is your conscience uneasy? (part 1)

Carl F. H. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Kindle Edition
First of a series of posts reviewing the book by Carl Henry.

An oft mentioned but possibly neglected book, Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is often credited as a seminal work in the development of evangelicalism. Al Mohler calls it “a manifesto of a movement later to be known as the ‘new evangelicalism.’” (Albert F. Mohler, Jr., “Carl F. H. Henry, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., p. 283.)

In my opinion, every fundamentalist should read Henry’s book. Newly reprinted with a foreword by Richard Mouw, it is highly instructive of the evangelical mind that was to become the ‘new evangelicalism’ and of the evangelical mind that continues to this day. I read it in the Kindle edition, which suffers from an unfortunate limitation on copying and note-taking imposed by the publisher. (One sympathizes with the desire of publishers to prevent piracy, but this is the first Kindle book where I ran into this limitation. Other commercially published works I have purchased haven’t been so restrictive.)

In any case, as I said, I think all fundamentalists should read this book. The generation of fundamentalists who faced the challenge of new evangelicalism are passing off the scene. Those of us who follow in their footsteps need to be aware of the challenges they faced. We face very similar challenges today. The challenges to orthodoxy today are not the frontal attacks of blatantly heretical modernism as in the era of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. They are much more subtle than that. The challenge is no longer called ‘new evangelicalism’ (it is hard to stay ‘new’ for long), but the essential arguments and values of those challenging fundamentalism are basically the same. So read Henry’s Uneasy Conscience. It is worth considering what it meant to the fundamentalists of its day as well as what its philosophy means for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today.

The first thing that has to be said about The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is that it represents a call for action against the ethos of separatism developed amongst evangelicals following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s. This is not merely the viewpoint of sour separatists; it is exactly how evangelicals assess the book. Richard Mouw, in his foreword to the recent reprinting of Uneasy Conscience states the purpose clearly, linking it to the founding vision of Fuller Theological Seminary. Mouw highlights three key elements of this founding vision:

  1. A new kind of evangelical scholarship
  2. A hope for a more open evangelicalism as opposed to confining separatism
  3. A desire to engage culture

Of these three, the primary emphasis of the book is on the third element – that of engaging culture. In reading the book I am struck by the optimistic viewpoint Henry expresses. It is almost as if Henry has forgotten the doctrine of human depravity as he anticipates the impact Christians should have on the world at large. As we go through these chapters, I think we can demonstrate this misguided optimism.

One has to note that Henry is just thirty-four years old when The Uneasy Conscience was published. He is still a young man. His optimism may have faded as the years progress, although I don’t know that he ever came to repudiate his antagonism to the separatistic mindset of fundamentalism. Modern readers of his book should question whether the optimism it expressed was justified and, even more than that, whether it’s inherent criticism of fundamentalism is therefore accurate.

Would it be incorrect to posit that evangelicalism today still suffers from this flawed anthropology? Is it not true that evangelicalism in general approaches the prevalent culture with at least an attitude of engagement, if not one of embrace altogether? Certainly evangelicalism repudiates separatism as a rule and embraces the pursuit of scholarship as defined by the new evangelicals of an earlier generation. While conservative evangelicals have become somewhat more open to a modified kind of separatism (at least from out and out unbelief posing as evangelical scholarship), can it be said that conservative evangelicals are really as concerned with separation from culture and error as they should be? Does this error/weakness/compromise reflect a less serious view of depravity in practice than is espoused in theory?

Younger fundamentalists should be wary of the evangelical mindset. They should not assume that there is theological safety in the midst of ‘conservatives’ simply because they espouse orthodox doctrines in general. One’s doctrine is only as good as one’s practice. And, indeed, I think there remain specific errors in evangelical doctrine as will be seen in further consideration of The Uneasy Conscience. “Fortress Evangelica” is not so impregnable as one might suppose

don_sig2

Quotes from Mouw’s Foreword:

The book [The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism] was introduced with some brief comments by Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s founding president, and it is clear that both Henry and Ockenga saw the book as setting an agenda of sorts for their fledgling theological school. Carl F. H. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Kindle Locations 21). Kindle Edition.

All of the major elements of that founding vision are here in these pages: a deep commitment to a new kind of evangelical scholarship that would wrestle seriously with the important issues being raised in the large world of the mind; a hope for a more open evangelicalism that would transcend the barriers that had been erected by a separatistic mentality; and a profound desire to engage culture in all of its created complexity. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience (Kindle Locations 21-24).

Comments

  1. It sounds interesting, Don. Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. Brian Ernsberger says:

    I followed your advice and purchased this book (hard copy version, still a bit old fashioned when it comes to books, still like to feel them in my hands and literally turn pages rather than virtually) shortly after you posted this article and finally finished it. I am rather dumbstruck that Henry would elevate the need to address societal evils regardless of who we partner with above the Scriptural mandates (had he not seen II Cor. 6:14-18?). While I would agree with him that believers must speak out against evil at every opportunity yet fidelity to the Word of God is still to be paramount in the life of the believer.