The Evangelical Conscience: Still Uneasy After All These Years

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Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience is back, and not a moment too soon. Over fifty years after its debut, Eerdmans Publishers has reprinted The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. The importance of this little book might escape the contemporary generation of American evangelicals. In 1947, the young theologian issued a jarring manifesto calling for a theologically informed and socio-politically engaged evangelical movement. Henry indicted conservative Protestantism with an isolationism rooted in an inadequate understanding of the Kingdom of God. He was right-then and now.

Henry’s cannons were aimed at two fronts-detached fundamentalism and Social Gospel liberalism. On the one hand, Protestant liberals, Henry insisted, had replaced the gospel of redemption through Christ with a political program. At the other extreme, however, Henry warned that fundamentalists had over-reacted to the Social Gospel. Conservatives had embraced a wholly future vision of the Kingdom of God, a wholly otherworldly vision of salvation, and a wholly spiritual vision of the church. Fundamentalist isolation was, for Henry, not primarily a political issue, but a theological one. By segregating social and political concerns from the gospel, the fundamentalist evacuation from the public square had conceded it to liberals such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and their even more radical successors. For Henry, the problem could be located in fundamentalist confusion about the implications of the biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God.

In 1947, an evangelical consensus on the Kingdom-and its implications for the whole of life-seemed nearly impossible. After all, the evangelical coalition was agreed on the “fundamentals” of biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, personal regeneration, and so forth. But the coalition was badly divided on the Kingdom itself between dispensationalists and covenant theologians. Remarkably, the past generation has seen evangelical theology coalesce around a consensus view of the Kingdom as “already and not yet”-with both dispensationalists and covenant theologians moving toward one another. The Kingdom understandings that previously kept fundamentalists isolated have now been corrected by a more biblical portrait of the Kingdom and its relationship to the future reign of Christ, the present reality of the
church, and the cosmic scope of salvation. This provides the basis for a renewed and biblically informed evangelical public theology. But the evangelical crisis in 2003 is quite different from the crisis of 1947.

This brings us to the irony of Eerdmans publishing Uneasy Conscience with a foreword by Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw. In one sense, this is quite appropriate. After all, Mouw has done some masterful scholarly work on the nature of the Kingdom. His book When the Kings Come Marching In is a first-rate examination of the New Jerusalem and the new earth in the prophecy of Isaiah. Nonetheless, the divergence between the Fuller Seminary of Carl Henry and the Fuller Seminary of Richard Mouw is illustrative of the unraveling of the evangelical movement. Henry assumed that conservative Protestantism would remain united on the “fundamentals” such as biblical authority, which he saw as foundational to evangelical theological

Indeed, Henry laid the failure of liberalism precisely at its refusal to coalesce around a high view of scriptural authority. Political engagement without a solid revelatory basis, for Henry, was ridiculous. “Is it not incredible that some churchmen, whose critical views of the Bible rest on the premise that in ancient times the Spirit’s inspiration did not correct erroneous scientific concepts, should seriously espouse the theory that in modern times the Spirit provides denominational leaders with the details of a divine science of economies.” Henry envisioned something different for an evangelical movement. It was not to be a repudiation of the older fundamentalism, but a reform movement within it. Thus, Fuller Seminary was founded on a commitment to the inspiration and authority of an inerrant Scripture. Thus, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) was formed around an explicit acknowledgement of biblical verbal inspiration and inerrancy.

Today’s evangelical movement, however, is quite different. Dispensationalists and covenant theologians agree on the primary details of the Kingdom of God. There are few arguments about whether the Sermon on the Mount applies to the church age, or whether the church is a “Plan B” in the purposes of God. But it is easier to find a creationist on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley than it is to find an inerrantist on the faculty of Fuller Seminary. The Evangelical Theological Society might have a considerable amount of agreement on the inaugurated reign of Christ, but this year’s meeting proves that evangelicals know longer agree about the basics of the doctrine of God.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is, I think, the most important evangelical book of the twentieth century. Eerdmans should be hailed for bringing it back to a new generation of evangelicals. Henry’s critique is just as relevant now as in 1947 and should be read by all those with a serious commitment to applying a Kingdom theology to every aspect of life. But, contemporary evangelicalism also needs to recover something we’ve lost along the way-a confessional conviction on matters of God, revelation, and authority. Otherwise, we may find ourselves relevant to contemporary crisis-but with nothing left to say. After all, sometimes an easy conscience just isn’t enough.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).