The greatest intellectual leader of the evangelical movement of the 20th century quietly passed away in his sleep at a retirement home in Watertown, Wisconsin, on December 7, at the age of 90.  A scholar with the heart of an evangelist, Dr. Henry represented all of the strengths of the new evangelicalism, while exhibiting few of its flaws.

Often called “the thinking man’s Billy Graham,” Dr. Henry, along with Harold Ockenga and Graham (his friend from Wheaton College), was one of the architects of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s.  The three concluded that fundamentalism had become too sectarian and anti-intellectual to be able to speak the truth of the Gospel to the neopagan culture that had emerged in the United States following World War II.

Ockenga coined the term neo-evangelicals to describe Protestants who remained committed to the fundamentals of Protestant Christianity but repudiated the cultural isolationism of the fundamentalists.  Using the platform of the mass “crusade”—and, later, the powerful medium of television—Billy Graham quickly became the movement’s figurehead.  Dr. Henry, however, was its chief intellectual force, writing The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), in which he called for a repudiation of extreme separatism among those who cherish the Gospel.

This was not a mere call to niceness, however.  Fundamentalism, charged Henry, was bereft of a cogent theology and intellectually unprepared to do battle with the forces of modernity.  Holing up in Bible colleges and engaging in increasingly vituperative polemics over relatively less significant doctrinal matters had stultified fundamentalists’ witness before a watching world.  Furthermore, he argued, their dispensational theology (which held, among other things, that, in these, the “last days,” the Church’s primary mission was to guard against apostasy, not to seek unity) not only fostered fundamentalists’ separatist mentality but prohibited them from engaging in any meaningful social action.  This “Christ against culture” mentality (as H. Richard Niebuhr would later term it), in turn, helped to engender hostility toward the Gospel, contributing to the rapid decay of Western civilization on these shores and fulfilling the fundamentalists’ own prophecy of latter-day chaos.  The neo-evangelicals, Henry recalled in a 1996 interview with Christianity Today, needed to bear “the costly burden of creating an evangelical scholarship in a world that’s in rebellion.”

Dr. Henry’s life was devoted to just that.  Chief among his enterprises was the production of his six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority, in which he painstakingly outlined all of the challenges toward biblical inerrancy and authority set forth by liberal and neo-orthodox theologians—and refuted them.  Unlike the fundamentalists, who advocated the barest knowledge of Barth or Tillich, Dr. Henry insisted on intimate knowledge of the spectrum of modernist theology in order that, by contrast, the propositional claims of historic Christianity might be shown to be rational and sound.

Henry aided Ockenga in the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, as a place for inculcating in young evangelical seminarians a deep knowledge of biblical theology.  At Graham’s request, he left his post at Fuller to serve as the founding editor of Christianity Today, which became the standard-bearer for the new evangelicalism and provided an alternative to the liberal Christian Century.  After leaving CT in 1968, he continued to write, lecture, and preach the Gospel, teaching courses at Fuller, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Gordon-Conwell.

Dr. Henry’s erudition and wit were perhaps best illustrated at a program honoring Karl Barth.  When Dr. Henry publicly introduced himself as the editor of Christianity Today, Barth cracked, “Christianity Today, or Christianity Yesterday?”  Henry replied, “Yesterday, today, and forever.”

Sadly, Dr. Henry lived to see evangelicalism develop its own uneasy conscience, as it moved from engaging the dying American culture to embracing it.  Essentially a pandenominational movement, evangelicalism has struggled to establish sturdy theological moorings and, even now, cannot decide whether to allow the advocates of the new “openness theology” within its ranks.  (Last October, the Evangelical Theological Society voted—though not without protest—to allow Clark Pinnock, who teaches that God cannot know the future and is bound, to some extent, by the constraints of time, to retain membership.)  And some of the seminaries in which Dr. Henry invested so much of his life have become theological smorgasbords offering everything from Greek grammar to the slick marketing techniques of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church.

The day before Dr. Henry died, Fuller Theological Seminary was featured in the Los Angeles Times because of its new project, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, to promote mutual understanding with Muslims, which includes restrictions on making “offensive statements” about Islam and prohibits anyone working on the project from proselytizing the followers of Muhammad.  According to the Times, “the project proposes . . . to convene two national conferences of Christian and Muslim scholars to develop parallel peacemaking practices based on the Koran and other Islamic sources.”  Sometimes, as Dr. Henry said decades ago, “it is the theologians who need to be evangelized.”