A “Redemptive Foundation” For Evangelical Social Justice

Carl F. H. Henry - Wikipedia
Photo of Carl Henry, trailblazer of modern evangelicalism

Evangelicals are continuing their handwringing over social justice and related terms. The latest one to make national headlines due to its recent denunciation by the Trump administration is “critical race theory.” With the 2020 election coming up, Trump has cleverly tapped into the fears of the collective consciousness of his white evangelical voting base. Much has been made in recent years about “critical race theory” in evangelical circles, with some referring to it as merely an “analytical tool” from which to glean certain insights and others referring to it as a “godless ideology.”

What is critical race theory? In simplest terms, critical race theory (or “CRT”) is the name for a diverse field of study (in reality, covering many different approaches) that aims to examine how things like racial inequality can be perpetuated in the power dynamics and power structures of a culture and society. It began when it was noticed that much of the progress that was made during the Civil Rights Movement seemed to have been stalled, stunted, and even reversed for much of the black community. This remained largely invisible to the white community because they remained largely unaffected by these subtle and subversive factors.

I have written several times about how I believe that there is a biblical basis for social justice, even if biblical social justice will also inevitably depart from the world’s version at times and at several points (see here, here, and here for example). But how can evangelical Christians approach things like critical race theory? It is not the purpose of this blogpost to examine the claims or utility of CRT in depth here, other than to say that it has both helpful and unhelpful aspects to it (or “pros and cons”). Plenty of others much more qualified than I am have already taken it upon themselves to write about its insights and limitations from a Christian worldview (for example, here, here, here, here, and here).* Rather, what I would like to do here is to propose a way forward that evangelicals can take when approaching things like social justice and critical race theory, without yielding to the extremes of uncritical acceptance or outright rejection.

And to do this, I will be drawing from one of the key figures in twentieth century evangelical history: Carl F. H. Henry. 

Co-belligerency for the Common Good

Carl Henry was one of the originators and architects of the modern evangelical movement as it took shape in the mid-twentieth century (and he was a personal friend of Billy Graham).[1] As I wrote at the end of my latest post, Henry was caught between hardcore conservatives that wanted to “just preach the gospel” while overlooking its social implications and liberals that cared about social justice but discarded the gospel altogether (an approach that was often referred to as the “social gospel”). Like his colleagues that would form the basis of the mainstream, new “evangelical” movement, Henry wanted to pave a “third way” that didn’t fall to either extreme.[2]  

Henry bemoaned the fact that the movements for social reform were spearheaded by “non-evangelical” groups.[3] He and others felt that their fellow conservative Christians were surrendering their witness to the broader society and culture,[4] and called on evangelicals to join in causes for justice and reform.[5] Henry called for evangelical Christians to stand against social injustices in the name of Jesus Christ, “both within their own groups and within other groups.” But he always insisted on the need for Christians to pursue justice from a distinctly Christian framework and “worldview.”

Against the fundamentalists of his day, he wrote, “Surely Christianity ought not to oppose any needed social reform. It ought, indeed, to be in the forefront of reformative attack.” And yet, against theological imprecision, he wrote, “And it ought, if it has a historical consciousness, to press its attack on a redemption foundation, convinced that every other foundation for betterment, because of inherent weaknesses, cannot sustain itself.”[6]

Did you catch that? Henry called on conservative evangelical Christians to join in the causes for justice and reform, even when it meant linking arms with other, “non-evangelical” groups (a concept that many have referred to as co-belligerence).[7] And yet, at the same time, he also called on evangelical Christians to critique and challenge the basis and foundation from which their non-Christian partners pursued justice (more on that later).

This nuanced, “both-and” approach does not fall neatly within the categories of the conservative-progressive divide. Can most conservative evangelicals claim that their Christianity is at “the forefront of reformative attack”? Can most progressives claim that their push for social justice is based on “a redemption foundation” found ultimately in Jesus Christ? 

Likewise, Henry’s sentiments were summed up when he wrote, “The evangelical voice cannot maintain silence when evils are condemned by others,” and yet continued, “But neither can it yield to a non-evangelical [that is, unchristian] framework.”[8] Conservatives must ask themselves, “Are we staying silent in the face of injustice while others are speaking up?” And progressives must ask themselves, “Are we approaching this from a Christian or non-Christian framework?” It is often the case that Christians are susceptible to falling to one extreme or another in regards to conservatism or progressivism. 

