My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.