Two Carls, Two Visions of an Evangelical University

Carl Henry
Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) – Henry Center

This morning my colleague Phyllis Alsdurf presented the sixth in a series of eight talks in the Bethel University Library previewing chapters from our forthcoming book, Whole and Holy Persons: A Pietist Approach to Christian Higher Education. The director of Bethel’s Journalism program and an expert on the history of Christianity Today, Phyllis is the perfect person to write a chapter contrasting the educational visions of two 20th century neo-evangelical leaders named Carl: Henry (founding editor of CT) and Lundquist (president of Bethel from 1954-1982). (Incidentally, in addition to sharing a first name, both men earned doctorates from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.)

I had a chance to sit in and tweet a few observations and links from her talk, which I’ll collect here — interspersed with a few comments of my own.

As Phyllis noted at the beginning of her talk, one of these Carls is vastly better known than the other. And that’s understandable, to a point. As a key figure in the founding of both Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today, and a prolific author and speaker, Carl F. H. Henry is generally acclaimed (with Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and maybe a couple of others) as a driving force behind the post-WWII emergence of a kind of culturally engaged, intellectually robust evangelicalism that stood apart from the fundamentalism whose “uneasy conscience” he critiqued in a famous 1947 book.

Then there’s Carl Lundquist, who (as Phyllis pointed out after the talk) doesn’t even have an entry in the expanded edition of Randall Balmer’s Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism despite serving as president of a leading evangelical college and seminary for nearly thirty years, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (1978-1980), and president of the Christian College Consortium (an organization he’d been instrumental in founding) after retiring from Bethel. He also did much to make Christian spirituality safe for fellow evangelicals and Baptists who might have regarded it as best left on the other side of 1517.

The crux of Phyllis’ talk and forthcoming chapter is that both men presented evangelical visions of higher education, visions that shared similarities and — crucial for our book — differences. Henry’s half of this story starts with a letter he wrote to Billy Graham in 1955, proposing an “evangelical Harvard.”

Phyllis touched on some of the reasons that Henry’s dream never came to fruition (e.g., lack of the kind of financial backing that made CT a success), but noted that the recent election of Henry scholar Greg Thornbury as president of The King’s College in New York City has prompted some (including Thornbury) to say that Henry’s dream of an evangelical university at the center of American culture is not dead.

I’ll leave it to Phyllis to develop the contrast between Henry’s “evangelical Harvard” and Lundquist’s Bethel (as influenced by Pietism) in more detail as she completes her chapter.

But let me sketch three differences: (my opinion here, not necessarily Phyllis’)

Carl Lundquist in 1977
Lundquist in 1977 – Bethel University Digital Library

First, and since we’re talking about a medieval institution… Henry’s vision of the university is that of a scholastic; Lundquist’s that of a monastic or mystic. Henry would be comfortable with the prevailing notion (deriving from the Reformed tradition) that every Christian scholar ought to be, at some level, a theologian and philosopher. Lundquist would think it more important that professors cultivate personal devotional habits and build community with each other and their students (with Jesus Christ as the person at the center of both endeavors).

Second, while Henry’s was generally a parachurch ministry, Lundquist (for all his commitment to the evangelical movement and the Church catholic) viewed Bethel as one particular denomination “on mission in higher education.”

(A version of this contrast came out at the end of my recent post on Christian colleges as spiritual stewards: Henry argued that Christian colleges should build endowments so that they could explore controversial questions without fearing loss of church support; Lundquist argued the opposite: that remaining dependent on churches kept the college from drifting away from its roots.)

Third, Henry’s vision (and that of King’s College, for that matter) was unabashedly elitist: the “evangelical Harvard” would (like the post-Christian one) train the top 1% for lives of leadership. Lundquist wanted to train an “evangelical task force” that would “penetrate” all levels of society, but the stereotype of Bethel under Lundquist and perhaps (as a friend suggested on Facebook recently, in response to my various comments on college finances) to the present day is that we primarily train teachers, nurses, social workers, pastors, and others who serve others in mostly anonymous, underpaid roles.

I’ll post video of Phyllis’ and the recent talks by psychologist Kathy Nevins and philosopher Ray VanArragon in a week or so. In December we’ll have two more talks to close thes series, by sociologist Samuel Zalanga and philosopher David Williams. Follow along on Twitter at #wholeandholypersons, and look for the book to come out late next year from InterVarsity Press.


3 thoughts on “Two Carls, Two Visions of an Evangelical University

  1. Hasn’t Wheaton has always fancied themselves the Harvard of the Evangelical world? I wish she had noticed another Karl who deserves more attention: Olson.

    1. Only room for two Carls in this chapter, Ryan — though I did think of KO this morning, since he’d be somewhat uncomfortable with both Henry and Lundquist’s models. By “evangelical Harvard” Henry (a Wheaton grad) meant a full-fledged university with graduate programs, not a liberal arts college like his alma mater.

  2. When I was a student at North American Baptist Seminary (now Sioux Falls Seminary) being taught evangelical theology by men and women steeped in the evangelical Pietist tradition I was steered away from Carl Henry. He was “too rationalistic,” I was rightly informed. I was pointed toward Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch as my evangelical theological mentors at a distance. I was privileged to meet and know them somewhat personally later. Of course, over the years I read much of Henry’s work, corresponded with him, met him once, and wrote a chapter on him for a Handbook of Theologians. But to this day his theology leaves me cold. Ironically, in my opinion, many Pietist evangelicals latched onto Henry’s method in theology (to say nothing of his conclusions) and drained the life out of evangelical thought, often making it dry as dust and sterile.

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