Richard J. Mouw is professor of Christian philosophy and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He writes the blog Mouw’s Musings and has published many books with Eerdmans, including Praying at Burger King and He Shines in All That’s Fair.
In honor of our anniversary year, we asked Mouw to write about a book that is central to Fuller’s mission and that first stirred evangelicals to action: Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.
When the Eerdmans folks asked me, back in 2003, to write a foreword to a new edition of Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947, I did not have to think twice about whether or not to do it. For one thing, I like the Eerdmans company. When I was first starting out in my academic career — teaching philosophy at Calvin College — Eerdmans was a kind of second intellectual “home” to me. They published my first two books (and several later ones), and I was very involved as an editor of The Reformed Journal — which was the company’s marvelous labor-of-love gift to the Reformed and evangelical world. And Eerdmans was a place where I formed some of my most lasting friendships.
But the assignment to help with a re-publishing of the Henry book in particular was also attractive in its own right. The book played an important role in my personal journey. Many folks these days, especially those who were not around in the 1950s and ’60s, may find it surprising that there was a time when evangelicals — generally thought to be an important voting bloc in present day American politics — were chided by many for being “a-political.” When I began to struggle with questions about political discipleship in the turbulent ’60s, the discovery that Carl Henry had already issued his critique of evangelicalism’s “uneasy conscience” two decades before was a matter of great encouragement.
His book took on a new meaning for me when I became president of Fuller Seminary in 1993. Henry was a member of the first faculty at Fuller, and The Uneasy Conscience appeared in the same year that the seminary was founded. Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s founding president, had written the introduction to Henry’s book, and it was clear that he and Henry saw the critique of evangelicalism embodied in the book as a manifesto for “the new evangelicalism” — for which they saw Fuller as an important think tank. I still see the agenda laid out in Henry’s book — emphasizing the need for careful scholarship, active social engagement, and an “ecumenical” evangelicalism — as central to Fuller’s mission.
Both Henry and Ockenga get quite specific in the pages of The Uneasy Conscience about what they see as the shortcomings of the evangelicalism of their day. Reading their 1947 list of evangelical sins today not only gives a glimpse into a past era but also paints what seems to be a surprisingly “prophetic” portrait of the future. Ockenga, for example, criticizes “the Bible-believing Christian” of his day of having been “on the wrong side of social problems, such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc.,” and Henry offers a similar list: “aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management.”
It took several decades before evangelicals began actively to pursue those areas of concern, and they still need to address several of the items with more intensity (although I am sure that Ockenga and Henry wouldn’t be happy about the fact that the informal activist strategizing that does take place among evangelicals these days often happens in pubs and bars!).
Much has changed in the social role played by evangelicalism in the larger culture since Henry issued his manifesto in the immediate post-World War II years. During his stint as editor of Christianity Today, and in his subsequent work as an itinerant scholar, Henry was often unhappy with the ways in which a younger generation took up the causes he had espoused. This was clear when a group of us gathered in Chicago during the early 1970s to draft “the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns.” Henry was there — and he regularly dissented from some formulations of the issues we addressed. In the end, though, he signed the statement with the rest of us. In doing so, he gave his blessing to an agenda that he clearly was not quite comfortable with in its entirety. I like to think that, for all of his misgivings, he did not want to leave that gathering with an uneasy conscience!