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David Neff

Jurassic Evangelicalism

The legacy of Carl F. H. Henry.

Greg Thornbury, newly appointed president of The King's College, thinks theologian Carl F. H. Henry is a dinosaur—but a dinosaur whose DNA can be reanimated a la Jurassic Park. In Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, Thornbury attempts to re-establish the evangelical movement's genetic link to Henry.

Thornbury has written his book for readers like me—evangelicals who have not actually read Henry's six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority, but who have been turned off by its reputation as a cool, rationalistic, and impressively dense opus that reduces the truth of the Bible to a set of logical propositions. This reputation is the opposite of Pascal's heart-cry, "Fire. / 'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,' not of philosophers and scholars. / Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. / God of Jesus Christ. / God of Jesus Christ. / My God and your God."

Full disclosure: I value the post-Henry evangelical theologies that emphasize the narrative nature of truth and that highlight the dynamic and dramatic quality of the biblical revelation and the church's reflection on it. I count as friends some of the key narrative thinkers and postfoundationalists that are the targets of Thornbury's complaint.

Fortunately, Thornbury is not out for blood. His project is positive: to rehabilitate the philosophical, theological, and ethical work of Christianity Today's first editor. Thornbury's complaint about John Franke and Stanley Grenz is not that they have got things all wrong, but that by dismissing the importance of epistemological foundations, they have created systems that are too weak to stand the test of time. However, the currently pre-eminent Kevin Vanhoozer wins Thornbury's guarded approval: his 12-page critique trumpets Vanhoozer's "brilliance" as much as it frets over the possibility that his foundations are not entirely trustworthy.

Thornbury apparently assumes that evangelical theology must be constructed according to an academic equivalent to the building codes communities require of contractors. But is evangelical theology like home building? Is there a code? Or is evangelicalism elastic enough to accommodate both Henry and Vanhoozer, both J. I. Packer and Grenz? Must we build our theological dwellings with 90-degree corners, with walls set on concrete foundations of a specified depth? Or can we make room for our theological Buckminster Fullers with their disorienting but efficient geodesic domes?

To recover classic evangelicalism, Thornbury wants to begin at Henry's starting point, tracing a path from epistemology through theology and inerrancy before discussing cultural engagement and social justice. But to persuade today's evangelical leadership, he should perhaps have reversed that order. After all, Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, his jeremiad about the lack of evangelical social conscience, three decades before the first volume of God, Revelation, and Authority. A recovered social conscience is flourishing in today's evangelical movement, and Henry could be the patron saint of that recovery. Henry's message still rings true: the lack of social conscience is a scandal, while the failure to ground social conscience in a revealed gospel is courting disaster.

Thornbury avers: "Henry envisions a seamless garment linking biblical verities to social responsibilities." And Henry confirms: "Social justice is not … simply an appendage to the evangelical message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel itself is truncated."

Why not, then, persuade today's evangelicals by affirming Henry's social conscience and by anchoring that to his belief that, in Thornbury's words, the "redemptive energy of the Christian evangel in the active and practical opposition of social and spiritual evils" is "the only means by which substantive, meaningful, and sustainable change can be effected on cultural and social ills"? I have argued in various venues that evangelicalism's social activism developed historically by discovering social needs in contexts where it preached the gospel. But the fact that gospel proclamation has both historical and theological precedence does not make epistemology the most persuasive starting point for evangelical recovery.

Thornbury knows his hero has fatal flaws. His catalogue of Henry's weaknesses: Henry was not a good public speaker, was not politically astute, displayed a temper and a curt manner, was weak in exegesis, had unreasonably high standards, relied too much on big-event, big-organization evangelicalism, relied too much on Billy Graham, linked American democracy too closely to godliness, failed to stand up for civil rights, overstated evangelicalism's potential, and failed to think strategically with his own writings.

That's quite a list, and Thornbury illustrates the last item by calling the first volume of God, Revelation, and Authority "a terrible leadoff batter." It was "esoteric and turgid," he says. Readers should start with volume 2.

