A Conversation With Thomas C. Oden
Part one of two parts by Kenneth Tanner
Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at the Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and an ordained United Methodist minister. In the early 1970s, this son of the liberal Protestant tradition discovered the ancient Christian writers, an encounter that reversed his theological vision. Since then he has determined to play a part in faithfully passing on the living Tradition of the Church through his ministry of writing.
Kenneth Tanner: You were a son of the liberal mainline Protestant tradition, a self-described “movement” theologian addicted to accommodating the ethos of modernity. Was there one key event or crisis that led to your ecumenical orthodox conversion or was it a string of events? What caused you to rethink your direction?
Thomas Oden: It was not a single event. It was a very slow learning process by which I began to read the ancient Christian writers. It’s very undramatic in terms of pietistic expectations about a radical momentary conversion. I grew up as a Methodist, was baptized, and entered into the stream of Christian consciousness from a liberal-pietistic angle of vision. I went on through graduate school and into academic seminary teaching without having become prepared to be a theologian even though I was functioning as a theologian for ten years or more before I began to read the ancient ecumenical writers. It took me, I believe, six or eight years to go through the cycle of that reading process. So, when people ask me about a single moment of conversion, I simply can’t point to one.
There were some important transitions along the way. I think I began to be disillusioned by my liberal assumptions in the early ’70s; actually it probably began in the late ’60s, but I didn’t recognize it as clearly as I did in the early ’70s. My commitment to liberal politics (with a very high trust in government regulatory policy) was gradually disillusioned. It was an illusion that was disillusioned. I also began to be aware of the dogmatism of my liberal colleagues and of myself as a liberal. In other words, I began to come up against the rigidity, the inflexibility and the lack of decent civil discourse among liberals. I had grown up thinking that tolerance and civil discourse were assumptions of the liberal communication process, but I came to the point of feeling that I was simply not being listened to anymore.
Tanner: It’s an interesting paradox of your journey that it was a Jewish scholar and colleague at Drew University, Will Herberg, who set you on the path toward Christian orthodoxy.
Oden: The meeting with Will was a crucial turning point for me because he had been a former Communist. He had been very deeply involved in the very kinds of socialist activism that I had also been involved in as a young man. Except he had gone much further. Will was a very key person in one of the movements of the Communist Party in the United States. He had gone through a radical pattern of reversal having been a Communist. He belatedly came back to the rabbinic tradition out of the disillusionment of that period of socialism in the ’20s and ’30s, much like the transition that Reinhold Niebuhr made. Reinhold Niebuhr was a socialist candidate for Congress in the early ’30s. He and Will and others went all the way in committing themselves to quasi-Marxist or Marxist and socialist objectives, only to disavow them.
In Will, I found a Jewish mentor with a much better rooting in the Christian tradition than I had. Not only had he educated himself about his own rabbinic and Jewish tradition, but he had also read a great deal in the ancient Christian writers and knew them well. When I met Will, I had come to Drew as a systematic theologian and Will was teaching at Drew as the professor of social philosophy. He was shocked at how little I knew about my own tradition, and he simply embarrassed and cajoled and pushed me into reading my own classic tradition. He made it necessary for me, if I was going to be in dialogue with him, to deal with those ancient sources. I wasn’t too hard to persuade because once I began to crack them I realized, rather quickly, that there’s something extremely valuable there.
Will was essentially a cultural conservative, a political conservative, an economic conservative and a religious conservative. I had never met anybody like that who was truly brilliant, who had it all over me in terms of knowledge of the ancient sources. Will was a very important partner in dialogue simply to get me into the ball game, to get me into the sources that I needed to make a theologian out of me.
Tanner: What was absent from the liberal tradition in which you were raised that kept you from being prepared as a theologian?
