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Thomas Oden



Thomas Oden (1931-2016), in his own word (fn*):

“The heart of my story is that the first part of 40 years of my life, I was way, way out there on a path that I had to go on in order to come back like the prodigal son to the father,” Oden told Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a 2015 interview. “But eventually I did and by my 40th year, I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus … of the ancient Christian writers and their interpretation of Scripture.”

“His lifetime of work,” said Scandrett, “reveals that Christians need to rely upon the wisdom of the historical church, particularly the early church, rather than exclusively on modern scholarship and theology.”

Oden told CT in 1990 that he dreamed his epitaph would read: He made no new contribution to theology. He said:

“In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.”

The Turnaround of a Movement Theologian

Prior to his experiencing the collapse of modern values and his personal awakening, Oden characterized himself as a “Movement Theologian”. He “learned to treat scripture selectively , according to how it could serve his political idealism” which as based on Modernist, enlightenment presuppositions. “My motivation for entering the ministry had been nine-tenths political, I saw the church as a potential instrument for rapid social change. My interest in theology lay primarily in how the revolution might take religion captive to political idealism.”(me- and I add: In that day it was a left-wing ideology, but today we have seen a similar ideological push to take religion captive to right wing ideologies,. It is the same zebra with different stripes, of a modernist agenda to make the world into a different vision of utopia. An orthodox theological understanding can help us see what is happening and give tools to resist.)

“The reversal occurred when Will Herberg, endearing Jewish mentor and elder colleague at Drue University, held me accountable to my religious heritage, He straightforwardly told me tht I would remain theologically uneducated until I had studied carefully Athanasius, Ambrose, Basil and Cyril of Alexandria. He said, “Tom, you have not yet med the great minds of your own tradition. Just as I, after my Communist days, found it decisive tro red the talmud and the Midrashim carefully to discover who I was as a Jew. You will have to sit at the feet of the ancient Christian writers to discover who you are as a possible person of faith, Without solid textual grounding, you will become lost in supposed relevance.”

“I was stunned, HE had nailed me….Grace and providence were nudging my life toward more surprising outcomes that I would have imagined.”

“What changed the course of my life? A simple reversal that hung on a single pivot: attentiveness to the text of scripture, especially as viewed by its early consensual interpreters. The names of these consensual interpreters are no secret: Athanasius, Basic, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom in the East and Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory in the Great in the West. These mentors, who weaned me away from my modern biases, were widely respected East and west in the formation of ancient ecumenism.” (me- what emotional reaction do you have when you hear the term “ecumenism’?)

THE PROBLEM: LIVING WITHOUT ROOTS

Modernity and its Enlightenment ideologies (1789-1989, French Revolution to the collapse of the Berlin wall), assume the intrinsic inferiority of all pre-modern ideas, texts and methods of investigation, and doubts whether there is any wisdom of the past that is worth at all salvaging. But as the big 5 *spheres of human grasping for freedoms (*economic, psychological, theological, physical/medical/drug, individual narcissistic) failed to usher in the proposed utopia, Modernity collapsed upon itself to the black hole of post -modernism “What follows the collapse of Enlightenment ideologies? Merely to name the evolving worldview as “postmodern” does not illuminate its promise. It’s promise is quite simply (I say: the space or potential to) the recovery of religious depth. In stark contrast with the impotence of exhausted secularism stands an emerging hope for deep spiritual roots-deep in history…an inexhaustible story of nourishment in the ancient Jewish and Christian wisdom.”

“Those who willingly (me- or unknowingly) enslave themselves to passing idolatries should not be surprised when the gods of modern times are shown to have feet of clay. When idols die, the idolaters understandably mourn and rage. Meanwhile the grace-filled community celebrates its exodus through and beyond the waters of modernity.” (my-is this why rage is such a common feature of our times??)

THE REMEMBERING: THE PERSISTENCE OF ORTHODOXY

Orthodoxy exists as a conversation about texts, across time, and within a community. Thus an Oden definition of orthodoxy.

“Orthodoxy emerged as 1) early believers sought 2) common clarity about what their 3) canonical texts meant, based on their 4) most trusted classic interpreters, in a way though could be received as generally 5) plausible among believers of all cultures, time and paces.”

