Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Written in 1947, Baptist theologian Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is a post-war call for evangelicalism (used synonymously in this book and at this time with “fundamentalism”) to abandon its isolationist ghetto and engage modern man precisely where he is at in whatever modern cultural context we find him.  Henry bemoans the purely futuristic eschatology embraced by so many evangelicals that lean on the “not yet” so heavily that they cannot make much sense at all of the “already.”

Henry calls for evangelicals to bring the redemptive word to bear on the ills facing modern man.  This will mean co-belligerency with those who are addressing societal ills, even when those we partner with are non-believers.  But Henry also warns that we dare not abandon the redemptive word in these co-belligerent efforts.  When we are in the minority in such efforts, we must seek opportunities to proclaim the gospel both to those we are seeking to help and to those with whom we have partnered.  When we are in the majority, we should clearly and appropriately show that our philanthropic and humanitarian efforts arise from the redemptive word and cannot exist outside of that word.  What we must not do, Henry says, is enter into any co-belligerent efforts that would necessarily cause us to abandon the redemptive word:  “While it is not the Christian’s task to correct social, moral and political conditions as his primary effort apart from a redemptive setting, simply because of his opposition to evils he ought to lend his endorsement to remedial efforts  in any context not specifically anti-redemptive, while at the same time decrying the lack of a redemptive solution” (p.87).

This is crucial.  Henry is arguing here that mankind’s only hope is in Jesus Christ, but that hope is not merely future.  Henry is proclaiming here a kingdom ethic that needs to break into the here and now.  Fascinatingly, and tragically, Henry reveals that some of his fundamentalist friends encouraged him to steer clear of kingdom language in his writing.  This undoubtedly arises from the perception that such “kingdom now” terminology will sound too-similar to the liberal social-gospel.

200pxcfhhenryHenry also anticipates Mark Noll and Os Guinness’ work on “the Christian mind” by calling for evangelicals to create rival curricula in all fields of study that will demonstrate to a skeptical world just how the gospel touches and affects all areas of life.  In this, Henry is calling for a truly evangelical milieu that will not settle for second-bests and cheap imitations of the culture.  On the contrary, we should be showing the culture quality fruits of a mindset bathed in gospel truths.

Much has changed since Henry wrote this fascinating work.  Kingdom language has now been embraced by conservative evangelicals, perhaps most publicly and explicitly in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Empowering Kingdom Growth” (EKG) efforts.  Furthermore, we have the benefit of hindsight in as much as the “Religious Right” political phenomenon has brought some good and some ill effects into both the church and the political arena.  To be sure, Henry warns against associating kingdom work with this or that particular political party or approach, but much has been learned now about the dangers of wedding evangelical identity with particular political parties.  If anything, some sectors of fundamentalism almost seem to be leaning so heavily on a “realized eschatology” that they have forgotten the futuristic, “not yet”, aspects.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is a fascinating clarion call from the pen of one of the greatest Baptist theologians to ever write.  Carl F.H. Henry was a giant in the world of evangelicalism.  His work remains uniquely relevant and extremely poignant.  This book will challenge and encourage you to have a full-orbed kingdom ethic in a world that desperately needs to hear and see the gospel in action.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *