Will the Barbarians Win This Time?

Forty years ago Carl F.H. Henry, the dean of American evangelical theologians and thinkers at the time, wrote a very important little essay entitled “The Barbarians are Coming”. Like all prophetic words, it is an enduring word, one just as vital today as when it was first written.

Indeed, it is even more needed today than when Henry wrote it in 1970. The matters he wrote about back then have only been compounded, amplified and worsened. The drift toward neo-paganism – both in the world and in the church – has simply continued, and is even far more evident today.

Thus the warnings – and the words of promise – which he penned back then take on an even greater urgency today. The entire essay is well worth reading, but let me offer some choice snippets here. He begins with these words: “We live in the twilight of a great civilization, amid the deepening decline of modern culture. Those strange beast-empires of the books of Daniel and Revelation seem already to be stalking and sprawling over the surface of the earth.”

He continues, “Our generation is lost to the truth of God, to the reality of divine revelation, to the content of God’s will, to the power of his redemption, and to the authority of His Word. For this loss it is paying dearly in a swift relapse to paganism. The savages are stirring again; you can hear them rumbling and rustling in the tempo of our times.”

But his concern is as much with the church as with the surrounding secular culture: “We are so steeped in the antichrist philosophy – namely, that success consists in embracing not the values of the Sermon on the Mount but an infinity of material things, of sex and status – that we little sense how much of what passes for practical Christianity is really an apostate compromise with the spirit of the age.”

And again: “Obscure the vitalities of revealed religion, detour churchgoers from piety and saintliness, and in the so-called enlightened nations not only will the multitudes soon relapse to a retrograde morality, but churchgoers will live in Corinthian immorality, churchmen will encourage situational ethics, and the line between the Christian and the worldling will scarce be found. Even in the church barbarians are breeding: beware, the Scripture says, of the lawless one who will occupy the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). Savages are stirring the dust of a decadent civilization and already slink in the shadows of a disabled church.”

Amidst all the gloom and despair, Henry asks if we can rise to the occasion: “Can we take a holy initiative in history? Can we once more strike an apostolic stride? Can we put an ungodly world on the defensive again?” If we are to once again arise and go forth, conquering, we will need a new engagement with our culture:

“Unless evangelical Christians break out of their cultural isolation, unless we find new momentum in the modern world, we may just find ourselves so much on the margin of the mainstream movements of modern history that soon ours will be virtually a Dead Sea Caves community. Our supposed spiritual vitalities will be known only to ourselves, and publicly we will be laughed at as a quaint but obsolescent remnant from the past.”

But instead of being salt and light, we are too often obsessed with self and religious games. “Future historians may well look back upon our own lifetime as that very point in church history when the Christian churches forfeited their greatest spiritual opportunity since the apostolic age by making a fetish of church union, devoting millions upon millions of dollars to ecclesiastical administration and buildings, sounding an unclear gospel from a blurred Bible, debating the task of Christianity in the world on the mass media, and all the while losing evangelistic momentum.”

It is a return to God’s Word and standards which will spark the revival: “God’s commandments need once again to become an issue in national life, the truth of revelation a matter of contention in every sphere of modern culture, the call for social righteousness a cause of trembling in every vale of injustice and indecency in the land.”

But this requires that we get our bearings right: “The Church often tells the world where it is going; does the Church today any longer know where she is going? The Church of Jesus Christ is here and has her marching orders: our mandate is His Word. Everything else around us is on the move: have we opted out of the contest for the mind and will and heart of modern man?”

As one of the earlier voices calling the church back to a wholistic gospel which engages in both evangelism and social concern, he reminds us of the need to be a witness in every area of life. Indeed, his concerns predate those of the Manhattan Declaration and other evangelical calls to social action:

“If while evangelizing we abandon the socio-political realm to its own devices, we shall fortify the misimpression that the public order falls wholly outside the command and will of God, that Christianity deals with private concerns only; and we shall conceal the fact that government exists by God’s will as His servant for the sake of justice and order. Wherever man’s distress threatens his humanity the Church of Christ has something desperately relevant to say, and is wholly obligated to say it.”

But of course social action without the proclamation of the Gospel simply degenerates into the social gospel of the earlier theological liberals: “But if we seek to capture men’s minds, and struggle for just social structures, yet neglect the evangelization of the earth, we shall fail our generation where it needs help most of all.”

He rounds out his essay this way: “The Church of Jesus Christ is here: in a world halting between pseudo-lords and the Lord of lords, here with a specific message to proclaim, not merely a mission of projects and methods to probe. She is entrusted with God’s truth, not with man-made theories: our mandate is his Word. The late twentieth century is bone-weary of the indefinite, the inconclusive and the indecisive: what it needs is the sure Word of God. A Church that forsakes the truth of revelation, soon yields to the detouring modernity of the youngsters, or to the crippling tradition of the elders, and will ‘teach as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Mark 7:8).”

