Back to the Fathers: An Oden Interview

On Oct. 21st (about 3 weeks ago), in honor of his 80th birthday, Christianity Today re-ran an interview with Thomas Oden from September 1990. Oden has been a significant influence on me, especially in my seminary years through his books such as Agenda for Theology, Rebirth of Orthodoxy, and his massive ecumenical Systematic Theology in which he advocated giving much more attention to the ancient ecumenical consensus in theology and Scripture interpretation as we post-modern folks try to hear and understand the Biblical message for today.

Oden's "return to the early fathers/ancient consensus" project has often been called "Paleo-orthodoxy" (to distinguish it from 20th-Century's "Neo-orthodoxy"), though it really is just "orthodoxy" in the broadest sense. The interview was conducted by Christopher Hall, who is now a leading paleo-orthodox theologian in his own right. Some highlights from the interview are copied below, the whole article can be found here.

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 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.

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.

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