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The Continued Relevance of Carl Henry’s ‘Uneasy Conscience’

Pressing Issues Then and Now

Perhaps what the world needs now is an old book by a dead man. The book was first published in the whirling years following World War II, when the evangelical movement in America—exemplified by a young evangelist from North Carolina named Billy Graham—seemed ready to move beyond the bureaucratic heterodoxy of mainline liberalism and the quarrelsome anger of separatist fundamentalism. Nothing was clearer in laying out this agenda than the slim volume by theologian Carl F. H. Henry titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. What’s striking now is how contemporary and pressing the issues still seem, though raised by Henry back when “baby boomer” referred to youth and the future. While not specifically mentioned in this book, the visage of Jim Crow lingered in the shadows of that era. Nearly twenty years later, another Christian thinker, Walker Percy, would write:

The old Christian porch, that is to say, is becoming increasingly uninhabitable by moderately serious persons, which is to say our best young people. It is surely not too much to say that if Southern Christendom does not soon demonstrate the relevance of its theology to the single great burning social issue in American life, it runs the risk of becoming ever more what it in fact to a degree already is, the pleasant Sunday lodge of conservative Southern businessmen which offends no one and which no one takes seriously.1

In a broader sense—both in terms of national geography and in terms of a generality of approach—Henry was arguing much the same thing. In both cases, the argument was not that the church must become “relevant” to issues in which the masses were interested, as a marketing strategy. In fact, it was always an easier mission to avoid disturbing the consciences of those who wanted to “sin [all the more] that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1).

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Carl F. H. Henry

In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F. H. Henry critiques 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.

No, the relevance was instead because any serious person who dared to look could see that the Christian churches that dodged these issues were dodging not just “social questions” but their own Scriptures, which state explicitly that God wants no worship from those who unrepentantly practice injustice or who applaud those who do (Isa. 1:10–23; cf. James 5:1–10). The outside world could see that a church that thundered against sin in the “personal” arena and not against sin in the social arena, when the church’s own Bible makes no such distinction, was a church that, no matter how loudly it proclaimed the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture, had adopted a canon within the canon, with some parts more authoritative than others. In other words, the so-called fundamentalists were often just as theologically liberal as the liberals—because they adapted their Bible to what fit their social and political stances, rather than the other way around. Whether that was, to use much more contemporary terms, “red state” or “blue state” ways of doing this would be irrelevant at the judgment seat of Christ and in the eyes of a world wondering whether there was a word from God, whether the people in the revival tents really believed it when they said, “The Bible says . . .”

The Kingdom of God

For Henry, the problem was one not of mere application but of a failure to conform to the defining and unifying theme of the whole Bible: the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Social-gospel liberalism had replaced the kingdom with a political program, deemphasizing the necessity of personal regeneration as it churned out policy papers on nuclear energy and economic stimulus programs. At the other extreme, though, Henry warned, the so-called fundamentalists had overreacted to the social gospel, speaking of the kingdom of God as though it were wholly future. These Christians embraced a mission of the church as merely “spiritual,” and defined “spiritual” as evangelism and personal morality. These Christians acted as though Jesus could be received as Savior without following his command to love neighbor as self. That’s why some of these Christians could speak loudly on some social issues—opposing communism abroad or supporting prayer in public schools—while denouncing other issues as “political” and “distractions from the gospel” when they didn’t fit their already-existing political and economic and cultural interests. And most of those issues that were “distractions” to them—then as now—happened to be about race.

The danger was not just that this sort of chopped-apart kingdom theology would hurt people on the outside—although it certainly did that—but also that it would create spiritual and moral injury in the Christians saying such things themselves. After all, one can ignore the Bible on such matters if one just chooses to concentrate solely on passages dealing with individual justification and atonement and relegate the teachings of the prophets and Jesus—and even some of Paul and James—to the Israel of the past or the Israel of the future, with no connection to the church now. But one cannot put thumb tabs in the conscience, in which is embedded what Henry would call “the criteria by which God would judge men and nations.” That conscience—like the Bible it reflects—points to a God of both justice and justification. Rather than searing the conscience, Henry proposed that gospel Christians hear what they were already saying, that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). That would require Christians to seek a kingdom that speaks both to the cosmos and to the person, both to the community and to the individual, both to the body and to the soul, both to faith and to obedience, both to the mind and to the conscience, both to love of God and to love of neighbor.

The outside world could see that a church that thundered against sin in the “personal” arena and not against sin in the social arena, when the church’s own Bible makes no such distinction, was a church that, no matter how loudly it proclaimed the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture, had adopted a canon within the canon, with some parts more authoritative than others.

If only the issues raised by this book were in the past. Many called Henry—who was well to “the right” on virtually every theological and political and ideological spectrum—a “Marxist” and someone dabbling with a “social gospel” (even though he was perhaps the most theologically detailed critic of the social gospel). Such should not be surprising. Those same forces labeled as “Unitarians” and “liberals” those who said (with the Scriptures) that kidnapping human beings and forcing them into chattel slavery and violence and rape were evil, because many other abolitionists were Unitarians or liberals. And, today, those who suggest that the coming judgment day applies to matters of injustice (such as white supremacy, which is taken apart everywhere from Genesis to Galatians and beyond) will be called “liberals” or “cultural Marxists,” or it will be suggested that they are influenced by some postmodern critical theory or scary ideology rather than what they are actually addressing: the text of, for example, Ephesians 3 or Revelation 5.

This is perhaps the one place that The Uneasy Conscience falters. Henry was, whatever his protestations to the contrary, a kind of rationalist and assumed that the primary problem was cognitive. People, he assumed, had wrong ideas about the kingdom of God, and this led to an atrophied form of social engagement. Over time, I have come to believe that the flow works the reverse way—whether in the chilling defenses of slavery in the 1840s, the waving away of the lynching of human beings in the 1920s, the “biblical support” for segregation in the 1960s, or more recent examples. Instead, the social issues are predominant, and the theology serves to prop it up—ironically enough, usually in those who denounce others for holding a “social gospel.”

But Henry seemed to know, at some level, that this was the case. He knew, decades before Mark Noll famously put it this way, that there was a “scandal of the evangelical mind.” But in this—his most important and prophetic book—Henry addressed not just the mind but the conscience. And he did so 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). That’s a word the church—in every place and at every time—needs to hear. Every generation or so, we need a reminder of how the conscience can work to evade the parts of the word of God it wants to evade. We need that reminder now as much as ever. The evangelical conscience is, after all, still uneasy after all these years.

Notes:

  1. Walker Percy, “The Failure and the Hope,” 1965, republished in The Failure and the Hope: Essays of Southern Churchmen, ed. Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 27.

This article is adapted from the foreword by Russell Moore for The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F. H. Henry.



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