Thomas Oden [1931 – age 85]
Thomas Clark Oden (born October 21, 1931) is an American Methodist theologian associated with Drew University in New Jersey and the Director of the Center for Early African Christianity. An ordained United Methodist Elder (pastor), he is perhaps most recently known for his call for a return to “classical Christianity” as exemplified in his After Modernity…What? (1992) and The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (2002). Some see his efforts as resulting in a “Paleo-Orthodox Movement” extending beyond Methodism. He has been important in the contemporary ecumenical movement and in evangelical circles. His influences include United Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler.
Oden adopted the term paleo-orthodoxy for his approach to theology. The term is derived from the roots “paleo” (meaning “ancient”) and “orthodox” (meaning “correct belief”), so it essentially means “ancient correct belief”. He has written, “The term paleo-orthodoxy is employed to make clear that we are not talking about neo-orthodoxy. Paleo- becomes a necessary prefix only because the term orthodoxy has been preempted and to some degree tarnished by the modern tradition of neo-orthodoxy” (Requiem). Odens’ name was further linked to the term “paleo-orthodoxy” and to the idea of the movement by the publication of Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century: Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden (2002).
Oden believes that Christians need to rely upon the wisdom of the historic Church, particularly the early Church, rather than on modern scholarship and theology, which is often, in his view, tainted by political agendas. This is commendable though somewhat naive since political agendas can be found in the early church as well.
Oden’s desire is, “…to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christianity” (After Modernity…What?). Oden himself has written that he hopes, “…to make no new contribution to theology” (Life in the Spirit), preferring instead to recapture the spirit and authority of the patristic writers. Oden’s work has been influential within the United Methodist Church and also positively received in the broader evangelical and seminary communities.
Oden and Evil, Conscience, and God
Moral awareness is painfully conscious that it exists in relation to that which transcends it. It desires and longs for communion and reconciliation with the One who gives moral order. It knows that it cannot be sufficiently explained in terms of environmental influences or education, although conscience is subject to further education and refinement. Rather conscience is an element essential to human consciousness, which preconditions education and socialization (Lactantius, Div. Inst. 6.8–10; Ambrose, Duties 1. 8–14; Luther, Comm. on Galatians, MLS: 118–21).
Nor can the presence of evil fundamentally undermine the moral argument, as if to say, “God could not exist in a world as bad as the one to which conscience attests.” Rather, theistic exponents of the moral argument view the painful awareness of persistent evil as a powerful validation rather than a rejection of the argument, implying that “God does exist, because we are awakened to the persistence of evil through conscience in a way that points beyond the law to the lawgiver and leads to repentance, redemption, and reconciliation.” (Augustine, Enchiridion, LCC 7: 353).
In classical Christian teaching, no evil to which conscience attests is so far distanced from the divine will that it cannot become subsequently a greater good.
Oden and Deciding About Jesus
This summary way of thinking began very early, even while the New Testament was being written, when people began to try to make up their minds about what was happening in their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. They recognized that in Jesus they had come to know God the Father through his Son. Jesus himself often spoke of God as Father (patr, Mark 11:10, 25 f.; 13:32; 14:36; Matt. 6:1–32; 10:20–37; 18:10–35; 26:39–42) or familiarly as Abba (“papa,” Mark 14:36). The intimate and affectionate name, Abba, echoes throughout the Pauline letters (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 4:6). At Pentecost, the disciples received the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4; 2:32).
It was not merely that Jesus was teaching about God, the Father. Rather, the church believed that God the Father was intimately and personally present in Jesus’ ministry, and that Jesus himself was personally present in the life of the community as resurrected Lord. They felt the real presence of the Father with them. The Son’s presence was experienced as nothing less than the Father’s own living, personal presence.
The Johannine writings spoke in a voice that would affect all triune teaching: “God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1:18; Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 4.22.7; Hilary, On the Councils 36). “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Christ not only makes God known, but is truly God; not only reveals the truth, but is the “truth; and the worshiping community understands its life to be hid “in Christ.” It is this Word of God who was “with God in the beginning” and who “was God,” who “came from the Father,” who had “become flesh and lived for a while among us” (John 1:1–14; Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 3.11; Ambrose, On the Incarnation 6.59). In these passages, we are listening in on the earliest Christian community seeking to speak accurately of its actual experience of the real presence of God in Jesus.
