Interview with Dr. Harmon

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GWU Instructor Participates in Exploratory Conversations between Baptists and Orthodox

The following “sound-bytes” were taken from interviews with Dr. Harmon in January and November of 2011:

On the definition and purpose of “ecumenical theology”…

“Ecumenical theology is a sub-discipline within the larger discipline of theology that focuses on questions that affect the quest for more visible forms of unity between the different Christian churches that are currently divided. It gives attention to what we share in common theologically—things like the doctrine of the Trinity, our understanding of the person and work of Christ, and other commonly shared doctrines.   Those serve as the foundation on which we build when doing ecumenical theology.  But then it also gives attention to the matters that divide us, which usually have to do with the doctrines of the church—things like our understandings of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, who the ministers of the church are, how governance of the church works, what we sometimes call church polity.  And so ecumenical theology strives to both clearly understand what the differences are…and at the same time, to look for possible convergences between our divided traditions.”

On the Biblical foundations of ecumenism…

I think John 17 really is the foundational biblical text for the quest for Christian unity.  This is where Jesus prays for his disciples on the night before his death, and in particular, prays that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one.  After repeating that, he says, that is “so that the world may believe.”  That suggests that the quest for Christian unity, and finding more visible forms of unity, isn’t an end in itself, but it’s an end that serves the greater end of evangelism.  [We strive for Christian unity] so that divisions of the church don’t become a scandal, and so that people will believe the gospel.”

On the possible misconception that ecumenism obscures essential differences between the churches, or “waters down core Baptist doctrines”…

“The purpose of ecumenical discussions is not to water down core Baptist doctrines, or to sacrifice congregational autonomy.  Rather, ecumenists strive to clearly understand what other traditions believe on their own terms, rather than relying on our own caricatured images of them.  That also involves more clearly understanding those doctrines and practices that make us different, even as we search for the convergences that will help us establish unity.”

On ecumenism’s relationship to missions…

“In fact, the modern ecumenical movement has its roots in the modern missions movement. In the 19th century, when missionaries from divided Christian nations arrived in the same countries to do evangelism, they instinctively sensed that there was something wrong with asking nonbelievers not only to become Christians, but to become this particular kind of Christian instead of that particular kind of Christian.  So those missionaries were the ones who really put a lot of pressure on their sending denominations to seek greater unity.  The institutions of the modern ecumenical movement really grew out of that effort.”

On what the BWA’s ecumenical conversations, both with the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, might accomplish…

“We usually strive to produce reports that present the convergences we identify, as well as ongoing points of disagreement.  Ultimately, we hope these reports will be used as educational tools, both in institutions of theological education but also by pastors whose congregations have personal relationships with members of other Christian churches.  The ultimate goal would be some form of grassroots ecumenical engagement, as Christians work together for the purposes of missions, evangelism, or even social activism.  There is great potential for the Church to affect change when our attitudes toward one another are cooperative rather than combative.”