Brad Harper - "Exploring Ecclesiology"
3:16PM Jun 25, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
This morning we are delighted to be speaking with Dr. Brad Harper. Dr. Harper is professor of theology at Multnomah University where he has been faculty, a faculty member since 1999. Professor Harper holds an MBA from Talbot Theological Seminary and a PhD from St. Louis University. And he teaches courses in at Multnomah University and systematic theology, historical theology and the history of American evangelicalism, and others. He is the college advisor of the Institute for the theology of culture, new wine, new wine skins, and he is the book review editor for cultural encounters a journal for the theology of culture. Professor Harper is also the co author of the texts that we'll be discussing today, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction, Dr. Harper. We're delighted to be with you today.
Thanks. I'm glad we can talk together.
Factor Harper First of all, in your book exploring ecclesiology we have the subtitle and Evan jellicle and ecumenical introduction, what are the particular features of an ecumenical ecclesiology that you bring out in this book.
terms of the ecumenical side would mention several things. First, a recognition that we share a common confession with other traditions and fundamental truths of historic Christian orthodoxy. We share those trues with those confessions with Roman Catholic Church, The Orthodox Church, as well as other historically Christian traditions. So we sense our unity in that common confession of the faith. I think also there's a sense from our perspective that we are truly the church Together with them. I, I spent a number of years at a Roman Catholic University, doing my PhD studies and as an ecumenical Irish as an evangelical. My sense is that, that the these are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We share membership in the same universal church together. Say also, we wanted to think in terms of an appreciation for the perspectives of other traditions, particularly on things where we sometimes have deferred. We wanted to indicate a willingness to learn from them on these issues. So I would just mention several things. For example, Christianity, defined first as belonging to a community of faith or to the community of faith. That's, that's not a typical evangelical way of talking about being a Christian we're, we tend to be as American evangelicals, we tend to be fairly individualistic. This sense of, you know, the classic evangelical language of I'm a Christian because I invited Jesus into my heart, that kind of language. And therefore I'm a member of, of the church. Whereas other traditions, really, I think, going back to the early church, and thinking about what it means to be a Christian. Their first response might be, I belong to them. I'm part of that faith community, there's this sense of entrance into a community of faith makes me a Christian. And, you know, Dr. metzker, and I think that's very valuable. We think that's something that evangelicals need to think about, need to learn about it. It's very important in terms of thinking about the church as a communal reality rather than as simply a conglomeration of individuals. And so that's an area where I think we have a lot To learn from other traditions, I would say also things like grace actually being experienced in the sacraments. Again, that's something that's not typical of American evangelicalism. You know, unless you're in the reformed more the reformed tradition. And, and that's also something that we think we can learn from this idea that the sacraments are not simply these Memorial symbols, but that there actually is something happening when the sacraments are celebrated. I think the issue of valuing the contributions of ancient liturgy, American evangelicalism, especially in the 20th century, in many ways, really disconnected itself from liturgy. In the fundamentalist modernist controversy, often seeing liturgy is the practice of dead churches that aren't really Christian and and really kind threw the baby out with the bathwater. We don't think that was particularly helpful. We think there's there's great value in liturgy, especially in a postmodern world where young people are engaged by touching vision in ways sometimes more than they are by rationalistic sermons. So, so again, that's an area I think that that we can learn. And then for me to you, having spent a lot of years in a Catholic University, just kind of the incarnational shape of Catholic theology. The idea of finding the divine in the common you know, so much of American evangelicalism is shaped by the theology of the reformed tradition, which tends to be a very kind of top down approach to religion. The Catholic approach has more bottom up kinds of approaches. Those things were valuable for me as a student at St. Louis University and and I think they, again, they're just things that we can learn about and learn from, from other traditions. So, on the ecumenical side, you know, there's just some of the things I think that were valuable to us.
