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Evangelicals and Catholics in Conversation, 2 | Part Two of an Interview with Dr. Brad Harper | by Carl E. Olson | March 15, 2007

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This past November I interviewed Dr. Brad Harper, professor of theology at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon, about the current state of Catholic-Evangelical dialogue. Here is the second part of the interview, which includes Dr. Harper's thoughts on the "emergent church" movement within Evangelicalism, what his students know or ask about Catholicism, and the strengths and weaknesses, as he sees them, of Evangelicalism and Catholicism in the United States.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you think of the "emergent church" movement, especially its attempts to appropriate certain aspects of traditional/ancient Christian practice?

Dr. Harper: Perhaps the "emergent church" is even more difficult to define than Evangelicalism. Some insiders even want to make sure we distinguish between the "emergent" church and the "emerging" church. To be honest, the importance of most of that is beyond me. What is clear is that there is a transformation in the American church today which, in my view, is much more profound and systemic than the transformation that took place in the 1960s and 70s, illustrated by the "Jesus Movement."

At the risk of severe oversimplification, I believe that this new transformation is fueled by the dramatic cultural paradigm shift from modern to postmodern, not by the antiestablishment and social progress inclinations which were more at the heart of the revolution of the 1960s and, I believe, much more tame. The result is that many younger Christians desire a faith experience that is much less rationalistic and individual and much more experiential, communal, and multidimensional. One of the results of this is the resurgence of many of the "traditional/ancient Christian practices" you refer to. But in my opinion, most of the young Christians drawn to this kind of church experience are unconcerned or ignorant of the traditional or ancient origins of these practices. They just know that when they walk to the front of the church, light a candle, kneel, and pray before an icon of Christ, they connect with their faith in a way that is more holistically experiential than what they have grown up with in the Evangelical church.

At the theological level, there are a whole lot of important issues at stake in the emerging church which I don't have time to address here. As a result, the movement has found both welcome acceptance and severe critique from Evangelicals. Nevertheless, the movement is here to stay in one form or several.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What does the typical first-year Bible college student in your classes know about the Catholic Church? Is he interested in Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy?

Dr. Harper: Not much. Most Multnomah [Bible College] students have probably never been to a Mass before coming here. Most have never read a Catholic theologian or any official publication of the Catholic Church. As a rule, I find most students neither interested in nor opposed to the Catholic Church. As I mentioned in part one of this interview, I find that they are not even all that interested in their own denominations. They don't think about what it means to be Baptist, Presbyterian, or Assembly of God. They are much more generically interested in thinking about what authentic, biblical Christianity looks like, and they don't much care where they find it.

In recent years, we have had a number of students here pursue more of a connection with Catholic and Orthodox churches. Most of those students are primarily drawn to the notion of the historic institution of the church and not so much the liturgy. If students are looking for more traditional liturgy now, they just find an "emerging" church.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What's your opinion of Pope Benedict XVI, especially regarding his approach to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue? Do you think that Evangelicals, in general, have a good opinion of him?

Dr. Harper: I kept a pretty close eye on the papal election, actually giving my students daily reports on the proceedings. I was a bit surprised at the selection of Joseph Ratzinger, since I have always seen him as much more of a theologian and academic than as a pastor. But he has certainly always been an important leader in the church. As a theologian, I was certainly not disappointed in his selection. I began reading Pope Benedict's work when I was in grad school and I appreciated his understanding of Luther and also his commentary on the Vatican II document on the Word of God (Dei Verbum). I also did a fair bit of work studying and writing about Dominus Iesus (which he authored) after it came out in 2000. It was an impressive piece of work and actually solidified my hope that Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics could work together on a number of levels.

In terms of how Evangelicals think about Benedict, again, most don't know much about him. For those who do, I would say that they are generally glad he is theologically conservative. My impression is that Evangelicals sometimes feel the tension that Catholics on the liberal end of the spectrum might be more open to them ecclesially, but that conservatives resonate much more with them doctrinally. And since doctrine is such a key, identifying factor for Evangelicals, they would rather have a theologically conservative pope than a liberal one.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Looking at Evangelicalism and Catholicism in the United States, what are the respective strengths and weaknesses of each? How can they benefit one another?

