Review: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Uneasy Conscience

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern FundamentalismCarl F. H. Henry (foreword by Richard J. Mouw). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003 (originally published 1947).

Summary: Henry’s classic manifesto challenging the heirs of the fundamentalist movement to a recovery of a social and intellectual engagement while maintaining gospel integrity.

In a recent conversation about people leaving evangelicalism because of the “rootedness” of those in traditions like Catholicism, I wondered aloud whether many who are repudiating evangelicalism have much knowledge of what they are repudiating, other than the uncomfortable experiences they likely have had personally. In my experience, most evangelicals are sadly out of touch with even their own history, let alone the great history of the church over the past two millenia.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is one of the keystone works in the rise of the twentieth century evangelical movement. In it Carl Henry decries the regrettable loss of a social conscience in fundamentalism’s retreat from a vibrantly engaged evangelicalism of the nineteenth century.  He writes:

     “In a company of more than one hundred representative evangelical pastors, the writer proposed the following question: ‘How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing the framework in which you think a solution is possible?’ Not a single hand was raised in response.”

He attributes this in part to the retrenchment from theological liberalism and its associated “social gospel.” But he also lays part of the blame on an eschatology that is indifferent to all efforts to address social and physical needs since “it is all going to perish” and what must be done is simply to rescue lost people. He argues that the exclusive focus on the “not yet” of the kingdom to the exclusion of the “already” that heralds the work of Christ leads to a great imbalance in preaching. He writes this as one who embraces rather than denies premillenial theology.

Furthermore, he calls for an intellectual recovery of a Christian mind and social ethic that roots a vigorous engagement in the realms of higher education as well as societal needs in theological orthodoxy. He proposes protest that roots advocacy in evangelical belief while also recognizing that ameliorating social needs without spiritual regeneration through Christ is inadequate.

Carl Henry represented a vanguard of evangelical leaders who created journals like Christianity Today and began to assert a socially engaged and intellectually rigorous Christianity that remained rooted in fundamental beliefs. It was a movement that advocated for a “both-and” approach when everyone else had assumed an “either-or” approach to Christian faith–either socially engaged or doctrinally orthodox. Henry argued for both and believed this reflected gospel integrity.

While there were things Henry and others no doubt didn’t get right, many more don’t even know he existed or that his manifesto anticipated the socially engaged evangelicalism of Sojourners, the intellectual and doctrinal rigor of the neo-Reformed folkand the movement toward a recovery of a Christian mind in the world of higher education.

This slim volume “stirred many pots.” It is worth a read in our day, both for the vibrant vision it articulates and for the glimpse it gives us of the beginnings of twentieth century evangelicalism after World War Two.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

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