Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: Carl F. H. Henry
“He is intellectually the most eminent of conservative theologians. I would say he’s been the professor and I’ve been the student.” So said Billy Graham reflecting upon the influence of Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003). Like Philipp Melanchthon to Martin Luther, or Andrew Fuller to William Carey, with the passing of time the figures in history that built the theological infrastructure to support and defend an evangelical movement often fade from popular memory. Graham, Luther, Carey we know, but names like Carl F. H. Henry are not readily in view. Although unknown, Henry is not forgotten. Gregory Alan Thornbury’s latest work is quickly becoming one of the books to read this year. This is a welcomed and needed volume, for the perceptive Thornbury observes, “So it seems as though there may still be enough of us left who believe that Carl Henry, a key to evangelicalism’s past, may in fact be a cipher to its future.” What is it then that made Henry so effective in his day and thus worth reviewing now? Carl Trueman believes that one part of what made Henry remarkable was his “unerring ability to see the big picture, to focus on issues of real substance, and to communicate the significance of these issues to the theological public.” Henry saw this big picture first in his younger days as a journalist.
Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was born to immigrant parents in January 1913 in Long Island, New York. Following the practices of American Episcopalianism, Henry ventured through confirmation at the age of twelve but later, in his words, abandoned “all that institutional religion could offer.” However, upon graduation from high school, Henry took a position at The Islip Press where he would meet one of the most important people to impact his life. Mrs. Mildred Christy “a white-haired, middle-aged lady” served as a secretary to the editor and would regularly tell Henry she was praying for him. On one occasion where Henry took the Lord’s name in vain, she expressed her hurt to Henry, and he felt it. “I knew she was a widow. What I did not know was that her teenage son, whom I apparently resembled, had recently died in California in a motorcycle accident. Nor did I know that she prayed God to give her a son in the ministry, or at least, in the Lord. What’s more she alerted two friends in Ohio—with whom as a teenager she had often sung gospel songs in churches and rescue missions—to put me, of all people, on their prayer list. To be on the prayer list of that triumvirate, of local believers like Martha Gorton, too, was like being at the mercy of an air assault.” Four years later, a persistent Mrs. Christy would offer Henry regular invitations to church and then finally to meet a special guest speaker. After a series of excuses and rebuffs, Henry finally agreed to meet the speaker, and the man both challenged Henry and answered the burdening questions of his heart. On June 10, 1933, Carl Henry trusted Christ.
To be on the prayer list of that triumvirate, of local believers like Martha Gorton, too, was like being at the mercy of an air assault.
After his conversion, Henry went to Wheaton College where he met his future wife, Helga, and continued working as a journalist. After marriage, he earned a degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. While serving as a part of the founding faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, he completed a Ph.D. from Boston University in philosophy. In 1947, Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, a book Russell Moore terms, “perhaps the most important evangelical book of the twentieth century.” There, Henry critiqued retracting fundamentalism as well as social gospel liberalism and called for a “rediscovery of the revelational classic and the redemptive power of God, which shall lift our jaded culture to a level that gives significance again to human life.” So it is fitting to see a call for the rediscovery of Henry as really a call to rediscover the foundational principles of a God who makes himself known in his revealed Word. While at Fuller, Henry helped launch Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine designed to “take academic theology to the masses” and to give pastors an alternative to the more theologically liberal Christian Century magazine. Henry’s tenure with Christianity Today lasted until 1968 and saw the magazine circulate to over 160,000. After spending a year researching and writing abroad, Henry returned to various teaching posts but focused primarily on his majestic six volume God, Revelation, and Authority. What is more, while rightly seen as the premier twentieth century evangelical theologian, Carl Henry was also a Baptist by conviction and served his denomination in a similar supportive role during a time of controversy. Henry passed away in 2003.
Henry’s journalism background helped him tackle substantive and crucial theological issues in a way that not only left no doubt what he believed but also displayed how his beliefs came as the result of well-reasoned arguments. In response to the idea that one might believe in Jesus but not in the truthfulness of Scripture, Henry states, “The indispensability of personal faith in Christ in no way implies the dispensability of the Scriptures as the Word of God written; apart from Scripture, we can say nothing certain either about Jesus Christ or about the necessity of personal faith in him” (GR&A, 4.203). Here, Henry in long form expounds what he had since been articulating for evangelicals for some time, that “if evangelicalism is not defined on revelatory grounds, then it wasn’t worth the effort.” When asked how he would define evangelicalism theologically, Henry replied, “In 1 Corinthians 15:1-14, the indispensability of biblical theology to a sound doctrinal foundation is placed beyond doubt. An evangelical is one who is Scripture-accordant. Twice, the apostle Paul stipulates faith ‘according to the Scriptures.’ He said this in a context that includes the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without this dependence on and submission to biblical revelation, there is no evangelicalism.” In a New York Times story chronicling his departure from Christianity Today, the author noted Henry’s flair, writing, “In a recent speech he called Protestantism’s ‘modernist’ bent ‘a bag of wind theologically,’ and said that the ‘death of God sideshow has already gone bankrupt.’” In a 1963 Christianity Today report following a meeting with theologian Karl Barth, Henry cleverly stated, “Barth has given new vitality to the Reformation formula of soli Deo gloria. But historical evangelicalism held not only to soli Deo; it held also to sola Scriptura.” As Albert Mohler notes, Henry’s style of “aggressive engagement” on these issues is the very thing that aided his “effective and thorough restatement of the evangelical doctrine of revelation and biblical authority.” In 2013, the year that would have marked his 100th birthday, the name Carl F. H. Henry is probably not known to many evangelicals. But, should a recovery of Henry’s life and thought occur, perhaps a new generation will join Billy Graham in the glad acknowledgement that Carl Henry’s “been the professor and I’ve been the student.”
- Carl. F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Word, 1986).
- Carl. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 6 vols. (Crossway, 1999).
- Carl F. H. Henry, “Fifty Years a Baptist,” in Tom J. Nettles and Russell D. Moore, eds., Why I Am A Baptist (B&H, 2001).
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Carl F. H. Henry,” David S. Dockery and Timothy George, eds., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (B&H, 2001).
- The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: http://www.henrycenter.org/about/timeline/his-works
- “Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003): A Tribute,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Winter 2004).
- Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway, 2013).