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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
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.
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
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.
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"
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
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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
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