Sunday, October 23, 2011

"He made no new contribution to theology."

On the occasion of his eightieth birthday Christianity Today reprints a 1990 interview with Thomas C. Oden, United Methodist theologian, professor at Drew University, and proponent of Christian orthodoxy. From the interview:
What were the turning points in your movement away from modernity?

Think of an idealistic kid in high school who is actively engaged in the World Federalist Movement, who, when he goes to college, becomes a pacifist and later becomes enamored with socialist theories and reads Freud. Between 1945 and 1965, every turn I made was a left turn. When I decided to go to theological school, it wasn't because I was strongly committed to the biblical message, but to the hope that the church could be an effective instrument of social change. It was at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas that my political radicalism became somewhat moderated by reading Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr. They shocked me out of my pacifism around 1955. ....

In After Modernity … What? you write that you date your entrance into the postmodern world to the day you had to select the books you would take with you for a research year. Why was that event so significant? What books did you take?

Up to that point most of my theological and psychological study was in contemporary sources. As I was leaving for that research year, I realized that the books I really needed were classics. I had already paid my dues to modernity twice over. I didn't have to do that again. What I needed at that point was a firmer grounding, so I took along the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Augustine, Nemesius, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, and others. I also took along classical writers such as Aeschylus and Dante. That was a moment of recognition: I realized that my consciousness had shifted away from the idolatry of the new, which I didn't know until I packed the books. ....

In place of modernity you call for "a careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christian exegesis." In other places you call this orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy?

Lancelot Andrewes, a sixteenth-century Anglican divine, stated the answer as memorably as anyone, with a five-finger exercise: "One canon, two Testaments, three creeds [the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian], four [ecumenical] councils, and five centuries along with the Fathers of that period," by which he meant the great doctors of the first five centuries: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom in the East; and Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great in the West. ....

If we have the Bible, why do we also need the consensual teaching of the first five centuries?

The Bible is crucial to the Christian life because these texts alone incomparably convey the history of God's saving action. It is the textual center of orthodoxy. But the Holy Spirit does not simply drop the Canon into our laps, as it were. The Canon itself emerges out of a history. The process of canonization itself evolves out of a specific history in which these writings were being challenged by false teachings.

The first five centuries are important, then, because during this time the church definitively hammered out a consensus about Christian teaching and the meaning of the baptismal formula. The consensus formed in these centuries clarified for the church what it meant to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Christological and Trinitarian issues that were defined against severe challenges in those first five centuries expressed the church's attempt to be accountable to its own baptismal act, the fundamental act of inclusion within this community. ....

What would you say to someone who claims, "I've got the Bible. I don't need church history or systematic theology"?

We would not even have the Bible without its reliable transmission, which is another way of talking about the work of God the Spirit. Orthodoxy understands that God is at work in the body of Christ to form that body in history, awaiting God's own coming in the return of Christ.

Christ promised the early church the Spirit, who came on the first Pentecost and continues to dwell in the lives of the faithful. He promised that the Spirit would abide with this community, guide it, lead it to all truth, and help it recollect the words of the Lord. This is just what has been happening for the 20 centuries since the ascension. We're moving in the wrong direction when we say individualistically, "I've got my Bible; I don't need anything except these words." Protestants now need to recover a sense of the active work of the Spirit in history and through living communities. Our modern individualism too easily tempts us to take our Bible and abstract ourselves from the wider believing community. We end up with a Bible and a radio, but no church. ....

What elements of classical orthodoxy have evangelicals tended to ignore or misunderstand?

I see a sad neglect of great fourth-century evangelical writers like Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem. Augustine and John Chrysostom are also too often ignored. Why the neglect? The patristic writers' use of allegorical interpretation has scared some evangelicals away. But evangelicals would gain much by entering the world of biblical figures and types as understood by the patristic writers. The greatest Protestant writers were able to do just this. If you read Calvin, John Owen, Matthew Henry, or Richard Baxter, you find a consuming interest in biblical typology. ....

What guarantee do we have that the early generations of Christians were any closer to the essence of the gospel than we are today? Why is old better?

Old is not better. Old can be worse. The apostolic criterion is not flatly whether something is old or new. The criterion is whether it is truthful or not—truthful in the sense of true to the apostolic testimony to God's revelation, the truth personally incarnate in Jesus Christ. There was in the first five centuries a great suspicion of novelty. Novelty was regarded as heretical. Antiquity was one of the criteria for orthodoxy. If it belongs to the apostolic testimony, it is orthodox. ....

You have told about a dream in which you were walking in the New Haven cemetery. You came across your own tombstone and the epitaph read, "He made no new contribution to theology." Were you happy or distressed to read that?

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. .... [more]
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