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Evangelicals and Catholics In Conversation | Interview with Dr. Brad Harper | by Carl E. Olson | November 20, 2006

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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.

All this is not to say that nothing has happened among theologians. Many scholars on both sides have responded to ECT, some positively and some negatively. What I'm actually most encouraged by at this level is the new willingness by many to drop "straw man" arguments and to let the other side define its own terms. One of the great works in this area was done by Alistair McGrath in his book Justitia Dei. Here he demonstrated that in the nasty arguments surrounding the doctrine of justification, for example, at least part of the problem has been definition of terms. When Evangelical theology talks of justification, it refers to a one time event, generally understood to be legal, which declares the believer righteous. The idea of ongoing growth in righteousness is discussed under the term "sanctification." Catholic theology, on the other hand, will often use the terms justification and sanctification interchangeably, indicating both an event and a process. This has major ramifications, then, for what part our works of righteousness might play in the process beyond an initial acceptance of Christ by faith. So this kind of work is encouraging as well but, to be honest, I don't see much of this filtering down to the common Christian, at least not in Evangelical churches.

IgnatiusInsight.com: I know that "Fundamentalism" is difficult to define, but considered as a separatist, anti-ecumenical, anti-Catholic movement, is it dying? Changing? Is it losing presence at Evangelical colleges such as Multnomah?

Dr. Harper: You're right, Carl. Fundamentalism is hard to define, especially vis--vis Evangelical. Theologically and historically, what we typically call Evangelicalism in American is rooted in Fundamentalism. On the other hand, it began as a rejection of part of what Fundamentalism was about. Speaking simplistically, Evangelicals wanted to keep much of the theology of Fundamentalism but get rid of its attitude. But what really ended up happening is the creation of a movement of people and churches, some who would be very close to Fundamentalism and others quite far from it, but who all would call themselves Evangelicals.

But to speak more specifically about Fundamentalism, it is definitely not dead. In fact, Fundamentalism really experienced a resurgence through Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority. And, recently, Falwell reconstituted the Moral Majority after years of it being officially non-functional. I don't think Fundamentalist's main target is Catholics anymore, although they would probably be dubious about Catholics being true Christians. Their main impulses these days are political, working mostly to elect candidates that support "family values," which generally means they are pro-life, anti-gay, and generally anti-Democrat.

Thankfully, much of the separatist attitude of Fundamentalism is gone at places like Multnomah. There are still plenty of Fundamentalist Bible Colleges out there, but my take is that they tend to be declining. Both our students and faculty today are becoming much more open to listening to voices outside our traditional circles and partnering with other traditions for the work of the kingdom.

Read Part Two of this interview, in which Dr. Harper discusses the "emergent church" movement, Pope Benedict XVI, and his favorite Catholic theologians.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Has The Reformation Ended? | An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | IgnatiusInsight.com
Thomas Howard on the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick | Mark Brumley
Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin
Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey Saint-Clair
The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy | Martha Rasmussen

Dr. Brad Harper grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and remains a devoted '49er fan. He committed his life to Christ at age five. Before coming to Multnomah, Harper lived in St. Louis, Missouri where he earned a doctor of philosophy in historical theology at St. Louis University and also served for thirteen years as associate pastor and church planting pastor at two Evangelical Free churches. His published work includes articles on the church's role in social ethics, history of American Evangelicalism, theology of culture, and Roman Catholic/Evangelical dialogue. His current writing project is The Bride: An Ecumenical and Evangelical Ecclesiology (Brazos Press, forthcoming 2007), which he is co-authoring with Dr. Paul Louis Metzger.

Dr. Harper and his wife, Robin, have been married since 1984 and have three children. He enjoys hiking, bird watching, and reading American history.

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