Judaism is part of this community: “Christians learned from Jews to reject idolatry. From the prophets they have learned to resist the elevation of nature as such into an object of worship. Together Christians and Jews reject any form of pantheism in which the human story is swallowed up in the cyclical rhythms of nature, it is alien to biblical faith to try to explain the meaning of life form within the assumptions of natural causes as such, as if apart form the history of God with humanity, Jews and Christians together different sharply from Buddhism and Hinduism in this respect.” (me-thus the need to learn to think theologically)

THE FOUNDATION: STRENGTHENING THE MULTICULTURAL NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY

“These texts (of the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition) point to the Word of God revealed in history as attested by prophetic and apostolic witnesses whose testimonies have become authoritative for a worldwide, multicultural, multigenerational community.”

“The modern idea of diversity is LESS Diverse than the ancient ecumenical idea of “*ecumene”. The classic concept of “*the whole, the universal” spans many generations - even millennia- while the modern idea of diversity spans but a single century, or one slice of that like to a single sub set “eg. youth culture”. Because modern diversity has not time to listen to other generations, it risks a massive loss of wisdom.”

“Likewise the modern idea of inclusion is less inclusive than the classic Christian understanding of inclusion, the classic understanding rises from the more radical inclusiveness of God’s mercy toward all, as creator or all, the redeemer of all, and consummator of all history. “

“The modern notion of absolute equality imbodies less empathy than ancient ecumenical idea of compassion, which puts a neighbor’s need above one’s own. The modern idea of absolute quality survives on the thinness of passing human sympathies, whereas the classic Christian understanding of compassion radiates the full depth of God’s own compassion for all humanity as shown in God’s willingness to become flesh and die for our sins. Classic Christianity is not a substitute for democracy, but a leading progenitor of it.”

In the cross cultural listening for consensus, If one tries to impersonate consensus without entering deeply into the worshipping community, without singing the hymns, without begin immersed in the written word, without walking daily in the Way, without living life in Christ, his for her voice will quickly betray itself with evidence of dissonance. To hear a corrective, one goes back and studies ever more carefully the varieties of expression of the one apostolic mission in its beautiful, two-millennia-spanning multilingual variations- Eastern and Western, African and Asian, Roman and Syrian. The imperative word is “Listen!” Heed those most aware of the enormous flexibility and variety of orthodoxy, of its unique ability to transform various cultural traditions, yet who are able to behold within all this variety the unifying work of the Holy Spirit. …Within this huge language universe, orthodoxy makes time and room for many shades of permissible interpretations, Orthodoxy does not seek one exclusive interpretation that would bind up the written Word or make the Spirit strictly subservient to a single transient culture or economic class or political interpretation.”

THE DIRECTION: REDISCOVERING THE CLASSIC ECCUMENICAL METHOD or THE WAY OF CONSENSUAL RECOLLECTION

St Vincent of Lerins , working following the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431AD, and somewhere before 450AD. Wrote his Commonitorium -Common-itorium, or Commonitory- he wrote How to discern classic Christian teaching., and wrote work booklet as an aid to recollection, “how to have “an accurate remembering in the presence of God”. Behind his remembering attempt is the crucial premise: the Holy Spirit has promised to help the believers remember accurately”.

But “how does the whole church come to distinguish the truth of Christian faith from falsehood amid conflicted opinions? Is there a reliable way to sort the wheat from chaff amid serious doctrinal disputes? He was astonished that every believer (with whom he consulted) had the same core answer!

And it became known as the Valerian Rule:

“In the world-wide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

Everywhere Aways by All

Cross-cultural space intergenerational time Fair deliberative Process

Universality Apostolic antiquity Concilliar consent

“Q. Does this mean absolute unanimity? NO. the respondents to Vincent’s inquiry did not absolutely insist that all consent must be total or percent. They did agree, however, that it must be reasonably firm, not an absolute of unanimous perfectionism, then, but a reliable reverberation of the symphony of faith”

“In summary, there are four filters through which to soft Christian truth claims- four strata of referees, if you will”

1) The universal prevails over the particular (the whole is preferred to the part)

2) The older apostolic witness prevails over the newer alleged general consent

3) Conciliar actions and decisions prevail over faith-claims as yet untested by conciliar acts

4) Where no conciliar rule avails, the most reliable consensual ancient authorities prevail over this sell consensual over the generations

(fn*) Oden, Thomas C, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity, Harper Collins: San Francisco, c. 2003.


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