Recovering Classic Evangelicalism

Article by   October 2013
Thornburyrecovering93.jpgRecovering What Exactly? A Review of Gregory Thornbury's Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry

He was the founder of Christianity Today, he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism (1947), and whenever you see his six-volume God, Revelation and Authority in someone's personal library, the bindings are glossy and unbroken, witnessing to a magnum opus that has been consigned to the sidelines of American evangelicalism. 

Such is the present legacy of Carl F. H. Henry, whose works receive far less attention among evangelicals today than those of Karl Barth. American evangelicalism has suffered from inattentiveness to the voice of one of its leading figures, according to Gregory Thornbury, who says he aims to "make Henry cool again". Thornbury attempts to achieve this task in a relatively brief book - just under 200 pages from the preface to the conclusion - with a very broad title: Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.

Thornbury assumes early on the role of a tour guide taking the reader through Henry's God, Revelation and Authority (GRA). It's a role that's been waiting for someone like Thornbury, whose lively and personal prose brings Henry's ideas to life - ideas which had heretofore been largely submerged under Henry's cumbersome writing style. Thornbury sympathetically relates a quip made to him by Millard Erickson, who said: "You know I love Carl Henry's work. It's extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English." Thornbury has essentially done just that - rendered Henry accessible to the rest of us, and delightfully so. In fact, halfway through Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, this reviewer grew intrigued enough by the quality of Henry's theses - as adeptly presented by Thornbury - that he jumped online and purchased vol. 2 of God, Revelation and Authority, and found that it measured up to Thornbury's hype (while also proving Erickson's quip).

However, it's clear that Thornbury is aiming for more. For a book featuring the name and picture of Carl F. H. Henry on its cover, the work oftentimes overflows the banks of its subject. This can be frustrating until one realizes that Thornbury means what he says, "So this book is simultaneously about and not about Carl F. H. Henry" (p.27). Thornbury would have us believe that it's also about "the lost world of classic evangelicalism" (the title of chapter one) and how we can go about recovering it, as the book's title beckons. 

Surprisingly, Thornbury never spells out just what he means by 'classic evangelicalism'. In addition to its eight mentions found in the general index, there are at least four more appearances (on pp. 84, 99, 136 and 164), and none of these defines the label with anything approaching adequacy. The closest attempt is found on p. 32, where Thornbury reminisces:
Once upon a time, evangelicalism was a countercultural upstart movement. Positioned in between mainline denominational liberalism and reactionary fundamentalism, the evangelicals saw themselves as evangelists to all of culture. Billy Graham was reaching the masses with his Crusades, Francis Schaeffer was reaching artists and university students at L'Abri, Larry Norman was recording Jesus music on the secular record labels and touring with Janis Joplin and the Doors, and Carl F. H. Henry was reaching the intellectuals through Christianity Today. It was 'classic evangelicalism'.
This definition provides firepower to the many critics of evangelicalism who've claimed the movement has never been more than a set of personalities. Moreover, if the specific theological and social positions of each of these figures were set side-by-side, one would not discern a concentrated and settled movement (and once the evangelical pro-life movement began in the late-1970's, the differences between Schaeffer who took up the cause and Billy Graham who kept his distance would become increasingly apparent). They worked well together, for a time. But in terms of what scholars call 'evangelicalism', they form too small a sample taken from a single stratum of this broad movement to be credited with something as substantial as 'classic evangelicalism'. Undeterred, Thornbury uses the term uncritically and repeatedly, as if hoping that frequency of mention will make his use of 'classic evangelicalism' official.

If one is willing to overlook this glaring shortcoming, however, and continue to ask just what Thornbury is targeting, the answer doesn't take long to find. In addition, once it becomes clear what Thornbury's actual aim is, his pace and selection of material - which, while odd in places, especially in those moments when Henry is lost entirely from view - make delightful sense.

The second chapter is entitled, "Epistemology Matters", and that would have more aptly served as the title of the book (but then it wouldn't have gotten a fraction of the attention it has received). Thornbury's PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is in the area of "Religious Epistemology", and one might say that he stays well within his wheelhouse from beginning to end of this tightly-packed, fast-paced book that is ostensibly about Carl F. H. Henry. For in substance, this book is Thornbury's plea to any evangelicals who will hear him that we must take epistemology seriously again - indeed, that evangelicalism is only as strong as its commitment to epistemology and that the present disarray of evangelicalism owes to its disregard for epistemology. 

Carl F. H. Henry can be the main feature of a book that is not ultimately about him because, as Thornbury sees it, "In sum, what was most important about Henry's life and work was this: Carl F. H. Henry was born, he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, the massive six-volume God, Revelation and Authority, contended for evangelical epistemological priorities, and he died" (p. 27). Thornbury is being playfully reductionistic here by his own admission. But make no mistake about it, this book ultimately delivers Thornbury (standing on Henry's shoulders) doing his best to contend for evangelical epistemological priorities today.

This explains why Thornbury calls out Wayne Grudem and Michael Horton for the absence of any substantial theological prolegomena in their Systematic Theology texts: "I remember how disappointed I felt at the release of the first edition of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology when I cracked open the volume to discover that there was virtually no traditional prolegomena to theology in the work. The entire basis for doing evangelical theology was missing" (p. 34). It also explains why Thornbury devotes so much space to the work of Hans Frei and Kevin Vanhoozer (pp. 84-114, or just over 15% of the book) and then critiques them by appealing to works other than (and more recent than) Carl Henry's to make his point.

