Evangelicalism’s uneasy conscience

My latest column at Christian Week:

Sixty years ago, Carl Henry, “the father of modern fundamentalism,” wrote a book expressing concern with the direction of evangelicalism. Reading Henry’s book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, is like reading something written for today.

“For the first protracted period in history,” he wrote, “evangelical Christianity stands divorced from the great social reform movements.” Evangelicals (then an interchangeable term with fundamentalists) were passionate about evangelism, he wrote, but indifferent toward global evils like poverty and injustice.

Someone who claimed to be a “political liberal on my knees” but “a Fundamentalist in faith” asked Henry, “Why must the church be on the wrong side of every major social issue?” Henry responded, “If the Bible-believing Christian is on the wrong side of social problems such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc., it is time to get over the fence to the right side. The church needs a progressive Fundamentalism with a social message.”

Henry argued that the church should engage with social issues like warfare, racism, poverty, and exploitation of workers or management. It should care about individual sin, but it should also care about social evils. A world-changing message should never narrow its scope to “the changing of isolated individuals.” “There is no room,” he wrote, “for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man.”

In Henry’s day, some evangelicals were reluctant to talk about the kingdom of God because they feared identification with the social gospel movement, which focused on social issues at the expense of evangelism. Yet the kingdom, Henry says, was always on the lips of Jesus and the apostles. It is both about the future and today. Therefore we must “reawaken the relevance of its redemptive movement to the global predicament.”

The core of the issue, Henry says, is two versions of the gospel. In one version, Jesus helps suffering humanity here and now. In the other version, Jesus saves people for some indefinite future. Both versions are thieves of the true gospel, which deals with the real world today as well as the future. “The redemptive message has implications for all of life; a truncated life results from a truncated message.” Evangelicals must focus on the redemptive work of Christ, Henry argued, but they must do so in a way that is relevant to all of life.

Carl Henry and Evangelicalism Today

The issues that Henry wrote about in 1947 are exactly the issues that are dividing evangelicalism today.

On one hand, some ask what the gospel has to say to the world’s greatest problems. In his new book Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren states, “More and more Christian leaders are beginning to realize that for the millions of young adults who have recently dropped out of church, Christianity is a failed religion. Why? Because it has specialized in dealing with ‘spiritual needs’ to the exclusion of physical and social needs. It has focused on ‘me’ and ‘my eternal destiny,’ but it has failed to address the dominant societal and global realities of their lifetime: systemic injustice, poverty, and dysfunction.” McLaren argues that we need a faith that offers hope for individuals, the society, and the planet.

Some criticize this emphasis. Prominent Canadian blogger Tim Challies suggests that McLaren’s questions, “What are the biggest problems in the world and what does Jesus have to say about these global problems?” are good ones, but his answers are wrong. Challies writes, “McLaren’s new gospel is a social gospel, a liberal gospel and, in fact, no gospel at all.”

I have not read McLaren’s new book, but I am familiar with a trend. Some emphasize the social dimensions of Biblical faith at the expense of the individual’s need for salvation; others emphasize personal salvation at the expense of the social dimensions of Biblical faith.

What is largely missing, both sixty years ago and today, is the progressive evangelicalism with a social message that Henry described; one that is recognized as “the best solution of our problems, individual and social.” What Henry wrote in 1947 is still true: “to fill this form with content, in its application, is the difficult task which remains undone.”

Update: Ajith Fernando also reflects on Carl Henry’s book and its implications for evangelicalism today in the current issue of Christianity Today.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada