I met Tom Oden in 1971 when he was visiting his sister and brother-in-law, Sarah and Jim Hampson, who were my colleagues in ministry in Hamilton-Wenham, Massachusetts. At the time he was a fairly liberal Methodist theologian. Today, at 80, he is known for his rediscovery of the classical fathers of the Church, and his embrace of historic orthodoxy. This interview, which appeared in Christianity Today some years ago, is a testimony of one whose spiritual journey is a witness to us all of the search for the truth of the Gospel.
Back to the Fathers
Every turn in Thomas Oden’s theology took him further left, until he came face to face with Augustine and Wesley.
An interview by Christopher A. Hall
This article originally appeared in the September 24, 1990 issue of Christianity Today. We are running it today inhonor of Oden’s 80th birthday.
For many years theologian Thomas Oden advocated trendy theological views—for example, that the resurrection really happened in the hearts of the disciples rather than to the crucified Jesus. Then he began spending more time reading the likes of Chrysostom and Aquinas and less time pondering Bultmann. He read the church’s ancient creeds and formulations with new interest. And he found himself questioning the idolatry of the “new.” Soon this respected liberal theologian created a stir with books such as Agenda for Theology and Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition. These signaled his “reversal” to what he calls “classical Christian orthodoxy.” His recent book, The Word of Life (Harper & Row), second of his three-volume systematic theology, furthers the dialogue, as does After Modernity … What? (a revised and expanded version of Agenda for Theology).
Oden is small but wiry, and one senses that his faith has been tested and strengthened through battles he has faced in the arena of ecumenical scholarship. His ready wit and preference for plain speaking, however, have remained unchanged.
What were the turning points in your movement away from modernity?
Think of an idealistic kid in high school who is actively engagedin 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.
Did you also begin studying Rudolf Bultmann in Dallas?
Yes. Besides Albert Outler, who introduced me to Bultmann, my great teacher at Perkins was Joe Matthews, a radical existentialist with pietistic roots. We read Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and, of course, Bultmann, who was transforming New Testament studies at that time. I can say even today that while I now have great reservations about Bultmann’s project, I can still credit him for bringing the New Testament alive for me. It was a dead book up to that point. He made it accessible to me as a modern person. Bultmann’s thought had all the elements of existentialism to which I was avidly attracted in the late fifties and early sixties, which was followed and complemented by a consuming interest in post-Freudian psychology. Everybody was experimenting: with sexual expression, communitarianism, politics, yoga, breathing, drugs, tarot cards, and T groups—much that today is being called New Age.
When did you begin to question this direction of your life?
The last three years of the sixties brought about a gracious disillusioning of the hedonic illusions I had been entertaining. The year of the much-publicized 1968 Democratic National Convention was a turning point for me. By that time I had developed a preliminary revulsion against antinomianism and anarchism, which would soon grow toward moderate political neo-conservatism. When people started throwing excrement at the police in Chicago, I got scared, and I’ve never been the same since.
What factors contributed to your revulsion?
By 1968 I could see the tremendous harm caused by sexual experimentation—even among my friends. I could also see their lives being torn up by family disintegration and mind-altering drugs. The wonderful world they thought they were creating was simply turning to dust, ashes, and pain—enormous pain.
You have written that abortion on demand, more than anything else, made you question your commitment to the values and assumptions of modernity. How did that come about?
I was sincerely committed to liberalized abortion legislation at the time. It was a hotly debated issue in the late sixties in Oklahoma. Abortion became a watershed issue for me when I finally recognized that huge numbers of lives were being destroyed in the interest of individual choice. In the midst of all the rhetoric about freedom came the embarrassing awareness that I was condoning a moral matrix in which innocent life was being taken. That was a shock. It still is. This realization produced a loss of confidence in a whole series of liberal programs I had struggled for. Abortion was such a fundamental moral challenge to me that I could no longer find myself easily associating with people and programs who continued to do what I had been doing for so long—that is, asserting individualistic choice when it involved the loss of life under irresponsible conditions of sexual unaccountability.
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.
What do you mean by “modernity”?
Modernity is a period, a mindset, and a malaise. The period begins with the French Revolution in 1789. The mindset is that ethos reflected by an elitist intellectual class of “change agents” positioned in universities, the press, and in influential sectors of the liberal church. This elite continually touts the tenets of modernity, whose four fundamental values are moral relativism (which says that what is right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation), autonomous individualism (which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within), narcissistic hedonism (which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure), and reductive naturalism (which reduces what is reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate). The malaise of modernity is related to the rapidly deteriorating influence of these four central values between roughly 1955 and 1985.
Are you saying, then, that we are reaping the fruits of modernity but have also moved beyond it?
Yes. Anybody who knows the modern university knows that we have gone far beyond modernity. We left it behind in 1968. It is only a matter of catching up with where history is taking us. We must now learn how to live with the consequences of the failure of those assumptions and values. This is the challenge of the postmodern period.
