R&L: Dozens of denominations and groups claim to be evangelical. Can you give us a definition of what the word means?
Henry: Catholicism and Protestantism have in modern times both had vocal orthodox and liberal elements. Orthodox Protestants were called Fundamentalists because they insisted on the great biblical basics or fundamentals. Modernist control of evangelically-founded schools and institutions and its abandonment of miraculous supernaturalism left to Fundamentalists the demanding fulfillment of world evangelism and missions. As modernist ecumenical bureaucracies aggressively expounded a “social gospel” (essentially a socialist ideology), Fundamentalism withdrew from the larger cultural arena in order to concentrate on soul-winning.
The term Evangelical marked an advance beyond the extreme separatism of Fundamentalism, a fuller concern with cultural engagement, and an emphasis on serious academic and apologetic engagement. The term focused on the evangel, that is, the ‘good news’ that God offers to sinful mankind forgiveness and a new spiritual life on the ground of Christ’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection.
R&L: In the 1950’s, you voiced concern about the lack of critical scholarship among evangelicals. Have conditions improved since then?
Henry: Today, hundreds of evangelical scholars hold earned doctorates in many fields from the best universities. Many serve on evangelical college and seminary faculties and others bring to their pastoral leadership of churches a sturdy theological emphasis. Today evangelical scholars contribute exegetical and theological books and literature on a par with, and in some cases surpassing literature produced by others. The failure of American evangelicals to establish a major Christian university in a great metropolitan center, however, was a costly mistake.
R&L: What, in your view, is the proper role of the state? What are its limitations?
Henry: The role of the state is to preserve justice, not to define it–that is God’s prerogative. The state is to guarantee equality before the law. It is to preserve human rights including religious freedom as the basic right, although it is not to promote one cult or religion at the expense of others. Recent naturalistic theory has separated law and morality and has insisted on complete separation of church and State.
Since the sixteenth century, sovereignty has been considered the state’s basic attribute. Christians deny that the state is free to do whatever it desires. To emphasize limitations, critics wary of state power have invoked international law, natural law, general revelation, scriptural precept and human rights principles. The American Declaration of Independence considers it a role of the state to guard life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The latter has routinely been warped by interpreters who minimize the qualifier “the pursuit of” and then blend the emphasis into notions of a welfare state in a move toward socialist and communist theory.
R&L: What is your explanation for the increasing role of government in our lives? Have Christians been negligent by allowing this to happen?
Henry: I hesitate to put the matter simply in terms of “more” or “less” government. It is true, of course, that the aggrandizement of power tends to corrupt. But government can be “good” or “bad,” and we cannot have too much “good government,” and the less “bad government” we have the better. Put more precisely, government is ideally just. No improvement can be made on a just government. The notion that government is ideally benevolent leads to the so-called welfare state. And the notion that the less government we must endure, the better, can lead to chaos.
Given the fact that in man’s sinful condition the accumulation of power leads readily to oppressive rule, a republican form of government is far preferable to totalitarianism. However, without shared beliefs, values and institutions, democracy can slip into chaos. Two emphases are therefore necessary. For one, the great biblical principles must under gird democratic ideals; without them democracy tends to decline toward relativism. Secondly, we must acknowledge that the only time when truth and right will universally prevail is at the final judgement.
Yet there is no doubt that national government not only has reflected the preferences of powerful minority opinion blocs in society but that it also has been encroaching more and more on legitimate human liberties. The increase of government no doubt also reflects an effort to compel the citizenry to do what it ought to do voluntarily. The loss of volition is one of the serious afflictions of our society. Our cultural predicament is multiple: humans do not practice the truth they know, and their confusion over what is good and right is multiplied by the loss of shared absolutes.
R&L: How can churches reverse this trend?
