Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, Gregory Alan Thornbury. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.
Summary: Addressing an evangelical context that seemingly has lost a sense of its identity, core convictions, and model for cultural engagement, the author commends a re-appraisal of the work of Carl F. H. Henry as a source of wisdom for the future.
It seems there are numerous books being published at present addressing what is perceived the parlous state of the contemporary church in America. They seem to fall into two camps. Either they recommend innovation, or they call for a return or recovery of some lost tradition, whether the church fathers, Benedict, or the Reformers.
This book, written particularly for that part of the church that would identify as “evangelical” proposes that the way forward is to recover the philosophical, theological, and cultural vision of the movement birthed in the post-World War II years. This was the time of the founding of Christianity Today as a periodical of both evangelical conviction and theological and intellectual heft, befitting the concerns of two of its’ founders, Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. This work focuses on the work of Henry, who was evangelicalism’s leading theologian, probably until his death in 2003.
Thornbury hardly consider’s Henry to be perfect, and in the first chapter enumerates some of the flaws in both his personality and work. He also chronicles the “drubbing” Henry has faced from scholars criticizing his commitments to inerrancy, his epistemology, and more. Furthermore, what may be his most significant work, his six-volume systematic theology, God, Revelation, and Authority is also largely unread and unknown, particularly because few got beyond its first, densely written volume. Yet Thornbury commends Henry as a model of someone who brought a Christian mind to bear on both the theological and cultural questions facing evangelicalism, and as one whose example and advocacy paved the way for renewed efforts to bring Christian thought to bear in the academy and the culture.
The focus of Thornbury’s discussion is volumes two and four of God, Revelation, and Authority (hereafter GRA) and Henry’s much more approachable The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. He focuses on four significant contributions of Henry that he believes deserve renewed attention. First was his rooting epistemology in a God who reveals God’s self and does so in language and propositions. Second was that theology matters, and here, he focuses his discussion around the fifteen theses found in volume two of GRA. He engages the theology of speech-act theory and the work of Hans Frei and Kevin Van Hoozer, and still comes back to the idea that while language may do more than what Henry allowed, it does no less–that we may find more than just theological propositions arising from the scripture, but for a God who reveals God’s self effectively, we will find no less.
For Henry, the inerrancy of scripture, so much under fire even in evangelical circles today, was of utmost concern because of its connection to the authority. His concerns were not merely liberal criticism, but the hermeneutical relativism of Continental philosophy. It was not that Henry was unmindful of both problem texts in scripture and the fallibility of interpreters. Rather, he was convinced that concessions here would cast a shadow over the whole of scripture and the Church’s proclamation.
Finally, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was a kind of manifesto that brought to bear biblical thought on the social, political, and economic issues of the day. It lead to the recovery of a social conscience that had been lost in the fundamentalist retreat from society. It provided an argument that culture, and cultural engagement that was not culture war mattered deeply.
Thornbury concludes by arguing that our evangelical roots matter. To unthinking shift from these or to live cut off from our roots can be fatal. To re-examine these roots, in this case the roots provided by the work of Carl F. H. Henry, is not necessarily to affirm that these roots are adequate, but rather important and not to be neglected. It strikes me that in growing things, roots continue to grow as well as the plant above ground, and the plant draws nourishment from an growing root system, both new roots and old.
I have to admit that I have not paid attention to Henry in recent years, paying more heed to newer thinkers. Yet this book reminds me of the personal debt I owe him, and those like him. As a young Christian working in the university context, Christianity Today, which in the seventies still reflected Henry’s intellectual influence and heft, was a great encouragement that I could both believe and think, that I could root my thought in a trustworthy and authoritative revelation that provided the foundation to wrestles with the deepest questions being asked in the university world. I could root a commitment to justice and compassion in the care and standards God established for human societies, and the words of the prophets who called a straying people back to such things. Reading Thornbury, I realized that I have often heard but never read Uneasy Conscience. It now sits on my TBR pile. Look for a review.