American Evangelicals in a Turning Time

by Carl C. F. Henry

Dr. Henry, who was founding editor of Christianity Today (1956-68), is now lecturer at large for World Vision International. He is author of the multivolume work God, Revelation and Authority.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 5, 1980 pp. 1058-1062. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christians may have to reconcile themselves to a growing misperception that Christianity is but one among the many living religions; worse yet, they may see their commitment to it increasingly detested and persecuted.

Will the world later in this century perceive Christianity as the global religion par excellence? I am now less inclined to think so than in 1970. We Christians may have to reconcile ourselves to a growing misperception that Christianity is but one among the many living religions; worse yet, we may see our commitment to it increasingly detested and persecuted. Even in the so-called free world, the educational metaview and the mass media’s value ratings are already exiling Christian distinctives. Communism’s vaunted world revolution, if it comes, will consign true Christians (not syncretists) to some gigantic Gulag.

Internal Weaknesses

I am even less sure of America’s world leadership role. The post-Vietnam era has placed in question our nation’s moral leadership, our political wisdom, our economic competence, even our military adequacy, and not least of all our national resolve and sense of fixed purpose. Leadership is God’s gift to a nation, forfeiture of leadership a divine judgment upon it. While military supremacy may discourage predator powers and military weakness encourage them, national influence suspended only on military advantage is tenuous at best. Tapering all problems to politico-economic and military decisions will collapse the human spirit. America not only faces formidable foreign foes but vacillates in countering internal weaknesses that threaten to lower the flag to half-staff permanently.

I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome paradidomai (I abandon, or I give [them] up) (Rom. 1:24 ff.) over America’s professed greatness. Our massacre of a million fetuses a year; our deliberate flight from the monogamous family; our normalizing, of fornication and of homosexuality and other sexual perversion; our programming of self-indulgence above social and familial concerns -- all represent a quantum leap in moral deterioration, a leap more awesome than even the supposed qualitative gulf between conventional weapons and nuclear missiles. Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgment.

It troubles me that some of my theological colleagues view such judgments on sexual vice as but a prudish and secondary preoccupation; they prefer, as they say, to gauge national well-being by our sensitivity to minorities and to poverty. I carry no flag for discrimination or for destitution, and readily acknowledge the importance of structural changes in society. But altered social conditions do not necessarily advance social justice. Insightful cultural concern, on the other hand, will reflect the New Testament’s strong indictment of sexual infidelity and will offer a spiritual alternative to ethical emptiness.

A Strangling Humanism

When judgment falls, it will be only a matter of academic debate whether it was the disunity of professing Christians, as ecumenists think, that frustrated the emergence of "the great world church," or whether it was the doctrinal compromises of ecumenical pluralists or the shortsighted squabbling of evangelical independents that spurred the breakdown of Western technological civilization. The final denouement will reflect, no doubt, not only the spirited rebellion of an unrepentant world order and the overruling providence of God, but also both evangelical and ecumenical causal factors. In any case, Asian, African and eastern European Christians are more prepared for suffering than are Western Christians. Will the Son of Man, when he comes, find faith in our crumbling penthouses and condominiums?

It seems to me that despite its priority for sociopolitical change, organized Protestantism shows little strength for stemming the secular tide. It ineffectively confronts the strangling humanism that permeates university learning and that shortchanges generations of young people. It powerlessly contests the mass media, particularly television, whose ideal image of humanity and portrayal of life styles depict Christian claims as obscurantist and archaic. By defecting from revealed truths and fixed ethical principles, neo-Protestantism weakens its mediating proposals; to compensate for a lack of intellectual and moral suasion it readily aspires to political power, The conflicting claims of the Mediator and the secular media, of the Archon and of academe, seem to me to represent decisive alternatives in the battle for public perception of the right and the good throughout the ‘80s.

We should commend the electronic church for its venturesome outreach to parched multitudes thirsting for what activists readily overlook in their assault on social structures -- namely, a personal faith. But much television religion is too experience-centered, too doctrinally thin, to provide an adequate alternative to modern religious and moral confusion. Yet critics of the charismatic movement all too easily forget that the spiritually reborn often naïvely accept all the marginal trappings attaching to their first discovery of the crucified and risen Redeemer. It is true, nonetheless, that charismatic religion may indeed become a catchall that shelters rival spiritual authorities and requires no specifically Christian profession whatever.

