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Carl F.H. Henry, ‘dean’ of evangelical theologians, dies at 90

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Carl F.H. Henry, a staunch defender of biblical authority, a giant evangelical theologian of the 20th century and the founding editor of Christianity Today, died Dec. 7. He was 90.

Known as the dean of evangelical theologians by some, Henry helped shape evangelical thought during the middle of the 20th century by arguing that fundamentalism and its belief in separation from culture was ineffective. Evangelicals, he asserted, must engage the culture.

In the later half of the century Henry defended the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, asserting that heresy is rooted in an improper understanding of God’s revelation. His six-volume “God, Revelation and Authority,” released from 1976-82, served as a monumental guide to the centrality of the doctrine of revelation.

Henry, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., died in his sleep in Watertown, Wis.

“The mission of the church is to embrace both evangelism and cultural impact,” he said in a 2001 interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “To neglect either is catastrophic. This is the lesson of both Protestant liberalism and fundamentalism.”

David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said Henry’s death leaves “a huge void” in American Christianity.

“No Christian thinker in this country has done more to advance orthodox theology and full-orbed Christian worldview thinking than Carl F.H. Henry,” Dockery said. “Evangelicals across this country and the entire world stand in debt to Dr. Henry for his years of service and leadership across the evangelical world.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Henry’s death presents a challenge to the next generation of evangelicals.

“The torch has now been passed to a new generation,” Mohler wrote on his Crosswalk.com weblog. “The real question is now this: Will the present generation of evangelicals run the race — or run from the challenge?”

Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, noted Henry’s influence in the struggle over biblical authority.

“Dr. Henry’s influence as a Christian thinker and gentleman not only had a most profound impact upon the shape of evangelicalism, many view him as the champion in the battle for the Bible,” Chapman said. “His exemplary scholarship, tenacious devotion and gracious spirit have left an indelible impression upon the Christian community.”

Born Jan. 22, 1913, to immigrant parents in New York City, Henry grew up under a Roman Catholic mother and a Lutheran father. But in 1933 — “by the grace” of God he would write later — he was saved at the age of 20.

“That very day, had the risen Redeemer commanded, I would have gone to China or to any of the uttermost parts,” he wrote in 1958.

Instead, Henry felt a calling to attend Wheaton College, where he became friends with classmates Billy Graham and Harold Lindsell (author of “The Battle for the Bible”). Henry earned bachelor and master of arts degrees at Wheaton and bachelor of divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill. He later received a Ph.D. at Boston University.

He met his wife, Helga Bender, at Wheaton. They were married in 1940 and later had two children.

Henry went into teaching, serving first at Northern Seminary and later at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. While at Northern Seminary, Henry wrote “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” in which he critiqued the fundamentalism of the day and argued that evangelicalism must engage the culture intellectually.

In 1956, Henry became the first editor of Christianity Today, which was the brainchild of Graham and was started as an evangelical alternative to the more liberal Christian Century.

Henry left Christianity Today in 1968 and went to Cambridge, England, to study, but later returned to the United States to teach at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Henry considered himself a Baptist for the last 50-plus years of his life. In 1958, he wrote an article titled, “Twenty Years a Baptist” — an article that was later included in the 2001 book, “Why I Am A Baptist.”

Henry spoke at the 1987 SBC Pastors’ Conference and in 1994 was given the title by Southern Seminary of senior research professor of Christian theology. In 1988 he gave the address at Richard Land’s installation as head of the Christian Life Commission (now ERLC) and in 1993 he spoke at Southern Seminary during events surrounding Mohler’s inauguration. He last visited Southern Seminary in 1999.

During the 2001 interview with Southern Seminary Magazine, Henry praised the movement by Southern Baptists to return to their orthodox biblical roots.

“The collapse of modernism and the reassertion of a commitment to biblical authority within the denomination are significant,” he said. “It means that God has provided a new opportunity for evangelical renewal within the denomination and beyond.”

Henry lamented the drift toward modernism and liberalism within many Baptist institutions.

“We need more than two hands to count up the number of Baptist institutions that have gone down the drain doctrinally,” he said at Southern Seminary in 1993. “There are gratifying signs, however, of a recovery of academic heritage. … If a comprehensive Christian alternative to the prevalent secular outlook is to arise, it will come from Christian academia. The foes of Christian education can hardly be expected to respond critically to their own theories.”

Throughout his life and to the end, Henry stressed the importance of intellectual engagement. Two years before his death he said he was concerned about the future of evangelical scholarship.

“I am very worried about the loss of the priority of the mind among evangelicals,” he said in 2001. “This is a matter of great importance in the struggle for evangelical fidelity. It must not be forgotten.”
With additional reporting by Erin Curry and Jeff Robinson. Biographical information in this story was obtained from “Baptist Theologians” (Broadman & Holman, 1990). (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ‘DEAN’ OF THEOLOGIANS.

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  • Michael Foust