‘Wistful for his presence and grateful for his influence’ – Mohler Talks About Carl F. H. Henry and His Centennial Celebration
Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, discusses the ministry and influence of Carl F.H. Henry with James A. Smith Sr., Towers executive editor.
JS: Why is Carl Henry important?
RAM: In the history of evangelicalism in the 20th century, no one rivals Carl Henry in terms of being at the very center of the intellectual, institutional, organizational energies of the evangelical movement. Henry is one of the founding faculty members at Fuller; he was the founding editor of Christianity Today; he was chairman of the Berlin Committee of World Evangelism; he was a close associate with Billy Graham and he ended up teaching at a number of evangelical institutions and writing a six volume work that defined the evangelical understanding of the doctrine of revelation in a comprehensive way. He was a man of enormous vision. And he was a leader of that generation of evangelicals who framed the movement in the post-war period who saw tremendous opportunity for evangelical advance, who wanted to redefine evangelicalism in terms of cultural engagement and intellectual credibility. He was, in one sense, one of those great, rich figures from the fundamentalism of the early 20th century to the evangelical movement that had emerged as such a powerful force in the American mainstream by the end of the century. He did his doctoral work at Boston University which was then the capital of the personalist philosophy, and the context was theological liberalism. He went right into that context and that epitomized who he was. He didn’t run from any issue, he ran to it and became a model for evangelicals of intellectual engagement.
JS: Why should Southern Seminary be the host for this centennial event?
RAM: The fact that Carl Henry at the end of his life was a distinguished professor of theology at Southern Seminary, and the fact that the event marking his centennial of his birthday is held here is itself a significant signal that something of enormous consequence happened in the Southern Baptist Convention and at Southern Seminary and within the larger evangelical movement. No one would have predicted this 20 years ago, but the reasons for it are several.
First of all, it signals very clearly that Southern Seminary has identified with the evangelical movement and with evangelical theology, and that we are self-consciously continuing the project that Carl Henry and his colleagues began at the midpoint of the 20th century. That was not the trajectory on which this institution was headed throughout World War II to the Conservative Resurgence.
There are personal aspects as well. As a young evangelical and a young Southern Baptist trying to understand the intellectual, apologetic and theological worldview issues of today, I found tremendous help in Carl Henry. Not only help, I found a mentor. I found a model. I found an enormous theological resource. I found inspiration and I found encouragement, and that was all before I met him.
Then having met him and establishing a deep and lasting personal friendship, all those things were amplified many times over, such that when I really got to know Carl Henry in person in the mid-1980s, he in a very personal way came to be a mentor to me, an intellectual teacher and guide to me. At times an irritant, in terms of the ruthlessness and rigor of his probing and his analysis. I’ll never forget the questions he asked me, as I’ve said many times over in my own theological biography. He stopped me cold out in the middle of the seminary lawn the very first week I knew him when I articulated my position in support of women in ministry, which is the only position I’d yet heard. He looked at me with a straight face and said, “One day you will be embarrassed about this position.” And as I’ll say over and over again, when Carl Henry said that to me, I had a very good idea that that day was simultaneous with today, and he sent me by that comment into the library where I stayed up all night trying to get my hands on the best arguments on both sides of the case. It’s a long story, which I’ve told many times over, but once I investigated the case for each position, it was true. Dr. Henry was right; I was embarrassed to have held the previous position.
JS: That was when he was on campus and was shunned by the faculty?
RAM: That’s right. He was told that he could not speak and I had to be his host because no faculty member would host him. I was an assistant to the president and that was why Dr. Roy Honeycutt said, “I don’t want any faculty member to host him; you host him.” But he didn’t get to speak in colloquium. Frank Tupper said that when he introduced him at the beginning. Carl Henry is the most significant thinker in the room, and Carl Henry, who had debated at Yale about a week or so before, is not allowed to speak.
JS: Why was he here?
RAM: He was here because the student evangelical fellowship, a group of inerrantist students who identified with the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC, invited him to be here. They had even come up with the funding to bring him here. Dr. Henry was enough of a troublemaker to relish the opportunity.
JS: As a young thinker he influenced you as a seminarian, how has he influenced you as a seminary president?
RAM: Well, there’s a lot actually between one and the other. First of all, we ended up sharing a friendship that was deep and abiding, correspondence going back and forth, phone calls going back and forth. He eventually asked me to edit some of his writings for publication that became the Gods of This Age, Or God of the Ages? I ended up helping to bring his literary affairs into order at the end of his life. Then I was elected president of Southern Seminary, and he and I ended up speaking together at a meeting sponsored at the National Association of Evangelicals that took place very early on about the issue of homosexuality where he and I were the main two speakers. And that was for both of us a crucial meeting because we realized what a challenge this was going to be for evangelicals and how unprepared evangelicals were to deal with it. He spoke at my inauguration, which is very important because it was at that meeting that we had the opportunity to create a reunion between Carl Henry and Billy Graham. Then we brought him on as distinguished professor and at that point he was not really able to keep an ongoing full–time teaching load but he did have involvement with the classroom here. We started the Carl Henry Institute, which was mostly started when he was alive to help give him a platform and also to help bring into publication God, Revelation and Authority in cooperation with Crossway Books.
JS: What is the significance of Southern Seminary hosting the Carl F. H. Henry centennial celebration?
RAM: We are extremely proud and grateful to be hosting the centennial. The historical moments are very important. The 100th year anniversary of Carl Henry’s birth reminds us of how his life was framed by the 20th century. The 20th century was the age of radical social and intellectual transformation where all those things that happened in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries arrived at the popular level where all of a sudden the man on the street was affected by the intellectual changes that took place and the great moral revolution. Carl Henry was at the center of helping evangelicalism define itself over against fundamentalism and liberalism. It’s incredibly appropriate for us to step back and say 100 years after his birth, we’re thankful for the man and his contribution. We are wistful for his presence and grateful for his influence. But we also are not just looking at the man as important, even as titanic as he was, but we’re looking at evangelicalism today and realizing how much we need his model even now. Greg Thornbury** has made this point so well in his book, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, but I think we all want to be a part of the movement that Carl Henry would recognize were he to walk into the room today, to get the best from Carl Henry. The best intellectual engagement — the best academic aspiration — the best in his literary expression — the best in his global vision — and realize that on the other hand, we’re not going back 100 years to when Carl Henry was born. We’ve got a responsibility in the present. He would be the first among us to say that you better get at that.
JS: Anything else you want to say that you didn’t get a chance to say?
RAM: The question “Why here at Southern Seminary?” just points out the radical transformation of this institution. We want to host such an event and the radical change in the larger evangelical movement to where Southern Seminary is now the natural place, along with several very important colleague institutions and partnerships with us, for it to be here.