Oden: What my tradition prepared me for was social activism, becoming a person of conscience with respect to political change. My liberal tradition thought that that could occur with minimal learning from the texts of Scripture and Tradition. Perhaps I didn’t listen to my liberal tradition well enough, but that’s what I derived from it. When I decided to go into ministry, I think my real commitment was not at all to its religious dimension rightly and properly understood, but more to its political dimension. In other words, I thought that the Christian community was a context that could be used for political and economic change. It took me a long time to realize that there was something more to it than that. Prior to meeting Will Herberg, the people that I met who helped reverse that premise were Albert Outler and Joe Matthews at Southern Methodist University and the Perkins School of Theology. Also, I had read Kierkegaard and Luther and a little bit of Augustine.
Tanner: In your book, After Modernity, What?, you mention that the abortion debate, more than anything else, changed the direction of your life and vocation as a theologian. What was it that made you change your mind about the unborn?
Oden: It wasn’t until the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that I actually came to a reversal on the issue of abortion. It was a moment of moral revulsion—that’s the best way that I can put it. I had been strongly committed to the rhetoric of choice and rights on behalf of women throughout the ’60s. There was a contest of political wills in my state of Oklahoma over abortion and I had been working in my state for the liberalization of abortion laws.
In January of 1973, I came to have a serious change of conscience about the unborn and from then on it was a total reversal on all fronts. It was a moment of repentance, a moment in which I recognized that what I was doing was simply wrong.
Tanner: Given your early history of political activism on the left, what do you think about groups like Operation Rescue that are using civil disobedience and peaceful interdiction to stop abortions? Is there ever a time to resist the state or culture by breaking the law?
Oden: Yes, I think that civil disobedience patterns can be, in extreme cases, legitimate, though I have not myself followed that path. But I do, in fact, respect the conscience of those who do. The Pauline command to obey the powers that be still remains for me a serious moral injunction, and I would prefer working through processes of democratic petition and change rather than breaking the law. I do recognize a legitimate role for civil disobedience, although I think that it has to be undertaken with great sensitivity of conscience and very nuanced self-criticism.
Tanner: In your writings, you’ve used the word modernity to describe the ethos of our present time and culture. What does the word modernity mean to you?
Oden: That’s a long discussion, but let me summarize it. I mean by modernity the period of time from 1789 to 1989, that is, the French Revolution to the collapse of communism, in which an Enlightenment mindset emerged that has been characterized by reductive naturalism (which reduces what can be reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate), narcissistic hedonism (which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure), autonomous individualism (which assumes that moral authority essentially comes from within), and moral relativism (which says that all morality is relative to culture, social location, and situation). I have elaborated each one of these key motifs in my book, Requiem. These four movements have taken shape over the last 200 years and during my lifetime they’ve reached their period of hegemony. They got out of hand only in the last 50 years and I believe in the last 30 years that modernity has been in a radical period of decline, of moral tailspin. So that’s what I mean by modernity.
It seems to me that we are living in a period in which the energy, the intellectual vitality of modernity (including all of the movements that I’ve mentioned) is either very sick and waning or, in fact, dead. I would prefer to use the death image because it seems to me that the vitality that once pervaded the Enlightenment optimism about rationality and autonomy and self-actualization (and all these movements) has now clearly been overtaken by history. That is, history has taught us that those assumptions are not just flawed, they’re deeply dangerous, as evidenced by 14-year-old kids roaming the streets of our cities with machine guns. We have an emergent barbarism in our morally-liberated society. I use that only as one example; it’s a cheap example, but it does seem to me that it says we’re at a period of radical social failure for that period that we designate as modernity. I don’t see that as bad news for Christianity. This is an extraordinary opportunity for Christian testimony, for Christian perseverance, for the wisdom of Christian understanding of sin and grace. This world is just waiting for our testimony if we’re able to articulate it plausibly.
Tanner: Many critiques of our modern society seem to lack compassion for our present culture and for the people who are trapped in its assumptions. One gets the idea that these critics either romanticize earlier periods of history out of proportion or that they simply disdain the modern era. While your critiques are often severe and just as poignant as those of others, you seem to combine your criticism with a certain affection for our time and an understanding of modern persons. What do you think makes the difference?
