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.