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Traditional Reformed Ethics: Carl F. H. Henry

Carl Henry's massive Christian Personal Ethics reflects a traditional approach to conduct. At points he recognizes some important principles, but his firm commitment to Covenant Theology often seems to obscure his insight into the implications of redemptive history.

He discusses "Love, The Divine Imperative in Personal Relations,"240 but fails to reference that love to the redemptive work of Christ. He does recognize that the relationship of Christ's death to a life of virtue is "not adequately worked out in many treatises on Christian ethics."241 And yet his own treatment concludes that while Christ saves us, he has little to say concerning our ethics.

Henry does not find a comprehensive ethic in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather "an individualistic articulation of ethics."242 His view of Christian obedience ends up with two ethics, public and private. Christ's Sermon on the Mount, therefore, relates "to the person at my side, and not with the larger question of my duty to social groups in the order of economics and politics, or to humanity as a whole."243 It is a "man-to-man" ethic for private life only. The implication is that privately a Christian should turn his cheek, but publicly he can presumably blow others to pieces.

This two-fold ethic is difficult to apply. When do "private" actions end and "public" actions begin? In those existential situations where decisions must be made hurriedly, how does one determine what is a "private" action which demands one course, or a "public" action that demands another course? As Norman Geisler points out, "a double standard ethic - one for the private citizen and another for the public official - is foreign to the teaching of the New Testament."244 Jesus gives one ethic which can be applied to all of our life-situations.

The problem inherent in such a position is highlighted in some comments and questions put to Carl Henry by Jim Wallis:

The issue is how we view Christ: whether Jesus Christ is axiomatic for us on a personal, political, and economic level. My basic discomfort with the social ethics of mainline Christendom is the failure to come to terms with the incarnation of God in Christ. Jesus Christ, as I understand the New Testament, is not only the means of my atonement, but the pattern for my life. Is Jesus Christ politically axiomatic for the believing community?245

Henry's reply reveals that he feels compelled to compromise the centrality of Christ in Christian ethics:

While I agree with you wholly that Jesus is the example of incarnate sonship, I don't think you can infer from the lifestyle of Jesus all the criteria that should govern Christian living in the world.246

Later in the interview, Wallis summarizes some key issues:

What concerns me is how this has worked out historically. What has happened in the doing of mainstream social ethics is that the ethics no longer derive from God in Christ but derive from the state or from notions of civil government. Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, says that the nonresistant, nonviolent Jesus, while most faithful to the historical Christ, is just not adequate for determining public ethics . . . I can understand how Reinhold Niebuhr does that because of his weak Christology, but I'm alarmed when his is the major text at evangelical colleges teaching political science . . . Is Jesus the norm for us, or isn't He?247


Footnotes:

240. Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pp. 219ff.

241. Henry, p. 374.

242. Henry, p. 324.

243. Henry, p. 324.

244. Norman Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971, p. 167.

245. Jim Wallis, "Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity," Sojourners, April 1976, p. 23.

246. Wallis, p. 23.

247. Wallis, p. 25.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 62-64.