Henry also wrote: “While the evangelical will resist the non-evangelical formulas for solution, he assuredly ought not on that account to desist from [the] battle against world evils.”[9] In other words, while Christians might differ on the basis, analysis, and worldview from which other groups pursue justice, it should not deter us from joining in the cause of justice. Unfortunately, many Christians have let their objections to critical race theory stop them from pursuing justice. Their “resisting” has turned to “desisting,” thus rendering our social witness inert. In contrast, Henry writes that a Christian “must give unlimited expression to his condemnation of all social evils, coupled with an insistence that a self-sustaining solution can be found only on a redemptive foundation.” (i.e. emphasis added)

Henry contrasted this with the fundamentalists, of which he wrote, “Fundamentalists…are usually more alert to what they oppose, than to what they propose.”[10] Henry was one of the first to observe that Christians are often known more for what we are against rather than what we are for. This includes our conversations surrounding social justice, critical race theory, intersectionality, etc. Today, many Christians spend more time criticizing critical race theory than finding ways to advocate for marginalized and disadvantaged groups and populations.

Here’s how I put it not too long ago:

Black churches [and Christians] were fighting for racial justice while conserving biblical orthodoxy long before “critical race theory” and “intersectionality” entered the lexicon. The reason that the language of “CRT/I” became part of common vernacular is because it provided black Americans (and other marginalized groups) with the language and vocabulary to articulate what they had been experiencing for decades even after the Civil Rights Movement. Such a provision did not come from the white evangelical church, by and large, and it was too often that white churches failed and neglected to give black Americans a voice and a platform. As I once put it: If a liberal organization has a trademark on the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” it’s because conservative evangelicals failed to say it first (or at the very least, failed to say it loudly enough). If we were to partner with black churches and ministries more consistently, we would learn much from them.

(Tim Keller, referencing black Christian scholars such as Esau McCaulley and Anthony Bradley, makes a similar point in his latest article.)

The Lordship of Christ Over All Things 

What made Henry so confident of evangelicals’ ability to join in causes for social reform and justice even when they differed on its basis? There were at least two things. The first is the lordship of Christ over all of creation. 

The nineteenth century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper famously said that “there is not a square inch” of all creation that Christ does not claim as His own. Christ’s lordship must be brought to bear on every single domain of human life and existence. Henry understood this, and echoing Kuyper’s sentiments, wrote, “Though the modern crisis is not basically political, economic or social–fundamentally it is religious–yet evangelicalism must be armed to declare the implications of its proposed religious solution for the [sociopolitical and socioeconomic] context for modern life.”[11]

Henry acknowledged that the fundamental problem was spiritual. But contrary to the “just preach the gospel” types, he also recognized that the gospel has profound social implications for human life that cannot be divorced from the spiritual dimension. This can be seen in Jesus’s own ministry: he not only proclaimed the kingdom coming but also demonstrated it by healing and restoring people physically. 

Common Grace for the Common Good

Like Abraham Kuyper, Carl Henry also believed in “common grace.” “Common grace” refers to the belief that all people (including unbelievers) are gifted with insights about the world regarding general revelation, and that there is much that Christians can learn from other people and other disciplines insofar as they don’t contradict Scripture at critical points. Henry speaks to this when he writes, “However marred, the world vessel of clay is not without some of the influence of the Master Molder.” (For an extended discussion on common grace as it relates to things like critical race theory, see here and here.)[12]

Put simply, when pertaining to things like social justice, biblical social justice will also inevitably look a bit different than the rest of the world’s version at crucial points, but it is social justice nonetheless, and there is enough “common grace” in the world that enables unbelievers to perceive and pursue genuinely good things like justice, even when they do not possess the same foundation that we do. Similarly, “critical race theory” may not get everything right, but that doesn’t mean that it does not contain certain insights that we can glean from. A truly biblical worldview will simultaneously align and contradict with other worldviews. 

This is exactly what the Southern Baptist Convention aimed to establish during last summer’s convention with the passing of Resolution 9, of which I wrote, “Although the Convention stressed that the ‘CRT/I’ framework as a comprehensive worldview is at odds with historic Christianity at critical points (and therefore should never be ‘absolutized’), they nevertheless acknowledged that one can glean specific insights from those fields with discernment.

Again, a truly biblical worldview will simultaneously align and contradict with other worldviews. It will look both similar and different.

