How Carl Henry Saved a Young Philosopher’s Life

thornbury2A Christianity Today essay by King’s College president Greg Thornbury entitled “How I Almost Lost My Faith” tells a remarkable story. In college, Thornbury was struggling with a crisis of faith. It was brought on by what is called “historical criticism”:

After high school, I attended a Christian liberal arts college. In the first semester of my freshman year, I signed up for a course with a brilliant, articulate, recently minted DPhil graduate of Oxford University. The textbook for our introduction to the Bible course was Jesus: A New Vision, by Marcus J. Borg, a prominent fellow of the Jesus Seminar. The scholarly project intended to discover “the historical Jesus” apart from creedal commitments or church teaching.

In that volume, Borg coolly explained that Jesus had never claimed to be the Son of God and had never thought of himself as Savior. We learned that the Bible was a pastiche of traditions and sources, cobbled together mainly in the second century. Our task as biblical interpreters was to unravel what was “authentically Jesus” from mythology and church tradition.

This exposure to anti-biblical thinking very nearly robbed Thornbury of his faith: “For me, this dose of higher criticism was nearly lethal.”

It can be a lonely endeavor to face such hefty scholarship as a young evangelical. Sometimes one can feel like there are precious few intellectual Christian resources. But Thornbury’s father, a gifted pastor, had an idea for his son: read the work of theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Thornbury did, and found himself blown away by Henry’s engagement with high-level philosophy.

Henry helped secure my faith because he was doing more than responding tit-for-tat to higher critics of the Bible’s historical reliability. Henry did that, but he went one step further: He brought philosophical gravitas to God, Revelation, and Authority. His focus was broad. He addressed epistemology—how we can know the truth, which was my primary concern as an undergraduate philosophy student. I had come within a whisker of losing my faith. But because Henry was a philosopher defending biblical authority, I rallied.

Years later, Henry’s effect was not lost on Thornbury: “Humanly speaking, had it not been for the first editor of Christianity Today, the theologian with a titanic brain and a journalist’s pen, I could have gone the other way.”

Read the whole piece.

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I find this story deeply inspiring. It speaks to the role that the intellect can play in the Christian life. Many Christians love to think. Too often, they are not well-fed by the church. Carl Henry represents a major evangelical figure who knew the power of biblical thinking. He is our Barth. Because he himself engaged with leading theologians and philosophers, he was able to provide ballast for gifted young intellectuals like Thornbury.

It is not too much to say that his dense, erudite books–particularly God, Revelation, and Authority–saved the life of a young thinker. This is proof-positive that scholars are not wasting their time by producing works of scholarship. By this I don’t mean popularized material, which is great and needed. I mean the up-in-the-clouds stuff, the scholarship that can frankly seem pointless to some folks. If done well, Christian scholarship can make a profound contribution to the church, and in particular those within the church who love the life of the mind.

I cover Henry’s effect on evangelicalism in my forthcoming academic monograph, Awakening the Evangelical Mind (Zondervan, fall 2015), mentioned here. Thornbury’s testimony, given also in his insightful Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, is yet another example to me of the importance of the group called the “neo-evangelicals.”

They are not well-known today, but they made their mark.

(Image: Brad Guice)

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