Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 1
Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, one of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century and the founding editor of Christianity Today, is the author of more than two dozen books. For nearly four decades he has been actively involved in arousing evangelical engagement with American culture. In the following interview, Henry discusses the next decade and Christianity’s place in it.
Q. What do you perceive to be the most crucial issues facing the church as we enter the last years of the twentieth century?
A. One can respond in two ways. From the standpoint of the Western world, scientism clearly has the initiative in the intellectual arena. The great struggle for masses of people turns on the question of whether they will submit to scientific reductionism or resist it. From the standpoint of the church, the big issue is whether she really knows her own identity in this struggle — an identity that is worth preserving only if God in His self-revelation and Scripture as His Word are to be perpetuated.
What we are seeing as far as the secular, Western world is concerned is the triumph of scientific reductionism. For more than half a generation in the Anglo-Saxon West, secular humanism has been the motivating spirit. Now humanitarianism is evaporating from humanism, and that philosophical mode is deteriorating into raw or naked paganism. The result is a rapidly rising neo-paganism that deliberately rejects the Judeo-Christian heritage as a significant option.
Those outside the secular intellectual elite are trying to circumvent scientific reductionism by reaching for transcendence in a variety of forms, most notably by seeking unity and even union with the divine through physical or chemical techniques. In essence, this movement reflects an invasion of the oriental religions and the occult into Western life. This proves increasingly attractive to the non-intellectual elite who are convinced there is more to life than scientism allows, and who get into transcendental meditation or the New Age movement or any variety of occult exercises that presumably will put one in touch with an intrinsic divinity that lurks somewhere within the essential self-hood of man.
On the other hand, you have the multitudes who turn from physical exercises, such as the repetition of a mantra or yoga, to chemical techniques in order to attain the transcendent world: the drug culture today. What is involved is a clash between the biblical world view and the naturalistic world view.
If you go the way of the modern contemporary regurgitation of the ancient religions, you are involved in a traumatic counter-biblical world view. There is nothing in these religions about a god who is independent of the universe, who is a creator ex nihilo. There is nothing about man falling from a perfect state because nature and all of history are viewed as imperfect and flawed manifestations of the deity.
As a result, you don’t have any real concept of sin. It is less than the real thing; it is evanescent, illusory. Likewise, there is no real doctrine of redemption, and, of course, the basic difference is that the god of the occult and of the oriental religions is more than “I AM,” rather, he is something other than “I AM.” He is the self of which all else is a part and, hence, an imperfect manifestation rather than a transcendent self who is ontologically different from man and the universe. So, nothing less is at stake than a life-and-death struggle between competing world views.
Q. Do you feel the church has given in to this wave of scientific reductionism? What can it do in the next generation to shore up its foundation?
A. I am not one to blame the church for all the ailments of the world. On the other hand, I’m quite willing to concede and insist that the church has unnecessarily accommodated this trend by a failure of cognitive analysis. For the past half generation, evangelical churches have gravitated toward the experiential and even the emotional at the expense of the intellectual.
I certainly am one to insist on the importance of the whole man, the entire self. If the church does not know what the intellectual differences are, she will readily fail to understand any differences all the way down the line. In short, if the difference between the drug culture and Christianity is only that Christianity offers a more intense form of experience, then the church fails to bring the enlightenment, the divine illumination, to bear which is a part of her calling.
What the church can do is to get on her knees to confess openly the transcendence of God; to open her Bible and understand that she is a church to whom God has spoken literally in this generation; and to give herself to the way and will of God to witness to the world boldly. The time has come for a shift from the great achievements of evangelical faith in our generation to evangelical courage.
Q. You have commented in the past both negatively and positively on the significant impact of the Eastern and Third Worlds on the church. Is the Western World prepared for the impact of the Eastern and Third Worlds in the next twenty years or so?
A. The bright spot is that the Third World churches have very sacrificially sent out a multitude of missionaries to remind the West that joy is not essentially connected with material affluence. It is that very weakness of the West that encourages even the ancient oriental religions to send missionaries to the West; they feel they have something to offer a culture whose priorities seem to be sex and money.
The West faces two great tests: one is whether it is really committed to religious liberty by way of contrast to many of the other world religions. Secondly, in the midst of that commitment, will Western Christianity really rise to the responsibility and opportunity of witnessing to a society in which sociologists encourage everybody simply to settle for religious pluralism?
Q. How optimistic are you that the church in the next decade and beyond will be able to meet the challenges it faces?
A. Chuck Colson says in Against the Night that if Western culture should go down, as well it might, he is not persuaded that the church as we now know it would rise phoenix-like above the rubble. I began warning ten years ago that by the 1990’s, given the track record of the decisions being made by the evangelicals, the movement would be in danger of being swept away by contemporary culture. What do you think is happening today with the media, secular education, the political arena?
On the other hand, this may be the great opportunity for the evangelical community. We may at last discover that we need each other. It may put an end to the entrepreneurial rivalries, and it may drive us to our knees in prayer rather than in a manifestation of evangelical triumphalism. Only God knows.
There is no question about the fact that prayer meetings are empty. Often there is less time for prayer in a morning church service than there is for singing one stanza of a hymn. I’ve been in churches where the opening invocation is the only prayer in the service.
For all that, I am still an optimist. I was a nobody brought up on a small farm with no propensity for philosophy or theology. Yet, God has used me and is still at work. I also know that wherever there is joy in this world, wherever there is hope, wherever there is a spirit of moral victory, I find behind them evangelical believers for whom God has become personally real.
Q. If The New York Times asked you to cover the top story in the evangelical world, which one would you choose?
A. I’d look around to see if there were a Mother Theresa who didn’t just cover the lecture circuit, but actually was involved in social action. That’s what would give credibility to the evangelicals’ message. Where is social action being done? Perhaps some young self-effacing freshman in seminary will really understand that what is at the heart of Christianity is not simply saying the right words at the right time before the right people, but being out there and dying on a cross in the way that God wants us to invest our lives.
Q. You have said that the church’s primary task is to evaluate where it is culturally. How can this be done?
A. I have written Twilight of a Great Civilization, and Charles Colson has written Against the Night, both of which discuss this topic. Evangelicals were greatly misled a decade ago when they thought we were beginning a great evangelical awakening. Their enthusiasm overlooked the extent to which culture had penetrated the churches.
Although it is legitimate to analyze whether or not evangelicals are in relationship to the culture and whether or not they will survive what may be the inevitable nightfall of the cultural West, the primary thing for the church to remember is that the world is doomedwhatever the culture. Only in Christ and His purposes for man and history is an enduring alternative to be found.
The time has now come to speak of the courage that is needed on the part of the churches to face a world in which Western culture, and for that matter any culture, deservedly goes down and is spared from going under only by the preserving grace of God.
Not until God brings down the curtain on history do we have the prerogative of abandoning it to final destruction and doom. While the hand of God in judgment remains suspended, we have a missionary and evangelistic opportunity that is all the more urgent. How colossally rewarding it would be if, like a thief on the cross, someone was snatched from final judgment and doom because in those last moments an opportunity for decision was clearly articulated and powerfully presented!