Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Theologian's Reflections on the Past and Anticipation of the Future

Carl Henry intrigues me. There's more than one reason, but it's not least because he embodies a curious collision of conflicting (to me, at least) theological, ecclesiological, and missiological commitments. Here's my summary of his place in history: Henry was the early intellectual force behind the movement that began to coalesce in the 1940s, which criticized fundamentalist separatism from broader culture engagement and the ecumenical attempts to evangelize and transform it. Henry and his collaborators believed that intellectual credibility and social engagement would gain a hearing for the gospel and recover orthodoxy as the dominant force in mainline Protestant denominations. That in itself is worth a conversation, but I'll save that for another time.

Portions of Henry's memoirs were fascinating, as he reflected on the hopes and dreams, successes and failures, ambitions and strategies of a workaholic's life—his word, not mine. (Chances are, if you have any kind of theological library, many if not most of it is the product of the resurgence of evangelical scholarship that Henry helped to trigger.) But perhaps most interesting were a couple passages that offer a glimpse into Henry's perspective on the ecumenical-evangelical-fundamentalist tensions.
Eastern [Baptist Theological Seminary]'s course was not decided in the long run by a handful of special-problem faculty. Its "middle ground" avoidance of extremes enabled those left of center to oppose the right and to espouse critical views. Lack of theologically literate trustees, gradual acceptance of the pluralistic denominational context it originally challenged, professing conservatives whose critical views emerged only after they were hired or received tenure and the translation of personal friendships into board support, all played a role.
and . . .
Key '73 [a 1973 U.S. evangelistic campaign] achieved certain commendable goals; it was hindered, however, by the refusal of independent fundamentalist churches to cooperate in a witness to Jesus Christ that involved also ecumenically affiliated churches [including, though Henry doesn't tell us, 43 Roman Catholic dioceses]. A further deterrent came through ecumenically aligned spokesmen who under bureaucratic pressures sought to make social justice rather than personal evangelism the forefront thrust.
As I read Henry's final chapter that reflects on the prospects for evangelicalism late in the 20th century, I sensed a note of disappointment–deep awareness of missed opportunities and aspirations that fell short, with unavoidable implications in the future. I found myself wondering if Henry ever perceived that the seeds of disappointment were sown in the soil of partnership for the gospel with people who never really embraced the gospel.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged by his closing paragraphs, which include this absolute gem:
"Heaven will be an unending feast for the soul that basks in his presence."

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