The Crisis of Word

I have started to read Carl F. H. Henry’s monumental 6-volume set entitled God, Revelation, and Authority. The first volume was written in 1976. For the most part, it feels like it was written yesterday. Henry had a remarkable feel for where culture was headed. Take some of these quotations as examples:

Few times in history has revealed religion been forced to contend with such serious problems of truth and word, and never in the past have the role of words and the nature of truth been as misty and undefined as now. Only if we recognize that the truth of truth-indeed, the meaning of meaning-is today in doubt, and that this uncertainty stifles the word as a carrier of God’s truth and moral judgment, do we fathom the depth of the present crisis…Such preference for the nonverbal is especially conspicuous among the younger generation who increasingly surmise that words are a cover-up rather than a revelation of truth. (vol 1, p. 24).

Neo-Protestant ecumenism, moreover, put its own premium on verbal ambiguity as being useful for promoting ecclesiastical unity. Such semantic juggling is not unlike the commercial practice of abusing sacred symbols for the sake of pushing sales (vol 1, p. 26).

Music and the arts become subjectively introverted and tend to lose significance as a realm of shared experience and communication…But the modern cult of nonverbal experience poses a challenge not only to revealed religion; it makes trivial the whole cultural inheritance of the Western world as well (vol 1, p. 26).


  1. December 21, 2010 at 1:55 am

    I have the original six-volume set as published by Word Books of (in those days) Waco, Texas. Carl (1913-2003) and his wife, Helga (1915-2004 – she survived her husband by less than a year) spent their last years in Watertown, Wisconsin (a place, from my understanding, having connections with Helga’s family). You’re right: Carl Henry was remarkably prescient in his view of society. The books are very interesting to read, not least (as I’m sure you’re discovering) because of Henry’s rather concentrated writing style – a product, doubtless, of his years in journalism.

    Here’s another quote, from Volume 1: “The world of unbelief often points an accusing finger at professing Christians and, noting the incompatibility of some actions with the tenets of biblical theism, declares them to be woefully inconsistent in the life of faith. But the life style of the secular modern man privately compromises the world-life view he publicly professes not only to the point of logical contradiction but to the point also of spiritual gullibility.” (p. 145)

    Any Christian who loves to read both theology and about culture will learn a great deal from this set.

    Incidentally, I once met Henry, briefly, after he gave a lecture at Fuller Seminary (I know, I know…). Even in his early 80s and having not lived on his native Long Island for several decades, he still had a heavy “Noo Yawk” accent.

  2. John Bugay said,

    December 27, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Neo-Protestant ecumenism, moreover, put its own premium on verbal ambiguity as being useful for promoting ecclesiastical unity.

    Roman Catholics that we’ve seen here also rely on “verbal ambiguity”. How odd is that?

  3. Bob S. said,

    January 7, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Now, Johnnie, dinnae be banging on the papists. They have feelins just like uther folk and wadna dae to be rude tae thaim if we want thaim to cam ower to oor hoose an ploy a bit as we seem tae aroond here.

    Seriously, I have not had a chance to read Henry, but his thesis seems to be in line with Postman’s in Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he contrasts the Gutenberg/print culture with the rise of a TV/visual culture. Postman as a Jew, though he refers to the Second Commandment, does not further tie the Gutenberg printing revolution in with the Reformation and the objective Protestant emphasis on preaching – both revolving around words – as over and against the Roman visual drama of the mass or what is seen.
    FTM it remains to be seen whether the internet is more subjective TV/YouTube or word/print oriented, though I have a suspicion pictures are winning.
    To be sure over at Called to Communion, they see the need for something more visual than snowflakes in the theme for the site.

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