Oden: I empathize deeply with my good friends who still are despairingly committed to reviving the assumptions of modernity. I understand where they’re coming from because I myself have been there. I’ve stood in their shoes. It is also important to remember that good criticism, properly understood, has love as its foundation. As I was growing up my father disciplined me, but not for the sake of discipline alone. My father loved me, as a good parent loves his child. That is why he disciplined me. Love is the premise of all good criticism.
Frankly, I’m not a pessimist historically. If you stand within the frame of reference of modern assumptions, of course, I think there is good reason to be pessimistic, but I don’t stand within that range of assumptions. I’m standing within a different range of assumptions that give me a very positive sense of judgment and grace, and I think I get this directly from the Jewish and Christian traditions’ testimony to God’s action in history.
Tanner: The gospel?
Oden: Yes, it seems to me that what God has done in Jesus Christ is profoundly pertinent to the particular dilemmas that have emerged in our time, so I don’t want to describe myself as an optimist because I think neither of the terms pessimism or optimism is adequate to describe the Christian understanding of God’s work in history, the redemption of sin. I still live within an ethos (at Drew) that is strongly affected by various feminisms, liberation theologies, process theologies and egalitarian idealisms, and I don’t want to be cynical about that world. It seems to me that that world is waiting to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Tanner: Your recently completed Systematic Theology, following on many of the ideas that your earlier work, Agenda for Theology, developed, calls the modern Church back to “ecumenical orthodoxy.” What is orthodoxy? And what do you mean by ecumenical orthodoxy?
Oden: Actually, orthodoxy is a term that emerges out of the history of Christianity. It is distinguished from heresy in that any heretical view is other than that which has been received in the apostolic Tradition. Orthodoxy is that exegesis of the texts of the apostolic Tradition (that is the New Testament itself) that has been generally received by the widest circle of Christians, East and West. Those who argue for “ecumenical orthodoxy” cannot argue it either from the side of the East or the West. You have to argue it from the side of synods and writers in the East that were received in the West and synods and writers in the West that were received in the East—those consensual Christian writers and those councils and synods that were widely received ecumenically. Take the Second Council of Orange, for example: it was a regional council but it became very widely received as a statement of the relation of sin, grace, and freedom.
It is this set of documents—those texts both of the conciliar process and of specific theologians that were reflecting the conciliar process—that are the ones that best represent the orthodox Tradition. So, we are not without a means of scientifically studying the orthodox Tradition. In other words, we can inquire into it as a literary corpus. We have texts to study and there’s no mystery about what those texts are. Generally speaking, they are the seven ecumenical councils, they are those regional synods that have interpretively followed from the seven ecumenical councils, and they are eight theologians that the Tradition has frequently named as most accurately stating the mind of the believing Church, four of the East that are received in the West and four of the West that are received in the East; Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen in the East and Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great in the West. Anybody who knows the conciliar Tradition knows that when you go to those theologians you get a fairly accurate reading of what the consensus was. Not an absolute one hundred percent accurate reading because even as good as those theologians were they sometimes missed the mark, but basically they’re extremely reliable interpreters of the consensus. So, what I mean by ecumenical recovery is not the recovery of modern ecumenism or the bureaucratic contemporary-liberal form of ecumenism, but it is the recovery of ancient ecumenism as it is manifested in those texts. My theological inquiry is a highly textual concern. When I work with students, I work essentially with those texts and we try to understand what those texts say.
Tanner: Then Tradition, rightly understood, is the history of orthodox commentary on Scripture?
