July 10, 2007
In 1988, as a student at Michigan State University, I took a course on the development of Christian doctrine under Tom Ryba, now the theologian-in-residence at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center at Purdue University. One of the texts was Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy From the Apostles to the Present, by Harold O.J. Brown. It would be hard to overestimate the impact that that book had on me as I struggled to deepen my understanding of historic Christianity. The history of Christianity has often been told as a series of struggles and councils, but Joe Brown took the idea a step further: It is only through grappling with mistaken ideas about Christ that we can truly come to understand Who He is.
When I came to The Rockford Institute, one of my great pleasures was to meet, at first just by telephone, this man whose work had had a decisive influence on my own intellectual pursuits (not to mention my faith). But it was only after meeting him that I learned of the important role that this evangelical theologian had played over the course of the previous 30 years. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Joe Brown, American evangelicalism might never have adopted the pro-life cause. In those critical months in 1973 surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, many evangelicals and other Protestants continued to regard abortion as simply a Catholic issue. Joe Brown, in the pages of Christianity Today and elsewhere, set them straight.
Joe didn’t simply oppose abortion; he did something about it. Together with C. Everett Koop, he founded the Christian Action Council in 1975. Known today as Care Net, it has become the country’s largest network of crisis pregnancy centers and saved the lives of thousands of unborn children.
Obviously, Joe and I didn’t agree on everything—particularly on the question of the Roman Church. But never once did I hear him treat Roman Catholicism with anything other than the utmost respect, and there was hardly an issue of The Religion & Society Report (Joe’s newsletter) that did not include some discussion of the role of Catholicism in American public life. To the end, after a decade of battling cancer, he remained the perfect example of uncompromising ecumenism. He passed into eternity on July 8.
I am honored to have known him as a colleague and a friend.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
(For more on Joe Brown and his legacy, please see this tribute by Aaron Wolf, the associate editor of Chronicles and a former student of Joe. And if you knew Joe, or were affected by his work, feel free to leave your own reflections in the comments on that page.)