Each semester in my Baptist history classes I require students to write a theological biography of one of ten significant Baptist figures. I always include Carl F. H. Henry on the list, as he remains largely unknown to current students, with the hopes that a few will select him and have their lives changed and challenged. January 22, 2013 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, someone I like to think of as evangelicals’ and Baptists’ “once and future theologian.”
To be sure, Henry was a towering figure of key doctrinal shaping influence in the twentieth century. For those of us classified as Generation X, Henry serves as a spiritual grandfather, a faithful example from the Greatest Generation of advocacy for theological truth and balanced cultural engagement all harnessed and put to use toward the end of global evangelization. For Southern Baptists, Henry is like a William Tyndale, forerunner of the English Reformation, as his clear arguments for the trustworthiness and usefulness of Scripture would serve as a foundation upon which many of our heroes in the Conservative Resurgence would build and solidify their defense of biblical inerrancy during the 1980s and 90s.
But Henry can resurface well as our “future” theologian. That is, if we were to rediscover the life and thought of Carl Henry in our own day, we might just find again a helpful voice laying before us a clear path for navigating our increasingly complex world. As Russell Moore notes, Henry’s 1947 work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, still speaks with prescience to the ways in which we should engage the culture. Henry’s arguments for biblical inerrancy outlined in his majestic God, Revelation and Authority (see especially volume 4) still answer well contemporary critical questions as well as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which Henry helped draft. In terms of the future prospects of evangelicalism, I am very much looking forward to the soon release of Gregory Alan Thornbury’s work that also sheds light on the contemporary value for the study of Henry.
However, for Baptists, Henry also still speaks. Henry grew up a nominal Episcopalian, but due to the witness of a diverse group of people, he was converted to Christ. Through the study of Scripture during his college years he became a convinced Baptist. While known more for his advancement of evangelical cooperation, Henry nevertheless retained his commitment to Baptist distinctives as “the preferred medium to communicate the life of Christ in his church.” Just as the study of Scripture brought him to these convictions, Henry explains that it is the determination to stay with Scripture that provides Baptists with the armor necessary to maintain their tradition as well as relate properly to other evangelicals. In his essay, “Fifty Years a Baptist,” Henry says,
“I am convinced that any activity not conformed to the Bible as the inspired rule of faith and practice becomes a mere distraction. Only through acknowledgment of this scriptural foundation, and justification of Baptist positions in light of this criterion, can Baptists everywhere be impelled to the conviction that their same concern controls their unity in Christ. This matchless distinctive of Bible-relatedness can quicken both total Christian and individual loyalties. It will armor Baptist engagement in the Christian enterprise from easy capitulation to alien encroachments.”
Today, on Carl F. H. Henry’s 100th birthday, as a direct recipient of the blessings preserved by a generation of Southern Baptist resurgent conservatives, I am grateful for Henry’s influence that inspired so many to faithfulness to God and His Word. As I think about the present theological skirmishes and cultural quagmires in the world, for evangelicals and Baptists alike, I am grateful for this evangelical-Baptist who pointed continually toward a trustworthy Bible.
Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, born January 22, 1913. Our once and future theologian.
Carl. F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Word, 1986).
Carl. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 6 vols. (Crossway, 1999).
Carl F. H. Henry, “Fifty Years a Baptist,” in Tom J. Nettles and Russell D. Moore, eds., Why I Am A Baptist (B&H, 2001).
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Carl F. H. Henry,” David S. Dockery and Timothy George, eds., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (B&H, 2001).
The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. http://www.henrycenter.org/about/carl-f-h-henry/published-works/
“Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003): A Tribute,” SBJT (Winter 2004).