The death of Carl F. H. Henry on Dec. 7, 2003, marked the end of a chapter, but not the end of the book.
The book, which could be entitled The Origins and Influence of the NeoEvangelical Movement, still is being written. Once finished, the book will tell a story that is cultural, theological, and political. From beginning to end, Carl Henry will be the spark that ignites the movement and the wind that fans the flames, even when they threaten to burn out of control.
The story begins in New York with the birth of Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry on Jan. 22, 1913, to German immigrant parents with nominal commitments to the Episcopal Church.
Young Carl was not nurtured from the cradle to love the gospel and seek divine guidance. As a teenager he was a church dropout. Henry recalls that on June 10, 1933–while working as a journalist for a New York newspaper–he offended a co-worker when he uttered “Jesus Christ” while proofreading a story. Henry’s co-worker challenged his loose use of the name of Jesus. In the ensuing engagement Carl Henry was confronted by the gospel and had a conversion experience. Soon he was active in a Long Island Baptist church, seeking to make sense of his life.
Henry’s searching led him to Wheaton College in 1935. Among his classmates was an aspiring evangelist named Billy Graham. Henry completed two degrees at Wheaton, the B.A. and the M.A. After graduation he went on to Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he completed the Th.D., distinguishing himself as a brilliant scholar worthy to be invited to join the faculty. He also completed the Ph.D. at Boston University in 1949. Along the way, he was ordained in the American Baptist church and served churches in northern Illinois.
The 1940s were productive for Henry. His life as a teaching theologian afforded him the luxury of reading and writing, while engaging the keen and inquiring minds of colleagues and students. His modest writing went largely unnoticed until he published a 75-page essay in 1947. Almost immediately The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism had the feel of a classic. In the short essay Henry laid out his reasons for encouraging a reformation of conservative theology in America.
At issue for Henry was the isolationism that most conservatives had adopted. Countering the retreat into a personal faith, Henry proposed an advance into the world that he saw as eager to hear of the transforming power of the gospel. His analysis of the mid-century status of evangelicals in America earned him the title of reformer.
Soon after the publication of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry was invited to become one of the founding faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was attracted to Fuller because it had a clear vision of the importance of articulating a biblical faith, while at the same time embracing the mandate of a biblical social expression of the gospel.
Henry had been concerned that Fundamentalism had isolated itself from the culture, and that liberal Protestants’ desire for social change had departed from the gospel. Fuller Seminary seemed to be a place where the whole gospel–word and deed–could be held in tension. And so, Henry joined the fledgling faculty in hopes of reforming the identity of the evangelical in America.
The late 1940s and the early 1950s continued to be productive and influential. Teaching at Fuller stimulated what was to become a prolific writing career. By 1953 Henry had published eight books detailing his analysis of contemporary culture and offering his insights about how a clear understanding of the witness of Scripture could effect change in the world.
In the works, too, was another classic–Christian Personal Ethics–that would become public in 1957.
By the mid 1950s Henry had become the standard-bearer of what he later would call “the NeoEvangelical Movement.” No one was surprised when Henry was asked to assume the editorship of a new magazine, “Christianity Today,” that his old Wheaton classmate, Billy Graham, was founding with the help of monied and business-savvy evangelicals.
The new magazine was intended to challenge the liberal influence of “The Christian Century” and to set the agenda for a revival of evangelical fervor in America.
For a dozen years Henry was at the helm of the new publication, and in those years he earned the title as founder of a new movement of American Christians that sought a middle way between the isolationism of the Fundamentalists and the cultural accommodation of Protestant Liberalism.
The influence of “Christianity Today” and its bold editor soon moved beyond America. Henry had become an international figure, establishing the foundations for a “ecumenical evangelicalism.” In 1966 Henry and Graham convened the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin, underscoring his title as founder of a new movement that had wide-ranging influence.
Perhaps Henry outgrew his American context, or perhaps the trials of American culture in the 1960s were more than the governing board of “Christianity Today” could tolerate under his leadership. In 1968 Henry relinquished his role at the magazine and launched a new phase of his already-significant career.
Suddenly Henry had the luxury of time to develop the foundations of his convictions through the years. He began the writing of what was to become a six-volume magnum opus that spelled out his epistemological convictions about Christian faith. In God, Revelation, and Authority Henry detailed his belief that Holy Scripture is the revelation of God in a specific and propositional way.
Henry was convinced that the Bible was more than “the record of revelation” and was, in fact, revelation itself. This conviction was in direct opposition to Protestant theologians like Karl Barth.
At the same time Henry argued against the traditional conservative expressions of biblical authority that could be traced to the likes of B.B. Warfield and parroted by Fundamentalists.
Henry’s articulation of biblical authority, inerrancy and infallibility was nuanced and precise. On the one hand he castigated Protestant liberals who subsumed the Bible under cultural categories; on the other hand he chastised Protestant conservatives who “over defend” Scripture and its claims without regard for the cultural contexts of the Bible’s many authors.
Henry lived the last three decades of his life carrying the title as defender of biblical orthodoxy. His work as an epistemologian–one who seeks to make clear what can be known–and as an apologist for the gospel in the modern world is the crowning work of a serious theologian who needs to be included among the giants of 20th century theology.
The legacy of Carl F. H. Henry will be debated and fought over for years to come. The fundamentalists he challenged in 1947 will try to tame him and claim him as one of their own. The NeoEvangelicals to whom he gave purpose and meaning will continue to pursue his “ecumenical evangelicalism” in the face of an ever-growing suspicion about denominations.
In the end it will be said that Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was a reformer, a founder and defender.
Richard Wilson is professor of theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.