4 lessons from Carl F. H. Henry’s “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism”

August 26, 2020

More than half a century has passed since the publication of Carl F. H. Henry’s prophetic volume, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In only 89 pages, Henry delivered a word that shocked and challenged Christians in the post-war era. Having lived through the brutal and horrific realities of the second world war, including the Jewish Holocaust and the deployment of atomic weapons, Americans in the middle of the 20th century were facing a difficult future. And Henry knew the moment demanded a serious response from the church, one that applied the depths of the Christian message to the heart of society’s problems.

Don’t let the title fool you. What Henry referred to at the time as “modern fundamentalism” applies at nearly every point to contemporary evangelicalism. He was speaking to those Christians who fervently believed in the Bible, trusted in Jesus alone for their salvation, and sought to live pious lives marked by devout faith. To these Christians, Henry sounded an alarm of sorts, for them to not forsake the essence of their faith but to see that faith more fully. Despite their devotion, Henry argued that “evangelical Christianity has become increasingly inarticulate about the social reference of the Gospel” (13). Evangelical faith, in other words, had so fully embraced the hope of heaven that it had abandoned all concern for the world Jesus came to redeem. 

The war brought the nation face to face with evil. People stood in desperate need of a gospel that could explain not only how to get to heaven but how to live in the here and now—how to deal with fear, uncertainty and chaos, and whether it was possible to hope in a better future. It was to these questions that Henry spoke. And though he wrote to an audience in a time and place much different than our own, his words are still prescient today. Below are four lessons we can learn from that important work.

Christianity is relevant

Henry rejected the idea that the gospel lacked relevance to modern life. He understood that Christianity was, in essence, a message of redemption; it’s sweep is cosmic and all-encompassing. And because the gospel speaks to every area of our lives, it speaks to every area of our common lives as well. It was on this score that Henry delivered a strong indictment against the fundamentalism of his day. Christianity had failed, he argued, to confront “the great moral problems in twentieth-century global living” and to make relevant “the implications of its redemptive message” (30). 

For Henry, this failure to take seriously the moral dimensions of the gospel was nothing less than an abandonment of the Christian tradition. Throughout the centuries, the church has sought to bring its message to bear on the surrounding culture. Authentic Christianity cannot sit idly by in the face of moral atrocities, cultural rot, or public injustice. The redemptive message of Jesus has a word for every culture in every age. And it is imperative for the church to speak the words that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Christian ethics are personal and public 

Unlike some who have lost focus on the need for personal repentance and faith in pursuit of Christian social action, Henry grounded the impetus for such action in the gospel itself. Sinners are given new life through the gospel, but the new life produced by the gospel is marked by the kind of service that defined the  ministry of Jesus. This is why Henry wrote, “It remains a question whether one can be perpetually indifferent to the problems of social justice and international order, and develop a wholesome personal ethics” (10). But in fact, it was not really a question at all.

Henry understood that saving faith is personal but never private. He rejected as a false dilemma the idea that Christians must either embrace a gospel that aims to save souls or meet the needs of sinners. Henry had no use for social action that jettisoned the gospel, but neither did he accept an aversion to the “social gospel” as an excuse for indifference. He believed that, too often, his contemporaries, “in revolting against the Social Gospel seemed also to revolt against the Christian social imperative” (22). And in rebuking them for this failure, he pointed back to the Reformation. Citing the Genevan Reformer, Henry noted that “Calvin felt that the Hebrew-Christian tradition historically involved an articulate statement not only of dogmatics but of the social implications of redemption” (39).

Christianity is robust

Henry spoke of these social implications because he embraced a large view of the gospel. In sending Jesus, the Father not only put forward his Son as an agent to rescue sinners but as the one to redeem the creation. Henry’s large view of the gospel could account for the work of God in the world and the place of his people in the sweep of redemptive history. And he worried that in his context many Christians had lost such a view, substituting the robust message of salvation with a more truncated view that jettisoned what some have called the “horizontal” aspects of the gospel. As Henry described it, ““The Christian social imperative is today in the hands of those who understand it in sub-Christian terms” (39).

To remedy this problem, Henry called for a recovery of the Christian worldview. “Historically, Christianity embraced a life view as well as a world view; it was socially as well as philosophically pertinent” (18). What was needed was for believers to see the world through redemptive lenses. No longer could Christians ignore suffering or social ills in the name of addressing “spiritual” poverty or “personal” morality. As he wrote, “There is no room . . . for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man” (35).

Christians stand against the world for the world

Though Henry opposed any notion that Christians could withdraw from the world or remain indifferent to moral and social issues, he always recognized the distinction between the church and the world. Referencing the famous “two kingdoms” paradigm established by St. Augustine, Henry wrote, “Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resisting message . . . of this sort there could come no contemporary version of Augustine’s The City of God” (19). For the church to be effective, it must always be distinct. But as Henry argued, the church made its stand not merely to oppose the world but in order that it might be saved.

And here we find echoes of the words of Jesus. The people of God are called to be salt and light in the world. But both the salt and light exist for the world. The light shines in the darkness. And the salt is marked out as distinct. As Henry commented, “The ideal Hebrew or Christian society throbbed with challenge to the predominate culture of its generation, condemning with redemptive might the tolerated social evils, for the redemptive message was to light the world and salt the earth” (30).

Henry rejected the idea of escapism. He held that the Christian life was infused with meaning, from here until eternity. Not only that, but he thought a robust and relevant gospel was the only way forward for the church in the 20th century, “If Protestant orthodoxy holds itself aloof from the present world predicament it is doomed to a much reduced role . . . If the evangelical answer is in terms of religious escapism, then the salt has lost its savor” (62).

Like Athanasius before him, Henry stood against the theological tides of his day and called the church to embrace the fullness of the truth. Because as Henry knew, to do anything less would obscure the gospel and erode the church’s witness. Let us be unafraid to go and do likewise.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24