The future choices are few and bleak, if we don’t get things right: “The coming barbarians have no real future; neither has a Church that forsakes the truth of God.” Thus the essential need to get back to the truth of God as revealed in Scripture:

“‘Thus saith the Lord!’ is the only barricade that can save our unheeding generation from inevitable calamity. When all is said and tried, modern man’s alternatives are either a return to the truth of revelation, even to the Bible as the unpolluted reservoir of the will of God, or an ever deeper plunge into meaninglessness and loss of worth.”

He concludes as follows: “In the twilight traffic snarl of a great civilization, the Church needs as never before to be a light to the world and to shelter the moral fortunes of human history from crippling collision. To hold the road for Jesus Christ requires authoritative charting, clarity of vision, and divine enabling. The Church is here at the crossroads. Open the Bible again: our mandate is His Word. The Church is here – called to a living exposition of the truth of revelation.

“The barbarians are coming; the Lord Jesus Christ is coming; let the church that is here come now, with good news, with the only durable good news, and come in time!”

Amen and amen. We are at a time of crisis. Will the church of Jesus Christ rise up and meet the challenge, or will we see a new dark age emerge, with a new flood of barbarian hordes sweeping over the once great West? The answer to these questions is very much a matter of what sort of people we choose to be, and how we choose to act.

Note: This essay has been reprinted as the first chapter of Henry’s valuable 1988 collection of essays, Twilight of a Great Civilization (Crossway Books). Not only is this volume still available, but in Australia it is now on sale at Koorong Books.

[1410 words]

18 Replies to “Will the Barbarians Win This Time?”

  1. Hi Bill
    I am a little confused about the word “Church” in this article.
    “The drift towards neo-pagenism both in the world and in the Church”
    “But his concern is as much with the Church as with surrounding secular culture”
    “detour church-goers”
    “Even in the Church barbarians are breeding”
    “A disabled Church”
    “The Church often tells the world where it is going”

    Which or what Church do you refer to?

    Anne van Tilburg

  2. Thanks Anne

    Given that both Carson and I can be called conservative evangelical Protestants, that is obviously the main target we both have in mind. However, I would think any concerned Christian of any stripe would be aware of and concerned about weaknesses, problems and deficiencies in all parts of the Christian world.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Bill

    You should check out Nancy Pearcey’s new gem, “Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning”.

    She gives there a most passionate and penetrating call for Christians to reclaim the public sphere for Christianity and to take Biblical values out of the private subjective sphere where it has no power to change the world.

    Damien Spillane

  4. I quote from the above piece ‘he reminds us to be a witness in every corner of our life’. Satan has made the fear of speaking out, speaking up or speaking in public a greater fear in humanity then fear of the Lord. We are so intimidated by each other that rarely in Christian circles or otherwise do I hear the voice of one challenging the status quo. I see it in the church, at ministers fraternals, I see it in politics and I see it in the workplace and at schools. WE want to ask questions at a Sunday service yet we dare not. The Hebrews only taught those who came with questions, there was no sermonising from the rabbis without questions. We are told to question everything, how can we truly say we know the Lord if we do not do so? We put up with injustice because we are too shy to speak.
    Now we have the blogs a lot of us can have our say so to speak but is that enough? No! Dale Carnegie was well aware of the fact that people had a devil driven fear of speaking up. It was not until I had a nervous breakdown over 30 years ago that someone said to me, unless you lose your fear of speaking you will not have a life, a truth there which I acted on straightaway, and I was not then a Christian. If I had not had years of training to learn to speak up and be coached in that area I know today I would not be the evangelist that I am. I was not born confident, I was the sickliest shyest person on earth. No matter where I go to speak the audience come forward one by one begging me to stay and help them overcome their fear of speaking and so I put on a short course. I have had opportunity to train hundreds but I also train facilitators to continue the momentum. It like learning to swim, practice makes perfect but within our church walls we train our congregation to be passive participants instead of ‘proclaimers of the word’.
    Ilona Sturla

  5. Thanks Bill
    yes I agree that you find problems in all Churches.

    A few years ago a friend of mine, while on holidays, stopped at a church, above the church was a sign, “Sinners only.”
    He said it was just the right place for him.

    According to St Paul, if we say we don’t sin we are liars.
    But at least we try not to sin.
    Anne van Tilburg

  6. Once again Bill, thanks for a column that speaks to the truth that the Gospel message is necessary for us to understand reality and for us and society to live lives which, looking to Christ and preaching His message of repentance and salvation, are truly human.
    And re Anne’s question above, I am Catholic, not an evangelical Protestant, but Carl Henry’s essay spoke powerfully to me. So Bill, your answer to Anne is spot on when you say that the message is to to any concerned Christian of any stripe looking at the state of Christianity to day.
    John McCarthy

  7. A very important article, Bill, Carl Henry is spot on, but while ever Naturalism and Darwinism remain the prevailing world view in science and in our culture, and while Christians continue to distort and contort their theology to integrate with the humanist inspired evolutionary old earth paradigm, your warnings will fall on deaf ears. Guarantee it! And barbarianism will grow ever stronger.

