By Becky Hobbs
RTS/Charlotte Professor Dr. Harold O.J. Brown may have four degrees from Harvard (one of them magna cum laude) and a Fulbright Scholarship under his belt, but you won't find him standing on any ceremony because of it. He'd really rather be talking with students about downhill skiing or mountain climbing, two subjects about which he is very enthusiastic.
A theologian recognized the world over, he is also known as one who cares deeply for his students. Says RTS Executive Vice President Ric Cannada, "Harold Brown is a preeminent scholar whose name and abilities are respected across the globe, but he is also a teacher who is involved individually with students, helping them both in their academic growth and in their personal lives."
His expertise covers a wide range of fields -- systematic theology, right-to-life issues, ethics, medical and family values, journalism, public affairs, and political philosophy. He is the Director of the Center on Religion and Society of the Howard Center on Family, Religion, and Society. A member of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, he is fluent in German and French and has been a correspondent for The Boston Herald and The London Times.
The editor of The Religion and Society Report, he has also written numerous articles and several books, including Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present and most recently, The Sensate Culture. He is currently working on a book on the heritage of the Reformation and teaches an RTS course each summer on the subject in Martin Luther's old church in Wittenberg, Germany. He also teaches every other year at the International Institute in Apologetics and Human Rights in Strasbourg.
A SOUTHERNER AND PROUD OF IT
Born in Tampa, Florida -- below the Mason Dixon, he'll remind you-- he gets a trifle upset when people don't consider him a Southerner ("my paternal grandparents were from Georgia and my great-grandfather was in the Confederate Army!"). Besides, they elected him treasurer and later president of the Harvard Southerners' Club. His father, a doctor, and his mother sent him to church but didn't go themselves; looking back, Harold feels they weren't convinced of anything much. He attended a Jesuit high school, the best in Tampa, and proved himself intellectually curious and an excellent student by graduating valedictorian.
Not surprisingly, Harold entered the rigorous Harvard College in 1949 with intentions of following in his father's footsteps. He decided to double major in biochemistry and German, a language he loves. What was very surprising, given his unchurched background, was the inordinate amount of time spent with another student struggling to discover the "correct" Christian faith.
"We were probably not born again but were aware we needed to find something to believe in," recalls Harold with a smile. "We visited all sorts of churches and came to the conclusion that Protestant evangelicalism was right. I was also introduced to Reformed theology when I had to read Martin Luther for a German history class."
Another surprise came when the heretofore unathletic Harold excelled at crew for Harvard, rowing bow on the lightweight varsity crew and coaching them to several championships. Today he holds membership in the Stewards' Enclosure of the Henley Royal Regatta. He also developed a lifelong passion for downhill skiing and mountain climbing.
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1953 with a B.A. in Germanic language and literature and biochemical sciences. Medical school was put on hold when he received a coveted Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany at the University of Marburg. There God continued to draw Harold to Himself through the witness of a Christian who had suffered much.
"I met a German war veteran who had been imprisoned in Russia for a long time," says Harold. "He talked to me about a personal relationship with Christ and asked if I had ever confessed that Jesus was truly the Son of God who had died for me. I knew I had done so in formal church prayers but not knowingly and sincerely. I know now that he led me to the Lord."
Upon his return from Germany, Harold did one year of medical school at Harvard, but his heart was not in it now. God was beginning to claim his life, and he entered Harvard Divinity School. But he was still fairly ignorant of all the differences between the varieties of Christianity and, by his own admission, was at that point basically trying to understand the Christian faith.
He earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in theology in 1957, then was offered a research position at Harvard Divinity School in church history to work with well-known author and professor Dr. George H. Williams (author of The Radical Reformation). By the time he received his Master of Theology in Church History in 1959, he had been ordained and served three years as Associate Minister of Second Congregational Church in North Beverly, Massachusetts, before becoming Minister to Students at Park Street Church in downtown Boston. In fact, he was not looking to move into the academic realm; the parish was where he felt called.
But Williams persuaded Harold to work on a Ph.D. in Reformation History, which he did for the next four years while continuing to work with students. During this time he met his wife, Grace, in 1961 at an InterVarsity camp where they were both staffers, and a year later they were married. In 1965, he quit his job as Minister to Students when he received a prestigious Danforth Campus Ministry Grant in order to focus solely on finishing his Ph.D.
He was then approached by C. Stacey Woods, founder of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, to come on board as an advisor to Theology Students International. He and Grace moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, and spent four years making very little money but working in a highly productive ministry.
In 1972, he became Associate Editor for Christianity Today and, four years later, founded the Christian Action Council with Koop. He added to his literary responsibilities by becoming Associate Editor of The Human Life Review, a strongly pro-life quarterly founded in the year of Roe vs. Wade that discussed the whole spectrum of pro-life issues.
In 1976 he began teaching systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and remained there until 1983, when he felt called to the pastorate.
"I felt a teacher of theology should have fairly recent pastoral experience," he explains. "We returned to Switzerland and found the spiritual soil rocky indeed; the Swiss generally do things so well that persuading them they needed converting proved difficult. While the pastorate was enjoyable, Trinity kept asking me to return. I kept turning them down, but as we prayed about it, I realized that I had become a scholar of sorts and theology was indeed my calling."
He returned to Trinity as Professor of Systematic Theology in 1987 and remained there until 1998 when he came to RTS. When he left he held the Franklin Forman Chair of Christian Ethics and Theology and had been voted Faculty Member of the Year in 1989.
A VISION FOR THE WONDER OF GOD'S WORKS
For many scholars, the focus is on their next book or their next article in an academic journal. Not Harold Brown.
Strongly influenced by theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer, Harold wants to convince his students (and their parishioners) that they need a broad vision for the wonder of God's works from creation to redemption. Like Schaeffer, he believes it is his duty to impart the whole counsel of God, not merely the plan of salvation.
"Seminary students often have clear Reformed doctrine, but they do not necessarily have what Schaeffer called the 'Christian world and life view,'" he relates. "The church is not a closet people visit when they're interested in religion; it's the body of Christ and it extends to all of life. I'm trying to teach my students how to think as a Christian in many areas -- sociology, history, philosophy, and theology.
"Schaeffer helped me see that my faith is defensible," says Harold. "I don't have to stand in a corner and hide it. A Christian world and life view is the most satisfying explanation for the world as it is. Moreover, a better knowledge of how comprehensively God works and how beautifully Scripture is integrated can make a Christian's life more joyous and fulfilling."
Until 1995, Harold led students on many mountain climbing and skiing expeditions. That year, however, he nearly lost his life in a serious mountain climbing accident at Disappointment Peak (really) in Wyoming. After sliding 300 feet down a steep incline, he spent several days in the hospital hovering near death, but the Lord spared his life.
"I decided then that God must have something else for me to do on this earth," says Harold in his understated fashion. Harold, your students at RTS/Charlotte would certainly agree!
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 4