Thornbury's engagement with Vanhoozer is illustrative in this regard. His immense respect for the "the erudite, balanced, and informed way [Vanhoozer] is seeking to move evangelicalism forward" (p. 109) is evident, but Thornbury forcefully protests Vanhoozer's restricting the horizon of Scripture's meaning to the limits of author and genre:
Although he is certainly right to raise the question of Henry's hermeneutics, Vanhoozer seems disinterested in Henry's fundamental concern in the context of his argument in GRA: if one makes the author's intent supreme, and if one says the author's intention was a genre other than historical and scientific accuracy, we have opened up a Pandora's box. Once you make this move, Henry warns, you can take any problematic or disputed text in Scripture as a matter of genre confusion. As we will discuss later in this volume, this is precisely the interpretive move behind crucial abandonments of inerrancy in contemporary evangelicalism ... (pp. 106-107).
And later:
Vanhoozer makes a good point that Henry was so focused on maintaining evangelical affirmations that he downplayed the richness of language and its setting in canonical linguistic form. Vanhoozer is also correct that language does more theologically than Henry allows. But after revisiting the first seven theses set forth in volume 2 of God, Revelation and Authority, I am not sure that it does less. Henry reminds us that the content of any theological system flows directly from divine prerogatives. The material, expression, and agenda of doctrine either conform to this pattern or set sail into uncertain anthropological and sociological waters (p. 114).

Thornbury enters into a significant critical engagement of Vanhoozer's sources, particularly the philosophies of language developed by J. L. Austin and John Searle. He then turns not to Henry, but to Paul Helm and others for supported critique (pp. 103-114). In the end, Thornbury's plea is for evangelicals to recognize that an appreciation for narrative, genre, and authorial intent on the one hand, and interest in the empirical justification of biblical statements in relation to reality on the other, need not exist in a zero-sum game. What is more, Thornbury would have us realize that disaster awaits if evangelicals continue to investigate the one while ignoring the other. To this reviewer's mind, Thornbury's plea is convincing, and the section on Frei and Vanhoozer is worth the price of the book (provided one keeps in mind that it is not really a book about Carl F. H. Henry).

Of course, what Thornbury has done in relation to Henry is not to be diminished. In addition to making the substance of God, Revelation and Authority accessible, Thornbury addresses and dismisses several misconceptions about Henry's work, particularly revolving around the charge that Henry overvalued human rationality. It becomes plain that, for Henry, our knowledge of God owes not to our ability to know God, but entirely to God's ability to make himself known to us (which includes the manner in which he has fashioned us and addressed us), and his gracious decision to reveal himself (pp. 52-54). "In this sense, then," Thornbury reasons, "Henry defies the foundationalist label that some have recently attempted to place upon him, a trend that began with Hans Frei's response to Henry's critique of narrative theology" (p. 54). Thornbury also homes in on the substantial role Henry gives to the Spirit in illumination, something Henry is not generally credited for (pp. 140-44).

The chapter "Inerrancy Matters" (ch. 4) shows clearly how Henry construed inerrancy as a doctrine that finds its place when epistemology takes center stage. Accordingly, where epistemology has been displaced from the center, evangelicalism has lost its commitment to inerrancy on the one hand, or its sense of the proper place of inerrancy within the broader doctrine of revelation on the other. Without question, inerrancy mattered for Henry, but it mattered because the authority of Scripture in relation to objective reality mattered supremely.

In chapters 5 and 6 ("Culture Matters" and "Evangelicalism Matters"), Thornbury continues to use Henry as a launching pad for presenting his own concerns about the present state of evangelicalism as well as expressing his own hopes for the future of the movement. Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism (1947) is ably summarized, and then updated and applied by Thornbury to a vast array of present positions and voices. In the end, the predominant concern remains the same, namely, epistemology. In that vein, Thornbury reflects on the growing number of evangelicals who have elected to 'swim the Tiber':
If he were alive today, Henry would likely survey the steady stream of formerly Protestant thinkers and writers converting to Roman Catholicism, and while disagreeing with their theological reasons for leaving, would probably sigh and quietly say to the evangelical community who had lost them, "I saw all of this coming. You can't say I didn't tell you so." The converts are leaving for a milieu with a robust epistemology, a church convinced of its own doctrinal heritage, and a community not accustomed to so much self-criticism or so many second glances about things like truth, marriage, and what ultimately is the basis for human flourishing (p. 206).
Instead of maturing into a viable and full-orbed system of thought and network of institutions that could rival Roman Catholicism, evangelicals after Henry "have spent more time looking over their collective left shoulders" (p. 102). Reveling in endless self-criticism and in tearing down their own heroes, evangelicals have reduced themselves to "organizations that promote, discuss, and disseminate wonderful websites, conferences, and material about the gospel in general, and preaching and church life in particular," but who are missing "a substantive milieu--an epistemological backdrop against which the drama of redemption and the work of the church are played out" (p. 39).

And so, if Thornbury is right, that is what must be recovered: "a substantive milieu--an epistemological backdrop against which the drama of redemption and the work of the church are played out." To that end, the thought of Henry will be serviceable, but not sufficient (Thornbury acknowledges as much on p. 109). And if this recovery project proves successful, it cannot be said that it recovered 'classic evangelicalism'. What will have been recovered will be the epistemological priorities of a few significant figures (preeminently Carl F. H. Henry) who proved to be more in touch with reality than those who, within the evangelical camp, insisted they were not with the times. And one could say of such a comeback, with an eye toward the long view of Christian history, that it wouldn't be the first time. 

Matthew S. Miller is the Senior Minister of the Greenville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University (Phi Beta Kappa), Reformed Theological Seminary, and is presently writing a ThM thesis on the life and work of the late Harold O. J. Brown.

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