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UNION PERSPECTIVE: Carl F.H. Henry: An Evangelical Giant

By David S. DockeryDec. 9, 2003 – On Dec.7, 2003, Carl F.H. Henry, the intellectual giant of the evangelical movement, was called home by our Lord at the age of 90. Born on Jan. 22, 1913 to immigrant parents in New York City, Henry's life reflected much of American life in the early twentieth century. Following high school, Henry seemed focused on a career in journalism. He served as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, and covered a section of Long Island for The New York Times.

It was through his journalism experience that he came in touch with the Oxford Group. At age 20 he encountered the truth of the Christian gospel and trusted in Jesus Christ. At this point he left a successful and promising career as a young journalist to enroll at Wheaton College after he heard Wheaton President J. Oliver Buswell deliver a coherent defense of the Christian faith. While at Wheaton the young Henry made friends with Billy Graham and studied with philosopher Gordon Clark. Here he also met Helga Bender, whom he married in 1940. Henry went on to complete his B.A. and M.A. at Wheaton, the M.Div. and Th.D. at Northern Baptist Seminary, and later earned the Ph.D. in philosophy with Edgar Brightman at Boston University.

Henry began his vocational academic career at Northern Baptist Seminary. In 1947 he was invited to join the faculty of the new Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Through his Fuller connections he developed important relationships with visionaries Charles E. Fuller and Harold J. Ockenga.

Henry emerged as a key leader of the new seminary serving as dean of the faculty and coordinator of the annual Rose Bowl Sunrise Service. Less than a decade after his move to Pasadena he accepted the invitation to serve as founding editor of Christianity Today (CT) in 1956. The magazine, the brainchild of Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, was intended to be the leading voice of the growing evangelical movement. Henry's background in journalism, his growing reputation as an academic leader and evangelical statesman made him the perfect candidate to launch the CT project. For the next dozen years Henry solidified his leadership within American Christianity, climaxing with his chairmanship of the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966.

Beginning with his first publication in 1947, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, the fifty books Henry has authored or edited have called for serious engagement with our culture and the issues of our day. Henry's irenic spirit enabled him to interact with others in an accepting way while holding unapologetically to the truthfulness of historic Christianity. The multiple volumes of essays, reference books, and other resources that came from his pen represent some of the very best examples of what is called "the evangelical mind."

Three key aspects of "the evangelical mind" can be described as: (1) Evangelicalism must not be "anti-intellectual" but rather must be engaging. It must emphasize the importance of the life of the mind, learning to think Christianly. Evangelicals contend that there is a place for rigorous academics, that truth counts, and that there is indeed a historic faithful orthodoxy to be confessed and proclaimed. (2) Evangelicalism must not be only "other worldly," but must remain culturally engaged. It must stress the development of a Christian worldview, active service, and global evangelism. Just as Henry, in his day, challenged the views of communism and fascism, so must evangelicals of the 21st Century address the varied issues of our day in a similar way. Yet, Henry was quick to remind us that such engagement cannot be "this worldly" only either, for service by itself, apart from the gospel, while certainly helpful, is ultimately insufficient. (3) Evangelicalism must not be "separatistic/legalistic/fundamentalist." It must be involved and cooperative in educational and mission efforts. Indeed there must be an emphasis on cooperation in mission and a shared core of beliefs, coupled with an emphasis on purity, holiness, and faithful Christian living. Evangelicalism at its best is characterized as having an irenic and hopeful spirit.

His magnum opus, the six volumes of God, Revelation and Authority, which best represents this "evangelical mind," framed the issues of truth, authority, and hermeneutics in a way that will enable the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) to be passed on to yet another generation. The Carl F.H. Henry Center at Union University is committed to carrying forth this comprehensive vision as a tribute to Henry's legacy.

In 1989 Henry co-chaired the Evangelical Affirmations Conference. He served as scholar at large for World Vision and Prison Fellowship. For years he was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and was still a member of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., though his most significant involvements were outside denominational life. He served as president of the American Theological Society and the Evangelical Theological Society. Henry delivered many of the most prestigious academic lectureships in the world, including the University of Edinburgh's famous Rutherford Lectures.

The work of Carl Henry as editor and author only tell a portion of the story. Through his presence and leadership at key events of the last fifty years, catalogued by others as well as in his own autobiographical reflections, Henry's influence has been immense. Not only by his public writings but through his prolific correspondence and mentoring of young leaders he has shaped a generation to think Christianly about all of life. On a personal note it has been my privilege, like many others, over the past years to be the recipient of many of those instructive letters. His penetrating insights into matters of culture and society have provided the intellectual muscle to wrestle with the issues of modernity and post-modernity as well.

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) annually awards the Carl F. H. Henry Scholarship to a journalism student who can bring a biblical perspective to the issues of our day. That biblical worldview has been the driving force in Henry's work as exemplified in his quote in Who's Who in America, which says, "The Bible remains the world's most indispensable reading, and a personal walk with God remains our unsurpassable privilege. All the valid assumptions about the meaning and worth of life and about a just society flow from this." In 2000, the CCCU awarded Henry their prestigious Hatfield Award for his leadership in behalf of Christian higher education.

Those who knew Carl F. H. Henry well knew him as a devout believer and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Those who met him for the first time often stood in awe of his giant intellect. But soon, almost without exception, they became more impressed with his humility and gracious spirit. Few people in the twentieth century have done more to articulate the importance of a coherent Christian world and life view, the foundation stone for Christian higher education. No Christian college or university in North America carries forth the commitment to the integration of faith and learning without Henry's influence, even if many on our campuses are unaware of that influence. All that to say how pervasive his work has been. Carl F.H. Henry, an evangelical giant, will certainly be missed. But today we celebrate his life and his many contributions with thanksgiving to our great God.


Media contact: Todd Starnes, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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