Pretty good, pretty good to Harper. I went to a sister School of yours for my Ph. D. program, a Jesuit university in New York, Fordham University. And I feel in many ways to a fellow traveler on this path of being an ecumenical theologian. You've mentioned some of the things from which an ecumenical theologian might draw the liturgy tradition, Creed's, etc, this incarnational approach. How does one prioritize these various resources for ecumenical theology? How does one order those things?
you know, I think, as evangelicals evangelicals are are in or tend to be Bible people were were bibble assists, you know, we do have that kind of Route into the soul as of the Protestant Reformation. And so, so I think evangelicals often in ordering things are going to be asking the question, do I find this in the scriptures? Right? And, you know, if I find it in the Scriptures, you know, then it's something I need to think about I need to be open. I think they're less likely to be drawn to things that they don't find in the scriptures. Not that those things are necessarily not okay. But but they're not going to be as drawn to them as strongly in terms of order. So for example, you know, evangelicals aren't very creedal people, you know, we, we don't tend to say creeds and and part of that probably is, well gee, the, the Nicene Creed is is not in the book of Philippians No, and so you know, There's this tendency to say it's kind of added on it. It may be very nice, but you know, it's not Central, you know, to who we are. And I think there is, there's value to that, I think this idea of the Scriptures, being at the center of what it means to be the church, what the central guide for, you know, our own liturgy, such as it is, is important. But what I think evangelicals have often done is to is to dismiss the experience of the church in its own encounter with Christ in the development of the liturgy, the development of worship, and, and this is, you know, can be problematic. You know, American evangelicalism ism is born in the rationalist era, you know, and so it tends to, in some ways Want to order it's, it's it's worship around these kind of rational biblical principles and not as much around the experience of Christ in the church. Now, I say that on the one hand, you know, so for example, we, we think of the Bible much more as kind of propositional truth than we do, you know, kind of a barty an idea of a personal encounter, that with that makes us a little bit nervous. But evangelicals are such an enigma, because on the other hand, our evangelical worship is so experience based, it draws from the issues of popular culture, its songs are very experience based and in fact, you know, the farther and farther we go along, and the more I find that evangelical worship songs are far more experienced based on their theology based, you know, so now we find ourselves kind of leaving this, this kind of modernist rationalist approach to Biblical propositions. As guiding everything, and now we're moving into more of this, I'm really guided my experience. And the interesting thing about that is I, I see that actually coming into play with postmoderns, with millennials actually wanting to move back to liturgy. Is that, that, that they are against seeing the value of touch invasion and all these types of things. And it's, it's fascinating to me how many young evangelicals are drawn to the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church back to this idea of touchable, visible liturgy. So, it's funny, you know, evangelicalism, I think tends to go in, you know, in cycles.
Hmm. Thank you for that. Dr. Harper. Dr. Harper, there's a a question that often comes up when we're discussing the church and the genesis of the church when we're looking at the New Testament documents. It's sometimes said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom and the apostles went out preaching the church and you deal with this question. In the early chapters of your book, what is the relationship between Jesus's message of the Kingdom and the Apostolic message of the church?
You know, first of all I, I, when I look back at that original statement about the apostles preaching in the church, and certainly that's true. I think it's a little bit over simplistic in the sense that certainly Paul preaches the kingdom, both in the book of Acts, and throughout all his his epistles. And I think it is because Paul clearly sees an interconnection between the church and and the kingdom. And so when I think about this, I think about the church as the community of the kingdom, which experiences the life of the kingdom through the Spirit. You know, Jesus talks about the fact if I cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the kingdom of God is in your midst. You know, and there's the sense that the coming of the Holy Spirit is this promise of the prophets and that, that when this happens, there's this new era that begins And of course, Paul's got this you know, Trinitarian Christology and, and talks about the fact that Christ is present among you because you guys are the temple of the Holy Spirit, right and, and reaching back to these Old Testament promises, which, to me indicates that in fact, this kingdom promise is being fulfilled in the life of the church. Yet, of course, it's being fulfilled, as you know, George lads said many years ago in a here and not here now and not yet kind of way. And, and so I see that the church is the community of the kingdom which experiences the life of the kingdom, I think it's a community that seeks to live out the values of the kingdom, and to express them prophetically in culture. And, and if the message of Jesus is the message of the Kingdom, then I think the message of the church is the message of the Kingdom. It's the it's the message that the kingdom has arrived in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus and yet As the Lord's Prayer says, is still to come, the consummation of that kingdom is is yet to come at at the second advent. So the churches is a community that is meant to embody the values of the kingdom in its own life and to live out those values as light and salt in the community around it. And that I think is its place as the community the kingdom.
Thank you for that reflection, Dr. Harper. Harper Harper, in chapter six of your book, a chapter titled The worshiping church engages culture. You quote, a scholar who writes, we express our religious interests, dramas, fears, hopes and desires through popular culture. Do you conclude that all forms of Christian worship were once expressions of popular culture? Is there such a thing as an ordained form of worship? How should Should the church engage culture?
