Is the evangelical conscience still worried?

Maybe what the world needs now is an old dead man’s book. The book I’m thinking of is The worried conscience of modern fundamentalism. This small volume by Carl FH Henry was first published in the turbulent years after World War II, when the American evangelical movement – exemplified by the young North Carolina evangelist Billy Graham – seemed poised to overtake at the both the bureaucratic heterodoxy of mainstream liberalism and the quarrelsome anger of separatists. fundamentalism.

What is striking now is how contemporary and urgent the issues Henry raises still seem, despite his writing when “baby boomer” referred to youth and the future. In this most important and most prophetic book, Henry addresses not only the spirit but also the conscience.

Dodging the Scriptures

Although not specifically mentioned in this book, the face of Jim Crow has lingered in the shadows of this era. Almost 20 years later, another Christian thinker, Walker Percy, would write,

It is surely no exaggeration to say that if Southern Christendom does not soon demonstrate the relevance of its theology to the one great burning social problem in American life, it runs the risk of becoming more and more what it is already, in fact, to some extent the pleasant Sunday lodge of conservative businessmen in the South who offend no one and whom no one takes seriously.

The worried conscience of modern fundamentalism

Carl FH Henry

The worried conscience of modern fundamentalism

Carl FH Henry

cross books. 112 pages.

As social issues including prejudice, classism, and war dominated conversations in the 1940s, Orthodox Christians became known for their indifference rather than compassionate leadership in the face of issues. If the gospel has the power to change the world, shouldn’t Christians engage in world affairs with biblical authority?

In The worried conscience of modern fundamentalism, theologian Carl FH Henry criticizes separatist evangelicals and their absence from the social arena, calling on all Christians to unite humanitarianism with Christ-centered leadership to impact the kingdom of God. With cultural and political analysis still relevant today, he challenges believers to reject pessimism about the human condition and embrace action, addressing global needs and pointing to Christ as the ultimate solution to all social ills.

This classic book by Carl FH Henry, a prominent evangelical figure, has been updated with a foreword by Russell Moore.

cross books. 112 pages.

Both in terms of national geography and general approach, Henry argued much the same. His argument was not that the church should become relevant to the masses as a marketing strategy. It is always an easier mission to avoid disturbing the conscience of those who want to “sin [all the more] that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1). No, the relevance of Henry’s message was that any serious person who dared to look could see that when Christians dodged issues of prejudice, classism and war, they were dodging not only social issues, but their own scriptures, which state explicitly that God does not want worship. of those who practice injustice without repentance or who applaud those who do (Isaiah 1:10-23; James 5:1-10).

Any serious person who dared to look could see that when Christians dodged issues of prejudice, classism, and war, they were not only dodging social issues, but their own scriptures.

The outside world could see that a church that thundered against sin in the personal arena and not against sin in the social arena – while the church’s own Bible makes no such distinction – was a church that , however forcefully it proclaimed the inerrancy of Scripture, had adopted a canon within canon, some parts being more authoritative than others. In other words, so-called fundamentalists were often as theologically liberal as liberals, because they tailored their Bibles to their social and political positions, rather than the other way around.

Whether, to use more contemporary terms, ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ ways of doing things would be irrelevant both at doomsday and in the eyes of a world wondering whether there was a word of God, if the people in the tents of revival would really believe it when they said, “The Bible says.” . .”

Divide the kingdom

For Henry, the problem was not one of mere application but of failure to live up to the defining and unifying theme of the Bible: the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Social-evangelical liberalism had replaced the kingdom with a political program, downplaying the need for personal regeneration as it produced policy papers on nuclear energy and economic recovery.

At the other extreme, so-called fundamentalists had overreacted to the social gospel, speaking of the kingdom of God as if it were entirely future. These Christians embraced a simply “spiritual” mission for the church, defining “spiritual” as evangelism and personal morality. These Christians acted as if Jesus could be received as Savior without following his command to love his neighbor as himself.

This is why some Christians might speak loudly about certain social issues – opposing communism abroad or supporting prayer in public schools – while denouncing other issues as “political” and “distractions”. to the Gospel” when they did not correspond to their pre-existing politics, economics and politics. cultural interests. Most of the issues that were “distractions”—then as now—were about race.

The danger was not only that this chopped up kingdom theology would hurt outsiders – though it certainly was – but also that it would create a spiritual and moral wound in Christians who would themselves say to such things. After all, you can ignore the Bible on such matters if you simply choose to focus on passages that deal with individual justification and atonement while relegating the teachings of Jesus and the prophets – and even some of Paul and Jacques – to the Israel of the past. or the Israel of the future, unrelated to the church now.

Henry called the integrated conscience “the standards by which God would judge men and nations”. This conscience, like the Bible it reflects, points to a God of both justice and justification. Rather than burning the conscience, Henry proposed that gospel Christians hear what they were already saying, that “all scripture is expired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). This would require Christians to seek a kingdom that speaks both to the cosmos and the person, to the community and the individual, to the body and the soul, to faith and obedience, to the spirit and to conscience, to love of God and love of neighbour.

Burning mind and conscience

If only the issues raised by Henry in this book were a thing of the past. Many have called Henry – who was well to the right on virtually every theological, political and ideological spectrum – a “Marxist” who tried his hand at a “social gospel”, although he may have been the theologically most critical critic. more detailed of the social gospel.

This shouldn’t be surprising. These same forces called Christian abolitionists “Unitarians” and “Liberals” because they agreed with the Bible (and some Unitarians and Liberals) that kidnapping human beings and forcing them slavery, violence and rape was wrong. Today, those who suggest that the coming judgment applies to issues of injustice such as white supremacy will again be called “liberals” or “cultural Marxists.” It will be suggested that they are influenced by postmodern critical theory rather than what they actually refer to: the text, for example, of Ephesians 3 or Revelation 5.

Henry proposed that Gospel Christians seek a kingdom that speaks to both cosmos and person, community and individual, body and soul, faith and obedience. , to the spirit and to the conscience, to the love of God and to the love of neighbour.

It may be the only place where The worried conscience wavers. Henry was, whatever his protestations to the contrary, a rationalist who assumed that the main problem was cognitive. He thought people had misconceptions about the kingdom of God that led to an atrophied form of social engagement. Over time, I’ve come to believe that the tide works backwards – whether in the chilling defenses of slavery in the 1840s, the abandonment of lynching in the 1920s, the “support biblical” to segregation in the 1960s, or more recent examples. Instead, social issues predominate and theology serves to buttress them.

Henry seemed to know that was the case on some level. Decades before Mark Noll, he knew there was an “evangelical spirit scandal”. But he chose to address not only the spirit but also the conscience. And he did it with the very words that Jesus spoke on the shores of Galilee: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

It is a word that the church, everywhere and at all times, must hear. Every generation or so we need a reminder of how the conscience can work to escape the clear Word of God. We need this reminder now more than ever. The evangelical conscience is, after all these years, still worried.

Barry F. Howard