Harold O.J. Brown fell asleep, as Our Lord puts it, on July 8, [2007,] just two days after his 74th birthday. This magazine’s religion editor since 1989, he was a contributor before that. The title of this column was inspired by his most significant book, among several significant books, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy From the Apostles to the Present. He died of cancer, which had plagued him for years, receded for a time, then came roaring back in June.
Dr. Brown was a mentor to many. The word pops up repeatedly in articles mourning his passing and celebrating his life and accomplishments. Knowing that one occupies that place in the lives of others is likely to make a man prideful, even arrogant, but not Harold O.J. Brown. As calls, e-mails, and visitors poured in while he lay dying, he expressed disbelief that he could really mean so much to so many.
“Ahem, now that we’re colleagues and friends, don’t hesitate to call me Joe, Mr. Wolf,” he said to me on the phone, after I had started working for Chronicles. I remember hearing students call him Joe when I met him, that August day when I was registering for classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I had approached his office cautiously, hoping to meet the great evangelical theologian. Rounding the corner, I heard loud laughter and saw a handful of students gathered around his doorway. There he stood, in an office jammed full of stacked papers and books, an ancient bicycle shoved against one wall. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wolf. Care to join us on a mountain-climbing adventure?”
“Joe’s an excellent mountain climber,” a student told me later. “He’s into fencing, coached crew at Harvard—rides his bike to class every day from the train.” I couldn’t find the time to go; now I wish I had.
I never heard him ask a student to call him Joe; that’s what his friends called him. “It’s difficult not to say Dr. Brown,” I told him, “because you’re my mentor.” The next time he called Chronicles, he left me a voicemail, which began with a chuckle: “Ahem, this is Joe, Harold Ogden J., Dr. Brown, your former professor and current colleague and overall mentor.” I think he still preferred Dr. Brown.
Dr. Brown knew that one of the hallmarks of our Sensate Culture (the title of his last book) is a crisis of authority. Besides Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Althusius, Pitirim Sorokin, and a host of others, he was fond of citing Hannah Arendt: “Power is the ability to force compliance with one’s demands; authority is the ability to command voluntary obedience.” In The Sensate Culture, Dr. Brown wrote,
The very idea of education presupposes that the educator or teacher knows or can do something that the learner does not know or cannot do; it also presupposes a willingness on the part of the learner to be instructed and to learn. These presuppositions are implicit in what we mean by the word authority.
We all had a lot to learn from him. Dr. Brown was awarded four degrees, including his Ph.D., from Harvard and pursued postdoctoral studies at Marburg and the University of Vienna. He was also a licensed minister in the Congregational Church as well as the Evangelical-Reformed Church in Switzerland. He taught at Trinity for 17 years, then was appointed the John R. Richardson Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, a position he held until his death. He also served on the masthead of Christianity Today and edited the Howard Center’s Religion and Society Report.
Dr. Brown possessed encyclopedic theological knowledge, but his love for pure doctrine came because he was, at heart, an evangelical (as well as self-consciously Reformed and catholic). “Heresy not merely undermines one’s intellectual understanding of Christian doctrine,” he wrote in Heresies, “but threatens to sink the ark, and thus to make salvation impossible for everyone, not merely for the individual heretic.”
Theology, Dr. Brown insisted, “is, to a large extent, a reaction against heresy.” The Church proclaims Her truth, based on revelation, and men “take it out of context” or perceive it to be “inadequate or unsatisfying.” Thus, for him, heresy has a “positive side,” for it stimulates careful theological discussion and formulation. And that formulation, in turn, guards and preserves the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
The greatest example of this was the Council of Chalcedon (451), which simply and clearly defined orthodox Christology (Our Lord possesses two Natures, human and divine, united in one Person “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”) and excluded the heresies of Nestorianism (two distinct natures and persons) and monophysitism (one composite nature and person). Such quibbles! And yet, “Chalcedon inaugurated a millennium of comparative unity among Christians . . . ” That stability, that theological unity, breathed life into the Middle Ages, whose culture was humane and anything but sensate.
Beginning with his first book, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, Dr. Brown encouraged dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, not as a squishy ecumenist, but as a last-ditch effort to stave off the darkness that is enveloping Christendom, an attempt at stimulating the same debate that produces sound formulation and leads to true Christian unity—and civilization. He sided with the Reformation, in part, because he thought the late-medieval synthesis was disordered—an emphasis on the wrong tradition. (He also thought Luther’s doctrine of the Real Presence amounted to monophysitism.)
But it was his love of sound doctrine that made him a respected colleague to so many Catholics and a guide to so many more troubled Protestants. That love overflowed in action, causing him to fight abortion tooth and nail by founding the Christian Action Council (Care Net) with Dr. C. Everett Koop. It also produced in him the humility, loyalty, and generosity that, combined with his knowledge, gave him the authority of a mentor.
Rest in peace, Herr Doktor.