by Fr. John Whiteford
However, when I began to seriously study the writings of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, I realized that my new theological method wasn’t a new method at all – it was only new to me. Much of the material I was assigned to read while at SNU was a labor to be endured, nothing inspiring or edifying – but there were a few exceptions, and prominent among those exceptions were the books by Thomas Oden. Oden had been a student of the extremely liberal German biblical scholar Rudolph Bultmann, and so was very much a part of the skeptical intellectual environment that I found so unattractive.
However, at some point in the 70’s he began to apply the skeptical criteria of liberal scholarship back upon liberal scholarship, and ended up affirming the idea that the “Ecumenical Consensus” of the first millennium of Christian history was “normative”. I was introduced to his work in my Systematic Theology class. He had at that time written the first two volumes of a systematic theology that followed the outline of the Nicene Creed, and was in many ways an introduction to the Fathers, and an index to point you to where in their writings you could find what they had to say on the questions covered by the texts.
In that class, we used volume 2, “The Word of Life”, which focused on those parts of the Creed that related to Christ. That book was so refreshing that I got me a copy of volume 1, “The Living God”, and read it as well. I also found that our library had his book “Agenda for Theology”, which was I think then out of print, but was his theological manifesto, and explained how he had moved from being a Bultmannian to one who affirmed the authority of the Tradition of the Church. That book was later reprinted in a significantly revised form, under the title “After Modernity… What?” In one of my Pastoral Theology classes, they also used his “Pastoral Theology” as a textbook, which went to the Tradition of the Church for guidance on how to deal with the practical issues of pastoral theology.
There was one chapter of “The Word of Life” (chapter 7, which dealt with the question of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”) that was such a thorough critique of Protestant liberalism that I put Batman comic sound effects in the margin: “Boom!”, “Pow!”, “Smack!”, etc.
“We violate a primary ethical demand upon historical study if we impose upon a set of documents presuppositions congenial to us and then borrow from the canonical prestige of the documents by claiming that it corresponds with our favored predisposition. That lacks honesty. The modern attempt to study Christ has done this repeatedly. The text has often become a mirror of ideological interest: Kant’s Christ becomes a strained exposition of the categorical imperative; Hegel’s Christ looks like a shadow-image of the Hegelian dialectic. Schleiermacher’s Christ is a reflection of the awkward mating of pietism and romanticism; Strauss’s Christ is neatly weeded of all supernatural referents. Harnack’s portrait of Christ looks exactly like that of a late nineteenth-century German liberal idealist; and Tillich’s Christ is a dehistorical existential idea of being that participates in estrangement without being estranged…. The historical biblical critic was
“not nearly so interested in being changed by his reading of the Bible, as in changing the way that the Bible was read in order to confirm it to the modern spirit”” (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 224f).
“The hermeneutic of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of the historians. It is now time for the tables to turn. The hermeneutic of suspicion must be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself. This is the most certain next phase of biblical scholarship – the criticism of criticism” (Ibid., p. 226).
“One obvious neglected arena is the social location of the quasi-Marxist critics of the social location of classic Christianity, who hold comfortable chairs in rutted, tenured tracks. These writers have focused upon the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Yet that principle awaits now to be turned upon the social prejudices of the “knowledge elite” – a guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university…. The motivation to discover unprecedented critical findings increases as professional advancement is held out as a reward for original research. This perennial habit of the German academic tradition has led biblical criticism to new ecstasies of faddism, where the actual history of Jesus vanishes in a pile of theories and speculations as to the redactive transmission of the tradition of testimony about him…. It is hardly probable that Holy Writ has been inspired, provided, traditioned at high cost, and defended for twenty centuries for no better purpose than to keep historians busy or advance academic careers… Jesus had harsh words for such obstructionists: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52)” (Ibid., pp. 226-228).
The third volume of his “Systematic Theology” was not published until 1992, and by that time I had been Orthodox awhile, and so was less eager to purchase a copy, though I always had the intention of eventually doing so, in order to complete the set. Twenty-two years later, I finally got around to it, and reading it was a walk down memory lane. Reading the preface freshly reminded me of what a radically different spirit I found in his writings in comparison with most of the material I had studied at SNU.
In the second paragraph of his preface, he wrote:
“At the end of this journey I reaffirm solemn commitments made at its beginning:
• To make no new contribution to theology
• To resist the temptation to quote modern writers less schooled in the whole counsel of God than the best ancient classic exegetes
• To seek quite simply to express the one mind of the believing church that has been ever attentive to the apostolic teaching to which consent has been given by Christian believers everywhere, always, and by all – this what I mean by the Vincentian method (Vincent of Lerins, comm., LCC [Library of Christian Classics] VII, pp. 37-39,65-74; for an accounting of this method see LG [The Living God (volume 1 of his systematic theology)], pp. 322-25,341-51)
I am dedicated to unoriginality. I am pledged to irrelevance if relevance means indebtedness to corrupt modernity. What is deemed relevant in theology is likely to be moldy in a few days. I take to heart Paul’s admonition: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we [from the earliest apostolic kerygma] had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!”
(Gal. 1:8, 9, NIV, italics added) (Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology Volume Three, (New York: Harper & Row, 1992) p vii).
I can’t remember in which of his books he said this, but I remember him echoing the above sentiments, and saying that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to say:
“He added nothing new to theology.”
Thomas Oden is still a Protestant, and so one should not assume that I would agree with him entirely, but his devastating critique of Protestant liberalism and modernity in general, combined with his affirmation of the Tradition of the Church was an oasis in a spiritual and intellectual desert.