Christian is sometimes forced to bare arms and kill. This may or may not be true, but a false distinction is drawn  between war and doing nothing.  In reality, there are many options in between and Christians, especially those in public service must make sure they are all exhausted.

He also makes no account for the often self-interested nature of governments who launch wars for selfish gain or perhaps simply pride or other undue pressures.  While not stated, I believe this is probably because of the bipolar nature of the world at the time.    Any questioning of the US government would probably have been seen as support for the Communist system growing in the East.  But in my mind that should have brought these questions up with even more urgency.  Is a Christian living under an oppressive regime supposed to feel the same way about his or her own armed forces as one living in the United States?  Should he or she be compelled to fight by Christian faith as well?  These are questions Henry does not seem prepared to answer.  He simply assumes the US is the normative experience for Christians everywhere and that our government is a uniform standard of justice.

I wish Henry was better prepared to discuss these issues and the relationship of government to ultimate justice.  The need Christian distinctiveness pervades his work, but when it comes to war and peace we are to march in lock step as ordered.  Perhaps under the steely reality of the Cold War there was no time for these questions.  But what better time could one ask for?  If the specter of nuclear annihilation isn’t enough to make people rethink the world’s future, I’m not sure what is.

Next time we will start to wrap this thing up.



Sources: 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); Carl F. H. Henry, Gods Of This Age or…God Of The Ages, ed. R. Albert Mohler, (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1994); Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol 4


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