Carl Henry’s Grand Dream: A Gospel-Driven Christian School
From the moment one first hears of him, one can guess that the great 20th century theologian Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry lived an outsized life. Bearing not one but two middle names, he attained not one but two doctorates. Many scholars would be pleased, over the course of their careers, to produce six dense volumes meshing theology, philosophy and biblical exegesis. Henry wrote a six-volume set, the God, Revelation, and Authoritymasterwork, in addition to more than 25 other texts. It is the privilege of many Christian professors to share their ministerial insights in foreign countries, undertaking a major journey every year or two. Henry traveled incessantly all over the globe, speaking in dozens of countries as he held positions like “lecturer-at-large” for World Vision. If you work for an outfit named something like World Vision and your title ends with “at-large,” you really are a trans-continental traveler, and the world really is your parish.
The Grand Strategy
The ultimate quest of Henry’s life, however, was a university. More than anything else, he wanted to establish a colossal Christian research school that would provide a major counter to the skepticism and secularism he saw proliferating in the West. In a letter to his close friend, Billy Graham, on Oct. 8, 1955, Henry outlined the essential content of his vision. It was an institution for preparing men professionally and for the pursuit of collegiate and post-collegiate studies leading to higher degrees, in an environment which so articulates evangelical Christianity in relationship to the cultural crisis in all the areas of study that we shall attract students who would otherwise be inclined to go to the big established universities such as Harvard, Yale etc.
Henry pursued this exciting idea for several years, convening meetings with high-level evangelical statesmen and pinging in with potential donors to raise support for the project. In the midst of his teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary (1947-56), his founding editorship of Christianity Today (1956-68) and his writing of seminal books like The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Henry thought constantly about what the “Christian Harvard” could be. He penned his foundational ideas in a furiously typed letter to Graham. The school had to orient itself in the “highest levels” to “the rich context of the Bible.” Following this first move, the institution had to meet numerous criteria. At base, it had to be:
- “Evangelical in urgency,” with the gospel at the forefront of all study and research;
- “Evangelical in doctrine,” expressly grounded in biblical and systematic theology;
- Committed to “academic standards and moral purity,” concerned with displaying the kind of life created by the gospel;
- Grounded in the “importance of personal academic relationships between professors and students,” such that holistic intellectual, moral and spiritual discipleship happens;
- Achieving “the unification of all the university disciplines in the interest of a Christian world with an eye on tragic cultural crisis of our times”;
- Focused on “the political, economic and social applications of Christianity, and thus expound a consistent criticism of an alternative to socialistic revisions of the social order”;
- Deeply aware of “the history of thought and systematic orientation to Jesus Christ as the revealed center of history, nature, conscience and redemption”; and
- Staffed by “a faculty engaged in corporate conversation, research and writing, each making some minimal contribution for the production of textbooks that will enable the evangelical enterprise to challenge the initiative of secular scholars, and to penetrate the collegiate world”
This was a fulsome, full-tilt, vertically scaled operation. On paper, it bore outrageous promise. It hearkened back to the colonial glory days when many of the top institutions in the world were formed for the express purpose of cultivating an excellent intellectual life for the glory of God and the betterment of his church. Henry had trained at Boston University under renowned theologian Edgar Brightman. He had felt the pull, the intensely skeptical energy, of Bostonian academe, and he yearned to counter it with equal verve. His thoughts, written succinctly in a yellowed letter to his friend, suggest both the promise and the difficulty of such an enterprise.
Henry’s Vision in Our Day
In the end, the university Henry sought to find never materialized. This was a hard pill to swallow, even decades later, as his private letters show. Yet the Southern Baptist theologian made his mark as a thinker and influenced many young believers who have gone on to lead important evangelical institutions.
At Southern Seminary and Boyce College, the seminary’s undergraduate school, Henry’s influence is distinctly felt. From a distance, Henry mentored and advised figures like R. Albert Mohler Jr., Mark Dever, David Dockery and C. Ben Mitchell. He wrote to Dever on September 12, 1989: “I may see Al Mohler at Southeastern. He has many gifts. Who knows how our Lord may bring together a core of young evangelical spirits for some dramatic breakthrough a half generation down the road.” Of course, only four years later Mohler would become president of Southern Seminary. We can read these words in light of the gospel-driven movement of our day, when thousands stream into Louisville, Ky., to study for several years in an ongoing celebration of the gospel. It is sweet – and surprising – to see that Henry’s prediction of such a work “a half generation” after him came abundantly true.
Undergraduate schools that are grounded in the gospel and are striving to render students “approved workmen” to God’s glory have a considerable part to play in extending the legacy of men like Henry and in carrying on the “dramatic breakthrough” of which he spoke (2 Tim 2:15, KJV). Boyce College is a school on mission in a way that Henry himself would have deeply appreciated. The faculty loves the gospel, and relishes the opportunity to preach it. Mission trips go out all over the world as bright and passionate students from a wide range of countries train for the work of a lifetime. The faculty eagerly engages the culture, speaking in secular university venues and standing outside abortion clinics at 6 a.m. to speak a word of hope to the destitute. Whether in economics, biblical studies or philosophy, the faculty publish on topics that demonstrate the lordship of Christ. In these and other ways, Boyce College works from the standpoint that Jesus Christ is the “revealed center” of all things. The legacy of Henry lives.
Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, we see, lived a large and full life. At Boyce College, students are trained to do the same. A great gospel inspires massive confidence in a great God that leads to great things in his name.
Southern Seminary will be hosting a conference in honor of Carl F. H. Henry’s life on September 26, 2013. More information can be found here.