Several years ago I was approached by a publisher to write a biography of Carl F. H. Henry. I declined, not from any lack of interest, but because I am, first and foremost, a philosopher and theologian, not a biographer. But second, I think it's relatively difficult to improve upon the currently available assessments, beginning with Henry's own inimitable memoir, Confessions of a Theologian. This is really the place to start if you want to hear Henry in his own voice. In addition to this source, the best summaries of Henry's career can be found in Albert Mohler's chapter in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition and Paul House's thematic tribute "Remaking the Modern Mind: Revisiting Carl F. H. Henry's Theological Vision." With this caveat in mind, it might be helpful to survey the basic features of Henry's career and life, which overlapped so consistently with many of the central institutions and movements in the history of evangelicalism: Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and its corresponding statement of faith, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, and Henry's institutional connections with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), and, toward the end of his career, Southern Seminary and Union University.

The Great Encounter

Born in 1913, Henry enjoyed a distinguished 90 years on planet earth. A New York City public-school kid cum boy-genius editor of the Suffolk county Smithtown Star, the young journalist could as well have been a real-life Tintin as the philosopher-theologian he became. But everything changed for Henry when, as he used to say, he encountered "the risen Lord." Thanks to the evangelistic efforts of an outreach to emerging leaders called "the Oxford Group," he grasped the importance of conversion through personal faith in Jesus. Despite having been confirmed in the Episcopal Church at age 12—in which he was pronounced "an inheritor of the promises of the Kingdom of God"—Henry later reflected, "I was, in fact, no more regenerate than the Long Island phone directory." The miracle of conversion never wore off for him, and he took the matter of personal evangelism very seriously from that point forward.

"The Most Intellectually Satisfying Account of Reality"

As Henry made his way through Wheaton College, he was struck by the robust emphasis on the cognitive dimension of the faith modeled by the institution's president, J. Oliver Buswell, and especially by his philosophy professor, Gordon H. Clark. Despite any caricature to the contrary, Henry lived a life of vibrant piety and sensitivity to the work of the Spirit, a conviction he emphasized and for which he was known by the students of TEDS (he was a professor who made it a priority to pray personally with his students). But it was the idea that Christianity is the most intellectually satisfying account of reality that energized Henry the most. This theme defined his written work from that point on. He wasn't a charismatic or outgoing personality, but it seemed his Lord did the networking for him. After all, it was during his days at Wheaton that Carl formed friendships with Billy Graham and Harold Lindsell, and, most importantly, met Helga Bender, who'd become his lifelong companion and to whom he gave the affectionate German pet name "Shatzie" ("my love").

After completing graduate degrees at Wheaton and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Henry joined the faculty of Northern as professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion in 1942. He went on to complete a PhD in philosophy at Boston University, where he examined the impact of Edgar Brightman's personal idealism on the theological development of the preeminent Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong at the turn of the 20th century. Although Henry considered himself a Northern Baptist, he understood the kingdom of God as being much larger than ecclesiastically focused Christianity. It was perhaps this orientation that prompted Henry to associate with organizations that transcended denominational lines—associations that made him a central figure in the development of evangelicalism. In addition to being one of the younger leaders involved in the start of the National Association of Evangelicals, Henry went on to participate in the formation of many of the key institutions that would shape orthodox Protestant Christianity for the rest of the century.

The Measure of the Man

In a letter to Billy Graham about the prospect of a "new evangelical magazine" that would provide an orthodox counterpart to The Christian Century, Henry replied that, if done right, what was to become Christianity Today could be: "(a) transcontinental, (b) inter-denominational, (c) theologically affirmative, (d) socially aggressive and (e) irenic." And there you have it. That is Carl F. H. Henry. That is who he was.

To my mind, and to grossly oversimplify things, most important about Henry's life and work was this: he was born, he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and the massive six-volume God, Revelation and Authority, he contended for evangelical epistemological priorities, and he died. Reductionism indeed.

In other words, what made Henry unique was his mind, his pen, and the methods by which he deployed his enormous intellect to help evangelicals introduce people to the risen Lord. Because he operated from this prime directive, Henry also made distinctive contributions to central concerns of the evangelical community: the epistemological grounds for Christian theism, the importance of reaching contemporary culture, the need for a transdenominational evangelical witness, and the preservation of faithful evangelical institutions. So this book is simultaneously about and not about Carl F. H. Henry. It's about the survival of the cherished subject of his career, an idea some have concluded is little more than a wish-dream and fantasy: evangelicalism.

Defender and Unifier

In the later years of his career, Henry moved from his primary calling as the leading thinker expounding the philosophical gravitas of divine revelation to become a defender of the faith. He assailed missiological proposals that seemed to prioritize dubious understandings of contextualization at the expense of fixed patterns of gospel presentation. By convening the Evangelical Affirmations conference in 1989, he advanced the cause of the communion of saints, reasserting verities while trying to reach common ground with a wide variety of biblical, theological, philosophical, and sociological thinkers. Assessing the reappraisal of Karl Barth via postliberalism through the work of Hans Frei, Paul Holmer, and the New Yale school, Henry critiqued their understanding of narrative coherence as an adequate basis for constructive theological formulation. And long before the furor broke out in evangelicalism over justification, Henry wrote a prescient article on the topic in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, outlining his concern that attempts for new understandings of the doctrine could undo the evangelical project. "The modern ecumenical effort to reconcile long-standing Protestant-Catholic differences has not met with spectacular success," he wrote in 1995. "Justification is God's declaration and implementation of his eternal will giving sovereign assurance in a divine verdict that we otherwise doomed sinners are by faith now acquitted." He went on to voice his concern over attempts to return to the Thomistic notion of infused righteousness or the conviction of Karl Barth that the mere confession of Christ as Lord could supersede the grounds of acceptance and forgiveness with God. Still, Henry emphasized the importance of justification as God's power for righteousness in the believer, thus striking a balanced tone.

Over the years, evangelicals counted on their dean of theologians to help them navigate the thorny issues that arose in the academy but inevitably found their way into the teaching of church leaders. In essence, we could then afford to live like contented hobbits in the Shire, often blissfully ignorant to the encroachments of Mordor into the surrounding territory, because there were Dúndain like Henry, Packer, Kantzer, and company, who ranged about protecting the evangelical borders. These were men who were convictional without being pugilistic, and who responded in theologically astute ways without devolving into mere punditry. What made Henry even more remarkable was that his defense of the central axioms of evangelical conviction wasn't born out of some sort of provincial concern to protect an institution, coterie of colleagues, or denominational tribe. He truly believed the gospel transcends such divisions and that evangelicals should be known more by what we are for than what we are against.


This article is an excerpt from Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway, forthcoming March 2013).

Gregory Alan Thornbury, PhD, is the president of The King’s College in New York City and the author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.

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