Written in 1947 by new-evangelism’s most influential theologian, The Uneasy Conscience was a watershed book pushing evangelicals toward social engagement. Henry believed that Fundamentalists (used interchangeably with evangelicals at the time) had withdrawn from challenging and leading culture. Fundamentalists were concerned, he complained, almost exclusively with individual sins, not social evils (pp. 3, 7, 39). What evangelicals lacked was a developed organized campaign against injustice (p. 11). They needed to reclaim their seat at the table dealing with cultural ills and not leave the efforts to non-evangelicals, and whenever possible, Fundamentalists should unite with non-evangelicals for social betterment (pp. 78-80). Henry admits that for the most part the non-evangelical had already dismissed the Fundamental voice and reacted with either denunciation or silence (pp. 21, 34). However, it is time, he thought, to get back in the game and take a front row seat in the battle for justice.
To Henry’s credit he is clear that social betterment without the preaching of the gospel of redemption is of little value. Any social effort that leaves out salvation and regeneration is a “bubble and froth cure” (p. 13; cf pp. 15, 36, 37, 56, 57, 67, 73, 74, 76, 85, 86). And he is equally clear that the future kingdom of God will not be brought in by preaching the gospel but by the Second Advent of Christ (pp. 17, 42). Yet despite his weak attempt at providing biblical support for direct examples or instruction of New Testament social renewal (pp. 32-35, 86), Henry misses that the any effort in Scripture to change secular culture was indirect. It was through redemption, regeneration and sanctification of individuals that social sins were challenged and cultural morals improved. Jesus and the apostles did not offer a social program laced with the gospel in hopes of reducing cultural evil. They had a redemption program in which changed lives affected society. If enough lives were changed in a particular location then the morals of that area were also changed, which in turn impacted society. This is where Henry stumbles, as well as those who have followed in his footsteps. On a positive note, Henry never left the gospel out of his social improvement agenda. Unfortunately many do today.
With the hindsight of 70 years, despite all the efforts of evangelicals to engage and change culture, it must be admitted that our Western world has been in a moral free-fall for decades. Henry’s culturally engaging philosophy has not worked. Maybe it is time to return to the biblical program of personal redemption, which in some cases will change particular societies, but will always save and change lives.
The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, 2003), 89 pp. + xxii, paper $15.50.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel