Book Review: ‘The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism’ by Carl F. H. Henry

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One of the most influential books in evangelical history was penned by the brilliant journalist-turned-theologian Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003). The book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (originally published by Eerdmans in 1947, but the book’s third edition is now available from Crossway). The two primary reasons this book was so influential was:

1) It gave Christians a blueprint for how to navigate between extreme religious factions.

2) It profoundly inspired an entire generation of evangelical leaders toward better social engagement.

 

Navigating Polarization

For many American Protestant Christians, navigating between the right-wing and left-wing flanks of Christianity is difficult. It’s helpful to know that we’re not the first generation of American believers to face this tension.

Often there are those on the right-wing of Christianity that emphasize good doctrine and piety, but can be doctrinally persnickety, and they seem to want to retreat from meaningful cultural engagement. There’s a divisive “us against the world” attitude and they often seem to lack the irenic spirit needed to represent Christ well.

In contrast, on the left-wing, there are those that emphasize good practice—they promote cultural engagement, service to the poor, equality, justice, social activism, kindness, and unity. However, the majority of Christians on the left-wing have compromised theological fidelity, and many of them often see little need for personal conversion. Furthermore, many left-wing Christians complain about the mixture of religion and politics in America, but they themselves have seemingly placed an excessive amount of trust in public policies as the primary means for shaping society.

There have been several moments in American church history where this right-wing vs. left-wing tension was present. The most notable was in the mid-twentieth century, with fundamentalists on the right-wing and modernist Protestants on the left-wing. It was during this cultural moment that Henry wrote this helpful book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. This book cuts through the polarization.

 

Henry: Dean of the Evangelicals

Carl F. H. Henry was born and raised in New York. In high school Henry did free-lance work for a few newspapers. At age 16, he entered the newspaper business full-time. By age 19, Henry was the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper in Long Island. But at age 22, after a dramatic conversion experience, Henry left New York for Illinois, where he enrolled at Wheaton College. By age 30, Henry was an evangelical luminary.

Henry is best known for being the founding dean at Fuller Theological Seminary (1947-1956) and founding editor for Christianity Today (1956-1968). He wrote more than forty books and edited at least a dozen others. He also wrote countless articles, op-ed pieces, and reviews. Henry held multiple professorships at various evangelical academic institutions.

Henry was a confidant and ministry partner for leaders like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, J.I. Packer, Kenneth Kantzer, and Richard Stern. In addition, Henry would later greatly influence many prominent evangelical leaders including Albert Mohler, Chuck Colson, D.A. Carson, John Woodbridge, David Dockery, Timothy George, Millard Erickson, Mark Dever, and Russell Moore.

Henry’s leadership and brilliance earned him the nickname, “the dean of the evangelicals.”

 

Small Book, Huge Impact

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is a small book (referring to its physical dimensions), and it’s just 112 pages, eight short chapters. The book’s narratives are smooth and the argumentation organized, so it’s reasonable that most readers could get through this book in just one sitting.

Overall, this book is very accessible, which (frankly) was not typical of Henry’s writings. He had the reputation for being verbose and tough to understand. There’s a few moments in the book where Henry uses vocabulary beyond the average reader, but that’s rare.

Henry also assumes that the reader has (at least) an elementary understanding of several basic theological and political concepts that, actually, some readers may not grasp. But, with some effort, the readers that are unaware of those assumed concepts ought to be able to piece together what Henry is referring to (in most cases).

In this book, Henry set forth compelling arguments in favor of a new brand of evangelicalism, a brand that would combine orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Henry mainly addressed the right-wing, expressing his desire for the fundamentalists to feel uneasy about the state of fundamentalism (in 1940s), specifically their approach and attitude toward culture.

Henry also addresses left-wing Christians in this book too, but he rightly understands that he isn’t likely to easily win many of them over; therefore, Henry primarily sets his sights on challenging and inspiring the right-wing, the fundamentalists.

Henry’s hypothesis was that if the fundamentalists could remain loyal to Christian orthodoxy, but shift their attitude and approach to culture, then maybe there could be significant momentum for true gospel advancement in society. That’s the vision of this small book.

This small book set the foundation for Henry’s entire project, and eventually set the foundation for the new brand of evangelicalism that Henry was touting—the new brand that would later dramatically shape American Christianity, and broader American culture too.

 

Preaching and Presence

In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry begins by outlining the lack of social engagement and humanitarian work that had been coming from the fundamentalists and evangelicals in the middle part of the twentieth century. As the book continues, Henry also chides several characteristics of fundamentalism, most famously their preaching. Henry laments that fundamentalists did not often address important social ills.

In the book he recounts a moment when he asked a room of more than 100 pastors, “How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social ills 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 a framework in which you think [a] solution is possible?” (pg. 4). Not one hand was raised.