An Apologetic of “Subversive Fulfillment”

Nevertheless, biblical social justice and a Christian worldview will also necessarily depart and differ from secular approaches at critical points, and it is incumbent on evangelical Christians to show that although the passion for social justice comes from a good impulse, the tools and worldview from which our culture and society pursues justice (while having genuine insights) are incomplete, inconsistent, insufficient, and sometimes self-defeating when divorced from a biblical worldview. Henry always insisted that our pursuit of justice as Christian believers must be based on a “redemptive foundation.” “Critical race theory” may give us certain insights as to how racism often plays itself out in our society, but it is insufficient in itself to be the “redemptive foundation” from which to base all of our reform efforts on (again, see the SBC’s warning against “absolutizing” CRT as a comprehensive worldview in itself). 

Henry saw evangelical social engagement as something of an evangelistic opportunity to show that the Christian worldview has resources in spades to pursue things like justice, while other worldviews are found lacking in their inconsistency or insufficiency. Tim Keller, in a lecture addressing the mainline Princeton Seminary as a conservative evangelical, referred to this apologetic approach as “subversive fulfillment” (a term that he borrowed from others). When it comes to cultural values (such as social justice), a biblical, gospel-centered worldview will simultaneously “subvert” the narratives and presuppositions of every culture, while also paradoxically fulfilling them.[13] The trick of the trade is finding where our worldviews overlap and where they depart. 

So instead of constantly criticizing things like “critical race theory,” the question becomes oriented to: how can we advocate for social justice from a Christian worldview while simultaneously critiquing others’ basis for justice?

“The Dawn of a New Reformation”

Some of you may know of the “dihydrogen monoxide phenomenon,” in which a high school student successfully got people in his hometown to sign a petition banning a reportedly dangerous chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide. For those that know their chemistry, you know that “dihydrogen monoxide” is just a technical term for water. But because he used its technical name and highlighted its most dangerous aspects, people were quick to sign out of fear without knowing the background or basis of the claims. A similar phenomenon may be at work with the sensationalism surrounding “critical race theory.” There are definitely aspects of CRT that will not align well with an overtly biblical, Christian worldview just as with other frameworks, analyses, and ideologies. But that does not mean it has absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation, let alone that it should keep us from pursuing justice. And yet so many times in history Christians have been driven by fear and allowed that to affect our social witness. We must not forget that the Civil Rights leaders–many of whom were black pastors and church leaders–were accused of being Marxists in their day. There is certainly nothing new under the sun.

Many forget that the mobilization of the Religious Right in the 1980s-1990s rallied in part around the fear of what they referred to as “secular humanism” which was purportedly encroaching in our culture and churches. You don’t hear much about it these days because it turned out to be something of a scare tactic. Surely “secular humanism” is a legitimate worldview and ideology that we should oppose, but its status as a doomsday harbinger was largely overstated and exaggerated. I suspect that something similar is at play with “critical race theory.” But history tends to repeat itself, as we have seen. A few decades ago, it was “secular humanism.” In recent years, it has been “cultural Marxism.” Now dissenters have evolved their approach to include complex terms such as “critical race theory” etc. Who knows what will be the buzzword in the years to come? 

But as Christians, we cannot afford to let the church be merely reactionary and driven by alarmist narratives. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” We cannot sacrifice the church’s social witness out of fear. 

Carl Henry understood this. He would also go on to write, “The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dares respond in the name of Christianity.[14] Here Henry is just echoing James 2:15, which says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

Henry predicted a “new reformation” in which evangelicals would pursue things like justice and social reform while anchoring ourselves in a biblical worldview. Sadly, this “reformation” has yet to materialize and be realized. The evangelical movement began with lofty ambitions and aspirations, but ultimately fell short of living up to them.[15] But we have a chance to learn from our predecessors’ mistakes as well as their example.  

Organizations like the AND Campaign and The Immigration Coalition seek to advocate for social justice reform while grounding themselves in a biblical worldview that doesn’t fit neatly within our partisan categories of Republican or Democrat. The National Association of Evangelicals (which Henry helped found) has been working on a task force called the “Evangelical Immigration Table” to explore possibilities with immigration reform “consistent with biblical values.” Both the AND Campaign and the NAE have teamed up with longstanding evangelical ministries such as Prison Fellowship to continue to push for justice and prison reform. 

So the question remains: will evangelicals allow themselves to succumb to a narrative of fear that prevents us from pursuing justice and actively engaging in our communities and society? Only time will tell. But I think you know what I hope the answer would be. 

Soli Deo Gloria.


