“No society can long take a rain check on final commitments.” – Carl F. H. Henry
A generation of evangelicals feel homeless, in more ways than one. News stories report on what evangelicalism is responsible for, what evangelicals value, how they think, what they live for, and my friends and I look at one another and struggle to find in our own ranks any resemblance.
This presses us into very odd behavior indeed. On the one hand, we feel tempted to throw our hands in the air and despair of any social, political, cultural engagement at all. “We will not be cast accurately anyway,” some of us think, “what’s the point?” Others of us decide that what we need most is to nuance our way out of the extreme Right, while remaining Right enough to be Christian. So we clamor for the attention of secularists and say, “Yeah, those MAGA hat-sporting evangelicals really are the worst. I’m not like that, though. I’m one of the cool Christians. Yes, technically I’m complementarian, but between you and me, I’m not all that happy about Paul’s restrictions on women preachers; let me tell you about all the loopholes I found.” And in both of these extremes, politics-by-Twitter has produced that deadly combination of throbbing political arrogance and drooling political ignorance.
Some of us are aware of both these errors but still wonder what a faithful evangelicalism looks like. We want an evangelicalism that is theologically grounded. We want an evangelicalism that avoids escapism and isn’t afraid of politics. We want an evangelicalism that isn’t idolatrous, and that declines the chalice of social power by any means necessary. We want an evangelicalism that is uniquely Christian, and not bi-partisan. We want an evangelicalism that isn’t so fragile that it cannot identify real systemic injustice or societal sins on the one hand, and isn’t willing to parrot anti-Christian ideologies to diagnose and resolve those injustices on the other. We want an evangelicalism that helps us thread the needle of being citizens of heaven and sojourners on earth.
Enter Carl F. H. Henry
If you resonated with the previous paragraph, you need Lexham Press’s recent publication, Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry in your life. The kind of evangelicalism you want is the kind Henry helped to build. In terms of our political, social, cultural moment, here’s the biggest lesson Henry teaches us: common grace demands Christian concern for the common good. But common grace also commands the Christian reject the “common ground” delusion. “Common grace” and “common ground” are different. What does the gospel have to do with the amalgam of Critical Race Theory (CTR) and Intersectionality in terms of partnership, for example? Nothing. The anthropology the former assumes fundamentally differs from that of the latter. They stand on differing grounds.
Yet, this does not mean that the Christian must eschew the woke secularist’s social concerns as imaginary. Some Christians have concluded that since biblical Christianity and CTR share nothing by way of philosophical foundations, they must share nothing by way of observation. So they hear some talk of institutionalized racism, or systemic injustice, and they say, “Hogwash, they are imagining things.” But seeing a problem and diagnosing it are two very different things. If a man says, “Look up at that bird,” you need not deny that he saw something once you conclude that it is actually a plane. They see something that’s really there, they just do not have the resources to define it, or how to prescribe the adequate cure.
You don’t have to be “woke” to know that red-lining was a sin that has scarred many minority communities. One need not buy into CTR to know that the War on Drugs was a gross and blatant perversion of equity and justice that disproportionately targeted poor black neighborhoods. Sins tend to have a chain reaction, and it is not at all inconsistent to say that a young black man is sinning for assaulting a police officer on the one hand, and insisting that his sin may have been incentivized by a complex of sins that affected him his whole life on the other—like the sins of commoditizing police work to pad the pockets of state magistrates, or the sin of obscuring justice by locking up an entire generation of fathers like animals in a cage and calling it “rehabilitation” for crimes that should have simply been penalized or punished with just proportion, etc. Pointing the finger at fatherlessness is all well and good and judicious, but fatherlessness has a complex of causes, including subsidized de-fathering—let’s point the finger at that too.
What were we talking about again? Right. Henry.
Henry Against Escapism
It would be very easy to find one-off lines from Henry and marshal him as the ally of a particular tribe. To those “don’t talk about social justice, just preach the gospel” types, social justice warriors could appeal to Henry in their defense: “Hence a sharp and costly disjunction arose, whereby many evangelicals made the mistake of relying on evangelism alone to preserve world order and many liberals made the mistake of relying wholly on socio-political action to solve world problems” (pg. 44).
Or again: “The Christian has social duties not simply as a Christian but as a man, and his sanctification therein does not come about automatically without pulpit instruction in sound scriptural principles” (pg. 45-46).
Or again: “Despite the perils, no evasion of responsibility for meaningfully relating the gospel to the pressing problems of modern life is tolerable” (pg. 20).
Or again: “By such evangelical Protestant evasion of the larger problems of social justice… contemporary evangelicals contrast sharply with their Reformation heritage” (pg. 287).
Henry is not at all content with Christians taking a raincheck on cultural engagement. No, they may not see themselves out of conversations about societal justice, says Henry, for they are to love their neighbor.
Henry Against Wokeness
And yet, after firing off at the social justice naysayers, he can turn right around to offer a few choice words to the social justice warriors as well. “If evangelical conscience is to be a remedial and transforming social force, then evangelical convictions require articulate mobilization on their own account” (pg. 45), not on the account of secular theories, for example.
Or again: “To write Christian theology in terms of any culture-orientation is hazardous” (pg. 201).
Or again: “How may [socialism] be introduced most compellingly [to the Church]? By stressing that poverty is obviously an evil, and by citing cases of destitution that—in the post-Christian era—would stir even a pagan conscience. Next, churches are called to condemn, not only the misuse of riches and the exploitation and neglect of the poor, but the very idea of economic disproportion. The clergy are urged to badger the wealthy into sharing their possessions voluntarily with the poor, or to promote the multiplication of their tax burdens as a means of involuntary equalization” (pg. 306).
Or again: “That the growing government monopoly of welfare activity is hailed as a valid expression of Christian love for neighbor… calls for earnest soul-searching. The Church will always pay a high price for giving to Caesar what belongs to God” (pg. 319).
In the end, no one walks away from Henry unscathed. He pins every one of us to the floor.
The Mountain Range We Call Carl F. H. Henry
Simply put, Carl F. H. Henry is the greatest theological mind the Baptists have ever known. He was a public theologian and a public intellectual. He read widely. He saw the relevance of Christ’s lordship on every topic he came across, and then he wrote about it in cogent and winsome fashion. But what separates him from a handful of other notable Baptist public intellectuals is his depth. One might imagine such breadth in one figure would mean his limitations on mastery, until one stumbles upon his six-volume project, God, Revelation, and Authority. Architect of Evangelicalism showcases both Henry’s breadth and depth.
And also his pithiness. The man could turn a phrase. Casually reading Henry is difficult, because he arrests his reader’s attention with phrases like, “Man is made for God, and without God he is not wholly man; the godless myths hold promise only for the making of monsters” (pg. 161); or “An American classroom that yields irreligious students, and ignores the facts of the Hebrew-Christian religion and its heritage, is neither the friend of democracy nor the foe of totalitarianism” (pg. 226), or “Any generation that prices intercourse above all other intimacies and thinks that through physical love alone, apart from any transcendent relationship, the sex act unlocks life’s deepest secrets and exhausts its mysteries, is doomed to deadly superficiality” (pg. 322). Oh Henry, if you could only see us now.
I commend this collection of essays to you. Lexham press has done us all a great service, if we will receive it. The Lord knows the Baptist world is aching for the kind of precision our older brother Henry so faithfully demonstrated. Let us follow his example.