Carl Henry’s Greatest Failure and Success

henryFound this in a poignant Christianity Today tribute to Henry written by his old friend Kenneth KantzerHenry’s “greatest failure” according to Kantzer, former dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, involved a failed plan for a “great Christian university”:

“From his student days, Carl dreamed of a great Christian university modeled after sixteenth-century Wittenberg or Geneva. He dreamed of drawing the best and brightest young minds, preparing them, and sending them out to win the minds and hearts of men and women to the gospel and an unequivocal evangelical faith.

Great ideas die hard, but it was not to be. Perhaps the idea was ill-advised. Augustine taught us a millennium-and-a-half ago that Christianity is best understood not high in an ivory tower, but in the roaring thoroughfares of real life. In the radical pluralism of the modern world, a thousand rays of light may penetrate better than a single beam from a lighthouse.”

In Kantzer’s mind, Henry’s “greatest success” also involved education:

“Carl’s greatest success was in his lifelong battle to demonstrate the inner unity of a coherent world-and-life view to living meaningfully in a world falling apart. He taught, in fact, with great power that the only world-and-life view that can ultimately satisfy the human mind and heart is compatible with, and finds its only rationale in, biblical theism and evangelical Christianity.

I believe that 50 to 100 years from now, if our Lord has not yet returned to usher in his kingdom of righteousness and peace, Carl will be remembered as one person who, in a confusing age, held forth the solid middle of a faith that fortifies the whole human person against the fraying ends of irrationalism and superstition.”

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Here’s the entirety of the Kantzer piece. These comments from Kantzer encourage those of us who are concerned with Christian higher education in both university and seminary form to reflect on the strengths and limitations of our dreams.  Though I do not think it is impossible to hope for an evangelical institution of the size and stature of a Notre Dame, I do think that history shows that many ventures attempting this feat have failed.

Why is this?  Well, there are lots of reasons.  One that I mull over is whether the Lord will allow evangelicalism to establish the kind of academic beachhead so many of would like.  Oftentimes, the Lord frustrates our greatest visions, our most ambitious schemes, only to use smaller, less dramatic, less initially impressive means to accomplish His aims.

It is not wrong to work toward the kind of “great Christian university” spoken of in the above assessment of Henry’s momentous, God-glorifying life.  Eminent Christian leaders like David Dockery, Robert Sloan, and Duane Litfin have given great energy and attention to this effort.  But with that said, those of us who have such hopes and dreams must always remember that while the Lord sometimes grants us such a victory, He is also often pleased to use the local church, the humble, unspectacular outpost of His gospel, to accomplish His purposes.

This need not defer our dreams.  But it should inform our plans.  It should also shape the way we think about Henry’s life, even as we celebrate his incredible accomplishments, his massively beneficial writing ministry, and his legacy of service to schools like TEDS, Southern Seminary, and many more besides.


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