Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Carl Henry is one of the most significant figures in neo-evangelicalism. He stressed the significance of reason as well as of supernaturalism. His mammoth integrating work of evangelical theology is shown in his six-volumes of God, Revelation and Authority. He also reemphasized the significance of social aspect of Christianity, which is lacked in fundamentalism.

Carl F. H. Henry was born on January 22, 1913, in New York City. His parents, Karl and Johanna, were German immigrants and showed little religious circumstance, even though Karl was Lutheran and Johanna was Roman Catholic. When he was a teenager, Carl left the church as soon as he was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. When he was twenty, he started his profession as a journalist in a local newspaper.

Like other evangelicals, he had also a typical conversion experience, which means he was "born again" on June 10, 1933. Typical conversion means the reception of the forgiveness of personal sin and Jesus Christ as his or her Savior, the commitment of personal life into God’s will, and the transcendence of denominational orientation. This conversion experience changed his life to devote to theology from journalism. Hence, Carl Henry entered Wheaton College in Illinois, where he was deeply impressed by its stress on the role of reason to faith and the resurrection as a historical event (Grenz and Olson 1992). He studied philosophy under Gordon Haddon Clark, who was considered as an evangelical philosopher by Henry and whose insistence of logical consistency in defining and defending Christian faith rather than in personal relationship to God gave an influence to Henry’s thought. During the period at Wheaton, Henry had friendships with some future leaders of evangelical movement, such as Billy Graham. Henry received degrees of B.A. and M.A. from Wheaton College in 1938 and 1941, B.D. and Th.D. from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1941 and 1942. After finishing his first doctorate, he became a faculty of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, and received the second doctorate, a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston University under Edgar Sheffield Brightman.

The most influential figures on Henry’s thought are Gordon Haddon Clark and Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Ronald Nash summarized Clark’s thought as following: (1) the epistemological bankruptcy of any form of philosophical or religious empiricism; (2) the indispensability of Divine revelation to human knowledge as a whole; (3) the shortcomings of any attempt to remove the cognitive and propositional element from the content of God’s revelation; (4) the importance of refusing to separate faith from reason whether this separation be a humanistic attack on faith, an existentialist critique of reason, or a Thomistic segregation of the two into different realms of human knowledge; (5) the continuing vitality and relevance of Calvinisitc theology as formulated, for example, in The Westminster Confession (Nash 1968, 5-6). Carl Henry also comments on Clark’s thought that Clark sees God as a living, willing, speaking, acting Person whose sovereign purposes are accomplished in human affairs, and Who has revealed Himself authoritatively in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (Henry 1968, 11).  According to Henry, Clark emphasizes that reality is fundamentally and basically intellectual rather than physical and that God revealed in the Bible decrees the human history and has created human beings in His image, therefore, human beings have a priori element to know God.

Edgar S. Brightman was one of the significant figures in the Boston Personalist tradition. Brightman’s personal and theistic idealism influenced to Henry. He argues that whatever exists must be an element in the experience of a conscious mind. Hence, everything will exist as an element either in some finite mine or in God’s mind. Also for him, personality is the highest kind of conscious life. A self is a consciousness containing a variety of experiences, but also aware of its own complexity and unity. Reason is an intellectual system or a structure in which the spread human experiences were related to each other so that each experience can be understandable and becomes clear. This was the test of truth. A religious statement about God, the soul or immortality must be judged in the same way as a statement of science, by whether or not it will fit coherently into the framework of our experience (Blanshard 1984, xvi, xviii).

Henry has taught philosophy, ethics, and systematic theology in several seminaries, including Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and several institutions. He also became a founder and the first editor of the journal Christian Today, which tends to be an evangelical alternative of the liberal journal Christian Century, with other evangelicals, such as Billy Graham and Herold Ockenga, in 1956. He wrote and edited many books and articles, such as The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Christian Personal Ethics (1957), Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (1964), God, Revelation and Authority, 6 volumes (1976-1983), Confession of a Theologian (1986). Henry also found and has eagerly worked in several interdenominational organizations, such as National Association of Evangelicals and World Vision international. Henry died on December 7th 2003.

2. Works (Selected List)

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947); Christian Personal Ethics (1957); Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (1964); God, Revelation and Authority, 6 volumes (1976-1983); Confession of a Theologian (1986)

3. Themes

Definition of Evangelicalism

The term evangelicalism has its origin from the Greek word euangelion, which means good news or gospel. At the beginning, evangelical movements have emerged as forms of revivals and awakenings of Pietism and Puritanism in America. However, evangelicalism in the modern sense is a transdenominational movement that transcends traditional denominational boundaries, although it has relationships with mainline churches and denominations (Nash 1987, 27-8).

