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.