Oden: Right. Tradition is a consensual memory of the interpretation of the apostolic testimony. The apostolic testimony, of course, is a body of documents. I’m thinking of the New Testament, which has itself gone through a remembering and a traditioning and a canonizing process. All of those processes are still subject to historical investigation. I do not want to rule out from the range of inquiry persons who wish to deal with form criticism and who try to understand the layers of influence in the oral tradition prior to its being written, but I regard that as a highly speculative enterprise. I don’t want to rule out those who are studying the ways in which the scriptural texts were made into canonical lists; that’s a perfectly legitimate question for historical inquiry. But the beginning point for orthodox reflection is the texts of Scripture and the Tradition of consensual interpretation of those texts. As a speculative enterprise, the historical-critical method is not a central feature of the ongoing life of the Spirit in the Church, it’s not ultimately concerned with the faithful transmission of the living tradition to our generation and to our children’s generation.
New Testament studies in German and American universities are deeply troubled. Many of the fundamental value assumptions of historical-critical and form-critical traditions of scriptural interpretation have come directly out of the Enlightenment, which, in my view, is on the defensive in history today. These Enlightenment assumptions have not produced a social process that is itself intergenerationally viable. That’s why many of the results of these interpretive traditions have left the Christian community malnourished.
Tanner: How would you respond to people who would say that what you’re describing above is really a “Western version of Christianity” and that your work is not attentive to African or Asian or other Third-World orientations in theology?
Oden: The formation of ecumenical orthodox tradition occurred before the conception of Europe. In other words, European Christianity is very, very late in coming. “God-talk” is very late in coming. We don’t talk about God until after we’ve talked about Yahweh and Elohim and Theos and Deus and Gott. We’ve got a long language history before we ever get to the Teutonic tribes. I want to make that point because the formation of the early ecumenical tradition had a great indebtedness to African voices. It was not a predominantly European thing. The Europeans came very late in the layers of tradition. If you look at the location of all of the ecumenical councils, where did they occur? None of them occurred in what we today call Western cities, except Constantinople, which is right on the edge. The rest of them were in Ephesus, Nicaea, Chalcedon, and so forth; they were on the Eastern side of the Bosporus. And if you look among the greatest theologians of the early Christian period, a great many of them came from Africa. I think of Athanasius and Origen and Augustine and Tertullian and Cyprian. It is a stellar set of voices that come out of Africa, not from Europe. So, the way to answer the persons who essentially view Christian orthodoxy as a European or “Western” diminution of a purer religion is to go back behind and before the Europeanization process and talk about the earliest layers of consensual memory that existed in the Church before Gregory the Great, and Charlemagne, and the formation of Europe.
Tanner: Coming from a Pentecostal-Charismatic background, I was taught to understand the Spirit’s active, present ministry in the Church primarily through the charisms. Aside from that, we never learned much else about the person and work of the Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit work in what seems to be a quite human process of consensus that you describe in the formation of the creeds, in the councils of the Church, and in the formation of the canon of Scripture? And why should anyone care about that today?
Oden: Well, of course, there would be no tradition if it were not for the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is God coming to us, to manifest, to enable, and to empower the mission of God the Son. Part of that mission has to do with the sustaining of Christian memory, with enabling the accurate recollection of the apostolic witness. We ascribe to the Spirit the sustenance of the Church through the initial period of persecution and all of its subsequent existence. What is the Church other than that community that is made alive by the Spirit? If you examine the process of canonization and transmission of the text of the New Testament, it is amazing that we have even received these texts. One has to acknowledge the mystery of God the Spirit in order to account for how we actually have received the texts of the apostolic Tradition. The Church has always ascribed to the Holy Spirit the power that awakens and enables and empowers the memory of the Son. That is what the Holy Spirit is always doing, bringing to mind the work of the Son.
Tanner: So, the Church is cooperating with the Spirit in bringing forth the Tradition in each new generation?
Oden: The Church is cooperating, yes, but more importantly the Spirit is prevening. The distinction between prevening, cooperating, and sanctifying grace is a useful one, because the Spirit works ahead of our cooperation. The Spirit prepares our freedom for responsiveness, and then once we, in our freedom, respond in faith and trust in the good news, the Spirit continues to follow through, as it were, on the inadequacies of the initiatives of our own freedom.
