Christianity Today? Redeeming Evangelical Relevancy
This week Christianity Today ran a short article commemorating the 100th birthday of its deceased founder, Carl F.H. Henry. Henry is worthy of memory; aside from the aforementioned magazine, he gave us Fuller Theological Seminary and he was a key signatory on the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. He was passionately engaged in both doctrine and Christian work. Henry is largely a microcosm of the shift from early 20th-century “fundamentalism” (a rather vague term) to where things in America stand now–early 21st century “evangelicalism” (also a nailing-jello-to-the-wall kind of term). The article goes so far as to call him “the man who birthed evangelicalism”.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably owe Carl Henry some attention (unless your name is Al Mohler, in which case you’ve paid your debt). I know I do. I bought his six-volume God, Revelation and Authority (GRA) as an undergraduate, but quickly lost interest when (a) the first few chapters did almost nothing to grab my attention and, in fact, seemed a bit dated and simplistic; and (b) when I realized that virtually no one I encountered in either person or in paper showed even a passing interest in what Henry had to say. Since neither of these is a sufficient condition for dismissal, and since I remain in a theological movement that Henry helped along, he’s probably worth at least a little attention–even if only for the purpose of learning about ourselves, although hopefully also for the purpose of learning more about what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but one of the things I do know about Henry and the evangelical movement he mid-wived is that it has been marked by a peculiar concern with relevancy. GRA is a contemporary epistemology in the guise of a systematic theology, or perhaps the other way around. It begins by laying out a “crisis”, a “cosmic struggle”, and “the bewilderment of our age”. It very much reminds me of the modus operandi of Francis Schaeffer, who likes to give a genealogy of the degeneracy of our contemporary age–so wicked and confused in comparison to bygone eras–in order then to lead us back to the promised land of a Christian epistemology that will allow us to appreciate beauty, have confidence in God’s existence, and–especially this–know how to convince the world of God’s truth again. It’s about relevance–you don’t name your magazine Christianity Today unless you are self-conscious about making sure your theology and practice can keep pace with the times. I would argue that this ethos continues to drive the American evangelical movement (which in turn has at least some impact on global Protestantism). We spend a massive amount of time, energy, and resources on being relevant (where relevancy = a socially palatable presentation (form) of the Christian gospel (content)). Some of us succeed, some of us fail, but this is an almost (!) ubiquitous factor in the life of evangelical Christianity.
Here is a very critical reflection on this enduring preoccupation of evangelicalism.
Our ethos of concern for relevancy assumes that we have an accurate grasp on the content of the gospel. This makes way for the assumption that the form of Christian witness is something that we are responsible for–it is ours to discern. And so we shift our attention to all the pressing needs of “today”, attempting to figure out what might be the most successful delivery method of this precious cargo–the gospel. It may be that we are consigned to this Sisyphean race against irrelevancy. There is another possibility though. We could reject the null hypothesis. We could spot the fault in the definition of relevancy.
It is an outrageous, if implicit, blasphemy when Christians claim to have the content of the gospel down. If the gospel is equivalent to the claim that “Jesus is Lord” (robustly understood), then to claim to have achieved mastery of that content is a contradiction in terms. This is a dramatic reversal, exchanging the lordship of Jesus for self-rule. Therefore, a preoccupation with relevancy of form is a declaration that the gospel is no longer known or heard.
Jesus is Lord–the LORD. This is evidenced when the eternally begotten Son creates–from nothing–a human body and takes up residence among humankind. The entire existence of this man is the repetition of God’s eternal lordship. Here Jesus Christ takes on a “form” (Phil 2:6) that is not separate from, or accidental to, the eternal content of God’s life. He lives in such a way that he declares who God is for us (or, if you prefer, we learn who is “God for us”). This is right here the content and form of the gospel–inseparably united. There is no need, and indeed no room, for a choice about this form. This is why the apostle Paul can write of his aim: “I desired to know nothing (!) among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Or if we want a description of the apostolic ministry itself, it can only be seen as an extension of Christ’s ministry (Col 1:24). And Paul has no interest in Christians being formed, but ardently hopes that somehow Christ would take form in them (Gal 4:19).
It sounds so simple, and perhaps for that reason will be written off, but in this last paragraph there is an ample sketch of the way Christian ministry (Christian life, really) should unfold. First, It will be radically Christ-centred, bound to Christ alone for both content and form. Its aim will not be to master the gospel content, but continually to be mastered by this content. The concrete mode of this submission to the living Christ will be through submission to the scriptures. All–all!–ministry must be focused on hearing the divine Word. Second, it will necessarily be an extension of Christ’s life–the togetherness of God and man. For Christ this meant perfect obedience and vicarious sacrifice. For Christians it means repentance and gratitude. Third, it will be the miracle of God’s action in us, and not our action alongside his. This does not throw us into passivity, which is nothing more than another form of self-willing, but rather it puts us in the place of prayer.
Scripture, repentance and gratitude, and prayer. All mediations to us of the living Christ’s lordship. This is relevancy, but not to culture abstractly considered; it is a form relevant to its content. This would be a truly evangelical relevancy. It is Christianity yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Heb 13:8). I am quite certain that this is what Carl Henry wanted evangelicalism to be, even if some faulty assumptions made it into the genesis of the movement.