Yeah, I do think that there are ordained forms of worship. And I think, of course of the sacraments, you know, first and foremost, for us as evangelicals, you know, we primarily think of baptism and Eucharist. And one of the issues about that, that, that I think makes it makes these things an ordained form of culture, or an ordained form of worship, is that if you change the form, in these, in these practices, you're, you're very likely in danger of changing the meaning. And, and so that's something that we look at and we say we really, we really shouldn't change the form in these. I asked my students sometimes, you know, would, would it be okay to, to have the Eucharist With Diet Coke and KitKat bars, and they very quickly realize why that would be problematic. The symbols then become disconnected from the reality that they represent. And so when we look at something like bread and, and wine, they're very representative of particular realities of, of life and, and death and, and on sacrifice and all these kinds of things that are so deeply rooted in the sacrament itself, that if you change the form, you're going to change the meaning. And so, in those kinds of situation, my, my philosophy is that, while those things are not inherent, as contemporary cultural forms, the job of the church then is to teach the meaning of those forms to new believers so that they then can embrace and understand the value of those forms. So, so those are the things that I think should not change. I think the same thing with baptism. And baptizing someone immersing in the water is so inherently connected to the meaning of death, burial and resurrection, Romans chapter six buried with Christ and baptism, all of that. I just don't know how you can really adequately represent that, you know, by changing into some contemporary, you know, membership ritual that we might see in culture. On the other hand, of course, our forms are deeply driven by by contemporary culture. You know, I, I, I grew up in the church, with one of the Friends of my older brother and sister was a guy named Larry Norman, who was the father of Christian rock and roll music. And, of course, he's saying this song where he was quoting Luther, you know, when he says, Why should the devil have all the good music? And, you know, for both them for Luther, it's this idea of being tired of Gregorian chants, realizing that they're not inherently biblical type of forms, they their cultural realities that really don't express anymore, what people are trying to express in contemporary culture. So he takes contemporary cultural forms, reshapes them to speak the Christian message. And so you have something that naturally connects to people and makes it more understandable for them to express the message of faith. I think Larry Norman does the same thing when he's, you know, I, I, I don't have anything against hymns. You know, I'm just not dead yet. And so wants to move on to a music that that connects with him and with his generation. And so, of course, the church is always going to do that what the church has to deal with is the question every time you adopt a contemporary cultural form, and bring it into worship, what's the baggage that's coming with it? Because all contemporary Christian, all contemporary cultural forms have baggage. And so we have to be asking the question, is this bad baggage that we want to bring into the church, or is that is it baggage that's countercultural, or counterproductive to the message of the church. So for example, I, I talk about the fact that I would never want to put a McDonald's in the church lobby. Because there are so many assumptions about what McDonald's means, you know, get the most you can for the least possible sacrifice of yourself, which is so counter intuitive to the Christian message, that that kind of symbol, in my mind is has way too much. Even if inappropriate baggage, you know, to bring into the life of the church. So the church needs to be asking the questions without just kind of willy nilly adopting cultural forms, it needs to be asking the question, you know, what are the baggage that these forms bring into the church and are they helpful or harmful in community in the Gospel?
On page 148, you write this in your book Exploring ecclesiology angelical and ecumenical introduction, how wonderful it would be if Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, orthodox reformed Baptists and others would come together and partake in the table together. How sad it is that the table that is intended to build a communion is often the center of theological debates and church factions. If I understand you correctly, you are proposing that the practice of inter communion would in and of itself be a powerful aid in the process of healing the fractiousness of the church today's church today, what types of differences doctrinal or otherwise would still justify a position of closed communion?
