When one thinks of American evangelicalism, two figures should immediately come to mind: Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry — the evangelist and the theologian of contemporary conservative Protestantism. One of those figures, Dr. Henry, is now in the presence of Christ. But he would not want us to remember him simply as a theologian, a philosopher or a leader of a movement.
He would want us to remember him as an evangelist.
From the very beginning, Henry sought to wake fundamentalism up from its slumber. In the face of social crises, Henry feared that conservative Protestants were refusing to address the issues confronting contemporary society. But, for Henry, the issue was not whether evangelicalism was “engaged” culturally, or esteemed by the media and the academy. He was concerned that the questions being asked were being answered by atheistic philosophers, Marxist bureaucrats and fascist dictators. For Henry, this meant that biblical Christianity was abandoning not just the public square, but also the mission field.
That’s why Henry wrote his explosive “the Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” in 1947 to call conservative Protestants to the full spectrum of the Great Commission in baptizing the nations and teaching them “whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). It is also why he penned his magisterial six-volume “God, Revelation and Authority.” He saw the churches in peril from liberal and neo-orthodox views of Scripture. The disappointment heard in Henry’s voice as he surveyed the varying degrees of apostasy in the Protestant mainline was more than the critique of the theologian. It was the heartbreak of the missionary.
“There was a time earlier in the Christian era when the evangelist’s best ally was the theologian, whose forceful statements of the Christian revelation served to clarify the urgency of the task,” Henry wrote. “But today many theologians themselves need to be evangelized.” He was just such an evangelized theologian. Billy Graham told the masses “the Bible says.” Henry reminded evangelicals in detailed scholarship just why they could trust such preaching from a book long ago discredited by the intellectual elite.
There are many of us who can offer just such a testimony to the work of this evangelist-theologian. As a young college student, I grappled with claims of biblical authority and inerrancy, having been told by a pastor and by professors that the Bible didn’t claim such things for itself. These arguments were blown away by the sanctified reason and dogged defense of the faith offered by Carl Henry. I am one of thousands who might wonder where we would be if the Lord had not called this obscure Long Island journalist to Christ.
Several years ago, Dr. Henry was on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for what would turn out to be his last visit. Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of contemporary evangelicalism, with its weak view of Scripture, its truncated view of God, its complete lack of doctrinal backbone. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals. And I will never forget his reply.
“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”
“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”
I’m sure we all thought it then, and I think it especially now. Who knew that God would raise up a newspaperman from a nominally Lutheran family to defend the Scriptures for generations of conservative evangelicals?
Carl Henry is now gone, but his defense of the faith remains. Let’s pause to remember the legacy of a brilliant philosopher, a keen theologian and an influential journalist. But let’s remember the most important thing about Carl F.H. Henry: He was an evangelist.