A Cognitive Vacuum

The dull theological edge of American Christianity desperately needs sharpening. No literate society can afford to postpone cognitive considerations, Why Christ and not Buddha? Why Christianity and not Hare Krishna? Why biblical theism and not process philosophy? Why the gospel and not amphetamines? Half-generation novelties in theology, I am persuaded, offer no adequate reply.

Yo-yo theology -- that is, perpetually restructured belief -- is less my forte than Yahweh theology, the "faith once-for-all delivered." Neither an evening with Bultmann in a Wiesbaden Weinhaus nor dinner with Tillich when he gave the Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen, nor that long walk with Brunner through the streets of Zurich, nor periodic chats with Barth in his Basel home shook my conviction that scriptural theism holds a logic absent from recent modern theology. In the writings of the bright-flashing contemporary stars, including the more angry apostles of revolution theology, I find an unfilled cognitive vacuum, one that leaves the mind merely a mood ahead of those skeptical critics intent on killing the Almighty.

It was not, to be sure, the logic of Christian theism that specially spurred me to Christian decision as a young newspaper reporter and editor, although any conviction of its illogic would have turned me away. Nor had I come to Christ, as have many others, by family inheritance or by churchly absorption. What piqued my curiosity was the inviting prospect, dangled by a university graduate, of what Jesus Christ can do for one who fully trusts him. Across the years I learned, however, that although Jesus Christ holds fast his own, one cannot confidently hold fast what Christ does unless one also embraces truth along with mercy and righteousness. The credibility of the Judeo-Christian revelation is what precludes reducing Christ to simply one option among many.

A decade ago I thought that late 20th century America might be on the move, however hesitantly, toward a theological renaissance. Even if Barth, Bultmann and Tillich, beyond their notable impact on seminaries, had little influence on the temper of the universities and on the mood of the churches, might not evangelical Christianity, I wondered, break out of its evangelistic halter? Might not evangelicals who were beginning to wrestle with sociopolitical concerns also take theology more seriously?

At present I see too little prospect of that. Instead of emphasizing the universal truth-claim exerted by the Bible upon the mind and conscience of all humankind, one spokesperson after another fulminates against evangelical "rationalism" and retreats to personal commitment. The notion of comprehensive culture-conditioning is met concessively rather than critically. The prevalent rejection of an objectively authoritative Scripture is countered by irresponsible polemic; instead of finding a communist under every bed it charts an enemy list within every evangelical enterprise. Where is the comprehensive sense of a mighty armory of revealed truth that calls to council the whole arena of modern learning?

Equating Justice with Socialism

Meanwhile, many ecumenically oriented seminaries, titillated by what is novel, and seemingly unable to learn from history, baptize anything revolutionary as the wave of the future. Neo-Protestant giants of the recent past, all but forgotten on much ecumenical turf, are now getting a more deferential, if belated, hearing on concessive evangelical campuses. Nonevangelicals are turning anew to the social gospel which equates biblical justice with socialism, sometimes reconstituting it as a "theology of hope" promoted by protest and pressure, and seeking allies among evangelical Sojourners. They project salvific universalism with new passion, emphasize ethical preaching more than theological consensus, reach for hermeneutical methods that confer biblical legitimacy on culture-oriented options; they consider doctrinal pluralism an enrichment that might foster a revival of COCU and perchance some link with Roman Catholicism.

All this adds up, as I see it, to little more than "whistling in the dark." The penetrating question that hangs over the ecumenical churches is not what form their global union might take, but whether denominations losing as many as a million members a year or making few adult converts will survive the 20th century.

I remain unpersuaded that any theological movement can dramatically affect the course of the world while its own leaders undermine the integrity of its charter documents, or while its spokespersons domestically exhaust all their energies in internal defense of those documents. The Bible stands impressively unshaken by the fury of destructive critics, while the nonbelieving world, itself marked for destruction, urgently needs to hear its singular message of salvation.

