Evangelicals and Catholics In Conversation | Interview with Dr. Brad Harper | by Carl E. Olson | November 20, 2006
I first met Dr. Brad Harper in 1999, while I was working on my Masters in Theological Studies through the University of Dallas's IRPS program. Dr. Harper, who had recently joined the staff at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon, was invited to speak to our class about ecumenism, specifically Catholic-Evangelical dialogue. At the time I didn't know what to expect. My wife had attended Multnomah from 1991-1994, and although few of her professors were openly anti-Catholic, Catholicism was not, from what I could tell, a common or welcome topic.
When I met Dr. Harper in the parking lot (having volunteered, as the eager ex-Evangelical, to show him to our classroom), I immediately noticed a worn copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church tucked beneath his arm. "I see you have a copy of the Catechism," I said after introducing myself. "Yes," he said with a smile, "and I even read it." And, in fact, his presentation that afternoon provided ample evidence of his knowledge of and respect for Catholic doctrine and theology. It turns out that he had received his doctorate of philosophy in historical theology at St. Louis University, where one of his favorite professors was the noted author and scholar Dr. James Hitchcock.
Since then I've touched bases with Dr. Harper from time to time. Recently we corresponded about some matters relating to ecclesiology and eschatology, and I asked him if he had any interest in being interviewed about Evangelicalism, Catholic-Evangelical relations, and related matters. He graciously agreed. This is part one of a two-part interview.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You received your B.A. from Biola University, which once had impeccable Fundamentalist credentials, your M.Div. from an Evangelical stalwart, Talbot Theological Seminary, and your Ph.D. from a Jesuit institution, St. Louis University. Did you set out to confuse people, or was there a method to your education?
Dr. Harper: Well, there definitely were a few of my Evangelical friends who were puzzled by my choice to go to SLU. They wondered if I might end up becoming Catholic, which would not have been a positive development, in their opinion. But a lot has changed in the twenty years since I began my studies there. My choice was based on a couple of things. First, I wanted to study historical theology and, as cheesy as it sounds, I figured I might as well study with the people who had been there for all of it. Also, I simply wanted to study outside my own tradition, partly for future marketability in the pursuit of teaching positions, but mostly because I wanted to study with people who engaged historic Christian orthodoxy from a perspective different from my own. I was not concerned that studying in a Catholic institution would make me want to abandon my Evangelical roots. Rather, I felt that a Catholic perspective would bring richness to my theology and allow me to engage the world more productively. I was not disappointed.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What did you study at SLU? What were some of the essential things about Catholicism that you discovered there? Most importantly, how many times have you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
Dr. Harper: The program at SLU is a Ph.D. in Historical Theology. Typical of the American system, students are required to take courses from across the historical spectrum, from early church to the modern world. My own major emphasis was on the work of an Evangelical theologian named George Eldon Ladd and his theology of the kingdom of God. He was a mediating figure who, along with other scholars in the post-World War II Evangelical movement, wanted to reengage theological traditions outside Fundamentalism. His instincts served to foster my own interests in listening to voices from outside my own tradition, which led to my ongoing dialog with the Roman Catholic Church.
Eight years in a Jesuit university taught me many things about Catholicism, including the following: I discovered the breadth of Catholic thought. At least at the academic level, Catholic theology is certainly not monolithic. Among my Jesuit professors I found those who held to a very conservative version of historic orthodoxy and others who were quite liberal. Yet they all remain committed to their Catholic identity. It's a phenomenon illustrated by the introduction my Presbyterian mentor at the university gave to two Catholics scholars having a debate over an important theological issue. He remarked, "The amazing thing about you Catholics is that you can have serious disagreements over key theological issues, yet at the end of the day you stay Catholic. When we Presbyterians disagree, we just start a new denomination." At the risk of being simplistic, perhaps at the bottom of all this is the fact that Evangelical theology is fundamentally rooted in ideas while Catholic theology is always understood as a function of the church. Or, to say it differently, for Evangelicals, theology created the church while for Catholics, without the church, there is no theology. It was also at SLU that I really began to encounter the connection between the church and social justice, a connection that is birthed through seeing all theology as incarnational.
Regarding the Catechism, I'm not sure if I have read it cover to cover, but I actually read it often and I have my students read it. It is one of the key sources I use in developing and shaping my theology courses.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How did you get involved in Evangelical-Catholic dialogue? What has been some of your ecumenical work over the years?
Dr. Harper: Getting into Evangelical-Catholic dialogue was really a product both of attending SLU and living in St. Louis. St. Louis has a very high concentration of Catholics. Most of my neighbors were Catholic and we often had good theological discussions. And my next-door neighbor was part of the team that brought John Paul II to St. Louis, allowing me the opportunity to hear the Pope first hand. Also, there were many Catholics and ex-Catholics who attended the church I pastored, which led to lots of lively discussions.
The ecumenical work I've been involved with started at the local church level. After "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT) was published in 1994, I wrote an article on it for my denomination and then invited Dr. James Hitchcock, a professor at SLU and one of the signatories of ECT, to come and lecture at my church in a class I was teaching on Roman Catholicism. His ability, as a conservative Catholic, to show the many connections Catholics have with Evangelicals at the level of historic orthodoxy was a huge benefit to many of the class members, whose image of Catholicism was shaped primarily by Fundamentalist stereotypes.
Also, as one of the early Evangelicals at SLU, I was occasionally invited to Catholic events to lecture on theology as an Evangelical who understood and appreciated Catholics. Since being at Multnomah I have continued my engagement with the Catholic Church through lectures at Catholic venues, teaching my students to listen to Catholic theology, and through positive engagement with Catholic scholarship at conferences of Evangelical scholars. More recently my ecumenical involvement has broadened through our Institute for Theology of Culture here at Multnomah, allowing me to dialogue with Buddhists, Jewish Rabbis, and secular humanists, as well as Roman Catholics.
IgnatiusInsight.com: From an Evangelical perspective, what has changed the most in Evangelical-Catholic relations and dialogue over the past twenty years? What are some issues you think should addressed further?
Dr. Harper: Let me say first of all that I think, perhaps, the biggest changes have taken place at the grass roots level, that is, in the relationships between everyday Catholic and Evangelical Christians as opposed to Christian theologians. This is especially true with the current generation of young Christians. These "postmodern" Christian college students I'm with every day are generally unconcerned about loyalty to a particular denomination. What they really care about is an authentic Christianity, that is, they want to see Christianity lived out not just in the life of their particular church but in culture as well. And their engagement with culture, I believe, is having the effect of pushing them towards a kind of "mere Christianity," to use C.S. Lewis' term. The result is that many of them are much more likely to be drawn to a Catholic displaying the love of Jesus in his daily life than to a Fundamentalist who shares a similar theology but spends a lot of time bashing culture and creating enemies. ECT was a grass roots movement, initiated by common Catholics and Evangelicals working together, motivated by their love for Jesus, to protect the unborn. These are the kinds of movement that have, in my opinion, created the broadest environments for dialogue and partnership.
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