Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). 223 pp. $17.99.
Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) was one of the founding fathers of contemporary American evangelicalism. He was an accomplished journalist and a prolific scholar. In his later years, he was also identified with Southern Baptist life, where he significantly influenced the younger conservative scholars who came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. His best-known works are probably The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Eerdmans, 1947; reprint 2003) and his magnum opus, the six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority (Word, 1976–83; reprint, Crossway, 1999).
In the centennial year of Henry’s birth, Union University philosopher Greg Thornbury has written an important book titled Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry. The book isn’t a conventional biography, though it sketches the basics of Henry’s life. It also isn’t a comprehensive study of Henry’s theology, though it engages some of the core components of Henry’s thought. Instead, the author offers a winsome exposition and defense of Henry’s theological vision. Thornbury believes that contemporary evangelicals have lost their way in some respects. He commends Henry’s “Classic Evangelicalism” as a pathway to a healthier evangelical future.
In six chapters, Thornbury outlines a number of areas where he believes evangelicals need to recover Henry-esque theology and emphases. Thornbury strongly advocates Henry’s intellectual program, which includes the importance of theological prolegomena, presuppositional apologetics, and primarily propositional “theologies of revelation” over against Natural Law traditions. He pits the vision that Henry lays out in God, Revelation, and Authority against postfoundationalist movements, especially the postliberal narrative theology of the Yale School. He expresses great skepticism that speech-act theory can be appropriated by evangelicals, despite efforts by theologians such as Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Horton, and Timothy Ward to do so. Thornbury commends Henry’s sophisticated understanding of biblical inerrancy and his wedding of evangelism and social justice in a comprehensive theology of evangelical cultural engagement.
As I was reading Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, I found myself reacting in four ways: hearty disagreement, minor quibbles, substantial agreement, and warm appreciation. First, hearty disagreement. I simply do not share Thornbury’s aversion to Natural Law theory or his presupposition (get it?) that presuppositional apologetics are inherently preferable to evidentialist apologetics. I do not see the Natural Law as a threat to special revelation, and I embrace an eclectic approach to apologetics (different situations call for different strategies). I also believe speech-act theory is a fruitful dialog partner for evangelical theology and find it somewhat baffling that Thornbury summarily rejects it because Austin and Searle were anti-Christian in their beliefs.
In terms of minor quibbles, I think Thornbury is a bit too strident in his dismissal of narrative theology. While I am no postliberal, I appreciate how that movement has called us, however imperfectly, back to an emphasis on the narrative of Scripture rather than a more atomized approach to exegesis. And while I share Thornbury’s appreciation for theological method, I consider it a great leap forward that recent attempts at prolegomena consider biblical theology to be at least as important to theological method as propositional/cognitive considerations.
Having noted some disagreements and quibbles, let me express my substantial agreement with Thornbury. I agree that Carl Henry is a theologian we need to recover and engage anew in our ongoing debates over biblical inerrancy. Though I don’t think it is the “last word” on the subject, I am unaware of a more comprehensive argument for the full truthfulness of the Scriptures than God, Revelation, and Authority. I also agree 100% that Henry lends a needed voice to our intramural evangelical debates about the mission of the church. Too many current voices in that discussion seem to be either faddish or reactionary, lacking the measured (balanced?) approach of earlier evangelical statesmen such as Henry, Schaeffer, and Stott.
In terms of warm appreciation, I am grateful that Thornbury corrects some of the overly simplistic and uncharitable readings of Henry as a cold-hearted propositionalist who was more philosophical (which is bad) than theological (which is good). I also agree with Thornbury that Henry was not a poor or unclear writer, despite efforts by those who disagree with him to paint him as such. More generally, I truly appreciate Thornbury’s attempt to ressource Henry for contemporary evangelicals, in part because I think it’s possible to disagree with some of Henry’s specific emphases while at the same time enthusiastically embracing his broader vision for a theologically rooted, culturally engaged evangelicalism.
There is no doubt that scholars are increasingly turning their attention to Henry. In the last decade, I’m aware of at least eight dissertations, two books, and almost two dozen essays that focus primarily or exclusively on Henry’s life and thought. I also know of several current graduate students who are planning to write dissertations or theses on Henry. I strongly recommend Recovering Classic Evangelicalism as a particularly accessible product of this “Henry Renaissance” that will likely inspire others to get in on the action. I hope Thornbury’s book encourages a generation of evangelical scholars to further engage Carl Henry and his “Classic Evangelicalism.”