God has lots of time. We do not have much time as persons who live between birth and death. But the Holy Spirit has all kinds of time. He functions through and against and above and underneath the temporary initiatives of human freedom. Let me go back to an earlier point. The depositum of faith—the testimony of the apostles to the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ—attests to the truth. It calls for faith, but it does not need the improvement of our rationality or our imagination to make it better. God is not waiting for us to improve the gospel. But, it nonetheless remains the case that the gospel addresses each new historical-cultural situation, each new language system, each new set of symbolic references that emerge in history. And therefore the task we have in each moment of history is to accurately remember that apostolic witness and translate it into the terms of each new time and place. We have a special calling to take the Scripture and Tradition of ancient Christian orthodoxy and make sense out of it to people in our own time. Just like people in the thirteenth century had the same task, but had a different set of symbol systems and a different set of resources. History keeps on moving through different political ideas, economic structures, philosophical worldviews and so forth. The challenge of Christian mission and testimony is ever new. But that doesn’t mean that the apostolic testimony changes. God’s love doesn’t change. God’s judgment doesn’t change. All of that is given with complete adequacy in the apostolic testimony.
Tanner: So, the emphasis is placed on accurately remembering the apostolic testimony, not upon creating something new?
Oden: Yes. I tend to distrust myself when I begin to imagine that my creativity is somehow going to come up with something that is just a little better than what the apostles received from Christ and delivered to the Church. Before I began to read the ancient Christian writers the education that I received taught me to be creative and to look for innovative solutions. I considered it my duty to bring to each text of theology a critical attitude, requiring that text to conform to my modern assumptions about the world. That is what I thought I was supposed to do as a theologian. If there is any single hermeneutical reversal that occurred in my thinking it was just the simple recognition that it’s not my job to improve on the apostolic testimony.
It was John Henry Cardinal Newman who taught me that the deposit of truth is already sufficiently given, fully and adequately. What I needed to do was to listen. But, prior to my reversal, I could not listen because I found my modern presuppositions constantly tyrannizing my listening. Then, while reading Nemesius [early Christian philosopher, bishop of Emesa in Syria], something clicked: I realized that I must listen intently, actively, without reservation. Listen in such a way that my whole life depended upon hearing. Listen in such a way that I could see telescopically beyond my modern myopia, to break through the walls of my modern prison, and actually hear voices from the past with entirely different assumptions about the world and time and human culture.
Of course, embedded in the deepest idea of listening is obedience (hypokoe). I find it difficult to convince colleagues that the most important single lesson I have learned hermeneutically is obedience to the text. Carl Rogers taught me to trust my experience. The ancient Christian writers taught me to trust that Scripture and Tradition would transmute my experience.
Tanner: You have coined the term “paleo-orthodoxy.” What does it mean?
Oden: It just means ancient ecumenical orthodoxy. When I use the word “paleo-orthodoxy” I’m appealing to the classic Christian exegesis of the first five centuries, the ancient ecumenical Tradition to which all Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and liberal and conservative Protestant—have a right to appeal. I do not wish to plead for twentieth-century fundamentalism, nor for American revivalism of the nineteenth century, nor for eighteenth-century pietism, nor for seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism or sixteenth-century classic Reformation teaching. No, I’m pleading the esthetic beauty of retrogression to the consensual memory of this primitive evangelical catholic community of prayer, study, and reflection.