Ironically, it is volume 1, the least welcoming part of this magnum opus, that provides the material for Thornbury's major concern: the lack of practiced epistemological thinking in evangelical theologians since Henry. "Evangelicalism will never rise above the strength of its epistemological outlook," Thornbury writes near the end of the book, because that epistemology creates confidence in the Bible and in "the promise that through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth one can 'rediscover reality.'" He worries that as evangelical theologians have dismissed Henry's epistemology without appreciating its nuances, something key has been lost: namely, the idea that "God, and God alone, is the source and arbiter of all wisdom and knowledge, and God himself determines the bounds and limits of all true knowledge." This is the argument Henry employed against various permutations of natural law thought. And without a theocentric epistemology—that is, with an epistemology rooted only in subjective experience or scientific observation of the world—there is no end to the ways both theology and spirituality can err.

In his explication of volume 2, Thornbury's excitement for Henry's thought shines out. Here 15 theses form the backbone of Henry's theology. Those who know only Henry's reputation may be surprised. The theses do not dwell on propositional truth (although thesis 10 alludes to it) or scriptural inerrancy (although thesis 11 implies it). Rather, the theses offer a Trinitarian view of revelation, framed in both historical and personal terms, with a focus on the renewal of sinful people and their societies through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit superintended both the writing of Scripture and the church's faithful response to it, while highlighting the "climax" of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth and the "crowning revelation of power and judgment" at "the consummation of the ages." Henry even creates space for the future narrative interest of evangelical theologians by asserting the importance of the story of God's mighty acts in the lives of individuals and empires.

Thornbury shows from these theses that (unlike conservative theologians before and after him) "Henry does not oppose the meaning of the gospel with practices of living and fostering the kingdom. Instead, he combines them."

When he deals with narrative, however, Thornbury offers a critique (in Henry's name) of Hans Frei, John Franke, Michael Horton (not usually in the same circle), and Kevin Vanhoozer. He is particularly worried that Vanhoozer's attention to genre in Scripture opens "a Pandora's box" and validates Henry's fears. Anyone uncomfortable with what Scripture seems to be saying can claim previous interpreters were victims of genre confusion. This is an easy out when Scripture and other forms of knowledge clash. Yet Thornbury never explains why genre shouldn't be a primary concern in interpretation.

In his chapter on inerrancy, Thornbury provides familiar critical assessments of Clark Pinnock and Donald Bloesch (earlier defectors from the inerrancy ranks) and their more recent counterparts, especially Peter Enns. Henry himself (some readers may be surprised to learn) maintained that the first thing to be said about Scripture is not its inerrancy, but its authority. In "Living God's Faith in a Created World," an essay included in By What Authority? (Mercer University Press, 2010), I traced evangelical theologians' shifting emphasis on the Bible's authority, moving from statements of belief (typical of theologians of Henry's generation) to affirmations of the Bible's authority over the life, witness, and formation of believers and the church (represented by theologians such as Vanhoozer, N. T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, and Robert Webber). Thus I welcome Thornbury's assertion that "the greatest witness to the truth of an inspired and inerrant Bible will be a loving, gospel-motivated church engaged with the concerns, [ills,] joys, and sorrows of the planet around them." Unfortunately, he makes it sound as if a loving and engaged church exists for the sake of the Bible's authority rather than the other way around.

Thornbury's final chapter is titled "Evangelicalism Matters." Does it? I must think that evangelicalism matters, because I have invested most of my adult life in the movement. And yet a recurring question at Christianity Today has been the viability of the evangelical label. Has the word become so stained by association with homophobia and civil religion and televangelist greed that it has lost its potential? Indeed, as evangelicals have in effect trademarked Christian as their de facto brand, even that word communicates all the wrong things. Thornbury is aware of this challenge: "If the Christian community is indeed interested in reaching an ideologically laden age with the gospel, … then perhaps it is appropriate to begin not so much with an apologetic, but with the words, 'We're sorry.'"

Thornbury builds his closing appeal on our awareness of a failed evangelical movement. "Carl Henry died a disappointed man"—disappointed that "evangelical theology was abandoning its key epistemological distinctives" and that "evangelical institutions … failed to live up to their potential, choosing instead to protect their own interests rather than contributing to the common evangelical weal."

Henry was a visionary whose vision was never fully realized. The same can be said for others of his generation, Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham among them. Surely the key to recovering classic evangelicalism, however, is not to posit a golden era that never existed, but to stand amazed at just how much God accomplished—and how much he continues to accomplish—through the flawed institutions of this movement.

David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today and the vice-chair of the National Association of Evangelicals board of directors.

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