Henry also rebuked the style of preaching in America that often lacked the will to call congregants to action, and it rarely inspired evangelistic fervor. He rebuked the sentiments of anti-intellectualism, the spirit of fear that seemed to govern many Christians, and the flawed eschatology which led many toward an attitude of escapism.

In addition, Henry lamented the fact that so many Christians in the twentieth century had felt the need to retreat from culture. Henry said they altered the “redemptive gospel” of Jesus Christ from being a “world-changing message” into an obstinate “world-resisting message” (pg. 19). Henry wanted to inspire Christians to be present in their society, to be deeply engaged and connected to their community, wherever and whenever possible.

Henry then begins to present his understanding of the doctrine of the kingdom of God and its implications for social ethics. This is the primary sentiment being pushed by Henry throughout the book, especially the second half. Henry convincingly argued that it was the Christian responsibility to reshape society, to be in accordance with God’s morality and ethics. Toward the end of the book, he gives simple tactics for how evangelicals and fundamentalists can reengage society.

 

Henry’s Three Laments

The early sections of the book are organized around Henry’s three primary laments. These laments are particularly poignant.

First, Henry laments the existence of the Social Gospel, for being a perversion of Biblical Christianity. Henry’s passion for orthodox doctrine is clear. This was an essential move by Henry (especially toward the beginning of the book), because he knew that many fundamentalists would be suspicious of anyone who championed social activism. He leaves no room for the accusation that he has abandoned the true gospel or the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Secondly, he also laments the fact that so many Christians have determined that any form of cultural engagement and social activism is seen as nothing more than a propagation of the heretical Social Gospel. Henry believed that Christianity, in the mid-twentieth century, had become distant from, and unaware of, “the social reference of the Gospel” (pg. 13).

Henry rightly points out that this is a serious flaw, it represents a misunderstanding of the teachings of the New Testament. Henry said that for many fundamentalists and evangelicals their “revolting against the Social Gospel seemed also to revolt against the Christian social imperative” (pg. 22).

Henry later leverages the ideals set forth by the great sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin, in hopes of inspiring his readers to change their minds about social activism. Henry cites Calvin by saying, “Calvin felt that the Hebrew-Christian tradition historically involved an articulate statement not only of dogmatics but of the social implications of redemption” (pg. 39).

Third, Henry laments that the bulk of social activism was in the hands of people who do not rightly understand the gospel and its implications—groups that have abandoned orthodoxy. In the first half of the 1900s, the majority of social work and proactive social engagement was coming from liberal, neo-orthodox, and mainline Christians; the proponents of the Social Gospel were especially at the forefront of such initiatives.

Due to the social activism and (seemingly) good community work being done by these types of groups, these groups were often seen as the best representatives of the gospel in modern society. Those who had seemingly taken the charge with the Christian social imperatives were those that did not understand (or did not embrace) the true Christian gospel. Henry writes, “The Christian social imperative is today in the hands of those who understand it in sub-Christian terms” (pg. 39).

Of course, this does not mean the church ought to follow the theological liberals and modernists in their ways, but the church ought to find the Biblical ways. The church must meet the Christian social imperative, but must remain distinct, meaning the church must remain faithful to orthodox doctrine and must not use the manipulative tactics being used by the proponents of the Social Gospel. For the church to be effective, it must always be distinct.

Henry then argues why fundamentalists and evangelicals ought to be hopeful about the prospects of engaging in culture and leading initiatives that benefit society. There were some fundamentalists in Henry’s day that predicted the failure of such initiatives, therefore many felt it unnecessary to engage. But Henry says there’s no evidence for such inevitable failure, therefore we should not embrace any such assumption of failure.

 

Urgency and Winsomeness

There are moments in the book when Henry comes across too harsh. However, just when the reader thinks Henry has potentially pushed too far, he has moments of celebration and hopefulness. I think this was strategic; this was Henry’s way of winning the reader back. He’s pushing hard at times, but he seems to know when he’s pushed too far, so right when the reader might get frustrated, Henry then does something to make the reader feel celebrated. This feels calculated; not to say that his praise was disingenuous—his celebrations seem authentic—but it also feels intentional. There’s a winsomeness to Henry in this book that evangelicals can learn from.

More than once Henry celebrates the Protestants’ ability to maintain orthodoxy, even in the face of twentieth-century modernism, neo-orthodoxy, and the increasing secularizing pressures from American society; he recognizes that this is a difficult task for many American Christians.

However, remaining orthodox and pious here is not enough, in Henry’s thinking. He argued that Christians needed to add social activism, academic prowess, and evangelistic fervor to go along with their orthodoxy and piety. Henry was bothered by Christians who would rather withdraw from society and matters of social justice when Christians had the best reason to provide justice.

Henry charges Christians to lead the way in both evangelism and social concern. Henry specifically challenged fundamentalists and evangelical leaders to address justice-related issues and to publicly condemn social ills such “as racism, exploitation of labor, and aggressive warfare” (pg. 32) (those were the pertinent issues of Henry’s era).