Yeah, I I do agree with what you've just said. The summary of that. I do think that inner communion could be helpful in the process of healing fractiousness in the church. I believe that because communion is something that goes farther than just saying the Creed's together, singing the creed together is very valuable. It's a it's a propositional statement about what truths we identify what truths we believe. And I think that's very valuable. But, but the Eucharist is more than just a common confession that we speak together. In, in my view, it's a common experience of grace. It is about it is, instead of being in a place where we're speaking forward, propositional truth, the Eucharist is a place where together we receive the grace of God and we have this experience of receiving grace together and that is a step beyond a statement of truth. It's, it's an experiential and spiritual reality. And I think that's deeply valuable. I think it's the kind of thing that's necessary to to get beyond some of the disagreements that we have Some of the most precious moments that I've had with people who have differences with me, theologically, are moments when we, we take the course together, it's these moments when we can look at each other, we can stand next to each other and understand that, indeed, we are in Christ together. And and it's much different than the process of just speaking together. So. So for that reason, I think it is it is valuable, and it's helpful in terms of what kinds of differences would still justify close communion. I do think those are there. My position is that the Eucharist is, is for all people who are you know, as john would call us, brothers and sisters, together in Christ, members of the universal church through authentic faith in the Triune God in Christ through the indwelling Spirit So, that being said, I think there there are, for example, disbelief in certain tenants of historic Christian orthodoxy, which would make me question whether that faith was there or not whether it was authentic faith. I think Paul, for example, talks about rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ as undermining authentic faith. It under under undermines the deity of Jesus Christ, which undermines this idea of the Triune God, which for Paul, I think, is backing away from authentic Christian faith. So, so those kinds of realities, whatever and I, you know, we could we could establish a list of them and perhaps people's lists would be a little different, but, but I think that's the thing we need to ask is, is disagreement on this particular issue? Does it undermine authentic faith in the Triune God in Christ by the Spirit, and if so, then I don't think we would do communion together for For example, I, I don't think Mormon theology is truly Christian. I don't think it's historically Christian. And so for me that would be inappropriate for for an evangelical church in a Mormon community to celebrate the Eucharist together because I don't think they share an authentic understanding of the faith. That's not to say that no Mormons are saved or, or born again or however you want to put it. But as an institution, I I don't feel like they share historic Christian faith. So then from there, the only reason I can think of that's clear in Scripture for keeping a true believer from Eucharist if someone is understood as as, as someone who has authentic faith in the Triune God and Christ by the Spirit. The only reason to keep that person from the Eucharist is when a person is is knowingly and willfully living in sin. And, and and at that point, I think that's what Paul's probably talking about in First Corinthians when he says, Don't Don't eat with such and such a one. I think what he fundamentally has in mind, there's the Eucharist. And, and so I think that is a, you know, moment where the Church says, you know, now, you need to step aside from this until you come to a point where you're willing to really move towards repentance and move back into obedience. And then, you know, we fully welcome you back. And that's a practice of course, that's been done since the early church.
Dr. Harper, one of the main principles of your book seems to be that the churches identity is anchored in the Trinitarian being of God, and that in a full circle fashion, this participation in the tribe and life necessarily expresses itself in the missional practice of the church. And we got that right. How does this work?
Yeah, I think it does. You know, for Dr. metzker, and I the social Trinity movie In a towards the economic Trinity with apologies to Karl rahner is a lens through which we we view all of our theology. And so when we think about the the train relationship in the eminent Trinity, even before anything is created, what we see is a God who in himself is always oriented towards and moving towards the other. It is a God that that is that he is not simply drawing towards the self, but he's always pushing out towards the other. Which is why, for example, in our book we talk about when we talk about worship, we want to talk about love, as the primary reality of God that that moves us to worship and service. Not that glory, the glory of God doesn't matter. Of course, God does everything for His glory. But, but there's a danger. Sometimes I think in in focusing more on glory than love that we have a God who draws only towards the self, versus this God who always in himself is moving outwards. And so this God, who is oriented and moving towards the other out of that he creates, creation is simply an act of God's grace. It's an act of love that and it's and it's natural for God to do this. I wasn't required to do it, but it makes sense because God is always moving towards the other. And, and so then this other centered God also saves and serves. And so it makes sense to us that this community that he creates, is that it's meant to reflect his tribe and relationship is one that that not only orient towards its own well being, but that is naturally pressing out towards the other, the other within the community, and then the other outside the community. So So in a sense that This idea of, of the church serving the world outside of himself mirrors this idea that this that this train god of love would create, and then he would become incarnate into the world in order to save and serve it. That is a we see that as a natural movement of the triune. God and and so it's, it makes sense that that's a natural movement of his church.
Dr. Harper, what would it mean for the church today to be united across denominational lines and the major Christian traditions? How would we recognize that unity and what can we do to pursue that unity?