I also use the term “paleo-orthodoxy” because we have another term that floats around (and has for about 50 years in our culture): Neo-orthodoxy. And the reason I speak of paleo-orthodoxy is to make a distinction between ancient Christian orthodoxy and what is often called neo-orthodoxy. Under that umbrella, of course, you find Tillich and Bultmann and other more traditional writers like Karl Barth and Thielicke and Brunner and the Niebuhrs, and so forth. So, under this tent called “neo-orthodoxy” you have a lot of stuff, some of it really wonderful, but a lot of it that is not very attentive to ancient Christianity. As a matter of fact, the most brilliant of the neo-orthodox writers really did not understand the ancient Christian writers very well. I use Reinhold Niebuhr as an example of this and Tillich as well. Tillich probably understood some details of the ancient tradition a little bit better than Reinhold Niebuhr did. But it was not important to those writers of neo-orthodoxy to really immerse themselves in classical Christianity. What they did was immerse themselves in historical-critical study of New Testament documents and then they studied Western intellectual history. Then once they got into the modern period they idolatrized, by and large, the assumptions of modernity, like Bultmann did. Bultmann took the assumptions of modernity as normative for all previous recollections of the gospel. After walking with Bultmann along that way for many years, I now think that’s a fundamental mistake.
Tanner: Does Karl Barth really fit into this category?
Oden: Partly, I think he does. But I think of all the ones that I named, clearly Barth is the one who tries the most rigorously to listen to Athanasius, especially, and Augustine. But how solid was Barth’s depth in ancient Eastern Christianity and in many details of Western Christianity? Barth regularly reads the early Christian writers through Reformed eyes. He is a very Calvinist writer. Every time he looks at Athanasius (which he does), he sees Athanasius with the lens of Calvin. Barth is a wonderful mentor in many ways, but he does not bring you adequately back to the sources that you must deal with if you are going to be well fitted as an ecumenical theologian.
Tanner: Today, many evangelicals maintain that they can navigate modernity very well on their own with their Scriptures. They do not feel compelled to be connected with the Communio Sanctorum. How would you convince them otherwise?
Oden: The premise that you can do without the history of the Holy Spirit is a very strong Protestant bias. I believe it is a deeply skewed Protestant mistake. The notion that you can take Scripture and simply overleap, as with seven-league boots, the seventeen, eighteen, nineteen centuries by which the Holy Spirit has awakened the life of the Church and transmitted this Tradition to us is an illusion because you can never make that leap. Nobody can make that leap. Why? Because there is an actual history there. Protestants are prone to say sola scriptura in such a way as to deprive themselves of a shared pre-Lutheran memory that could be very valuable to them. The reason that some Protestants have been deprived of that historical memory is partly due to the abuses of that memory, especially in late medieval sacramentalism with the turn that comes with Luther in the indulgence controversy and what followed. There was a history of abuses that had to be rejected. They were rejected. However, we rejected the bad side of the “tradition” in such a radical way that we came away from it rejecting the Tradition almost altogether. One of the most evident examples of this is in popular Pentecostal consciousness. If you talk with older Pentecostals, they sometimes imagine that nothing happened between Pentecost and Azusa Street . Now, as a matter of fact, a lot happened. And, as a matter of fact, if you really want to understand Azusa Street and if you are going to be serious about it, you have got to take into account a holiness revivalism tradition out of which the Pentecostal events in Los Angeles emerged. The recovery of the history of the Holy Spirit is a serious problem for Pentecostal consciousness. But with few exceptions, popular Pentecostalism hasn’t been very interested in that kind of historical awareness, at least not until very recently. I believe that there are some Pentecostal scholars now that are very interested in recovering the history of the Holy Spirit. But it hasn’t really occurred very much, only with a few people. At this point, this recovery among Pentecostals is a cloud the size of a man’s hand.
Tanner: According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “Apart from its theological validity or invalidity, the principle of worship as lex orandi lex credendi [the rule of prayer is the rule of faith] has proved to be far more useful historically, as a guide to the patterns of the development of doctrine, than has the Vincentian canon [the principle that the Church should accept only ‘that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all’].” As you turn frequently to Vincent in your writings, how do you respond to Pelikan?
Oden: What Pelikan is implying here is a criterion of usefulness. He is saying that it is far more useful to look at the Church at prayer and in its sacramental life than simply at its thought and belief system. Of course, he is right on this point. But I would not just apply a utilitarian criterion here. You can’t tell the truth by its usefulness. You have to finally get to the bottom of its truthfulness.
