Summary notes for Carl Henry’s classic on Modern Fundamentalism

23 Apr

If you don’t have time to read this book, here are the summary points (with full quotations) from Matt Perman:

I recently took notes over Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Written in 1947 (when “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” were equivalent terms), Henry’s call was for a theologically informed and socially engaged evangelicalism. Henry was concerned that, through its separatist mentality and tendency to separate social action from the concern of the Christian, modern evangelicalism was becoming irrelevant — and, more than that, unbiblical.

Henry’s call is just as relevant today as it was then, though evangelicalism has made immense progress. There is still a tendency to over spiritualize, to focus on the “spiritual” side of things in a way that tends to diminish and demean physical and social needs. And, on the other hand, when being rightly practical and concerned about social action, there is a tendency to do this apart from the important doctrinal foundations on which the Bible places these concerns. We need to continue increasing in our concern for social issues and addressing large global problems, while at the same time doing so on a theological foundation, recognizing that classical Christian doctrines are actually the best foundation for diligent social action.

In order to do this, however, we need to understand how Christianity and culture relate. Henry’s book is one of the best expositions of that issue. It is not only a call to action, but also gives the basic fundamentals for thinking about the relationship between Christianity and culture and how Christians can effectively partner with those who do not share our faith but do share our concern for confronting large global problems head on.

Russ Moore recently had a good post on Carl Henry, writing about this book that:

Henry’s “Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” is perhaps the most important evangelical book of the twentieth-century. It is just as relevant as it was in 1947, and should be read again by all those with a serious commitment to applying a kingdom vision to every aspect of life. The kingdom Jesus inaugurated spoke to the whole person, to spiritual lostness, to physical sickness, to material poverty, to the need for community. A church that joins Jesus in preaching the kingdom will too. We need that reminder every generation, perhaps especially now. The evangelical conscience is, after all, still uneasy after all these years.

It turns out that today would be Carl Henry’s 100th birthday. So, in honor of his 100th birthday, and in light of the call to us as Christians to care about all suffering and be intelligently and helpfully engaged in social issues for the good of the world and glory of God, here are my notes on perhaps his most important book, which is just as relevant today as ever.


“This book is both a detailed complaint about evangelical failures and a call to renewal.”

In the late 40s, Henry and other evangelical leaders were concerned that evangelicals were ill-equipped to address the crucial issues of the day.

Evangelical and fundamentalist were equivalent terms at that time.

Henry and Ockenga saw this book as setting an agenda for Fuller, which was established the same year it was published. The elements of a founding vision are all here.

  • “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”
  • “a profound desire to engage culture in all of its created complexity”

We need to engage culture!

The evangelicalism of the first fifty years of the twentieth century failed in its intellectual and cultural obligations.

It is possible to promote an intellectually and culturally engaged evangelicalism. Further, a worldview “based solidly on biblical authority” is “desperately needed.” Currently theological options have in their own ways failed to “provide satisfying answers to the deepest questions of the human spirit.”

They named specific issues evangelicals were on the wrong side of.

Henry called “for an evangelical activism that recognizes the need for broad cultural involvement.”

Henry’s call was “an invitation to an evangelical cultural involvement that was based solidly on the kind of profound theological reflection that could only be sustained by a social program that was closely linked to a systematic commitment to the nurturing of the life of the mind.”

“There is often a considerable disconnect between grassroots evangelical activism and carefully reasoned theological orthodoxy.”

Tendencies in all sectors of evangelical life to “dilute the proclamation of the gospel.” Also to negotiate too-easy settlements between evangelical thought and various manifestations of postmodern culture.

We must articulate our cultural involvement within a supernaturalistic framework.

Constant assault on the evangelical position. “One of the things which modern man most needs to be saved from, is a moral sense which is outraged at a divine provision of redemption.”

“What concerns me more is that we have needlessly invited criticism and even ridicule, by a tendency in some quarters to parade secondary and sometimes even obscure aspects of our position as necessary front phases of our view.”

To that extent, “we have failed to oppose the full genius of the Hebrew-Christian outlook to its modern competitors.”

“We have not applied the genius of our position constructively to those problems which press most for solution in a social way. Unless we do this, I am unsure that we shall get another world hearing for the Gospel.”

“If we would press redemptive Christianity as the obvious solution of world problems, we had better busy ourselves with explicating the solution.”

The great biblical doctrines are “the only outlook capable of resolving our problems.”

The “uneasy conscience” is “one distressed by the frequent failure to apply them effectively to crucial problems confronting the modern mind.” He is pleading not for a revolt against the fundamentals of the faith, but an application of them to the large cultural issues before us.

Many seem “blissfully unaware” of the new demands upon us.

Seeks to provoke a united effort.

While we are pilgrims here, we are also ambassadors.

The church needs a progressive evangelicalism with a social message.

We are not to be fatalistic on ethical problems. Yet, most evangelicalism is precisely that. We need a “growing revolt in evangelical circles on ethical indifferentism.” “It is impossible to shut the Jesus of pity, healing, service, and human interest from a Biblical theology. The higher morality of redemption does not invalidate moral consistency.”

“A Christian world- and life-view embracing world questions, societal needs, personal education ought to arise out of Matt. 28:18-21 as much as evangelism does. Culture depends on such a view.” Evangelicalism is dissipating the Christian culture accretion of centuries, “a serious sin.”

We are not to abandon social fields to the secularist.

This book is “a healthy antidote to Fundamentalist aloofness in a distraught world.”

 Chapter 1: The Evaporation of Fundamentalist Humanitarianism

The charge against evangelicalism from non-evangelicals: it has no social program calling for a practical attack on acknowledged world evils. “On this evaluation, Fundamentalism is the modern priest and Levite, by-passing suffering humanity” (2).

Read the rest

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