Reclaiming Carl Henry

President Gregory Thornbury seeks to revitalize evangelist Carl Henry's legacy as his inspiration for devotion to the cause of The King's College.

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As a freshman in college, Gregory Thornbury’s faith was shaken by historical critical approaches to the Bible that describe its formation in purely human terms. Dr. Thornbury found that neither his high school mentors nor the books they recommended could answer his doubts. Then, he remembered his father’s esteem for Carl Henry. Dr. Thornbury went to the college library and began reading Carl Henry’s six-volume magnum opus God, Revelation, and Authority. It was a turning point for Dr. Thornbury. Henry engaged modern biblical critics and showed them how the Bible presents us with a coherent and trustworthy metanarrative. “Here was a philosopher/theologian of astonishing erudition and a titanic intellect,” Dr. Thornbury wrote. “If this guy can believe in biblical inerrancy, then I can too.”This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Carl Henry, and Dr. Thornbury is devoting his energies to recovering Henry’s legacy. Earlier this year, Dr. Thornbury published a book on the life and influence of Carl Henry, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, which has been featured in Christianity TodayBooks and Culture, and The Christian Scholar’s Review. In the next two months, Dr. Thornbury will speak at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at conferences commemorating Carl Henry. Dr. Thornbury looks back to the Carl Henry era as a time when evangelicalism was “upbeat, confident, and engaged.” Billy Graham reached millions of Americans with his Crusades. Francis and Edith Schaeffer ministered to thousands of hippies, artists, and university students at L’Abri. Christian rock musician Larry Norman recorded with MGM Records and toured with Janis Joplin and the Doors.Carl Henry provided the philosophical and epistemological foundations for evangelicalism to flourish. In the tradition of the Reformation, Henry proclaimed confidence that through the Bible and through Jesus of Nazareth we can discover the meaning of human existence. Henry popularized this theological principle through institutions and publications that he helped to found, such as Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, the Lausanne Congress, and First Things.Positioned between reactionary fundamentalism and denominational liberalism, evangelicalism became the most energetic brand of American Christianity in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, Henry is out of fashion in evangelical circles, often dismissed as a cold rationalist by people who have never read him. Dr. Thornbury believes this is one reason for evangelicalism’s loss of vitality and cultural relevance.Carl Henry was born in Manhattan on East End Avenue. In 1960, Carl Henry and Billy Graham called for American evangelicals to establish a Christian university in Manhattan with a brilliant faculty that would prepare students to lead strategic institutions. Henry wrote that this college would be “devoted to the biblical revelation of God, of man, and the world” and would “supply a steady stream of spiritual leaders to all professions and vocations.” Henry and Graham never succeeded in opening their college, but they passed on a dream that Dr. Thornbury is helping to fulfill as President of The King’s College.

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