Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An Evangelical Giant Graduates to Glory – But Have We Learned the Lessons He Taught?

Among the deaths this summer, one passed almost unnoticed, unfortunately. Harold O.J. Brown was probably the most irenic and humble man ever to hold four degrees from Harvard University. With an A.B. in Germanic Studies and Biochemical Studies, a B.D., Th.M., and Ph.D, Brown certainly had one of the finest educations of any person in his generation. A long-time teacher at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Reformed Theological Seminary, he was also noted for his pioneering work in bio-ethics. Along with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, he founded the Christian Action Council, now Care Net.

My appreciation for Dr. Brown dates to his contributions to Christianity Today which I began devouring as a 15 year old and to his book, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Doubleday, 1984), which helped inform and orient me theologically during my first solo pastorate. Reading Brown was an exciting adventure as he made the classic battles of orthodoxy and heresy come alive and made them seem crucial to understanding and obeying Jesus Christ in the present.

Brown explained that “heresy” began as nothing more insidious than “party.” Early on, however, it took on the sinister connotation of “a separation or split resulting from a false faith.” As such, “it designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence” (pg. 2).

Brown reminds us:
"The Christian religion has produced more heresies than any other religion, and the heresies it produces are more tenacious than those of any other religion. In fact, it sometimes seems that the most vigorous, committed, and rapidly multiplying Christians in any age are those we like to call heretics. Why is Christianity so productive of divisive opinions, held with great conviction, that lead to splits in the church and charges and countercharges of heresy? The reason is simple: Christianity consists of a message that claims to be absolutely true and that is at the same time deeply and perplexingly mysterious" (pg. 6)

In our heresy-phobic culture of tolerance and accommodation, we might well remember the ancient dictum: “corruption optima pessimum est” (“the corruption of the best is the worst”). For, unless we learn the lessons of distinguishing Truth from Error we may well fulfill the prophetic words of Brown: “It may soon be necessary to say of mainstream Roman Catholic theology that it, like most Protestantism, is neither orthodox nor heretical, but another religion” (p. 446).

Godspeed Dr. Brown. Godspeed! May we learn the lessons you lived and taught.

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