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

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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 serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author