Roger E. Olson
Everywhere, Always, and by All
Thomas Oden is an optimist. He is confident that a spiritual awakening is taking place within the so-called mainline denominations; a renaissance of orthodox Christian doctrine and traditional Christian values. He believes that secular, ideological modernism is dying and that mainline Christianity's captivity to it is ending; his own project of paleo-orthodoxy (adherence to the authority of the earliest strata of Christian consensual teaching) and a host of "young fogeys" who know that the past can teach the future are being used by the Spirit of God to renew the churches through a rebirth of ancient Christian orthodoxy.
What makes Oden's manifesto of paleo-orthodoxy especially intriguing is that he freely admits to once being one of the "fad theologians" he now scorns. In The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, the Methodist theologian traces his own personal odyssey of liberation from being "narrowly modern, only pretending to be a theologian" to being an advocate of classic Christian orthodoxy with "a commitment to offer nothing original."
"Then," he confesses, "I distrusted even the faint smell of orthodoxy. I was in love with heresy—the wilder, the more seductive. … Now I embrace the term orthodoxy. I esteem nothing higher than the written word as ecumenically received and consensually explicated." Oden clearly believes that his conversion to ancient Christian faith is paradigmatic for renewal of mainline Christianity in the 21st century.
While The Rebirth of Orthodoxy appears on the surface to be a report on "signs of new life in Christianity," it is actually a piece of advocacy literature that includes a sustained recommendation of a correct theological method. It includes some description of confessional renewal movements within mainline Protestantism, but overall and in general it is a prescription for theological reflection. The heart of the method is Vincent of Lérin's (d. circa 450) canon laid out and explicated in Commonitorium ("act of remembrance"). Oden spends the entire final chapter of Rebirth recommending and interpreting this Vincentian Rule or Canon, which states (in Oden's translation) that "In the worldwide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." Regardless of who teaches it or how it is supported, if a doctrine or interpretation of Scripture departs from or conflicts with the consensus of the church as defined by universality, apostolic antiquity, and conciliar consent, it cannot be received as Christian teaching and is probably heresy.
Oden nails things down further. If one wants to know whether a new teaching is possibly Christian, he avers, one must listen to the three creeds of the church universal (the Apostles' Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Athanasian Creed), the seven ecumenical councils (Nicea I through Nicea II ), and the eight doctors of the church (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great). All of these, according to Oden, must be received even by contemporary Christians as normative alongside Scripture itself as its consensual exegesis. This is, Oden claims, "the way of orthodoxy" (not limited to Eastern Orthodoxy) and the only antidote to the poison of relativistic doctrinal pluralism.
Christians concerned about doctrinal drift in mainline Protestantism will be delighted by Oden's report of a shift toward orthodox belief and greater inclusion of conservatives and evangelicals in denominational decision-making. They will also applaud his recommendation that Christians—including free church Protestants—retrieve the lost memory of the Great Tradition of Christian belief. However, Oden's antidote may be poisonous to some central concerns of free church evangelical Protestants, and especially to all those who fall into the category described by James McClendon as "baptists." Oden seems to work out of his own context (largely liberalized, mainline Protestantism) too one-sidedly. He does not seem sufficiently aware of the danger of what evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm called "hyperorthodoxy" or "maximal conservatism." From within the context of postfundamentalist evangelicalism Ramm warned that "we can sin to the right as well as to the left." Also, Oden does not seem sufficiently aware of the danger of what Pietists call "dead orthodoxy." Orthodoxy itself is no guarantee of "new life in Christianity." A denomination may have all of its doctrinal ducks lined up perfectly and still be spiritually dormant.
Oden advocates establishment of strong doctrinal boundaries around Christianity and rejects belief in a center without a circumference. The question, however, is whether Christianity has firm sociological boundaries that include doctrinal definitions beyond Christianity's center defined Christologically. By affirming the need for strong boundaries around Christianity itself, Oden leaves the door open to the Catholic argument that boundaries without a formal magisterium to enforce them are meaningless and that if Christianity itself must have boundaries it must be a hierarchical organization.
Free church Christians—including many evangelicals—get understandably nervous when "Christianity" is defined within boundaries established by the church fathers and especially Jerome, whom even Luther disdained. Free church Protestants can and should study and value the church fathers and the councils of the early church, but we do not consider them normative as Scripture is normative. We agree with one of our own, the Separatist preacher John Robinson, who told his congregation, "The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word." We do not place any importance on accommodation to modernity, but we do hold to the authority of the Bible over all traditions of men and women—including those established early by the church fathers. They are true only insofar as they reflect the gospel and are faithful to Jesus Christ and the written word, and they are to be held more lightly than primary revelation itself. Oden does not take sufficiently seriously the possibility that even ancient, consensual Christian interpretation may have at times and in certain respects missed the mark and may stand in need of correction by Scripture.
Many of the arguments Oden deploys against any and all departures from the consensual teaching of the early church were raised against Luther by his Catholic critics. Who did he think he was to stand against 1500 years of church tradition? In response, Luther himself said that he did not think even Augustine—let alone any other church father—understood justification by grace through faith alone, and he appealed to Paul against the popes, councils, and fathers of the church. To be sure, Luther respected the church fathers and held the creeds in high esteem, but he valued the Word of God above all else, and so should we. We must remain open to the possibility that the Word of God—not some new revelation or personal opinion—may correct or supplement what the church has always believed. Otherwise we must condemn Luther, for surely his doctrine of justification (simul justus et peccator) cannot be found within the consensual teaching of the church before him (at least he did not think so, nor do most contemporary historical theologians).
For that matter, can one find Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification in a moment in the consensual tradition? What about the Synod of Dort's doctrine of limited atonement? Most significant for many evangelicals is that one cannot find believer baptism only (including "rebaptism" of persons already baptized in the triune name as infants) in the consensual tradition as Oden defines it. In fact, baptists should note, Oden sides with Pope Stephen I against the Donatists in condemning "rebaptism" (a term no group uses for its own practice) and declares, "When an unprecedented claim on such an important subject as baptism stands in direct contrast to the previous consensual memory, it has to be rejected promptly and firmly. … After Stephen's prompt response to the practice of rebaptism, the historical precedent was reconfirmed so conclusively that the issue was seldom reviewed again until much later."
Oden does not tell us what he thinks about the outcome of that later "review." Are baptists heretics? He does not say it, but it would seem so by Vincent's Canon and Oden's logic. If not, why could there not be contemporary steps away from the ancient, consensual tradition of the church insofar as they can be established by appeal to Scripture and not to private opinion, philosophy, or culture? In matters of theological examination of Christian teachings old and new the ancient, consensual tradition of the church gets a strong vote but not an absolute veto.
None of these qualms and questions detract from the value of Oden's central thrust, which is to remind all Christians of the value of remembering ancient Christianity. We would all do well to consider the consensual tradition of the church up through the Reformation (at least) a "Third Testament" and a "canon outside the canon": a "normed norm" (as opposed to the "norming norm" of Scripture itself). Oden's voice is a most significant one in calling the church to recover its memory.
Roger E. Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (InterVarsity).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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