Theologian Carl F.H. Henry called ‘indispensable evangelical’ at Southern Seminary conference
Few people are indispensable, but theologian Carl F.H. Henry and his role in the evangelical movement can be described as just that, said Southern Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. at a Sept. 26 celebration of Henry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The daylong conference, “Carl F.H. Henry: A Centennial Celebration,” honored the legacy of Henry, who died in 2003 and would have been 100 this year. In addition to Mohler, the conference featured plenary sessions led by Gregory Alan Thornbury, Paul House, Richard Mouw and John Woodbridge.
In his address, “The Indispensable Evangelical: Carl F.H. Henry and Evangelical Ambition in the 20th Century,” Mohler compared Henry’s role in evangelicalism to that of George Washington during the American Revolution, describing Henry as “the indispensable evangelical,” the “brain of the evangelical movement” and the “theological luminary of the 20th century.”
Mohler reflected on his interactions with Henry as a student and later as Southern Seminary president, comparing Henry’s influence to that of a father. He also discussed Henry’s many ambitions, which Mohler labeled “evangelical, institutional, theological, cultural and political and personal.” Not all of these ambitions were realized, he said, but they live on in individuals and institutions that bear Henry’s influence.
“Our ambitions may be somewhat different than those of the evangelical movement’s founders, but they are no more noble,” Mohler said. “We stand not only in their debt, but in their shadows. In an age which will require of us an even greater theological clarity and theological wisdom, may we be worthy to pick up the mantle they’ve handed to us.”
Henry’s legacy in the evangelical movement is evidenced both in the speakers at the conference and the sponsors for the event, which both bear the mark of Henry himself. Conference sponsors included Southern Seminary, Beeson Divinity School, Fuller Theological Seminary, Union University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Christianity Today, Crossway Books and Prison Fellowship.
A panel discussion with Russell D. Moore, David Dockery, Timothy George and Mark Galli answered any doubts about why Henry is remains relevant.
“What he was saying has ongoing relevance to the things that we’re all facing in evangelicalism right now,” said Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore’s debt to Henry, he said, is revealed by the copies of Henry’s groundbreaking book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, that he frequently gives away.
“Dr. Henry used to say, ‘We serve a God who is the God of both justice and justification,’ and I think that’s a message that is ongoingly needed for the church,” said Moore, former senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary.
For Dockery, president of Union University, the conference provided an occasion to honor and give thanks for the life of Henry.
“We give thanks for his amazing legacy and the way he’s touched all of us is through his prolific pen and the way he addressed so many key theological issues and ethical issues throughout his 50 years of publication,” said Dockery, former dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary.
Also on the panel was Galli, editor of Christianity Today, the magazine where Henry was founding editor, 1956-1968. Galli credits Henry for bringing “a sense of respect to CT,” and lauded Henry for the role he believed theology should play in public life.
“He was not satisfied with just talking with other people in the academy, he wanted evangelical theology to be spread far and wide,” Galli said.
While Galli considers himself “a happy recipient” of Henry’s legacy at Christianity Today, previous editorial staffs have not always been so highly esteemed Henry.
“When I first got to CT, frankly, there were conversations where Carl Henry was disparaged,” Galli said.
Conference attendees all received copies of the first issue of Christianity Today, published on Oct. 15, 1956.
George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School, said Henry knew that his convictions would bring opposition, but he also knew how to hold such convictions humbly and interact with opponents lovingly.
“He stood clearly and firmly for conservative, convictional beliefs, but he did so with irenicism, and a charity and an intelligence that could not be dismissed” by his opponents, said George, former professor of church history at Southern Seminary.
The conference began with Mouw, who recently retired from his long-time post as president of Fuller Theological Seminary, where Henry served as one of the founding faculty members.
In his presentation, “Toward a ‘Full-Orbed’ Evangelical Ethic: The Pioneering Contribution of Carl Henry,” Mouw argued that such a full-orbed ethic demands more than a merely generic evangelical theology.
Mouw called evangelicals to the “comprehensive revealed ethic, full-orbed as Christian theology" that Henry articulated in his writings. Evangelicals can do this, Mouw argued, by drawing from different theological traditions to develop a “thick” ethical understanding.
Woodbridge, research professor of church history and history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, spoke on, “Carl F.H. Henry: A Biblically Faithful Theologian-Evangelist.” Woodbridge explored the reasons Henry believed both theologians and evangelists should strive to become biblically faithful theologian-evangelists.
Thornbury spoke on, “‘Vain Philosophy’? Carl Henry’s Plea for a Philosophically Informed Ministry.” In August, Thornbury, author of the recently released book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry, became president of The King’s College in New York City, a city that Henry viewed as a strategic location for an evangelical school.
Closing the conference was House, an Old Testament professor at Beeson Divinity School who formerly taught at Southern Seminary. His paper was titled, “Hope, Discipline and the Incarnational Scholar: Carl Henry’s Theological Method and Manners.”
Audio and video from the conference are available at sbts.edu/resources.