Carl Henry pursued a global vision for evangelical Christianity.
Henry was no parochialist. He was never narrowly focused only on the U.S. context, but actively engaged in the wider horizons of the church. Actively involved with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Henry traveled extensively with Billy Graham, visiting several non-Western countries. His wife, Helga, was the daughter of missionaries who served in Cameroon, Africa. In a future post I will consider Henry’s engagement with Christians in the non-Western world. First, however, I would like to focus on Henry’s engagement with European scholars, mainly Germans.
Henry saw Christianity Today as a strategic position for engaging the European scene. He thus actively pursued the possibility of establishing a German edition of Christianity Today, with the hope of engaging theologically conservative German Christian scholars. He believed that providing a platform for these scholars would further the academic reputation of Christianity in both Europe and the U.S. As the editor of Christianity Today, Henry regularly solicited articles from scholars outside the United States.
During the twentieth century, Protestant thought was significantly influenced by the work of leading German theologians. Karl Barth had risen to prominence with the release of the second edition of his commentary on the epistle to the Romans. His move toward dialectic theology had instituted a movement which came to be known as neo-orthodoxy. This movement would become influential in European seminaries and in mainline seminaries in the United States.
Rudolf Bultmann, one of Barth’s contemporaries, served as a champion for liberal theology. Bultmann is well known for his claim that the church must demythologize its views about Jesus. Like Barth, Bultmann became an influential theologian, whose ideas spread throughout Europe and the United States.
When Henry became the acting dean at the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947, the work of Barth and Bultmann was well known in the United States. Henry believed that those views need to be countered by an intellectual response on the part of evangelicals. When he began laying the groundwork for Christianity Today in 1956, he distributed a flyer for the magazine stating that the magazine’s goal was to “present evangelical Christianity competently, attractively, and forcefully.” One aim of this was to correct misrepresentations of evangelical Christianity. Henry believed that many liberal Christians had not taken the time to read theological works by evangelicals. As a result, they did not see evangelicals as having academic competence.
However, Henry was not content to enlist U.S. scholars to publish in Christianity Today. Instead, he recruited evangelical scholars from the U.S., Great Britain, and continental Europe. In addition, he sought to directly interact with non-evangelical scholars. He was willing to recruit imminent scholars to write for Christianity Today. Those who were not evangelical in their views were invited to write on topics where their views did not conflict with evangelical theology. In a few instances, Henry published excerpts of authors who challenged evangelical convictions alongside evangelical responses.
By the 1960s, Henry began to see a decline in German theology. He hoped that evangelicalism could gain a greater foothold in the theological vacuum that seemed to exist in Germany at that time. In 1964, Henry published a series of four articles in which he chronicled the declining influence of Barth and Bultmann. These articles would later be reprinted in the British journal Faith and Thought, and then as a book, Frontiers in Modern Theology: A Critique of Current Theological Trends. At the same time, Henry had already been working for several years to establish a German edition of Christianity Today, in an effort to provide a platform for evangelical scholars and pastors in Germany. This effort would eventually lose momentum.
Not everyone was happy with Henry’s theological engagement with German ideas. Henry received numerous letters from readers who were tired of hearing about German theology. One sent Henry a copy of an article that condemned Henry and other New Evangelicals for a lack of “moral courage in the face of great conflict with apostasy.” Henry replied to such letters that his goal was to champion “the great doctrinal verities of biblical Christianity.” He conceded that he did “approach the liberal neo-orthodox minister with a bit of charity rather than a smear,” but felt that his work was an “effective thrust for evangelical Christianity.”
In short, Henry regularly engaged in deep thought and reflection about European theological trends, frequently critiquing them. At the same time, he did more than simply dismiss ideas about which he disagreed. Instead, he sought to build pathways for thoughtful Christians to respond to the ideas and defend what Henry saw as the orthodox Christian faith.