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Henry, Mohler assess future of evangelical theology

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–At the close of a century of theological instability, the Southern Baptist Convention faces the opportunity to be a “participatory witness” in American evangelical Christianity, theologian Carl F.H. Henry observed in a Jan. 28 student workshop on the
campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Henry, widely recognized as the most influential evangelical theologian of the 20th century, joined seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. for lectures on the future of evangelical theology in the seminary’s inaugural Henry Lectures.
Henry traced the history of what he called “the philosophical assault on the Christian heritage of the West” from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the early 20th century to the postmodern pandemonium of the contemporary theological academy.
Modernism, enamored with the empirical scientific method as the sole reliable barometer of knowing reality, sought to discard the miraculous elements of historic Christianity while redefining the faith “in terms of ethical distinctives and a social gospel that viewed Jesus
as at most the supreme moral example of human brotherhood,” Henry asserted.
The persistent downgrade of religious modernism into secular humanism led to the formulation of neo-orthodox theology, most notably represented by Karl Barth, Henry explained. Neo-orthodoxy rejected the anti-supernatural bias of the modernists, but based revelation on subjective internal response rather than on external, propositional
The seemingly “tender-hearted” naturalistic secular humanism so prevalent in contemporary academia is fundamentally inconsistent, Henry charged, because it promotes a social agenda of human rights and
environmentalism as “irrevocable values of permanent validity” while denying that such values can exist.
Henry also noted the rise of postmodernism which denies the existence of any objective truth and postliberalism which interprets Scripture as a “story” which draws its authority from the response of the community of faith.
“It is not enough to emphasize the believing faith of the Christian community,” Henry proclaimed. “If Christ be not risen, Christian faith is vain. The Bible tells us not merely a story in which the history-like resurrection of Jesus is an essential ingredient, it tells us in propositionally revealed truth what events are both historically factual and decisively important for human destiny.”
Despite the preponderance of revisionist theology evident in the 20th century, evangelical Christianity has seen a profound resurgence, Henry contended. Whereas liberalism “survived mainly through sporadic penetration and occasional takeover of existing evangelical institutions
rather than by creating prestigious institutions of its own,” evangelical Christianity has asserted itself in the Gospel fervor of evangelists such as Billy Graham, the social action of organizations such as Prison Fellowship and World Vision and evangelical seminaries leading the way in student enrollment, academic excellence and Bible translation.
Henry alluded to changes within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as further evidence of an evangelical resurgence.
“The massive Southern Baptist Convention is today not only renewing its historic foundations,” he concluded. “But is emerging into a role of participatory witness in the larger evangelical community at a time when ecumenical Protestantism is coping with financial crises, of waning
enthusiasm at local levels, and of difficulty in preserving intellectual unity amid conflicting views of authority.”
Mohler praised Henry before seminarians and faculty members as a model of theological integrity. Mohler outlined Henry’s life from his birth to German immigrants in 1913 to his conversion as a 20-year-old Long Island newspaper editor and his remarkable career which included
faculty positions at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary, the editorship of Christianity Today magazine, and his six-volume theological work, “God, Revelation and Authority.” Mohler surveyed Henry’s contributions in apologetics, ethics, evangelism and
denominational life as well as his theological achievements. Henry and Mohler agreed evangelical orthodoxy on cardinal Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus have far-reaching ramifications for the lives of professing believers. Modern humanity, Mohler commented, often seeks “to pick and choose, for instance, from the New Testament what kind of Jesus they would like as savior and Lord and make their own ad hoc Christianity out of the New Testament.
“I believe someone can be ignorant of the virgin birth, to be unaware of the biblical revelation concerning Christ born of a virgin, and nonetheless come to know Christ as savior,” Mohler said. “But I do not believe that anyone who knowingly understands that the Bible reveals
and teaches what we know as the doctrine of virgin birth and then rejects it” can be genuinely regenerated, he added.
To a student questioning how to communicate the truths of the biblical witness to a congregation struggling with issues of doctrine, Mohler and Henry prescribed a steady diet of faithful biblical preaching.
“Don’t go behind the line of doubt and unbelief that exists in the congregation,” Henry advised. “Don’t give them sermons on problematics that don’t exist in the mind of the congregation. But find out where the doubt and where the unbelief is and by the grace of God hit it.”
“In most of the congregations to whom you will preach, the denial of the truth is not the main problem. It’s the sheer ignorance of it,” Mohler said, recalling Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4. “They have been fed so much false, vacuous, contentless preaching for so
long, they have no appetite for the real thing until they first eat of it. Then, I believe, it takes root and they will never be satisfied with anything else.”
Mohler refuted the current theological trends of free-will theism, which denies the absolute sovereignty, omniscience and foreknowledge of God, and inclusivism, which denies the necessity of explicit faith in
Jesus for salvation, as not only unorthodox, but sub-Christian.
“If you deny the God revealed in Scripture and you deny that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the only savior, the only one in whose name we must be saved, is the One who is the way, the truth and the life … then I believe what is denied is not only the modifier
‘evangelical,’ but the essential content of what it means to be a Christian.”
Henry stated the widespread effectiveness of the evangelical message led to the need to be vigilant about doctrinal fragmentation within the movement.
“I am not pessimistic about evangelical possibilities,” he said. “And we may be headed for difficulties, growing difficulties, but when this current movement of history comes to its climax, it will come with
the sound of joy as the victory of Christ. For all that happens, God is still sovereign and is working in history and through history in our own time. Even in what is happening to the churches, he is working out his will.”
Mohler told students that the presentations would be modified and compiled for a collaborative book project by the two theologians scheduled for publication in early 1999.

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  • Russell D. Moore