Edith L. Blumhofer and Joel A. Carpenter distinguish American evangelicalism into two images: "American evangelical mosaic" and "card-carrying" evangelicals. On the one hand, American evangelical mosaic expresses the fragmentation and isolation among evangelical groups. On the other hand, card-carrying evangelicals mean that all conservative Protestants work together under a common agenda. The latter is shown in the network of parachurch agencies, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Christian Today magazine, World vision, Campus Crusade for Christ, Moody Bible Institute, Seattle Pacific University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, The 700 Club, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (Blumhofer and Carpenter 1990, xi).

The worldview of Evangelicalism is deeply rooted in the theological tradition of the Reformation, in northern European Puritanism, and later in American Puritanism and the First and Second Great Awakenings in North America. Contemporary Evangelicalism adhere to these doctrines that (1) the belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, (2) the belief in the divinity of Christ, and (3) the belief in the efficacy of Christ’s life, death, and physical resurrection for the salvation of the human soul (Hunter 1983, 7).

As time goes on, evangelical movement became characterized as fundamentalism, which tended to separate from the mainline church because it opposed a strong occupation of liberal theology in the church and theological seminaries and to separate also from the society because it focused only on the eschatological promise of Christianity. In the early 1940s, new-evangelicalism emerged as a correction of misled evangelicalism and many young scholars, such as Edward John Carnell, Harold J. Okenga, and Bernard Ramm, appeared with distinguishing themselves from the fundamentalists and rediscovering the vitality of evangelical theology.

Theological Perspectives

Henry’s theological work has focused on refuting secular and liberal views. His basic apologetic stance is that of presuppositionalism. All reasoning begins with certain unproved assumptions or axioms that cannot be antecedently proved but can be indirectly verified by tracing out their implications in the test of coherency which is the highest test of truth for Henry. The Christian worldview begins with the presupposition that God is revealed in the Bible, the source from which all of the rest of theology is derived. God has revealed God’s own mind in a clear, univocal, rational fashion (in contrast with the Neo-orthodox view of revelation which understands truth as personal encounter). Modern theology has diluted the message of the Bible by subjecting it to other norms (human experience or some formal principle). Scripture is divinely inspired for Henry and this involves a supernatural influence upon scriptural writers whereby the Spirit assures the truth and trustworthiness of their proclamation, the scriptures are inspired as an "objective deposit of faith" which is inerrant. Henry furthermore claims that this inerrancy is proclaimed by scripture itself. The Spirit is also involved in scriptural interpretation, guiding the faithful exegete to a right understanding of the text. Henry’s doctrine of God stresses that "He" is the only living God of the Bible, the creator (ex nihilo) and source of all life who is clearly distinguishable from his creatures. Henry rejects any panentheism. God continues to exercise providential care over his children, preserving it and guiding it to good ends. The doctrine of the Trinity is seen by Henry to solve the ancient problem of the one and the many. While Henry does not necessarily reject evolutionary theory altogether he does take exception with it where he sees it as directly in conflict with biblical teachings, such as the special divine act in the creation of Adam. Sin and evil are for Henry the result of Satan’s rebellion, but God uses this evil to accomplish higher ends, and in the eschaton God will remove all evil. Henry rejects any form of afterlife that will not distinguish saved and lost. Henry rebuts idea that Christ may be found in other religions, and rejects the idea of implicit faith. 

Henry’s Evangelical Perspective on Fundamentalism

In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl Henry deals with Fundamentalism as an "object of surgery" and suggests a direction where new-evangelicalism should go. According to him, Fundamentalism is by definition “a Bible-believing Christianity which regarded the supernatural as a part of the essence of the Biblical view" and which lost Christian humanitarianism in its content (Henry 1947, in Carpenter 1988, 19).

. He agrees the Fundamentalist view on human nature which is sinful, but disagrees that it limited the sinfulness of human being to the sphere of individuals so that it lacked social programs which try to reform social evils. Henry insists that while Fundamentals tried to separate themselves from the matters of the world based on its pessimistic and eschatological view on human condition and human history, evangelicals should try to change this world with an optimistic view on history and a belief that God works in history.