It is possible that Pelikan may have misunderstood Vincent, if he imagines that Vincent was not interested in lex orandi. That’s simply not the case. If you read the Commonitory, how does this faithful community get at its consensual recollection? Vincent is not ruling out the liturgies. In fact, Vincent is assuming that the liturgies are informing and shaping the doctrinal statements. Pelikan is right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. He is right in affirming lex orandi as the premise of lex credendi. He is wrong in thinking that the Vincentian canon doesn’t also agree with that very premise.
Tanner: Since the nineteenth century the Church has been inundated by what some would describe as a “new criterion” of experience in determining the validity of Christian doctrine and practice. I am speaking here of those who glorify individual religious experience to the point of rejecting or devaluing objective truth, catholic standards of doctrine and discipline, and sacramental graces. Following Schleiermacher, we had the revivalist movements, the Wesleyan-Holiness movements, and the “primacy” of dramatic personal conversion experiences in salvation theology. This same kind of reliance on individual experience has been brought into the twentieth century through some aspects of the Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and harismatic movements. Do you think there has been an over-emphasis on experience to the detriment of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason?
Oden: I do not think that experience, properly understood, should be rejected or denied. It does seem to me that the Word addressed to us in Scripture and Tradition seeks to be rationally received and experientially embodied. So, reason and experience are mutually balanced aspects of our response to the apostolic tradition as expressed in Scripture and Tradition. In answer to your question, yes, there has been an overemphasis, in many ways, in the pietistic tradition upon our experience. I think that the best of the pietistic tradition did not do that. Let me cite some Pietists that had a better balance between Scripture, Tradition, reason, and experience than others. The German pietistic tradition of Philip Spener, Hermann Francke, and Johann Bengel struck a pretty good balance, with rationality very much in place and with a fair amount of tradition. There are forms of Reformed and Puritan Pietism that had a marvelous stress on the experiential process. I would see Jonathan Edwards as an example of this. I think the ones that you’re worried about are essentially liberals following Schleiermacher and the sanctificationists following Wesley and the Holiness movement. Perhaps Phoebe Palmer is in the back of your mind?
Tanner: I’m not lumping all Holiness and revival leaders or movements into the same camp. I’m thinking specifically of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements (liberal or conservative) that abandoned Tradition (most of them kept the Scriptures along with their own sectarian interpretation of them, whether liberal or fundamentalist) in favor of an experiential criterion that posits a very low view of Scripture, Tradition, and reason. I’m talking about the heirs of the Pietists that have rejected objective graces.
Oden: They are the heirs of a highly deteriorated form of pietistic experientialism that does indeed deny the objective efficacy of grace in the sacraments. So, back to the center of your question, what is being rediscovered by Protestants, including charismatics and Pentecostals, is the grace of the sacraments, that the Eucharistic celebration intends to offer us union with the Risen Lord through his Body and Blood. The Eucharist is not simply the projection of our faith as Zwingli would have it. The key shift here really is with Zwingli especially if you compare the Zwinglian understanding of the sacraments with the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican conception of sacramental reality. Without deriding experience, I would speak of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and not allow that to become simply reduced to an attestation of faith or a kind of subjective sentiment that it tends to become in the followers of Schleiermacher (an embarrassing example of the latter is the Christology of the current Episcopal Bishop of Newark).
It is hazardous to say, as a good many feminists and pietists say today, “Just give me my experience and then my doctrine will flow out of my experience.” Surely we should have learned that from the tradition following Schleiermacher—not from Schleiermacher himself, but from the liberal tradition that has run wild with that assumption. This is clearly a distortion because it is subjectivizing and because it loses touch with the historical memory of an objective community of testimony, the Church. On the other hand, I do not want to simply say that doctrine elicits experience. It seems to me that it is God who, as Son, addresses us as the Word of God in an actual historical event, Incarnation and Cross/Resurrection, which God the Spirit then brings to our attention; then the Spirit enables our faithful response to that Word.