*Also check out Tim Keller’s excellent four-part series on justice and the Bible, especially parts three and four as relevant to the current discussion. Keller’s series is perhaps the best series of articles written on the subject from an explicitly biblical, Christian worldview. For a slightly more sympathetic discussion on CRT than the others (still from a Christian worldview), see Bradly Mason’s four-part series on The Front Porch (again, with parts 3 and 4 as the most relevant). Finally, see also Nathan Luis Cartagena’s three-part series on What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory in Faithfully Magazine (especially parts 2 and 3, also somewhat sympathetic; you will need a subscription). All articles both here in the footnote and the original paragraph showcase varying levels of engagement with CRT, and thus show the level of complexity of the discussion and the need for large degrees of nuance in the conversation.

[1] Carl Henry and Billy Graham teamed up to found Christianity Today magazine.

[2] Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry’s colleague, founded the organization that would become “World Relief.” Together, they also teamed up with others to found the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the flagship organization of American evangelicalism. 

[3] Henry, “Just because his ideology is unalterably opposed to such evils, the evangelical should be counted upon not only to ‘go along’ with all worthy reform movements, but to give them a proper leadership. He must give unlimited expression to his condemnation of all social evils, coupled with an insistence that a self-sustaining solution can be found only on a redemptive foundation.” The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003. p. 78. All quotes from Henry are from this book.

[4] “…the evangelical…must unite with non-evangelicals for social betterment if it is to be achieved at all, simply because the evangelical forces do not predominate. To say that evangelicalism should not voice its convictions n a non-evangelical environment is simply to rob evangelicalism of its missionary vision.” Ibid. 80

[5] “Just because his ideology is unalterably opposed to such evils, the evangelical should be counted upon not only to ‘go along’ with all worthy reform movements, but to give them a proper leadership. He must give unlimited expression to his condemnation of all social evils, coupled with an insistence that a self-sustaining solution can be found only on a redemptive foundation.” Ibid 78

[6] Ibid. 77

[7] For an extended discussion on co-belligerence, see Chapter 4 of “Compassion and Conviction” by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler of the AND Campaign (p. 59-62).

[8] Ibid 79

[9] Ibid 77

[10] Ibid 80

[11] Ibid 83

[12] Henry writes, “[God] works in history as well as above history. There is a universal confrontation of men and women by the divine Spirit, invading all cultures and all individual lives. There is a constructive work of God in history, even where the redemptive Gospel does not do a recreating work.” And again, ““The supernatural regenerative grace of God, proffered to the regenerate, does not prevent His natural grace to all men, regenerate and unregenerate alike. [Just because] he brings rivers of living water to the redeemed, He does not on that account withhold rain from the unjust and just alike. The realm of special grace does not preclude the realm of common grace.” Ibid 84-85

[13] So for example, Keller references Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, which says, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Greek culture valued “wisdom” and philosophy, while Jewish culture valued power and strength. At face value, Christianity seemed to contradict those impulses. And yet, Paul says, Christ is the true power of God and the true wisdom of God. Or take, for instance, the popular modern idea of “looking inside yourself” to find yourself (what some social commentors have called “expressive individualism”). In contrast to that outlook, Jesus calls us to “lose our life” for his sake in order to find ourselves (e.g. Mark 8:35). Jesus does not reject the idea of self-discovery: he redefines it. This has been the case for cultural values throughout time and history. See Keller’s excellent talk on cultural engagement here, where he hits on many of Henry’s points: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0LG26k6ngs

[14] Ibid 80

[15] Although Billy Graham was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and implicitly supported the Civil Rights cause, he was characteristic of many white evangelicals that were too reticent to translate that into explicit activism for fear of becoming “too political” and impeding evangelism. King undoubtedly had people like Graham in mind when he expressed profound disappointment at the “white moderate.” Carl Henry, by that time editor of Christianity Today, had sent dispatches to cover Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march on Selma; but publication and coverage of the event was ostensibly stopped by the magazine’s more politically conserative sponsor, J. Howard Pew (who eventually had Henry replaced). Both were said to have expressed regret in their twilight years for having not been more vocal and involved in the Civil Rights movement. This further highlights the need of evangelicals to learn from our history and be proactive when it comes to issues regarding justice. Keller has also recalls on white evangelicals’ hesitance to support the Civil Rights movement. See also “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” by Emerson and Smith, and “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby.

See also:

How Evangelicals Can Understand Systemic Racism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s