Jan. 23, 2013
Yesterday was the 100th birthday of arguably the most profound Evangelical Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Carl F.H. Henry. A number of fine tributes have been published about him, and one more outline of his life and ministry is unnecessary. Yet honoring a man whose contributions to Evangelical Christianity, in the United States, in Europe, and throughout the world, have been so pronounced is not undue.
It was my privilege to meet Dr. Henry thirty years ago while a student at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He spoke both to the student body and, at the invitation of my friend and mentor Dr. Gerry Breshears, a smaller group of young seminarians of which I was a part.
I was raised among the born-again, and have heard more sermons, studies, and Bible lessons than I possibly can remember. But I recall the moving, arresting opening of one of the messages Dr. Henry preached in our seminary chapel. As he began, Dr. Henry said something like this: “If ever you feel alone or small or unimportant in the universe, read John 1.” As the first chapter of John’s Gospel teaches, since the God of the universe became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it should be clear that our worth to him is inestimable. And I remember when it came time for prayer, Dr. Henry did not simply slightly bow his head but bent his frame with his elbows on his knees, a look of intense seriousness crossing his face. That was, for me, a sermon in itself.
Dr. Henry came and lectured to my class in Christology, as well. He read from what looked like a large piece of butcher paper on which he had handwritten his notes. He told us he had stayed up all night drafting his remarks, and after completing his delivery of them asked if anyone would like to have his text. Either I sat dumbly and failed to raise my hand or one of my colleagues beat me to it. Either way, the memory of him holding up a sheet of what probably were among the most careful reflections on Jesus given during my lifetime and my not getting it still causes me a bit of heartache.
On another occasion, I caught Dr. Henry sitting by himself in a quiet place on the seminary grounds. As I approached, a look of pain came over his face: It was obvious he only wanted some private time to read (I fear that I give this same look to people sometimes, and only hope I recover as graciously as he did with me). After a moment, he talked about sending me, at cost, his magisterial multi-volume God, Revelation and Authority and recommending that I get the text of a debate in which I was going to participate published in Christianity Today. That was tall cotton for a skinny kid in jeans; I’ve never forgotten his quick, sweet generosity of spirit.
When I was writing my graduate thesis, Dr. Henry was also so kind as to send a handwritten response to the survey questions I was posing to a number of Evangelical leaders. His comments were incisive and eminently quotable. And, unlike some of his peers in the world of Evangelical theologians, he took the time to respond to my questions and treat them seriously.
Finally, I think I’ll never forget the evening in Dr. Breshears’ home with Dr. Henry. He asked us what we thought was the greatest crisis facing the Evangelical church. I piped up, “A creeping ecumenism.” He said, “Eh-kyou-menism.” Not sure what he meant, I said, “Yes, a creeping ecumenism.” Again he said, “Eh-kyou-menism. The emphasis is on the second syllable.” I took the point.
The most memorable part of the evening, for me, was his closing prayer. We gathered around and, as I was next to him, he put his arm around me and prayed something like this: “Heavenly Father, I pray that these young men won’t try to gather to themselves a group of followers who will elevate their egos, but that they faithfully would serve You all their days.” It convicted me to the core of my being, and was a defining moment in my young life and ministry.
Carl Henry gave me and many younger Evangelicals a great gift: The understanding that one need not compromise his intellectual integrity to be a believing Christian and that, in fact, a rigorous intellectual life was not just consistent with but also strengthened by diligent interaction with the inspired text of Scripture. As a young man grappling with a theological tradition that historically had been rich and deep but that had, in some ways, turned inward and even intellectually fearful during the early to mid-20th century, Dr. Henry showed me that one could hold two doctorates (as he did) and still believe that the Bible was God’s self-revelation and that the Person of Jesus of Nazareth was the atoning, risen Savior. For that alone, I am in his debt. He, being dead, yet speaketh.