Henry: Christians have no mandate to impose revelatory beliefs and morality upon society in general. But we are divinely obliged to live by the word and commandment of God, and to proclaim worldwide the principles by which God now judges and will finally judge mankind and the nations. The role of the Church is to exhibit the truth and joy of God and to evangelize the earth. Yet Christians are citizens of two worlds, the eternal and the temporal. They are to be salt, and light, and leaven. They should be politically active to the limit of their ability and competence. To neglect participation in the political order is to forfeit to others all political determination.
R&L: Have the churches failed in fulfilling their obligations to the needy?
Henry: That the churches have failed (in whatever regard) is a theme trumpeted often by secular critics. Quite apart from them, some radical Christians engage in breast beating that blames the churches for most of the failures of society. Trace the history of compassion for the needy, however, and you will find Christ and the Bible at its heart. Virtually all the humanitarian movements of modern society took their rise in the theology of the Cross. Yet the imperative of ministering to the needy is ever with us. It is a duty of Muslims and Hindus no less than of Christians. But Christians may well lead the way, since they know that all humans bear the imago dei even if flawed, and that Christ died for the ungodly. The Christian gives to others in need “in Jesus’ name” and he knows that economic sufficiency provides opportunity for such ministry. Apart from meeting survival needs, one of the first tasks should be to help the needy become self-sufficient.
R&L: Could you comment on the recent evangelical debate over the morality of free-market economics?
Henry: A small but vocal evangelical left blames “rich Christians” for the economic poverty of others, and regards quasi-socialist economics as a heavenly alternative. Since the collapse of Marxism, however, they speak more and more critically of free-market capitalism. Some seem to champion a “third way,” a confusing category long explored by the World Council of Churches.
There is among champions of free-market economics some debate as to whether it is answerable to external moral criteria, or whether it is morally self-correcting. In the modern media age it is possible for shysters to do immense injury before the law can overtake them. The miscarriage of free-market capitalism by opportunists in Russia and other Eastern European countries, by those who consider capitalism only a means of personal enrichment at the expense of others, attests to costly consequences of such exploitative economics.
But that is another thing than indicting free-market capitalism as an evil rather than affirming it as the boon it has been. What is needed is moral leadership by our great entrepreneurs and an exhibition of the difference that capitalism has made in the economic plight of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea.
R&L: Please elaborate on the current realignment of churches along “political”–rather than denominational (theological) –lines.
Henry: The politicizing of American churches can be traced to the determination of the Federal Council of Churches (forerunner of the National Council) to impose its special agenda on affiliated congregations. The Federal Council was a creation of the denominations, but through its reigning bureaucracy those very churches in turn became, in effect, creatures of the ecumenical movement. Modernism finally ceased to be an identifiable theology and became a socio-political ideology called the “social gospel.”
The supportive constituencies, unable to bring about a return to historic doctrinal standards, began limiting their support only to approved projects. But so adamant were the forces of change that the denominations soon became arenas debating rival views of abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and other concerns. Vast membership losses ensued, and charitable giving declined. Conservatives who remained did so on the ground that the denominations belong conceptually not to the radically new movements but rather to the historical founders whose principles are to be perpetuated.
R&L: What are the long term prospects for a political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants?
Henry: A political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants has been in the making for a decade. Its objective has been to prevent the humanistic-naturalistic view of life from deluging the cultural arena, and to preserve some presence of Judeo-Christian values in secular society.
The supports for Catholic-Evangelical co-belligerency are currently being somewhat shifted in the direction of theological congeniality. The emphasis is that conservative Catholics and Evangelicals have in common the great ecumenical creeds, that many Catholics are affirming the authority of the Bible and that young Evangelicals are increasingly interested in Catholic liturgy.
But political alliance will likely best be advanced if specific objectives are identified, and if the discussion of theological consensus is preserved as a separate agenda. Even in the realm of political philosophy, the topics of natural law and of a particular political philosophy, are not beyond debate.
Yet it would promote national tragedy if shared political concerns were muffled in this time of cultural crisis simply because specific objectives are not clearly identified.