Dr. Harper: This, of course, is a question that merits a book-length answer. But here are just a few thoughts:

Evangelical strengths: They are committed to rooting their theology in the Scriptures first and foremost. They generally desire to major on key doctrines of historic orthodoxy and to allow for liberty in the non-essentials. They are adaptable, making them able to engage and even embrace culture through its transitions and to quickly adjust church structures to accommodate the changing characteristics of each new generation. They have slowly become more able to interact productively with culture after the disaster of Fundamentalist isolationism of the 20th century.

Evangelical weaknesses: They lack a unified ecclesiology. By that I mean that Evangelicals differ widely regarding the definition, structure, and mission of the church. And because they put so much more emphasis on doctrine than on the church, they find it too easy to split the church over non-essential issues. Moreover, many Evangelical churches have little or no accountability to any structure beyond the local level, making them vulnerable to charismatic leaders who may be out of step with 2000 years of church history. This leads to another weakness of Evangelicals--they have little connection to historic church tradition. A result is that sometimes the Bible can be used to elevate certain esoteric doctrines, never before seen as crucial, even to the level of litmus tests for orthodoxy.

Catholic strengths: As you might expect from me, I think the Catholic Church has strengths exactly where Evangelicals are weak. Despite the substantial diversity within Catholic thought and practice, there is an overriding commitment to the church that encourages Catholics to stay together and work out their differences rather than split apart. Also, the strong Catholic sense of church history makes it less likely to be hijacked by fringe movements. Another strength is the strong sacramental character of the Catholic church. Not that I agree with the particular system of sacraments practiced by the Catholic church, but I appreciate the sense that certain moments and events in the life of the church create opportunities for the community to encounter Christ in unique ways, an awareness that is often lacking among Evangelicals.

Catholic weaknesses: I believe that when tradition or the magisterium has allowed certain teachings to rise to the level of dogma, making them essential and unchangeable, it has been harmful. One example would be transubstantiation. To define this as a de fide doctrine, at least as I understand it, is to say that all who do not believe it are heretics. It seems to me it would be much better for the church to be committed to real presence, an idea broadly supported throughout church history, rather than to a particular explanation of that presence described in Aristotelian categories. Another Catholic weakness, in my view, is perhaps a downside of the strength of its ecclesial unity. When the gift of grace is too closely associated with the church and its hierarchy, sometimes people can come to the place where they believe they are in a good place with God simply because they participate in the sacraments.

As to the question of how Evangelicals and Catholics can benefit each other in the areas of their strengths and weaknesses, perhaps the most obvious thing is that they could begin listening to each other more closely on these issues. If we did, I believe both communities would move to more biblical and balanced positions. And on a personal note, (and this goes back to the issue of transubstantiation) I wish that the Catholic Church would someday reconsider its policy of closed communion. Especially in light of the ecclesiology of Vatican II and Dominus Iesus, Rome does consider us Evangelicals as significantly connected to the Catholic Church, even if in a somewhat anonymous and "Rahnerian" way. I wish I could go to mass and celebrate communion with my Catholic brothers and sisters. For even if we differ in our convictions about the Mass and the Pope, we are nevertheless one in Christ.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Who is your favorite Catholic theologian? Who is an Evangelical theologian or scholar you think more Catholics should read?

Dr. Harper: My favorite Catholic author, without question, is Henry Nouwen. His blend of scholarship with a pastoral heart, enriched with his longtime experience of serving the broken of our world takes theology to the deepest levels of life and ministers to me in a profound way. Favorite works of his--With Burning Hearts, and The Return of the Prodigal Son.

One Evangelical theologian I think Catholics should read is the late Stanley Grenz. He is a Baptist theologian, clearly within the Evangelical tradition. But he productively engages the postmodern world and has certain sensibilities of community and Holy Spirit in his theological method that will be attractive to Catholics interested in theology. His most comprehensive work is Theology for the Community of God.

Read Part One of this interview.

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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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