Recovering the Fundamental Convictions of Cultural Engagement

In 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it, Henry calls evangelicals to a faith that engages the broader culture, one that proclaims and exemplifies the implications of the gospel for the day’s pressing issues.

Carl HenryThe book arose as a result of Henry’s concern over a growing trend for professing Christians of that day. The concern was rooted in churches’ overall engagement with culture. Some, believing the lie of theological liberalism, abandoned the primacy of gospel proclamation in their missionary efforts. Rather than addressing people’s deepest spiritual needs, these men and women focused all of their resources on remedying the physical and temporary needs of society. Liberal theologians, influenced by modernism’s rejection of the supernatural and its denial of man’s fallen nature, argued that the world’s problems are fundamentally material, not spiritual.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Henry saw the Fundamentalists. (Nowadays, that word has a negative connotation, but it has historically meant one who holds to the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity.) These evangelicals, largely reacting against the errors of theological liberalism, withdrew from society. Rather than addressing the pressing needs of the day, Fundamentalists largely cloistered themselves within the church. When these believers actually did interact with the culture, it was almost strictly to address spiritual needs.

Carl Henry wrote to bring balance to the two approaches. He did this by outlining two convictions that must be foundational in any Christian’s approach to engaging culture:

(1) That Christianity opposes any and every evil, personal and social, and must never be represented as in any way tolerant of such evil; (2) That Christianity opposes to such evil, as the only sufficient formula for its resolution, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. It rejects the charge that the Fundamentalist ideology logically involves an indifference to social evils, and presses the contention that the non-evangelical ideology involves an essential inability to right the world order (40).

Henry argued in his book that these two convictions would serve as guardrails, keeping the Church from swerving into the errors of the Fundamentalists or the theological liberals.

While Uneasy Conscience was published 68 years ago, it has much wisdom to offer the modern-day church, particularly younger evangelicals, as we seek to faithfully engage the culture around us. For many Christians—and I would include myself in this—years of seeing professing Christians use cultural influence for political and personal gain have produced an apathy for activism, a deep skepticism of any collective effort for social change. Right or wrong, this hesitancy to engage stems from a fear that one will become a hindrance to the actual solution, an unwilling partner to the religious parties, such as many involved in political Christianity, that have created much more alienation and pain than healing.

The solution, as Henry points out, is not avoidance of activism. Instead, Christians are called to hate sin and fight against it in all of its forms. Not acting against the evils that riddle this world is selfish and unloving.

Take, for instance, the issue of abortion. Planned Parenthood recently released their annual report, and it explained they were responsible for 327,653 abortions last year. That figure is horrifically staggering. For me or any other Christian to remain silent as masses of fellow image-bearers are slaughtered each year is unacceptable. This is not the only issue that deserves a fight, though. There is also human trafficking, racism, and a whole host of issues that are worth our efforts as God’s ambassadors here on earth.

Therefore, the Church must not tolerate the evil injustice that pervades the world. Instead, we are the peacemakers that live to bring justice and healing to the nations.

While many theological liberals in Henry’s day abandoned the primacy of gospel proclamation, this is also a temptation for some well-meaning Christians today, most of whom would affirm the utmost importance of the gospel. Christian activism is alive and well, particularly in the young adult demographic. I could fill my closet with shirts and other apparel sold to meet the physical needs of the impoverished and needy around the globe. Likewise, it is hip to speak out against the greed and materialism of Western culture, while opting for the simple lifestyle of locally-grown produce and consignment shop clothing.

It’s possible to fill your calendar with local fundraisers and activities promoting social justice around the globe, all the while neglecting to share the gospel with your neighbor across the street. This is where Henry’s second conviction is vital. Christians should zealously pursue justice and social well-being around the word while understanding that true peace and reconciliation comes only through the life-transforming power of the gospel.

This world has been deeply fractured by the effects of sin, and its problems—our problems— are far too great for manmade solutions. We need God to work a miracle to bring restoration and healing to the world, and this is exactly what happens as our triune God works through the verbal proclamation of the gospel. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work when men and women hear and believe the gospel. The spiritual dead are raised by the life-giving power of the Spirit. Our highest goal, then, is to spread the Good News of Christ to all those we encounter.

Carl Henry’s plea in 1947 still deserves a hearing from the church in 2015. As we wrestle with the issue of how to wisely and faithfully interact with culture around us, he sagely encourages us forward. Don’t settle for retreat or responding without the salve of the gospel. Rather, let us be those who hate wickedness in all of its forms and those who see the gospel as the ultimate solution to that sin and wickedness.


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