How have the students and faculty at Drew University, a school in the moderately liberal theological tradition, responded to your call to return to the classical Christian tradition?
Many of the more liberal students intuitively realize how much they have missed by not having clear teaching on repentance, confession, justification by faith, triune teaching, God’s providence, the Atonement, and so on. They really want to learn. My colleagues think me a little odd. They see me to some degree as nostalgic, or romanticist. The most counter-traditional colleagues interpret me as a little dangerous because they hear me talking about orthodoxy and heresy. They hear me talking about Scripture in its plain sense. And that bothers them a lot because they had been assured that all that talk belonged to a bygone period.
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.
Do you see the Holy Spirit involved in that process?
Each of these creeds, councils, and teachers confessed that it was the Holy Spirit who was forming the consensus about orthodoxy and heresy. The council definitions were not something externally imposed on the church. They emerged only to define the already prevailing general lay consent to apostolic teaching.
You would say the formation of the Canon cannot be separated from the work of the Holy Spirit?
Exactly. The Spirit guides us to all truth. The Spirit helps us to remember. It is the Spirit who both calls forth the written word and
guarantees its accurate transmission. The notion of canon is impossible to conceive without the premise of the Holy Spirit’s activity. God the Spirit not only enables the Canon but calls forth the community to affirm and transmit the Canon.
What does this have to do with the four decaying characteristics of modernity?
The door to orthodoxy has been newly opened by the utter disaster of deteriorating modernity. We have crack babies in our hospitals. We have the devastating reality of AIDS, which largely emerges out of forms of interpersonal irresponsibility that manifest the spirit of modernity. We have family disintegration, for example, evidenced by the fatherless family. And we have problems with large numbers of homeless people, often linked with a failure of moral and sexual accountability.
How is orthodoxy an antidote?
Orthodoxy is a living community, not merely a set of ideas. It embraces and expresses the accumulating historical wisdom of a community called by God’s revealed Word that has lived through time and changing cultures. Orthodoxy as a worshiping community attests events of divine self-disclosure through which the meaning of human history is bestowed and clarified. The burning question then becomes: How does God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ illuminate, regenerate, and transform our behavior in the midst of sin and death?
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.
How does this insight relate to your own definition of theology?
What is the history of theology other than the history of attempts at consensual exegesis of the written word? Christian teaching has always been an attempt at cohesive, internally consistent exegesis. It is an attempt to answer the question of what we mean when we say we believe in God the Father Almighty in a way that is integrated with what we mean when we say we believe in God the Son and God the Spirit.
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 do you mean by the term evangelical? Would you feel comfortable if people labeled you an evangelical?
“Evangelical” is that which attests and lives out of God’s good news in Jesus Christ. We speak of one who earnestly believes in and follows this good news as an evangelical. I am praying that I might become evangelical. God knows how often I fail. If it is possible to be thought of as an “ancient ecumenical” evangelical, I would celebrate that. I am sometimes told by evangelical friends that I am very Catholic and sacramental, only to be told by my Catholic friends that I am very evangelical and pietistic.
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. Evangelicals are also unnecessarily impoverished by the lack of a deep sacramental life. Much is to be learned by a conversation between Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics on the one hand, with evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals on the other. This is the pertinent ecumenical agenda that standard ecumenical bureaucrats have failed to grasp. One thinks of a church like Saint Aldate’s in Oxford, England, where there is a wonderful blend of sacramental, liturgical, and charismatic elements. The evangelical British Anglicans provide American evangelicals with a plausible pattern of what needs to occur in the dialogue between the evangelical and liturgical traditions. I am thinking of godly teachers like Stephen Neill, Michael Green, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and Philip Hughes. American evangelicals have much to learn here. I am not urging a return to Canterbury or Rome, but I would like for my Baptist or sanctificationist friends to grasp somehow that their own teaching about salvation and the church can benefit by dialogue with the sacramental tradition against which they have had to protest in times past. My charismatic friends deserve to understand that the Holy Spirit has a history.
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.Now, modernity has turned that around and said the opposite: If anything is old we reject it. Novelty has become a criterion for truth. So there is as great a phobic response to anything antiquarian in modern consciousness as there was a resistance to novelty in classical Christian consciousness. Although one may take either of these too far, our culture errs in the direction of the idolatry of the new. The laity perennially need a living tradition of preaching, worship, and discipline that is being renewed by being reappropriated in the present, so that tradition and renewal become mutually corrective.
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.
You recently underwent major heart surgery and had a brush with death. How did this affect your perspective?
I learned that God’s strength is made perfect through weakness, that grace is given in the midst of our limitations, and that death is not to be feared, learnings for which I am profoundly grateful.
This article originally appeared in the September 24, 1990 issue of Christianity Today. Christopher Hall is currently chancellor of Eastern University and dean of Palmer Theological Seminary. Both he and Thomas Oden serve on the editorial council of Christianity Today.