Henry criticizes that the great tradition of evangelicalism has been deteriorated into modern Fundamentalism. The misunderstanding of evangelical Christianity up to now is that it views the non-evangelical movements are hostile competitors to the historic Christian tradition. This alignment with non-evangelical movements leads evangelicalism to fail the broad social implications of Christian message. (27-8) According to Henry, problems of modern Fundamentalism are that it changed or narrowed the message of Christianity that has a social aspect into only an individual aspect. He criticizes that "Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resisting message." (30)

Henry tries to offer a biblical basis of his critique on Fundamentalism and to find solutions to problems of evangelicalism today in the apostolic tradition of Christianity, which keeps Hebrew-Christian spirit and is not influenced by Greek-Roman culture. According to his argument, in both Old and New Testaments, doctrines and ethical teachings are not separated from each other. By interpreting the apostolic notion of the kingdom, he gave a reason why Fundamentalism did not preach about the kingdom of God, that is, kingdom could be identified with any cultures or social orders, such as democratic or communist government. However, "the apostolic notion of the kingdom is characterized by the same now and then aspects discoverable in the teaching of Jesus. The kingdom is not wholly future, … Yet the kingdom has a glorious future aspect." (56) Henry criticizes that Fundamentalism stresses only on kingdom then and liberal theology stresses only on kingdom now, but the Hebrew-Christian tradition contains both now and then aspects. Both the eschatological emphasis of Fundamentalism and the rejection of supernaturalism of liberal theology cannot give solutions to modern problems. For him, rather the reaffirmation of Hebrew-Christian redemptionism can be a solution, because "God works in history as well as in superhistory." (65)

Henry insists that evangelicalism looks the future of human history with optimism. In his new-evangelical perspective, the content of education should include both Christian and non-Christian perspectives. Also there is no political or economic system that is wholly identified the Christian perspective. Therefore, social programs which are exercised by acting together with evangelicals, liberals, and humanists. (79)

4. Outline of Major Works

God, Revelation and Authority

Henry’s six-volume work in systematic theology is organized by two parts. The first part is about God who speaks and shows, which explains the nature of religious knowledge, and the second part is about God who stands and stays, which explains the nature of God. The former issue continuing in volume from I to III focuses on epistemological question that the problem of how we know God and the divine revelation as the answer of it. The latter issue continuing in volume from IV to VI focuses on ontology and metaphysics (God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. V, 9). Henry pointed out today’s problem that religion became a personal faith rather than "a truth-commitment universally valid for one and all"(Vol. I, 13). Henry insists that theology sets out with God know in the revelation, not simply with God as a speculative presupposition.

Henry gives explanations of the subtitles of his work: "God who is is God who stands, and stays. God who independently "stands" is the personal sovereign containing in himself the ground of his own experience; God who "stays" governs in providence and in eschatological consummation of his dramatic plan for man and the world. … God stands under the universe, therefore, as the self-sufficient God whose place of standing or position or station is that of transcendent sovereign. … Not only does God stand under the universe, but in a classic sense he alone understands it. … By understanding we means that God plans and decrees the world and man, … God stays—this we know also on the basis of the selfsame condescending self-revelation granted us by God who stands and stoops." (Vol. V, 10-6).

5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Blumhofer, Edith L. and Joel A. Carpanter. 1990. Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: A Guide to the Sources. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson. 1992. 20th-Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Henry, Carl F. H. 1988. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947) in Two Reformers of Fundamentalism Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry, ed. with an intro. By Joel A. Carpenter. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.

Henry, Carl F. H. 1976-1983. God, Revelation and Authority. Volume I – VI. Waco, TX: Word Books.

Hunter, James Davison. 1983. American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Nash, Ronald H. ed. 1968. The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark: A Festschrift. Philadelphia: The Prespyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Nash, Ronald H. 1987. Evangelicals in America: Who They are, What They Believe. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Steinkraus, Warren E. and Robert N. Beck. 1984. Studies in Personalism: Selected writings of Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Utica, NY: Meridian Publishing Company.

7. Internet Resources

“Carl F. H. Henry,” article on Wikipedia

The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding website

Carl F. H. Henry, 1913-2003 Memorial Page (includes writings by and about Henry as well as photos and audio)

The Carl Henry that Might Have Been,” by Kenneth S. Kantzer (originally in the April 5, 1993, issue of Christianity Today)

8. Related Topics

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Donald G. Bloesch


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by YunJung Moon (1999) and Mark Mann (1997).


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