That's a great question. And sometimes,
sometimes I wonder if,
if the primary factor that's going to move the church towards greater unity isn't the work of the church itself, but The work of the world around the church. You know, it's it's interesting that, you know, you look throughout the history of the church and and it seems that persecution from outside it or hostility from outside is often something that causes the church to dispense with it's unnecessary issues of separation and realize, Wow, we kind of got to stick together in this, you know, and I wonder if, in the long run, that might be the only thing that really does it. But in the absence of that kind of situation, when I think about what it would look like, I don't think it's about the elimination of denominations. I think denominations can both be problematic and helpful for a variety of reasons. I think of things like First of all, working towards a common confession, the church thinking more in terms of its common confessions and and i really We say this very much to the Evangelical Church since we're a church, the American Evangelical Church is a church that's not highly aware of its history, its own history, much less the history of the whole church. And when we look at the history of the church, we see things like the apostles creed, the Nicene Creed, which are things, you know, that that hold us together that allow the church to say, you know, we are one together, I would love it if my own evangelical community really had a much greater sense of its unity with 2000 years of the church, which which could be influenced by this process of, of, of saying the apostles creed, saying the Nicene Creed, entering into some of the Liturgy of the early church in ways that would give us a sense of our of our connection. I think, you know, just this idea of a common confession of the gospel of salvation in Christ. And, and focusing on that as something that that always needs to be at the forefront of our of our conversation, you know, our speech and the things that we talk about when we get together as the church. But we'll also talk about a common way of living in the world. I think we can do a lot here or especially as I, as an American, I look at the American church, I think we we need a way of living as the church that is much less politicized, and much more about the love of God reflected in the love of neighbor. I think the American Evangelical Church has allowed American politics and political issues, to create divisions in itself
that aren't really theological divisions, their political divisions, and this is deeply unfortunate In the American situation, many evangelicals not all by any means, but many evangelicals would wonder, you know, if you can be a democrat and actually be a true Christian and, and these are the kinds of divisions that you should never separate us as, as members of the church. I think also, again, speaking to my own evangelical tradition, I would say we need to stop trying to take America back for Jesus, and instead, work to love America to Jesus. Again, that kind of taking back America for Jesus ends up becoming a very politicized reality that that in the long run becomes counterproductive. It's never worked in the life of the church to move that direction. I'd like to see us move back from that and step towards, you know, this more humble sense of loving, loving our American neighbors, you know, for Jesus, and, you know, whatever that means, I think that could could make it Huge difference in terms of a unity. So what would it look like? I think, I think for some of the other more historic traditions and this you know, this is hard I think maybe for some of them to conceive of, but it means that certain traditions perhaps need to move away from seeing themselves as the only true Church. The only true Christians I'm, I'm, I'm pleased with the movement made at Vatican two. I'm I'm thankful for documents like dominancy asis, written by Joseph Ratzinger back in 2000. And this this sense of, you know, saying, okay, we we give you some kind of legitimacy. But it's still for us as evangelicals as much as I'm thankful for it. And it creates dialogue, it's still for us feels like a very second class legitimacy. And so I think That's something, you know that that's going to have to be addressed. But that's of course, a very difficult issue because as a, as a student at Fordham, I know you understand very well that Catholic theology is all about ecclesiology and that's an overstatement but but there's a great truth to that. And so and what it is that identifies the church is a very important issue and, you know, in Catholic theology so but but I think there has to be a coming together. It was, it was fascinating to me that in the documents written in evangelicals and Catholics together, there were so many great places of interconnection and dialogue and agreement until they came to the document on the church. And it was like, wow, okay, well, here's where we can see we're just going to hit some solid walls. So I think, you know, that's an issue. I think another thing that I would like to see that would make this Unity. what it would look like if we really moved in that direction is I'd like to see a growing focus on churches serving together. I think when people serve together, they often recognize each other as true Christians, in spite of their denomination of distinctives. You get this grassroots sense of Catholics and Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans working together for a common cause. And as they spend time together, rather than their separate church communities, they realize, oh my goodness, we really are together in this we really believe in the same Triune God in Christ by the Spirit, we've been captivated by the love of Christ and, and so I think serving together would be something that would both Hope it and it's also I think, what it would look like if we started to see Mm
It's been our delight today to be speaking with Professor Brad Harper professor of theology at Multnomah University and author of the texts we've been discussing, exploring ecclesiology Angelica to medical production. Thank you