So, there’s something profoundly objective about the address of that Word. In other words, what happened on the cross is objective truth. The metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the crucifixion are juridical metaphors. It is as if a verdict has been rendered on the cross which calls for faithful response. So, doctrine functions not to elicit faith but to clarify the faith that the Word itself has elicited. The Word of God, through the Spirit, calls forth faith. The subsequent doctrinal exercise is an attempt to bring that faith to some kind of clarity and intellectual cohesion so that it is not internally inconsistent.
Tanner: What you have is not doctrine shaping experience, but Scripture and Tradition interpreting our experiences accurately for us.
Oden: Yes. In Christianity, you have an understanding of humanity and history and God’s presence in history that addresses our human dilemmas, as it were, objectively. But object/subject language is hazardous and difficult. So, once you talk about objectivity you need to back up and acknowledge certain things. You need to acknowledge that the apostolic testimony of the Church to the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection (which are objective historical events) had to be subjectively received and put through the sieve of a particular writer’s language, as in the case of Luke or Paul. It’s not without experience. But it is an experience that has been shaped by the address of God’s own Word in Jesus Christ as that Word has been called forth in our consciousness through the power of the Spirit.
Someone once said that to love a person is to learn
the song that is in their heart, and to sing it to them when they have
forgotten it. Substitute the words ‘the Church’ for ‘a
person’, and you will understand what Thomas Oden is all about.
These words truly summarize the essence of Thomas C. Oden. An attentiveness in listening to the apostolic Tradition (without adding to it for the sake of “creativity” or subtracting from it for the sake of current Neo-Marcionisms) is what Oden understands to be his duty as a church theologian. Beginning with Agenda for Theology in 1979, he has amassed an impressive bibliography that dusts off the forgotten writings of the consensus-bearing exegetes of the ancient ecumenical tradition and presents them to a new generation of postmodern churchmen: a four-volume collection of excerpts from the historical documents of the pastoral care tradition, Classical Pastoral Care (Baker Books); a three-volume Systematic Theology (HarperCollins) and a dozen others which develop his firm commitment to what he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.” Two new works (which are expected to create quite a stir among liberal knowledge elites in both Catholic and Protestant circles) summarize his compassionate critique of modernity and his candid appraisal of the need for a recovery of classical church order and discipline as the only way forward for those laity and clergy who seek to renew the postliberal Church. They are: Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Abingdon, February 1995) (see review on page 34 of this issue) and Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline (Concordia Publishing House, Spring 1995). Recently, he has become the general editor for a new multivolume work-in-progress, The Ancient Christian Commentary Project, which will make available for the first time in English a comprehensive collection of the Church Fathers’ exegetical writings on every text of Scripture, a formidable undertaking that is employing the skills of patristic scholars on several continents.
Oden is an academic theologian, but more importantly, he is emerging as a “hoary-headed” ecclesiastical prophet for a young generation of postmodern, postcritical catholic evangelicals (Oden affectionately refers to them as “the Young Fogeys”) who seek to nurture their children in the textual and sacramental graces of the Church, a generation of men and women who hope to pass on the living legacy of ancient Christian orthodoxy to their heirs. Oden demonstrates this prophetic gift in the closing pages of Requiem, acknowledging that when he wrote Agenda for Theology the recovery of ancient Christian orthodoxy “was a cloud the size of a man’s hand.” “Now,” he writes, “[that cloud] is misting; in a decade it will shower; someday there will be a hurricane.”
Part two of this interview appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Touchstone.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is communications director for the Charismatic Episcopal Church and is the executive editor of its journal, Sursum Corda. He and his wife, Debbie, live with their five children in San Clemente, California, where he is a deacon on staff at the Pro-Cathedral Church of St. Michael.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
*Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
from the touchstone online archives