Friday, August 14, 2015

Thomas Oden - Patriarch of Paleo-Orthodoxy

"Thomas Oden is a Methodist, ecumenist, evangelical, and patristics scholar who was dissuaded from liberal modernism by a Jewish conservative, becoming himself a theological paleo-orthodox and devoting the last half of his life to the reaffirmation of Christian orthodoxy rooted in the early church fathers." So begins the recent review of Oden's A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (2014) in the pages of the Weekly Standard. Click here to read this excellent review.

Paleo-orthodoxy is a loose term to used to describe the trend among a range of scholars - Oden chief among them - to root theological thought in the broad consensus of belief expressed by creeds and councils during the first six centuries of Christian history rather than in medieval Catholicism, the Protestant revolt of the 1600s, or the Enlightenment thought that came to define the experience of modernity. Of paleo-orthodoxy, one writer states, "It is in many respects a reaction against Protestantism's '400-year memory'. Proponents of paleo-orthodoxy aim to widen the Protestant collective memory to include all 20 centuries of church history."

In his Classic Christianity, Oden - retired Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University - describes his commitment to the "Christianity of consensus" - that which was believed "everywhere, always, and by all."

My basic purpose is to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. My intent is not to present the views of a particular branch of modern Christian teaching, such as Roman Catholic or Reformed, but to listen single-mindedly for the voice of that deeper consensus that has been gratefully celebrated as received teaching by believers of vastly different cultural settings, whether African or Asian, Eastern or Western, sixth or sixteenth century.

My intention may be simply put: I hope to set forth what is most commonly stated in the central Christian tradition concerning God. This effort is therefore ecumenical in a larger sense than is usually assumed in the modern ecumenical movement. It proposes to follow that ancient ecumenical consensus of Christian teaching of God as seen in earliest creedal summaries of Irenaeus, c. AD 190; Tertullian, c. 200; Hippolytus, c. 215; Council of Caesarea, 325; Council of Nicaea, 325; Marcellus, 340; Cyril of Jerusalem, 350; Council of Constantinople, 381; Rufinus, 404; Council of Chalcedon, 451. These confessions still embrace and empower not only centrist Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox but also great numbers of evangelicals, liberals, and charismatics.

Hence I am seeking to set forth key constructive arguments of two millennia of ecumenical Christian thinking - that God is, who God is, and what that means for us today. I seek an internally consistent statement of classical Christian thinking about God so as to provide a reliable foundation for baptism, the life of prayer, scripture studies, and for the living of Christian life.

Other Christian scholars identified with paleo-orthodoxy include the late Richard John Neuhaus, Alan Padgett, J. I. Packer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten, Stanley Grenz, Bradley Nassif, and Thomas Howard. Special attention should be paid the the Ancient-Future series by the late Robert Webber.


Of the writings by and in honor of Thomas Oden, these are the essential works:

The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperOne, 2002)

Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009)

After Modernity . . . What? (Zondervan, 1992)

Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century - Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden (IVP, 2002)


  1. Thanks so much, Joe, for calling attention Thomas Oden and this review of his recent book. In many ways, the path of Oden parallels the path that you and I and several others took so many years ago in Jackson, Mississippi. I especially resonate with Oden's commitment to "that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." This line, which comes from Vincent of Lerins, summarizes a centrist orthodoxy that is sometimes missing in contemporary evangelicalism. When we were Pentecostals four decades ago, we were left with the impression (and in some cases specifically taught) that the history of the Christian church was a great wasteland, and nothing very important happened between the writing of the Book of Revelation and the year 1900, when Pentecostalism was born. Contemporary evangelicalism has also become to a large degree ahistorical, and in doing so, it has deprived itself of a rich panoply of deep spirituality, great minds, and faithful brothers and sisters through the centuries, a great cloud of witnesses who kept the faith and remain part of the communion of the saints, the mystical body of Christ living and dead who are joined together in Christ himself.

    The other day, my wife saw a line from our mutual friend Mark Roberts which is worth repeating. He asked, "Tell me again why icons and incense are bad, but we need strobe lights and guitars to help us worship God?" (I may not have this quote exact, but this is the gist.)

    What I especially appreciate about Oden is his intentional and careful preservation of two central themes, faithfulness and catholicity. The first allows no rival to supplant the gospel. The second forbids any voice to divide the church. Sometimes, perhaps most times, holding these themes in balance is deeply challenging, but I am persuaded it is worth the effort! Oden, himself, is a testimony to this thoroughly biblical and godly value.

  2. One of the things that drew me to Thomas Oden's writings was his promise of unoriginality:

    "The only promise I intend to make, however inadequately carried out, is that of unoriginality. I plan to present nothing new or original in these pages."

    He adds:

    "Nothing of my own that would have my initials stamped upon it is important in this discussion."

    Oden seeks to let the "radiant voices" of classical Christianity - Paul, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus and the rest - speak in their own terms without the intrusion of his own voice.

    What an admirable goal - one that I think he accomplishes consistently throughout his "Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology."

  3. Dan, I used to describe my post-Pentecostal journey as “swimming back upstream to the warm waters of the Reformation.”

