Gregory Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism

I’ve read a lot of books that I thought were powerful, and a lot of books that I thought were memorable, but only a few books that I thought were “important.”  Gregory Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry is one of those few books.  I daresay that Thornbury’s carefully crafted, wisely conceived, and strategically nuanced proposal for the way forward for Evangelicals is worthy of the serious attention of all who bare the moniker, and I will be personally impressing the need to read this work on my own friends.

For some time I have felt a kind of schizophrenic pull toward the culture-warrior-fundamentalism of my youth and the subtle-salt-and-light-quietism of the neo-Anabaptist movement (at least as I have perceived it).  When pressed, neither has seemed to me to be tenable because neither seems, at heart, concurrent with the ipsissima vox of scripture.  Alongside this, it has seemed to me, especially in listening to young ministers interact biblically with the ethical issues of the day (perhaps, preeminent among them, same-sex marriage) that there has been a consistent erosion of inerrancy and its implications among those who self-identify as Evangelicals.  Outwardly, it has seemed to me that the fundamental issue facing modern American culture is the question of authority in general, and the possibility of epistemological confidence specifically.

Perhaps the seething cauldron (to use Augustine’s memorable image of his time in Carthage – albeit in quite another vein) of my own neuroses on these matters is what made the impact of Thornbury’s proposal on this reader so intense.  I felt time and again, while reading Thornbury, that here was a proposal that shot the gap betwixt Scylla and Charybdis  with the careful guidance of a mind that I still marvel is only in its early forties.

Let me also say that if ever there was a book due a second reading, it is this one.  I intend to start again very soon.  Thus, these reflections are, in my mind, thoughts offered en route.

In short, Thornbury is proposing that Evangelicalism once again consider the rich, fertile, provocative vision of Evangelicalism found in the writings of Carl F.H. Henry.  This is a proposed Evangelicalism that rejects epistemological hubris on the one hand but stands confidently in the inerrant Word of God on the other.  This is a proposed Evangelicalism that eschews the myopic negativism of fundamentalism while speaking clearly and carefully to a lost culture today.  It is non-entrenched Evangelicalism that yet has a sense of perimeter and circumference.  It is an intellectually-engaged Evangelicalism, interacting with acumen in the marketplace of ideas on the basis of the radical explanatory power of the gospel rightly conceived.  It is an Evangelicalism that stands gladly alongside secular opposition to injustice and evil while not jettisoning its distinct character as the Body of Christ in the process.  It is an Evangelicalism that once again understands sin institutionally and corporately and not only individually, but that still sees itself as the purveyor of good news to lost men and women.  It is an appropriately ecumenical Evangelicalism, that yet does not abandon ecclesial distinctives.

The thought of Carl F.H. Henry is, for Thornbury, a repository from which such ideas can be faithfully mined.  Yet, one gathers this is no mere professorial crush for Thornbury.  He has read Henry widely and he has buttressed his central contentions carefully.  He is no blind Henry apologist, as I read him.  Rather, in seeking to “make Carl Henry cool again,” Thornbury really believes and convincingly demonstrates that here we can find goods in the Henry cupboard sufficient for the reformation needed.

Thornbury’s proposal for the church to demonstrate radical Christ-likeness in local communities was phenomenal.  The fact that this aspect of his proposal was grounded within a decidedly Christian intellectual framework, as opposed to being grounded despite or contra such a framework, was refreshing and strengthened his position.

As far the book itself, it is very well written, very engaging, and a clarion clear.  Thornbury has read widely and he interacts impressively with a variety of theological, philosophical, and cultural questions, issues, and debates.  In short, he has demonstrated in the writing of his proposal that which he is proposing:  irenic but tough interaction with world views Christian and otherwise from a gospel-grounded vantage point.

Read this book.

Carl F.H. Henry’s Has Democracy Had Its Day?

It’s impossible to read the late Carl Henry without receiving at least some benefit.  To be sure, Richard Land overreaches in the Introduction when he observes that “Carl F.H. Henry is undeniably the twentieth century’s greatest evangelical theologian, and arguably its most important theologian of any perspective” (iii), but Henry was, no doubt, a great theologian, and a great mind, and his works will remain important for a very long time.

