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Faculty Profile: Dr. Erik Heen
Newly chaired Professor Erik Heen reflects on applying Scripture to today’s challenges
Newly chaired Professor Erik Heen wants to remind believers who’ve tended to fall away from studying the Bible that renewing a relationship with Scripture “has the power to transform their lives.” Heen, who has taught New Testament at the seminary for 14 years, on April 5 became the first recipient of the John H. P. Reumann Chair in Biblical Studies.
Heen has served as a leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s “Book of Faith” initiative, designed to encourage Lutherans to renew their love of Scripture and immerse themselves in the Bible as “the first language of faith.” He says the Good News of God’s love and compassion for people and God’s love of justice “can be found on every page of the New Testament.”
He adds, however, that while the Bible can serve “as a remarkable model” for how to respond to the many challenges of modern life, “ it does not function like a legal casebook of precedents that speak directly to the complexity of many issues we face today. The Bible can transform us, give us new eyes through Christ to see the wider world. Through Scripture we can learn of the clear desire for justice revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.” He said the Bible also reveals the deep grief God has over human tragedies and sin. “We learn through the Gospels that God’s will shall win out, and that we may have faith that our actions on behalf of God will not be a hopeless activity in troubling times,” Heen says.
But using Scripture to “legalistically” decide on how to manage the tough issues of our day “is easier said than done,” Heen contends. “If we interpreted Scripture legalistically, then women could not serve as pastors in our church. Issues of economics and slavery would be handled differently. Usury in any form could not be tolerated. Credit cards and mortgages wouldn’t be allowed. Thus, for example, using the sexual ethics of the Bible as establishing precedent for dealing with the issues of human sexuality in our time is, by analogy, questionable.”
Heen says believers today need to move beyond thinking that there are only two ways to view Scripture, “either from a conservative or liberal vantage point,” and he says moving beyond those labels in civil discourse is important too. He calls for considering anew the Two Kingdoms idea – one kingdom comprised of the world of the church and religion, and the other kingdom comprised of civil society involving government, politics and the system of justice.
“God is larger than the church and so is our creation,” Heen says. “If we believe that God continues to love and sustain our creation as it moves forward, than we need to be open to engaging its complexities. We need to improve our conversations about not only how God is involved in the church, but also how God is at work to secure justice in the wider world. Do we believe that God is active in any way in politics, government and our system of justice? If so, how? What does it mean that some states have decided to move forward with gay marriage legislation, for example? Is it possible that God is active in any way with that?”
Heen says the chief commandment of the Bible as related in the Gospel of Matthew is “how best do we love and serve our neighbor? When it gets down to specifics in our complex time, that can become a real challenge.”
The biblical scholar says he is deeply honored to have received the Reumann Chair. “I really saw the ceremony and my remarks as an opportunity to celebrate his (Reumann’s) life,” Heen says. “Jack was bilingual. He spoke the language of scholarship and of the church. For 50 years he gave of himself tirelessly to serve this seminary and the larger church. His attention to detail was unsurpassed by any scholar I have known. His Commentary on Philippians, worked on for 30 years, was remarkable. I think he knew more about Philippians than any scholar alive.” Heen also cited Reumann’s more than 30 years of activity internationally in Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues. “It is an honor for me to serve in some continuity with that incredible legacy.”
Born in 1951, Erik Heen has powerful roots from his Midwest upbringing His grandfather was a pastor, and his father for many years served as pastor at East Side Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., a large congregation consisting of more than 2,500 parishioners, many of them farmers or meatpackers. “The families I knew in those days were deeply formed in the faith,” he says.
Heen says he might have gone to St. Olaf College in Minnesota were it not for his father’s travel serving boards concerned to advocate for public education nationally. As he was completing high school in 1969, Heen says someone suggested his Dad consider Harvard College for his son. “You might find it economically feasible,” he was advised. “My father, a pastor, had no money,” Heen recalls. And so Heen shifted his sights to the East, studying at Harvard under mentors Brita and Krister Stendahl and deepening his love of literature and philosophy. Beginning with a freshman seminar “a light came on” regarding theology and a growing intellectual curiosity about theological reflection. “I have always deeply respected the office of pastor, but after both internal and external (listening to the advice of others) reflection I began to think more about the value of teaching and research.” He loaded up at Harvard on Bible courses, studying under internationally regarded scholars like Helmut Koester. He subsequently completed graduate school at both Harvard and Columbia, earning his Ph.D. at the latter, having previously enjoyed study in Uppsala, Sweden and an internship in Wyoming. He encourages anyone discerning a vocation to engage in external “listening to others” as well as praying and using internal reflection to achieve greater clarity in their vocational direction.
He met his wife, Dianne Loufman, during a Lutheran Year of study at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. After being certified for ordination in the former American Lutheran Church in 1987, he and Dianne moved back East, where Heen spent an influential period as a community organizer in a Neighborhood Stabilization Program in the Bronx Borough of New York City.
“We were trying in the Bronx to impact the quality of life of people through communities of faith,” he recalls. “We didn’t have any funding. It was difficult to pull off.” For one thing the corrosive climate of drugs was a powerful deterrent.
Heen says his Bronx assignment, which had some success against great odds, has made him especially appreciate the seminary’s approach toward a new degree, the Master of Arts in Public Leadership, which encourages scholars at LTSP to pursue public service in a wide variety of arenas, including church social ministry organizations. “My experience in the Bronx taught me about the challenges of trying to take one’s faith and live it out in the large community, in a public space filled with life and death challenges and lacking sufficient resources, depending on the resources that faith provides,” Heen recalls. “There was such a sense of realism we were dealing with in the Bronx. People were resisting our advocacy. We tried to meet that resistance with hope and justice, and the belief that God could win out. We found a courage through our faith in the midst of a world of drugs and decaying infrastructure, in a community where jobs had walked away with no opportunity for viable work and huge challenges with public education.”
Of his LTSP teaching experience, Heen says he has come to appreciate a gracious, open sense offered by a seminary community that focuses on helping a diverse array of students “find and treasure their own voice and gifts as they seek to serve God. It is a rare thing that I have come to treasure.” He said he remains impressed that despite the variety of theological traditions in the student body that mutual respect and understanding has thrived through the years.
Heen, Dianne, and their sons, Kai and Per, live on campus. Dianne serves as an interim pastor at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Conshohocken, PA.
Prof. Heen became the first recipient of the John H. P. Reumann Chair in Biblical Studies on April 5, 2011. He’s taught New Testament at LTSP for 14 years.