Lost Opportunities

While 40 million evangelical Protestants in the United States have immense resources to implement this Christian world task, they too often fritter away opportunities for joint endeavor, or expect to achieve every goal through too few and too limited programs. The besetting weakness of evangelicals is their lack of a comprehensive and coordinated strategy that welds intellectual, evangelistic and ethical resources into effective cooperation. This lack condemns them to a mainly reactionary course and a commentary role on the initiatives of nonevangelicals. The significant proportion of evangelicals within the ecumenically organized denominations has not -- even if some still hope to do so -- countered the drift to theological pluralism, to missionary and evangelistic retrenchment, to social-action priorities, to debatable hierachical commitments that some aroused church members and many of the clergy resent.

What do the well-attended evangelical churches portend for the future? What will be the impact of their burgeoning colleges marked by life-changing vitality and moral earnestness? What of the vocal church memberships that now increasingly demand a voice in public affairs?

During the 1960s I somewhat romanced the possibility that a vast evangelical alliance might arise in the United States to coordinate effectively a national impact in evangelism, education, publication and sociopolitical action. Such an alliance is not the same thing as a new denomination. Quite apart from the question of its desirability, the remote possibility of such a national evangelical alliance was both shaped and lost, it seems to me, by evangelist Billy Graham. Penetrating the so-called mainline denominations with an evangelical rallying point, the Graham crusades reached far beyond the orbit of the National Association of Evangelicals. As the tide of enthusiasm for pluralistic ecumenism began to ebb, the prospect emerged for a mighty evangelical movement that transcended secondary denominational distinctions; it held in promise a transdenominational link involving Southern Baptists, the National Association of Evangelicals, Missouri Synod Lutherans, perhaps some associates of the American Council of Churches, and large numbers of disaffected evangelicals in ecumenically affiliated churches whom the NAE seemed unable to attract. Christianity Today became during my editorship (1956-68) an intellectual fulcrum for these overlapping evangelical concerns.

Graham is himself a Southern Baptist. Although he had the personal magnetism to rally and garner an umbrella alliance, he hesitated to do so. For his crusades he sought the fullest possible ecumenical backing, even if it often came grudgingly. To call for an evangelical countermovement that might penetrate ecumenical ranks would have eroded ecumenical support for the crusades. Graham was simultaneously under NAE pressures to extend that organization’s paraecumenical opportunities. By the early 1970s the prospect of a massive evangelical alliance seemed annually more remote, and by mid-decade it was gone.

Obstacles arose not simply because of denominational differences but also because of rival goals. Instead of uniting on something feasible, evangelicals too often backed away from the best option only to support nothing.

Prospects for a national evangelical university to be located in the suburban New York area faltered in the ‘60s when some conferees pushed for a new Presbyterian seminary, others for a Bible college, still others for reinforcement of Wheaton as an already existing liberal arts college. Graham’s colleagues held that the evangelist should be personally rewarded with the presidency because of his unique access to necessary sources of endowment, but then opposed a university since administrative responsibilities would curtail evangelistic priorities.

New Movements to the Fore

In the ‘70s Christianity Today appealed more to lay readers and moved noticeably toward evangelical independency. The magazine gave only token support to Key ‘73, whose stimulus had come from an earlier editorial ("Somehow Let’s Get Together"). It viewed evangelical social action with high reservation, although the editor publicly indicated support of Nixon’s candidacy. Then, at the very time national newsmagazines spoke of "the year of the evangelical," Christianity Today turned more inward than outward by channeling all theological issues into the inerrancy debate. The present staff strives to redress these misjudgments.

Many evangelical subgroups representing special interests stepped into this vacuum of missed evangelical opportunity. Magazines like Sojourners, the Other Side and the Reformed Journal took antiestablishment positions; divergent Calvinistic and Arminian groups sought a revitalized influence; evangelical social-action groups arose with varying emphases. Additional movements came to the fore: World Vision’s spectacular global ministry of evangelical humanitarianism; the charismatic phenomenon; the flourishing electronic church; the new core of Roman Catholic evangelicals; the Fuller Theological Seminary’s pro-ecumenical stance and alignment with critical views of the Bible; ecumenical alliances by left-wing evangelicals; politically right-wing groups like Moral Majority.