In Has Democracy Had Its Day? (published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC in 1996), Henry explores the titular question with characteristic precision and insight.  Written almost 13 years ago, there are aspects of the work that are a bit dated, but the question is no less pressing for our day than for the day that saw its original publication and Henry’s thoughts on the matter are still more than worthy of serious consideration.

In this work, Henry deplores the threat to democracy that had come about by the ascendency of a “secular humanism” and “naturalistic relativism” (62) that had detached democracy from its transcendent underpinnings, had called into question the very existence of truth itself, and had come to deplore the Judeo-Christian heritage that has played such a crucial role in our nation’s life from its inception.  He is not unaware that “Christianity stipulates no one permanent form of government in the name of divine revelation” (3), yet he pursuasively argues that “the biblical emphasis on human depravity and the consequent temptation to divert political power to inordinate ends argues for limited government as least oppressive.  A democratic political context apppears the most promising framework for fulfilling the public duties incumbent on human beings.  A democratically chosen and constitutionally limited government seems to be the political structure most compatible with the Christian insistence on human worth and liberty and most likely to accommodate the promotion and protection of human freedoms, justice, and peace” (6).

Yet, Henry argues, democracy is in peril.  His diagnosis is compelling:  “A generation that elevates the essentiality of human rights to intellectual priority yet simultaneously contends that all philosophical affirmations are culture-conditioned sooner or later will engulf those very rights in moral relativism” (9).  Henry saw this happening in his own day, and, of course, the intervening 13 years have done nothing but solidify the prophetic truthfulness of his contention.  Furthermore, Henry’s observation that “were [the United States] to vanish suddenly from the globe, the remnants of the Free World would be plunged into grief and mourning” (54) remains a great truth, if less self-evidently so in light of the media’s constant funneling of anti-American sentiments into our homes and, to be sure, the presence of some very real anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world today.

One of Henry’s repeated themes is that Christianity’s despisers nonetheless must use the fruits of Christianity to rail against it.  “Even the nonreligious feed on the very creeds they have rejected” (21).  And even more poignantly, “Those who assail democracy from radical perspectives themselves avoid despair only by munching on facets of faith anchored in beliefs they now demean as outworn” (45).

Henry continues the theme he laid out in his tremendous The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalismby calling on conservative believers to be involved in social engagement and not to retreat into their sanctuaries.  This is true enough, but I will state again as I have stated elsewhere on this blog that our prophetic witness to the power of Christ will accomplish more than political activism ever could even though Christians should be involved in political activism.  It is a matter of priority and perspective.  I think Henry would agree.

Interestingly, Henry calls in this work for co-belligerency between Protestants and Catholics and, indeed, between believers and non-believers where they are able to stand together against certain common threats.  While there are corners of the church that believe co-belligerency to be a sellout, I do not think so.  Again, it’s all a matter of perspective.  What are we trying to accomplish?  It would be absurd and blasphemous to check our Christian convictions at the door for political expediency, and, on the gospel itself, there can be no compromise, no matter how noble the social cause.  This must never happen.  But if I can maintain my Christian witness while standing beside whomever in the fight against, say, abortion, then fine and good.  Yet the witness must remain and the gospel must not be compromised.

Finally, Henry was good at turning a phrase.  Some of the more memorable quotes from this little book include:

“If we are going to abandon democracy, we had better be sure of the alternative we are welcoming.” (viii)

“Jesus did not, to be sure, say to the disciples: ‘Go ye into all the world and teach democracy, capitalism, and privatization of business.’  He did not name a political apostolate.  He gave priority to a gospel that sutains freedom, justice, and grace.” (4)

“Only two alternatives lie before a democracy:  either self-restraint and self-discipline, or chaos and authoritarian repression.” (10)

“In an age when accepted standards of right and wrong are scorned, when absolutes are demeaned as a return to the superseded past, when doubt threatens to evaporate great national beliefs and political principles and weakens inherited guidelines, when new conceptions degrade the minds and corrupt the lives of the newly emerging generations, those who refuse to abandon history to the forces of decadence must speak out.” (23)

And, finally:

“No government can perpetually survive on red ink, but without ethical imperatives it is unworthy of survival.” (49)