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Carl Henry Rediscovered (For the World and Cedarville University): A Book Review

27 Jul 2015

I just finished another book I would commend to our readers.  Gregory Alan Thornbury has published Recovering Classic Evangelicalism:  Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.  Crossway, 2013.  As the title indicates, the author, current president of King’s College in New York City, and erstwhile “geek” (more below), the book represents both a summary of Carl Henry’s ideas and a recommendation to evangelical Christians that the work of Henry be resurrected and newly appreciated and appropriated.  Thornbury is a Ph. D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but his writing is far from narrowly focused.  He resembles intellectually his mentor Albert Mohler, but he himself admits that his greatest influence has come from Carl Henry, admittedly one of the most important but under-appreciated theologians of the twentieth century.

Thornbury, as I said, is something of a “geek,” that is he looks like one—in fact he looks like a teenager, though he is in his 40’s.  But Thornbury most assuredly does not write like a teenager).  His work is clear, concise—considering the volume of Henry’s work—and hard-hitting, though also irenic and even-handed.  Carl Henry’s work, particularly his magnum opus, God, Revelation and Authority (GRA), in six large volumes, written between 1976 and 1983, were on the other hand , dense and very difficult to read.  I started once to read through it, but for some reason (which I have forgotten) put it aside and never re-started.  After this book, perhaps I will gather the resolve to tackle it.  Thornbury advocates just such an undertaking.  He also says, accurately I believe, that few people, even his critics, have read Henry’s great work.  And he argues that that is a shame.

As I said, Thornbury’s task is to summarize GRA.  He does that admirably.  The work was written in day when the traditional evangelical (orthodox) Christian beliefs about the Bible, and especially about epistemology, were being challenged by a new generation of scholars who apparently “knew not Joseph.”  This period was marked by the rise and integration into biblical studies and theology, of analytic philosophy, combined with the older theological liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, particularly of Karl Barth.  The old truths of inerrancy, inspiration, and authority were under fire, for their, well, “oldness.”  They were not novel, as the academic community tends to want to be.  And they were considered passé in modern culture with its new kinds of needs and problems.  The Bible had to be “re-mythologized” (as opposed to Bultmann’s earlier “de-mythologizing” project, which in effect did the same thing).  Even evangelical scholars were in on the attack.  The most interesting and disturbing part of Thornbury’s analysis was his discussion of Henry’s response to the use of analytic philosophy in examining the Bible (exemplified at the time by the work of J. L. Austin, How To Do Things with Words).  Speech-Act theory, as it was called, can be thought of like a drama with a script.  All the actors in the drama have parts, written in the script, which they recite (in rehearsing) and it all fits together into a coherent plot/narrative (one hopes).  But the script, the narrative, has no correspondence to the reality outside itself.  Likewise for these philosophers, the Bible had no reference to truth-reality outside itself.  In fact it might not be true at all, but it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.  This is epistemologically devastating.  But even evangelical scholars began using this approach.  Henry deeply felt the call to reply—and reply he did, with an erudition that would make any philosopher proud, even those who disagreed.  Henry’s task was to defend the traditional evangelical approach to epistemology and to the Bible itself.

So why am I writing this review?  First, I very much resonated with what Henry was trying to do, and with what Thornbury wishes to continue.  Evangelicals, as Henry and Thornbury both point out, have been reluctant at best to respond the “secularizing” culture, much less to respond with precision, clarity and force.  I think it is time we got back to the task unashamedly and with the kind of scholarship Henry did.  To be sure, there are a few evangelicals who have responded to the call.  But all too few.  In fact, many have succumbed to the prevailing cultural (specifically philosophical) environment—today, that is postmodernism, but even it has appropriated certain elements of the earlier philosophers, particularly the continental philosophers (Gadamer, Derrida, etc.).

A second reason I wrote this is to challenge our own university vision, as well as other Christian universities.  Cedarville University is a baptistic institution.  That being the case, and given that we ought to desire the highest level of scholarship consistent with the boundaries of our doctrinal statement, I can think of no other model than Carl Henry as being the closest we could get to the ideal.  His kind of work, and the application of his kind of work, can be taken as an exemplar of the best in Christian (and Baptist) philosophy and theology.  More than that, the foundation laid by Henry should be applied to every discipline at the university.  We can build on his foundationalism in all the liberal arts, the sciences, even the professional programs, not to mention biblical studies and theology itself to create (by God’s help) an institution that glorifies God and advances His kingdom.  Can we catch that kind of vision?  I hope so.

Finally, was Henry perfect?  No of course not.  He did tend to marginalize some aspects of theology and philosophy that he might have fruitfully addressed.  But then, he had set himself a rather more narrowly-defined, but hugely crucial, task that would prove to be the underpinning of other aspects.  So I can’t fault him overly much.  In summary, here was the modern Calvin, Luther, or Edwards, waiting to be re-discovered.  Thornbury has helped us rediscover him.  But it is up to us to run with that—for the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ (a motto Henry would surely have appreciated).