The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

January 22, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Carl F. H. Henry’s birth. Henry, who lived from 1913 to 2003, is known by many as the founding editor of Christianity Today, though many of his other works go unread by many evangelicals. In his six-volume magnum opus God, Revelation and Authority, Henry valiantly defended the doctrine of biblical inerrancy against textual critics and liberal theologians. Yet Carl Henry was not simply a man who edited a landmark magazine and defended inerrancy on paper. He defended the historic Christian faith in even the most public forums.

In his autobiography, Henry tells of an encounter he had with liberal theologian Karl Barth at a public question-answer event held at George Washington University to honor Barth. After identifying himself as the editor of Christianity Today, Henry asked Barth if the resurrection was “news” in the common sense of the word. Barth, who seemed to deviate from a historic understanding of the resurrection, apparently became annoyed. Barth asked Henry if he was the editor of Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday, implying that his views were outdated. The crowd reportedly roared with laughter. Henry quickly countered, “Yesterday, today, and forever.”

But Henry did not reserve his occasional criticism for liberal theologians alone. In fact, one of Henry’s earliest and most well-known works, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), was a critique of conservative Christians. In it, Carl Henry asserts that Fundamentalism (which he uses synonymously with evangelicalism) suffers from an uneasy conscience as a result of its “revolt against” the “fundamentals of the faith.” Henry proposed that the way forward for evangelicals is a greater application of those fundamentals to every sphere of life [1]. This essay will consider that particular proposal.

Fundamentalism’s Revolt

Church historians and theologians often note pendulum swings within Christian history where one particular theology or ecclesiology is replaced by its antithesis. These pendulum swings are not always easy to interpret, and quite often they contain a combination of both positive and negative reactions to their predecessors. The Reformation is a common example of such a pendulum swing.

Fundamentalism is another such example. During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Fundamentalism refused to fall in line with mainline Protestantism and its widespread rejection of the supernatural and biblical inerrancy. Many mainline denominations had emptied historic Christianity of its dogmatism, while attempting to retain the Bible’s ethical principles for eliminating societal ills. Henry explains, “The end in view was a global peace without any reference to vicarious atonement and redemptive work of Christ” [2].

Fundamentalism rightly rejected this notion that Christianity could be reduced to a set of non-dogmatic, ethical principles. Fundamentalists also rightly understood that these ethical principles were only transformative when firmly rooted in dogmatic, inerrant Scripture. But a grave mistake, according to Henry, had been made. As Henry puts it, “Fundamentalism in revolting against the Social Gospel seemed also to revolt against the Christian social imperative” [3]. Unfortunately, “Fundamentalism insisted that its ends, as well as its methods, were distinct from the non-evangelical movements” [4]. In rejecting orthopraxy (right practice) that was devoid of orthodoxy (right belief), Fundamentalism retained an orthodoxy largely devoid of orthopraxy. In other words, Fundamentalism severed right belief from right practice.

Fundamentalism: The Source and Solution to an Uneasy Conscience

Consequently, Fundamentalism developed an uneasy conscience. But what was the source of Fundamentalism’s uneasy conscience, according to Henry? And how might this uneasy conscience be soothed? Henry proposes an answer to each of these questions:

(a) Fundamentalism Is the Source of an Uneasy Conscience

The fundamentals are not the problem that Henry identifies. Rather, the root problem is the neglect of applying the fundamentals to the world’s social ills. Henry notes that while conservative Christians are good at preaching against sin, “the sin against which Fundamentalism has inveighed, almost exclusively, was individual sin rather that social evil” [5].

Protestant Fundamentalists, according to Henry, largely ignored societal sins for the sake of preaching against individual sins that were frequently of lesser importance. While individual vices are of grave concern, one must ask if he can afford to devote so much time to whether or not it is acceptable to play rook, while the nations of the world play with fire [6].

(b) Fundamentalism Is the Solution to an Uneasy Conscience

Although modern Fundamentalism was the problem in one sense, according to Henry, it was also the solution. A correct application of the fundamentals was the only answer to the world’s dilemmas and Fundamentalism’s uneasy conscience—and it still is. He writes: “Only an anthropology and a soteriology that insists upon man’s sinful lostness and the ability of God to restore the responsive sinner is the adequate key to the door of Fundamentalist world betterment. Any other approach is a needless waste of effort…” [7].

