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The Evangelical Conscience Still Uneasy 70 Years Later

Written by Richard Mouw on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Richard Mouw

Editors’ note: Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” So to that end we continue our Rediscovering the Forgotten Classics series as we survey some forgotten and lesser-known Christian classics.

There are some books that are important to keep in print simply because they serve as instructive museum pieces. They give us glimpses into bygone eras, helping us to grasp the insights of creative thinkers who once wrestled with questions very different than the ones we presently face.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is no mere museum piece. To be sure, it has some museum-like qualities. It’s clearly a book written for the late 1940s. A devastating world war had recently ended, and many Americans were thinking about new cultural challenges, both national and international. Carl F. H. Henry and others who would soon come to be known as the leaders of a “neo-evangelicalism” were deeply concerned that those Christians known as “fundamentalists” or “evangelicals”—the terms were interchangeable at the time—were ill-equipped to address the crucial issues of the day.

This book is both a detailed complaint about evangelical failures and a call to renewal. And while both the complaints and the urgings for change are obviously meant for cultural conditions quite different from our own, there’s much in this little book that can continue to instruct and inspire all of us who care deeply about the cause of the gospel.

This book is both a detailed complaint about evangelical failures and a call to renewal. 

Needless to say, my fondness for this book has something to do with institutional pride. It was published in 1947, the year Fuller Theological Seminary began, and Carl Henry was one of our founding faculty members. The book was introduced with some brief comments by Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s founding president, and it’s clear both Henry and Ockenga saw it as setting an agenda of sorts for their fledgling theological school.

I often refer to The Uneasy Conscience when called on to explain the spirit that gave birth to Fuller Seminary. All the major elements of that founding vision are here in these pages: a deep commitment to a new kind of evangelical scholarship that would wrestle seriously with vital issues being raised in the large world of the mind; a hope for a more open evangelicalism that would transcend barriers erected by a separatistic mentality; and a profound desire to engage culture in all its created complexity.

Desperate Need

My own affection for this book, however, long predates my association with Fuller Seminary. I first read it as a college student in the late 1950s, and it’s one of the books that’s had a profound impact on my thinking. When I went on to graduate school, I was forced to deal with an intellectual agenda far more complex than anything I’d ever faced before. And I was presented with these new challenges just as the turmoil of “the radical 60s” began to pervade campus life. I felt ill-prepared for all of this by my spiritual upbringing, and I was seriously tempted to abandon my evangelical convictions as irrelevant to the new world I was experiencing.

But the memory of the case Henry had made in this little book was a steadying influence for me. Yes, the evangelicalism of the past half-century or so had failed in its intellectual and cultural obligations. But there was hope! Not only was it possible to promote an intellectually and culturally engaged evangelicalism, but a worldview based solidly on biblical authority was desperately needed in a social climate where the current theological options had in their own ways failed to provide satisfying answers to the deepest questions of the human spirit.

In that time when I greatly needed evangelical encouragement, I was encouraged in very specific ways by the contents of this book. In probing the dimensions of evangelicalism’s “uneasy conscience,” both Ockenga and Henry had already in the 1940s pointed to items that would later become key matters of social and political concern. In listing actual examples of evangelical failure, each had accused their fellow evangelicals of being on the wrong side of such issues as war, race, class, and “imperialism.” Their willingness to name these particular concerns—more than a decade before they’d come to loom large in my life—was important to me when I found myself in the cultural trenches during the 1960s.

Still Uneasy

None of that gets us much beyond museum-piece status, however. In what ways does this book still speak to us today? On a superficial level, it might seem Henry’s call for an evangelical activism that recognizes the need for a broad cultural involvement is no longer necessary.

In the 1970s, some 30 years after the book’s publication, a major news magazine featured a cover story proclaiming in bold letters that America was experiencing “the year of the evangelical.” And today the notion of a socially active evangelicalism is taken for granted. Indeed, the irony is that liberal Protestants, who once chided evangelicals for their lack of involvement in public life, are probably praying these days that the evangelical movement would revert to its otherworldly patterns!

The irony is that liberal Protestants, who once chided evangelicals for their lack of involvement in public life, are probably praying these days that the evangelical movement would revert to its otherworldly patterns!

But, truth be told, Bible-believing Christianity still suffers to some degree from an uneasy conscience. Henry’s call to action in the 1940s was not a mere summons to activism. It was an invitation to a cultural involvement based on the kind of profound theological reflection that could only be sustained by a social program closely linked to a systematic commitment to the nurturing of the life of the mind. And while the evangelical academy has known much scholarly success in recent decades, there’s often a considerable disconnect between grassroots evangelical activism and carefully reasoned theological orthodoxy. The agenda Henry laid out in this book still deserves sustained attention.

It must also be said that his actual suggestions as to what’s required in a well-formed biblical orthodoxy continue to ring true for many of us. While there’s much to celebrate in the successes of evangelicalism in recent years—both in grassroots ministries and in scholarly contributions—there are reasons to worry about tendencies in all sectors of contemporary evangelical life to dilute the proclamation of the gospel, as well as to negotiate too-easy settlements between evangelical thought and various manifestations of our “postmodern” culture.

Henry’s antidote to deviations from biblical truth in the 1940s speaks also to our own day. Christian cultural involvement in the multiple spheres of human interaction must continue to be articulated within what he labeled a “supernaturalistic framework.”

Our basic condition as human beings has not changed since the 1940s. We are—as Henry states with uncompromising clarity in these pages—rebels against the living God who are desperately in need of the regeneration that’s been graciously made available to us through the finished work at Calvary. Only by diligently working out the implication of that profound perspective on the nature of things can we hope to see our own uneasy consciences transformed into hearts that long to serve the One who rules over all creation.

Previously in this series:

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Richard Mouw’s foreword to The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947, 2003).

Richard Mouw is professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he served as president for 20 years (1993-2013). He received his BA from Houghton College, his MA from the University of Alberta, and his PhD at the University of Chicago. He formerly taught at Calvin College and the Free University of Amsterdam. He has published numerous books, including He Shines in All that’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace and Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.

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