Carl Henry: Sub-Trinitarian Rationalist?

At the recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, several papers given during the Carl Henry Discussion Group repeated and expanded on familiar charges that he was a rationalist. One person, though admitting that Henry’s theology is fully Trinitarian, even asserted that Henry’ theological method, gives too little attention to the Father and the Spirit, while focusing on the Son as Logos. In that way, he asserted, Henry’s approach was less than Trinitarian. By placing too much emphasis upon the Logos and the human mind, Henry, it was alleged, did not give sufficient credit to the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation, or to God the Father in general.

When this thesis was challenged, the response was essentially two-fold: 1. Henry "only speaks of the Spirit when he has to,” late in his treatment of the doctrine of revelation; and 2. Henry delays treatment of theology proper until after a very lengthy four volumes of prolegomena.

My reply at the time tried to answer these two criticisms. In the following paragraphs, I shall briefly defend Carl Henry’s theological method from the charge that it is sub-Trinitarian.

  1. The Holy Spirit

As an indication of Henry’s attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation, let us look first at the number of times the Spirit is listed in the indices to the first four volumes of God, Revelation, & Authority, with each reference denoting a page in the volume:

Volume 1: 16 (this volume is mostly philosophical prolegomena)

Volume 2: 27

Volume 3: 41

Volume 4: Three full chapters, plus many references (the index to my copy was removed by the Chinese editors who were translating my abridgment of the Chinese edition, so I can’t give exact numbers).

More importantly, the chapters in Volume 4 argue powerfully that the Holy Spirit is essentially and vitally active in all phases of revelation, including inspiration of the Scriptures, the incarnation of the Logos,  regeneration of fallen men and women, and illumination of the minds of those who seek the truth.

He could not have stated his position more clearly or emphatically. It is hard to know how anyone could get the idea that Carl Henry downplayed the role of the Spirit in God’s revelation to us.

  1. God

Order of theological topics (loci)

We may disagree whether systematic theology should begin with the doctrine of the Word of God (revelation, epistemology) or with God himself (theology proper). The presenter of the paper mentioned above indicated his preference for starting with God, like John Frame, for example. Others have opened with the doctrine of the knowledge of God (or the Word of God). They include John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion), Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics), Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis (Integrative Theology), Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology), and Douglas Kelly (Systematic Theology), to name only a few.

This arrangement implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, follows the order of the Apostles’ Creed, which opens with the statement, “I believe” (Credo). When works on systematic theology commence with a treatment of the knowledge of God, they are essentially talking about the grounds of faith; that is, why we believe. Then follow the various doctrines, which constitute what we believe.

To my knowledge, none of the theologians mentioned above have been accused of being sub-Trinitarian in their theological method. It is strange that Carl Henry should be singled out for this criticism.

While one can make a good case for opening with a discussion of theology proper, that does not necessarily mean that a different arrangement constitutes a method that is fundamentally sub-Trinitarian.

Does Henry neglect God the Father?

Furthermore, even though Carl Henry chose to treat the knowledge of God in four volumes before devoting the last two volumes of God, Revelation & Authority to a discussion of the doctrine of God, even his first four volumes, which are strictly about the doctrine of revelation, contain ample evidence that he does not neglect God in his very full exposition of the Logos.

Let us begin with the number of pages on which God is mentioned in the first three volumes of God, Revelation & Authority:

Volume 1:283+; plus 13 references to the Trinity

Volume 2: 300+; plus 19 references to the Trinity

Volume 3: 200+; plus 15 references to the Trinity

On these pages, various aspects, attributes, and actions of God are mentioned. I list only a few categories from the indices of two volumes as examples:

Active in history, activity, being of, character of, command, creator, decree, disclosure of, divinity, eternal, existent, faithfulness, fatherhood, freedom, glory, grace of, holy, immaterial, inaccessibility, incomparability, incomprehensibility, incorporeal, infinite, initiative of, invisibility of, judgment, living, lord, love, merciful, moral, names, of the nations, omniscient, otherness, personal, power, presence, preserver, purpose, rational, reality, redeemer, righteousness, rule of, self-manifesting, self-revealed, silence of, sovereign, speaks, as spirit, transcendent, truth of, unapproachable, unity, will, works of, wrath of.

Mind you, these are found in only the first three volumes of the first four; they are in volumes that primarily deal with the knowledge of God; they come before a full two-volume discussion of theology proper; and they include extensive studies of the names of God.

Volume Two, in which Henry outlines and then begins to explain his fifteen theses on divine revelation, contains two chapters on divine transcendence and five chapters on the names of God (including an opening chapter on God as personal). Almost one hundred pages are devoted to the meanings of God’s names, and feature extensive explorations of his character and activity.

Granted, Henry waits until the last two volumes of GRA to unfold more fully his understanding of the Trinity and the nature of God. My only point here is that, even in his elucidation of the doctrine of the knowledge of God, Henry’s  mind can never wander far from the object (or Subject) of that knowledge, God himself.

Confronted with these facts, which are plain for all to read, I do not understand how anyone can claim that Carl Henry’s theological method does not give sufficient attention to the doctrine of God and the role of the Spirit. Indeed, several others in the room who had done advanced study of Carl Henry's theology shared my disbelief at what we had heard.

This charge, like so many others, does not seem to reflect a careful and unbiased reading of God, Revelation & Authority.

G. Wright Doyle