Faith traditions engage Scripture

Renowned theologians of Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox affiliations are coming together to discuss a portion of the gospel of John.

Today, John Brown University’s Paradosis Center hosts a conference unlike any other in recent memory, and every student is invited.

The Paradosis Center is an independent research center hosted by the University. The goal of the feature is to bring together Christians from evangelical, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds for discussion and dialogue. The center will host a conference called “Engaging the Gospel of John” in Simmons Great Hall starting tonight.

The directors of the Paradosis Center have hoped to do a conference since its formation, but it was first discussed seriously in the spring of 2013. The Center does host the Wilken Colloquium every year at Baylor University, but this conference is different.

“Wilken is an invite-only, closed dialogue,” said Chad Raith, assistant professor of religion and theology at John Brown. “This conference is going to be more deliberate about focusing on similarities and differences.”

Raith is the director of the Center, and is one of the main organizers of this conference. He said he is very excited about what they might accomplish in the next few days.

“We’re not trying to start a dialogue,” Raith said. “There’s already one in place. We’re trying to direct it in a way that best serves the Christian faith.”

In each session of the conference, a prominent scholar, either Catholic, evangelical or Orthodox, will present a paper, followed by two other scholars from different backgrounds who will present responses.

These scholars include R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine, Fr. Thomas White, a Dominican priest, Richard Muow, former president of Fuller theological Seminary, and David Jeffrey, a professor of humanities in the honors college at Baylor University.

In all, they total 18 scholars, six from each tradition of Christianity.

Raith expects that the differences between traditions will be explored just as much as the similarities.

“We may see the Jesus as presented in John more deeply as we bring our unique gifts to engaging the gospel of John,” he said. “The dialogue might be high level, but you will see intelligent discussions full of grace and truth that might give you hope for ecumenical dialogue in the future.”

Maxie Burch, chair of the division of biblical studies, sees the conference as an extension of the University’s mission.

“We’re an interdenominational university,” Burch said. “We’re grounded in the protestant tradition, but we teach theology from over the centuries, so we’re open to the idea of there being a great tradition.”

Burch identified the conference as a continuation of the University’s growing tendency to be “on the map.” Something like this conference, he said, would not have happened here 10 years ago.

The conference could have great social and networking implications for the scholars involved as well. Hans Boersma, said the social aspect of the conference is a main focus.

“The unity of the church is an idea that’s very dear to my heart,” Boersma said. “The best way to make progress is to get to know each other more.”

Boersma sees the singularity of the conference clearly.

“You only have to look at the names of the people speaking,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve had a conference with so many prominent speakers.”

Students are highly encouraged to attend the conference. Although it is too late to sign up for the formal dinner tonight, there will be four sessions tomorrow at 9, 10:45, 2 and 3:45, and one more at 9 a.m. on Saturday. Each session will examine a particular section of the book of John.

“This is such a unique opportunity,” Boersma said. “You don’t want to miss this conference.”

Pastors and clergy all over Northwest Arkansas have also been invited. Burch said he hopes that, above all, the dialogue passes on to the next generation.

The event is for students, he said. “Feel welcome. It’s for you.”