    Lets face it, suddenly endowing an imperfect evolving Adam with a spirit, in an imperfect evolving world of death and dying, and then declaring this imperfect still evolving creature to be a “sinner”, hardly fits with the Biblical revelation. We are where we now are, because Christians have little idea of where the battle is being waged, or how the scientific community and the Church now accept the notion that science now largely defines reality, and that God has been specifically excluded from that reality. Just as Stephen E Hawking has now asserted.

    John Heininger

  8. Well said Ilona. I am strongly reminded of Acts 4 v.18-20. I wonder where we’d be today without the spirit-filled boldness of the infant church. Now its our turn to take up the challenge. While I’m here I’ll ask everyone to pray for the defeat of the euthanasia bill to be debated in the W.A. Parliament on 21st., 22nd.,and 23rd. of this month.
    Anna Cook

  9. That was one “helluva” article, pardon the phrase.
    We are clearly headed for more difficult times. It has become offensive to many people to speak of God or His laws as absolutes as opposed to personal beliefs; I’ve just been in a facebook conversation where this came out loud and clear. We are almost certainly going to have laws restricting our rights to speak and act on conscience even further before long. I expect to see Christians in jail within, say, a decade here in Australia.
    What can we do about it? Political action has only limited effectiveness; at best, it might postpone some of the worst possibilities. Faithful preaching really only reaches the already convinced.
    The problem is, we are part of the problem. People don’t see JESUS in the church or in our lives. When they think “church”, they think “abusive priests”, “intolerant fundamentalists”, “money-grabbing televangelists” and other forms of hypocrisy. I think our only chance is prayer and repentance: we have to repent and start living as true followers of Jesus; a truly united and loving church (I don’t mean sloppy ecumenism) still has a power to validate the gospel.
    Jon Newton

  10. It seems that science does now largely define reality and in the western culture God is largely dismissed along with the fairies. I’m going to revisit what the bible tells us about the words of Jesus who came to earth. Buried in the bible somewhere Jesus said “my Father is a spirit”and also “in my Father’s house there are many rooms”. This may not preclude Hawking’s theory that God need not have been present at the big bang moment. Life is a mystery and is stripped down by removing the mystical element in my opinion. The eyes being the window of the soul – look at Richard Dawkins’ eyes – they look dead to me. Jesus taught in parables for those to hear his message, but I agree people with belief in this supernatural dimension should have a higher profile – by being seen more on television in a way that people with no faith can accommodate. We need to be less fascinated by horror and evil and to see more how life can be lived with more joy.
    Rachel Smith

  11. I am employed in a Christian school. You should have seen the looks on peoples faces when I said in the staff room, “We have a fornicator in the Lodge.”
    Greg Brien

  12. Hi Bill, regarding this quote:

    “We are at a time of crisis. Will the church of Jesus Christ rise up and meet the challenge, or will we see a new dark age emerge, with a new flood of barbarian hordes sweeping over the once great West? ”

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s yes and yes. I believe the church of Jesus Christ will rise up because it has risen up in every age. God will always have a remnant. He will never allow His name to vanish from the earth. How numerous will that church be? I’m not sure, but I know that the Word of God says that He will pour out His Spirit on all flesh in the last days and when He does…LOOK OUT!!! It’s going to be amazing. Is a dark age coming? Yes, the Word of God also tells us that it is and nothing is going to stop those prophecies from being fulfilled. But when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against him. It’s going to be Heaven meeting Hell in the days ahead and I know which side I want to be on.

    By the way, I love the comment (“We have a fornicator in the Lodge.”) of Greg in the staff room of his school! If your staff room was anything like our staff room in my old job, I can imagine you created quite a stir!!!

    Not only is our PM elect a fornicator, she’s a liar. Today’s news tells us that she has said that all the promises she made before the election are off now because of the ‘new environment’ created by the hung parliament. In other words, the thugs will lie their way into anything as no doubt, the end justifies the means.

    Dee Graf

  13. Rachel, you said:

    This may not preclude Hawking’s theory that God need not have been present at the big bang moment.

    Maybe not those specific verses (although I don’t see their connection to the point you make), but the rest of the testimony of Scripture certainly does.

    Hawking’s theories are directly anti any idea of the Biblical Creator God, Who was, and Who is and Who is to come – He of Whom the psalmist declares “from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Ps 90:2), because he has put “Science” on the throne.

    John Angelico

  14. Julia is not the first fornicator in the Lodge, but she may be the first to blatantly declare her immorality. Someone has said “As goes the church so goes the nation; as goes the preachers so goes the Church” Our greatest need is for fearless and faithful preacher/teachers of God’s holy word. God can change Julia’s heart as He did with Abraham Lincoln (in another age and another nation), but the problems will remain until God’s people cease fornicating with other gods. Bill and the other commentators who are calling the church to faithfullness is the beginning of the solution.
    Glenn Christopherson

  15. Hi Bill,
    I read your front-page article in the (8/10) Challenge Newspaper. It’s such a well presented, well-written publication it makes one wonder, why there are still non-believers in Australia.

    Keep up your good work. The world needs thinkers and straight-talkers like you.

    Dieter Fischer, Adelaide

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