Historic Christianity did not see dogma as a contributor to the world’s social ills as Protestant Liberalism has. Yet historic Christianity also did not view itself as a set of doctrinal beliefs to be lived out privately either. As Henry explains, “Historically, Christianity embraced a life view as well as a world view; it was socially as well as philosophically pertinent” [8]. Henry’s belief is that Fundamentalism’s problem is not one of needing to find a valid message, but a failure to be in step with Scripture and historic Christianity [9].

Providing A Way Forward

Beyond having an uneasy conscience, Fundamentalism’s lack of humanitarian concern relegated conservative Christianity to an irrelevant status. Henry powerfully writes:

[W]hat is wholly unintelligible to the naturalistic and idealistic groups, burdened as they are for a new world order, is the apparent lack of any social passion in Protestant Fundamentalism. On this evaluation, Fundamentalism is the modern priest and Levite, by-passing suffering humanity [10].

Yet Henry believes that there is great hope for conservative Christianity to address societal ills. And what is the source of this hope? The answer is Christian Scripture and the example of the Christian tradition. Henry states that Fundamentalism must “express the genius of the Christian tradition”:

(1) That Christianity opposes any and every evil, personal and social, and must never be represented as in any way tolerant of such evil; (2) That Christianity opposes to such evil, as the only sufficient formula for its resolution, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit [11].

But how can conservative Christians go about proclaiming and applying this deeply Christian social ethic? Henry’s answer is that Christians must infiltrate culture rather than retreating from it. While Christians recognize that only the second Advent of Christ will bring about final reform, we must give “the redemptive word a proper temporal focus” [12]. We do well to pause at Lazarus’ tomb where Jesus cried: “I am the resurrection and the life…Lazarus, come forth!” [13]. Jesus will finally redeem this world in the life to come, but the proclamation of His Gospel by His Church has the power to bring about redemption in this life as well.

Because of Christ’s redemptive power in this life, Henry believed that Fundamentalists ought to invest themselves in spreading the redemptive Gospel message in every social arena. Whether in politics, labor disputes, or education, Christians must proclaim the lordship of Christ in every sphere. “To say that evangelicalism should not voice its convictions in a non-evangelical environment is to simply rob evangelicalism of its missionary vision” [14]. The world must know that:

[E]vangelicalism is: (1) predicated upon an all-inclusive redemptive context for its assault upon global ills; (2) involves total opposition to all moral evils, whether societal or personal; (3) offers not only a higher ethical standard than any other system of thought, but provides also in Christ a dynamic to lift humanity to its highest level of moral achievement [15].

Yet this may express itself in different ways depending on whether conservative Christianity is in the majority or the minority. When in the majority, evangelicals must couple condemnation of social evils and the Christian message as the only true solution [16]. And when in the minority, evangelicals must “express their opposition to evils in a ‘formula of protest,’ concurring heartily in the assault on social wrongs, but insisting upon the regenerative context as alone able to secure a permanent rectification of such wrongs” [17]. Despite society’s setting and mood, Christians must put forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the reconciler of God and man, as well as man and man.

Conclusion

Carl F. H. Henry was a valiant leader and defender of conservative Christianity. While The Uneasy Conscience is over 65 years old, it still speaks to evangelicals today. Henry’s clarion call changed the course of many conservative Christians, but his central message is as relevant as ever: “The evangelical task primarily is the preaching of the Gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration by the supernatural grace of God, in such a way that divine redemption can be recognized as the best solution of our problems, individual and social” [18].

_______________________________________

[1] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), xviii.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid. Henry uses this analogy in citing an anonymous chapel speaker at a large Christian college. I have slightly adapted it to fit the context of this essay.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] Ibid., 62.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 80-81.

[15] Ibid., 75.

[16] Ibid., 79.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 88-89.

Author: Jesse Owens

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  1. “The evangelical task primarily is the preaching of the Gospel, in the interest of individual regeneration by the supernatural grace of God, in such a way that divine redemption can be recognized as the best solution of our problems, individual and social.” Thinking that is along these lines needs to be more prominent in the minds of Christians.

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