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Book Review

Why we need ethics to survive

A review of Carl F. H. Henry’s "Christian Personal Ethics"

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March 15, 2021

Often when the secular world speaks of evangelicals, these Christians are caricatured as lacking education, social and historical awareness, and even a realistic understanding of the way the world actually works. In 1957, the esteemed theologian Carl F.H. Henry wrote Christian Personal Ethics to equip the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and to engage the apparent hostility demonstrated by elites toward evangelical thought. Henry wrote this comprehensive account of Christian personal ethics in a period some have called a revival of fundamentalist scholarship. Henry’s treatise on Christian ethics was written as an introductory text for seminaries, colleges, and those desiring to be equipped to engage the debates surrounding philosophy, epistemology, and especially the role of the Bible in ethics. Henry’s aim was to expose the “severance of ethics from fixed values and standards” in modern culture, and show the ways that a Christian ethic must be rooted in the Word of God (13).

Henry was the founding editor of Christianity Today and served as a professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. He authored the influential six-volume work, God, Revelation, and Authority, which he completed in 1983. He also wrote a number of other works including a companion volume to the present work called Aspects of Christian Social Ethics. The present volume was designed to address the personal aspects of Christian ethics. In the book, Henry walks the reader through a host of alternative ethical systems, showing readers the inherent faults of these systems in light of the moral revelation of Christianity. For Henry, “ethics is the incisive and universal requisite for survival,” meaning that ethics is essential to human existence (13).

Defining a Christian Ethic

In this work, Henry describes and analyzes the contours of a variety of ethical formulations and then lays out what he describes as a neo-evangelical ethic based on the presuppositions of Reformed theology. In the first section, which he describes as speculative philosophy, he walks the reader through an examination of naturalistic, idealistic, and existential ethics. Under each ethical system, he engages with many of the great ancient Greek philosophers as well as many modern figures such as Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kant, and Heidegger. While his critiques of these ethical systems are pointed at times, Henry’s wisdom and thoughtfulness is evident as he points out aspects of their thought that align with Christian revelation. Henry is quick to give credit to these various thinkers when they pick up a thread of truth. For example, he writes that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this” (41). Throughout the work, Henry reiterates the role of God’s revelation that shapes and produces a distinctly Christian ethic.

The second section of the book sets out Henry’s vision for Christian ethics, which is grounded in God’s revealed Word and in the life of the local church. A key aspect of Henry’s vision for Christian ethics is tied to the role of the imago Dei, which sets man apart from the rest of creation as one with reason and morality. Being image bearers, no human being can “escape ethical responsibility” (151). Henry speaks of the uniqueness of the Christian ethic based in love as the summation of the law and prophets referencing the double love command of Matthew 22:37-39 (221). He then shifts to walk through the Christian ethic as seen in the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the larger New Testament canon. He ultimately argues that Jesus is the ideal of Christian ethics and that Christ’s humility is the hallmark of ethics, which “stands over against the high-mindedness and pride which speculative ethics approved” (417). He ends on an interesting note for a work of Christian ethics, speaking to the role of prayer in the life of the believer. Prayer is not just “the individual’s acknowledgement of creaturely dependence, but the whole souled confession that his true hope is in the supernatural world” (573). This conclusion reiterates the uniqueness of Christian ethics in a world that has been deluded with selfish ambition, pride, and haughty individualism.

The Role of Revelation

Henry speaks of Christian ethics as a revealed ethic given by God to his people, who are sinful and in rebellion. Henry states that, “Biblically-revealed ethics dismiss as shallow all evaluations of the ethical situation which hesitate to view sin, death, and Satan as determinative categories” (172). Henry’s emphasis on the role of revelation, specifically special revelation, is central to the work along with his emphasis on the fallen nature of humanity. The moral revelation of Scripture is key to defining a Christian ethic because it grounds the believer in God’s truth as he lives in the created world. “Christianity stresses the unity of Truth, and the universal validity of the Good and Right, and the universality of rational norms, along with its emphasis on special revelation, because it sets special revelation against the background of general revelation” (149). This interplay between general and special revelation is one of the most striking aspects of Henry’s Christian ethic because of the firm stance he takes regarding the role of natural law in Christian ethics, which he stridently opposes but interestingly leans upon at various points in the work.

Henry points out that an ethic of natural morality is inherently flawed and “ruled out” given the fallen state of humanity (159), but also speaks of the “implanted moral law” in humanity (154). He points out how the ethics of special revelation are not a straight-line continuity with the Thomistic tradition of confident rationalism (156), which seems to be his biggest point of concern with natural law ethics. He argues that the Thomistic tradition fails to deal realistically with the fact of a fallen human nature (196), especially as some who hold to natural law speak of the disordered will and desires of humanity, but do not emphasize the same effect of the fall on human reason. He goes on to state that, “Because Christian ethics is the ethics of special and not of universal revelation, it is not immanently accessible to all men on the basis of creation” (203).

Another of Henry’s critique of natural law ethics similarly flows from his high view of sin that extends to all of nature. He states that nature itself is sinful and split, which cannot lead one to conformity to God’s will (196). This is a consistent message throughout the work, especially as Henry rightfully exposes the flaws and dangers of naturalistic ethics earlier. While he is consistent with his emphasis on the fullness of the fall’s effects upon nature and humanity, this conflation of natural law ethics and naturalism seems a bit stretched in his critique of the Thomistic tradition. It seems that Henry actually holds to a similar understanding of natural law ethics, even if he does not use the same terminology or understand it to be salvific in any way.  This is clear as he argues, “The good and true may come through distorted and stretched. And men everywhere, who are also stamped with the image, acknowledge as good and true what reflects that image, even if sometimes in a crude way” (477).  To his credit, Henry is seeking to emphasize the particularity of the Christian ethic throughout this work, and his critique of natural law seems to be focused on defining this particularly rather than a blanket statement on the role of natural revelation in the Christian life. 

Overall, Christian Personal Ethics provides a wealth of knowledge for readers as it takes a broad approach to defining a distinctly Christian ethic in light of the multitude of ethical systems available. Henry’s engagement with these non-Christian ethics is accessible and trustworthy as he defines Christian ethics with an emphasis on the role of special revelation and the transformed life of the individual. Henry’s ending to the work on the role of prayer in a Christian ethics is laudable as well given the utter dependence of the believer on God for all things, including an understanding of morality in the first place.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, technology, public theology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is … Read More