Establishment evangelicalism was reinforced by the Billy Graham Center’s location at Wheaton College, by Christianity Today’s removal from Washington, D.C., to Chicago suburbs where evangelical independency has deep roots, and by formation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

Numerous crosscurrents now vex almost every effort at comprehensive evangelical liaison. At present no single leader or agency has the respect, magnetism or platform to summon all divergent elements to conference. Evangelical differences increasingly pose an identity crisis.

Intellectual Awakening

For all that, the strength of evangelical Christianity lies in its confident vision of the supernatural, its emphasis on revealed truths and divine commandments, its evangelistic energy and life-transforming power. That strength is all the more evident at a time when the most prestigious universities, the most influential media, and even many theologians lack any sure grip on these realities. Yet American evangelicalism is not as strong as its proponents think; it appears stronger than it is because of the disarray of ecumenical and of Catholic Christianity, as well as the ethical relativity and personal meaninglessness of secular life.

Noteworthy signs of evangelical intellectual awakening are in the wind, however. Within the American Philosophical Association, a Society of Christian Philosophers has emerged with impressive evangelical participation. Hundreds of evangelical scholars are completing specialized doctorates to prepare for teaching careers. The Institute for Advanced Christian Studies is sponsoring an important series of college textbooks on Christianity and modern intellectual concerns. Tens of thousands of university students have made evangelical commitments despite the counterthrust of radically secular humanism. From these young intellectuals will come a literate clergy and qualified academics to help realign liberal-arts learning in a quest for the whole truth.

Not only has Protestant ecumenism exerted little theistic impact upon the academic and media worlds, but its insistent demand for altered social structures has achieved few decisive changes. Many Christians find both major political parties objectionably laden with humanist perspectives.

As the author of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), I can only welcome the evangelical return to public involvement. Even if one regrets the neglect or absence of a comprehensive agenda and the pursuit, instead, of single-issue and single-candidate concerns, and regrets even more the lack of a governing political philosophy, the times and issues are such that open debate must be welcomed on as broad a platform as possible.

My mind-shifts during the past decade include a deepening conviction that justice is not self-defining and that divergent definitions of justice now plunge the modern world anew into a "struggle between the gods." I am convinced that only with great agony, and in view of the shoddy track record of recreant predatory powers, should the nation commit itself to ever more staggering military expenditures. Inflation may now be irreversible, a specter spawned by political leaders whom we entrusted to watch the storehouse. It may be also that Western middle-class affluence will soon be recognized not as the universal ideal but as a remarkable exception in human history, one bearing great stewardship opportunities and responsibilities for worldwide extension of the gospel and for helping the underprivileged to help themselves.

Ten years ago I put less emphasis on the requisite indictment of unjust structures. I remain less confident than social activists that any of us will achieve ideal alternatives, or even better structures. History beset by human perversity will find ideal alternatives only when the Messiah ushers in the new heaven and new earth. We must nonetheless try, guarding all the while against prejudicial and propagandistic notions of what is "better." To truncate the Christian mission simply to the changing of social structures profoundly misunderstands the biblical view of human nature and divine redemption. Yet we also truncate the gospel if we limit or circumvent the expectation that divine deliverance will extend "far as the curse is found."

Christ’s sinless life and his resurrection as the Crucified One carry assurance of his victory over all sin’s powers, including injustice and exploitation. To proclaim the criteria by which the Coming King will judge persons and nations, to exemplify those standards in the church as the new society, and to work for their recognition by the world -- these are irreducible aspects of the Christian summons to the forgiveness of sins and new life, and to the lordship of the risen and returning King.

Revelation and Culture

The key intellectual issue for the ‘80s, as I see it, will still be the persistent problem of authority. It will concern especially the problem of hermeneutics, and centrally the question of revelation and culture. Those who argue that revelation is enculturated will be unable to exempt their own pontifications. Christianity’s true immortals will insist that God addresses the truth of revelation objectively to all humans of whatever diverse cultures.

God, who has an eye on the poor, and perhaps specially on us 20th century theologians, in his infinite wisdom inscribed the Decalogue on tablets of stone (Deut. 4:13, 10:4) and spoke (Num. 22:28 ff.) by Balaam’s ass. God’s spokesmen may be confused, but the ass knows his master’s manger (Isa. 1:3); stones, no less than scrolls will praise God’s transcendent revelation (Luke 19:40) when Christ’s professing disciples are tongue-tied.