Henry believed that Christians cannot “look with indifference upon miscarriages of justice in the law courts, usury, plundering the needy, failure to feed and clothe the poor, and over-charging for merchandise” (pg. 33). He asserts that evangelicals need to present their ideas with a “dynamic to give it hope” for society (pg. 55).

Throughout the book Henry implies that the foundation for any enduring civilization is found in its ability to cultivate an environment where humans can flourish. One significant component of that is society’s morality. Henry contended that humans cannot flourish long term in a society that is immoral, therefore rebuking immorality, and advocating for initiatives that advocate for morality, is good and worthwhile.

Henry believed that the fundamentalists and the evangelicals ought to lead the way. In addition, the society’s citizens must be able to overcome challenges, therefore various social programs can be helpful in creating a society where all can flourish. And this is not done with the goal of developing some secular progressive utopian society, but is done to bring humans closer to the structure that God intended for humanity so that they would see the glory of our “redemptive God” (pg. 31).

 

The Neo-Evangelical Blueprint

The final major sentiment Henry seeks to unpack is that there was indeed a need for a new brand of evangelicalism, and that this new brand would need to offer compelling arguments to the society.

Henry understood that it would not merely be enough to engage in social activism, but that evangelicals would also need to be able to regularly and intelligently articulate the “why” behind the gospel message, that we must be able to effectively do this in the face of secular modernist ideologies.

Henry was a part of a cadre of evangelical leaders that were committed to this new way. They would be called “neo-evangelicals” (a term later coined by Harold Ockenga). In the latter sections of the book, Henry sets forth the blueprint for how to cultivate this new brand of evangelicalism. This would become the blueprint for the neo-evangelical movement.

Speaking Into Every Sphere

First, Henry says that the new evangelicalism would need to “develop a competent literature in every field of study, on every level from the grade school through the university, which adequately presents each subject with its implications from the Christian as well as the non-Christian points of view” (pg. 68).

If twenty-first century evangelicals want to regain significant societal influence, then they’ll certainly need to infiltrate the academy, which is precisely what Henry and the neo-evangelicals did throughout the twentieth century. Author Gregory Thornbury summed it up in this way, “[Henry] envisioned a body of thought consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy that would appeal to the intellectual class of the day.” [1]

Evangelical Institutions

Secondly, the neo-evangelicals would need to build distinctly evangelical institutions, to counter-punch the secularism that dominates education. When Christians offer intelligent credible counters to the cultural ideas, from a distinctively Christian perspective, those ideas float about in the society at-large for a while, permeating minds, which can then make it easier to reach people for Christ in individual conversations or in preaching, because if any society is “leavened” with Biblical ideas, morality, and conviction, then that environment will become more “hospitable” toward “Christian expansion” (pg. 71).

Henry wanted evangelicals to be committed to influencing society; he and the neo-evangelicals “envisioned a body of thought consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy that would appeal to the intellectual class of the day.” [2] By embracing Henry’s wisdom, Thornbury says, evangelicals should still be able to influence a “reluctant, but hopefully winnable, society.” [3]

Evangelism

Third, neo-evangelicals would need to have a renewed commitment to world evangelism and missionary work. Henry argued that if we did this, if we were truly committed to this goal, then that would lead to a “new reformation” (pg. 89). Henry insisted that evangelicals be fiercely committed to evangelism; Henry understood that if the movement lacked evangelistic fervor, that it would become insular or persnickety or both.

Salt of the Earth

Fourth, the neo-evangelicals were to seek to remake society; or, at minimum, seek to nudge the center of society closer toward God’s ideal design. While Henry was passionate about personal evangelism, he also said, “The evangelical missionary message cannot be measured for success by the number of converts only. The Christian message has a salting effect upon the earth. It aims at a re-created society” (pg. 84). Henry believed that the most important task was “the preaching of the gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration,” but he also wanted Christians to present the gospel “as the best solution of our problems, individual and social” (pg. 89).

Some of the latter sections of the book are somewhat redundant, overlapping with some of the sentiments in the earlier sections. But Henry is reiterating this important fourth point: the need to remake society. This is the heart and soul of Henry’s vision, the primary thrust of the entire book. It’s in these final pages of the book where Henry’s passion seems to shine through most.

 

Conclusion

More than anyone else, Carl F. H. Henry set forth the most compelling intellectual arguments in favor of neo-evangelicalism—the movement that he hoped would combine a passion for right doctrine with passion for cultural engagement and social activism. Henry also insisted that evangelicals prioritize both theological scholarship and practical ministry training; he refused to see them as being at odds.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was Henry’s vision for how the modern fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals should live and minister and behave. Henry’s vision is well worth embracing and propagating. The book isn’t perfect, but it packs a punch. It’s a must read, especially for contemporary evangelical leaders and pastors.


Featured image of Carl F. H. Henry courtesy of crossway.org.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 22.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 206.