This implied no disregard for the oneness of God. The earliest Christians were steeped in monotheistic faith, but they had to make sense out of this decisive event—this living presence of the risen Lord in their midst. They understood Jesus to be not part God, not merely similar to God, but in the fullest sense “true God” (John 17:3; 1 John 5:20; Rev. 3:7; Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 3.9; Chrysostom, on John 80.2). This is the reason we have triune thinking. If the first-generation witnesses had not been bathed in that vital experience, we would not be talking about the Trinity today. In that sense, the core “of triune teaching did not undergo a century of development before being realized, but was grasped in the first generation of witnesses.
The disciples not only experienced the presence of Father and Son but further experienced a powerful impetus of the divine Spirit that brought the Son into their hearts. They understood that this Spirit was working within their community to awaken and teach them the significance of what happened in Christ—counseling them, helping them to understand, praying with them, and accompanying them. This gave them unusual courage and hope. The Holy Spirit was that living and present reality in the life of the community, distinguishable from, but not separable from, the same one God who was self-disclosed and present in Jesus (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 3.17; Tertullian, Ag. Praxeas 1–15; Tatian, To the Greeks 15).
Gradually, as the Christian community moved from Jerusalem into the Greek, Syriac, and Latin environments, they struggled to articulate this experience in varied language and symbol systems.
Christians today continue to be encountered by the same loving Father, risen Lord, and empowering Spirit. Christians today are relearning how to address God as Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the guidance of the Spirit. Christians today still live out of the same remembered history of the saving deeds of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Oden and The Mission of Corrective Love in a Fallen World
(Romans 13:1 – Acts 5:29)
Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and governing ministries continue to work correctively within the continuing body of Christ. Through the helping ministry (diakonos) Christ presents himself to the hurting, guilt-laden, disordered world as lowly servant. Through the ministry of teaching and guidance (presbyteros) Christ presents himself to the world as proclaimer of the forgiving Word. Through the ministry of oversight (episkopos) Christ presents himself to the world as shepherd-king and head of the reconciling community. These orders of ministry have produced polity types that in some points of their history have overly accentuated one or the other of the offices, but taken in their complementary, each is needed to sustain the oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church.
It is the whole people of God, the community of believers, the worshiping faithful, who share in Christ’s prophetic, priestly and governance ministries, and not the ordained ministry alone. This whole body of Christ, the people of God, exercise a spiritual priesthood in which by faith they participate in Christ’s priestly office each time they intercede for sinners. This whole body of Christ, the people of God, are rightly understood to have a share in Christ’s ministry of governance when they order their families and vocations and political lives under the revealed Word.
This whole people of God are represented in the service of worship in an orderly way by duly ordained ministers called of God and elected by due process into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Grace is present in this setting aside of persons for representative ministry, for the essence of ordination is the prayer for the grace that enables it. Neither in Israel nor the apostolic church nor the church today does the health of the laity flourish without sacred ministry. The authorization to sacred orders rests upon Jesus’ own intention and specific directive.
The corrective task of admonition which occurs primarily within the more tranquil precincts of the disciplined community has relevance for the environing world. Ecclesial discipline in its own quiet way has decisive meaning for the saeculum. The safety, justice, and tranquility of the world is enhanced when the church is permitted simply to be itself, to exercise its communion discipline.
Discipline within the redeemed, caring community of faith differs radically from magistracy in the civil order, with its legitimated capacity to exercise coercion under law. The state is not well served by commandeering the church on behalf of partisan political objectives. However indispensable within the conditions of the history of sin, the state is neither one, nor holy, nor catholic, nor apostolic. The state can only live by the sword, while the faithful are being freed to live by the Word. Though ordered by a principle different from that of the state, the church has civil rights and participates in civil responsibilities. What the state owes to the church is the freedom to proclaim and order itself under the Gospel.
The worshiping community is sustained by the Spirit amid its hazardous transit through political change. Though Christians maintain allegiance to a heavenly city that transcends all earthly forms of governance, this does not justify indifference to or neglect of civil accountability amid the earthly city. The Christian life does not as a matter of course pit accountability to the state against accountability to God. All unrighteousness finally becomes accountable to the Just One at the end of history.
Excessive accommodation of the church to the political order may debase the currency of Christian testimony. Just as the state has no right to usurp power in the arena of religious belief and conscience, so the church has no right to usurp power in the legislative, judicial, or executive arenas of political authority. The church stands in the midst of the history of sin looking toward the final consummation of history in the promised return of her Lord.