    Oden has help me see that that this stream flows back much further to the first centuries of Christian theology and that the waters are warmer still in this more ancient destination.

  4. Just a note of curiosity due to having only been slightly aware of Thomas Oden or Paleo-orthodoxy. As you have indicated, those following this trend tended to relegate their basis for theological thought to the first six centuries. One would wonder why this school of thought would postpone their jumping off point to approximately the sixth century as opposed to an earlier date. The currents which would have made consideration of certain thought beyond this date untenable would have likely been at work prior to this point. In Paleo-Orthodox thought was was the proverbial straw which broke the Camel's back, or what series of events in their mind lead to their choice of this point?

  5. That's a fair question, Bryan, and while I don't speak for Thomas Oden (or anyone else, for that matter), I can at least offer why these early centuries are important for me. After the ascension, Jesus left his followers with an implicit set of transition questions that they would be answering over the next several centuries. I say "implicit" because while these questions were paramount for the future of the church, Jesus left no precise directions. These questions include things like:

    What is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity?

    What are the authoritative Scriptures?

    How should leadership and succession work?

    What church administration is necessary?

    What is the relationship between Christianity and Rome?

    How should the followers of Jesus reconcile both the ancient truth that God is one with the incarnation of one who was "with" God but who "was" God?

    How should Christians treat opposing religious ideas?

    What forms of worship can be used and from where can they be drawn?

    I'm sure there were other questions, too, but it can at least be said that while Jesus and the apostles may have provided trajectories for answering them, they were not fully answered in the teachings of the Lord nor in the teachings of the apostles themselves. The answers to some of these questions would not be worked out for decades or even centuries. (To take one example, the first canon list of the New Testament that is exactly like we have it today--no more and no less--was offered by St. Athanasius in his 39th Easter Letter in AD 367.)

    Hence, these early centuries become the proving ground for what is authentic Christianity as opposed to a number of alternatives, including Marcionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Manichaeism, Monarchianism, Ebionitism and so forth, to name some of the prominent movements that borrowed some Christian ideas but became hybrids with other current religious and philosophical thought.

    In the end, one can argue for a paradigm of orthodoxy along the following lines: one faith, two testaments, three creeds, four councils and five centuries. (I grant that numbering these things as such is a little artificial, but the progression is an easy aid to the memory.) Very few modern heresies are unique; most of them are replays, to greater or lesser degrees, of thought systems that our forefathers in the faith faced in those early centuries.

  6. Dan, Your comments add further depth to my question. So let me rephrase it slightly for better discussion. In Paleo-Orthodox thought, what makes through the sixth century a more important cutoff date as opposed to an earlier date of say, the third or fourth century? Conversely, what would cause a first six century perspective as opposed to a later date? I am assuming the councils and creeds involved play a major role in why Paleo-Orthodox thought chose the approximate first six centuries as a time frame. Just looking for insight into this perspective as it would obviously affect the direction of the systematic theology flowing out as a result of using this time frame.

  7. I would suppose that a cut-off date to mark the closure of paleo-orthodox thoght is somewhat subjective, Bryan. Certainly there was no exact moment or even a single year that one can identify as the critical turning point. However, as you already have alluded, there were things happening in the church that came to a head by the end of the 6th century that would mark the transition between the earliest centuries of Christianity and its Medieval form. Many of these things concerned the development of the Roman Church the role it would eventually assume as head of the Medieval Church.

    This transition, as one would expect, was a gradual process involving a number of steps. Earlier, provincial seats in the government had become episcopal seats in the church. By the 4th century, the church in Rome began to speak of its primacy because it had been founded (or at least so it was claimed) by Peter and Paul, a claim that is very doubtful historically. The political collapse of the west, completed by AD 476, left the Christian church as the most stable surviving institution. The church was growing in power, but it also was in the process of significant change. From the claim to be the first of among equals in the 4th century, the Roman Bishop would now claim direct succession from Peter by the 5th century.

    When Leo, Bishop of Rome (AD 440-461), appropriated the title Pontifex Maximus (= high priest), he claimed the title once used by the emperors of Rome as the head of the state religion. About a century later, Gregory I, consecrated as Bishop of Rome in AD 590, claimed universal jurisdiction over Christianity (and thereby contended with the Patriarch of Constantinople's claim as the Ecumenical Patriarch).

    There is good reason to view Gregory I as a watershed between the Ancient Church and the Medieval Church. Gregory's emphases would come to dominate Medieval Christianity, including the cult of saints, the importance of relics, the value of asceticism, the importance of human merit alongside divine grace, purgatory, and the parallel authority of Scripture and church tradition.

    So, while it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the demarcation between the Ancient Church and the Medieval Church, the 6th century seems a reasonable choice.

    Back when I was a Pentecostal more than half my life ago, we generally were left with the impression that Christianity went straight over the edge at the end of the 1st century. I very much doubt such a charge can be sustained. Nonetheless, it is true that the church gradually changed, and while there were good things accomplished in the first several centuries, there were tendencies and trajectories set that eventually would alter the character of the church, both in its theology and its practice. Hence, the 6th century seems a reasonable place to draw a line--admittedly a somewhat fuzzy line--between the Ancient Church and the Medieval Church.