Carl Henry and Baptist Identity

These days, it seems as if everyone is talking about the late evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003). Greg Thornbury has authored a widely acclaimed new book titled Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry (Crossway, 2013). Thornbury, Collin Hansen, and John Starke recorded a conversation for The Gospel Coalition about a famous encounter between Henry and Karl Barth. A few months ago, Jason Duesing wrote an online essay honoring Henry in 100th year of his birth. The Carl Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is hosting a major academic conference later this year, among other Henry-related scholarly activities. If you’re not familiar with Henry, he was a founding faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary, the first editor of Christianity Today, and one of the architects of postwar neo-evangelicalism. His book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) offered a broadside against the fundamentalist tendency to divorce evangelism and social engagement, while his six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority (1976–1983) was one of the most important works of evangelical theology written in the second half of the 20th century. Though he is known primarily as an evangelical theologian, Henry was a Baptist. In fact, for much of his adult life he was a Southern Baptist. In 2004, Russell Moore wrote an article for The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology titled “God, Revelation, and Community: Ecclesiology and Baptist Identity in the Thought of Carl F. H. Henry.” Moore concludes that Henry was a convictional Baptist, but his ecclesiology was underdeveloped in his writings, in part because of his historical context. Simply put, few neo-evangelical theologians wrote on ecclesiology other than in the broadest strokes, in part because of the parachurch nature of postwar evangelicalism. I would say it like this: Henry was a conservative evangelical who held to Baptist ecclesiological convictions; the accent, however, was on the former aspect of his identity. By contrast, I consider myself an orthodox Baptist, which also makes me, by definition, a type of evangelical. I would encourage you to read Moore’s excellent essay to learn more about Henry’s Baptist identity. Henry himself discusses this topic in his essay “Twenty Years a Baptist,” which has most recently been reprinted in Why I Am a Baptist (B&H Academic, 2001), edited by Tom Nettles and Russell Moore. For an excellent short introduction to Henry’s thought, including his identity as an evangelical and Baptist theologian, see Al Mohler’s chapter on Henry in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, edited by Timothy George and David Dockery (B&H Academic, 2001).

(Image credit; This post has been cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)

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  1. Bill Roach   •  

    I’m loving this Henry resurgence. Before Thornbury or Doyle published their Henry books, I had already decided to write my dissertation on Henry’s epistemological hermeneutic. I hope to complete the dissertation in the forth coming months.

  2. dr. james willingham   •  

    I read a good deal of Carl Henry’s writings, but not all. However, I was disappointed to learn of his deleterious effect on Dr. Mohler concerning complementarianism. The complementarian position as it is now enunciated and trumped in our Baptist life leaves much to be desired in the light of the biblical revelation, lacking as it does a qualification, checks and balances. If there were no exceptions in scripture, we would have complementarianism as an absolute, but we do find exceptions in Scripture. One is where God told Abraham to do what Sarah said about Hagar, hardly allowable in unchecked pariarchical society in which complementarianism is unchecked. Once in a discussion with another minister, I was told, “Show me one instance of a woman being named as a leader, and I will eat my words.” I let him read Micah 6:4. He practically choked on the word, “Miriam,” but still refused to eat his words. Biblical Sovereign Grace and familial salvation effects highlight the egalitarianism of Scripture as does the term ekklesia where the assembly consisted of equal members, and, since our Lord included the ladies, they, too, are equals. I always get a laugh out of the thought of a Southern Baptist Sovereign Grace woman preacher (who really liked Pink’s Sovereignty of God) founding a church and giving it to Southern Baptists. The local Assn folks told her that it would never be acknowledged that she founded the church, a rather nice congregation (one that really studied the Scripture) and building which made a nice contribution to the ministry in a resort area. Wish Brother Henry had studied his egalitarianism of Scripture and of our Lord more closely..along with those he influenced.

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