Tom Oden on Paleo-Orthodoxy

Thomas Oden
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
May/Jun 2001

MR: Summarize for our readers your own movement from liberalism to evangelical Christianity.TO: Once blown by every wind of doctrine and preoccupied with therapeutic fads and the ethos of hypertoleration, I came by grace to grasp the distinctive theological method of orthodoxy. I became fascinated with the hermeneutics of orthodoxy, the dynamics of apostolic tradition transmission, and with the received canons of consensual Christian teaching. Hypertolerationists began to notice that I was suffering fools a little less gladly. Before meeting with the ancient Christian writers, I was seeking to live out my life mostly in accountability to contemporary academic peers and vulnerable institutions. Now a keen awareness of final judgment gives me an entirely different frame of reference for accountability.The dogmatic liberal cocoon I am now squeezing myself out of is not a fabrication or projection. It is not a fantasy that I once was, in fact, a quixotic quasi-Marxist, and before that a militant pacifist, and a psychotherapeutic camp-follower, a sober existentialist, and a zealous defender of women's liberation for more than a decade after reading Betty Friedan in 1964. I have served my time in all those liberation armies. That period of my life has an extensive record of activity and writing. It really did happen. I really do now repent. I am sorry for my misdeeds, my tenacious theological sins. I now reluctantly am convinced that my youthful form of bureaucratic ecumenism was anti-ecumenical, viewed from the standpoint of the ancient ecumenical tradition. I am not now demonizing these ideologies so much as recognizing the demonic in my own history, my own self. I have followed the curious steps of my once Communist then later conservative Jewish mentor Will Herberg in recognizing a fair amount of self-delusion and demonic deception in ideologies that once appeared seductive.

MR: What factors were involved in this change? TO: A simple hermeneutical reversal: Before the mid-seventies I had been steadily asking questions on the hidden premise of four key value assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic self-actualization, autonomous individualism, reductive naturalism, and moral relativism. Now my questions about decaying modernity are being decisively shaped by the counter-premises of ancient consensual classic nChristian exegetes. Redemptive sacrifice; knowing through a worshiping community; theocentric reordering of values; absolute respect for absolute truth.The history of Christianity is a history of exegesis whose best interpretations are offered by those who sought most simply to give voice to the already coherent mind of the believing community that preceded them in response to apostolic teaching. This is a profoundly socially grounded process within the worshiping community.Before meeting these ancient Christian exegetes, I was prone to try to squeeze the biblical text into my modern presuppositions. I was apt to use the sacred text instrumentally, sporadically, and eisegetically to bolster and justify previously held modern ideological commitments. After entering this great conversation with the classic exegetes, I learned to listen to the Scripture text from within the premises of the believing community. Now the Bible is framing human questions more deeply that I ever before could have imagined. The consensual exegetes are no secret: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom in the East, and Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great in the West. All were widely respected in the formation of ancient ecumenism.

MR: In an issue of Christianity Today largely devoted to this debate over "open theism," you issued what appeared to be the strongest warning. Despite close friendships with many of these writers, you were even willing to speak of "heresy." What's at stake here and why are the stakes so high?TO: On June 5, 1998, I wrote to William Hasker of Huntingdon College: "I have just read John Piper's memorandum entitled 'Thomas Oden's Charge of Heresy Concerning the Denial of God's Foreknowledge.' What he is proposing is far beyond my intention in writing in the Christian Century. My intent was to argue that 'The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds.' My intent was not to make charges concerning a particular highly complex situation I know nothing about, nor to become the instrument of those who might make such charges. I have written against church trials due to their tendency to become divisive and self-righteous and counterproductive. I know next to nothing about the controversy between Piper and Professor Boyd at Bethel College. I remain committed to irenic theology and the peace of the church. I regret that I have been brought into a conflict that requires patient dialogue and caring conversation. It is with charity that such conversation should proceed, as I tried to argue in that article: 'If 'reformists' insist on keeping the boundaries of heresy open, however, they must be resisted with charity.' That does not mean that 'anything goes,' but that the debate on divine foreknowledge as with other controverted questions ought to take place with civility, charity, and empathy."

MR: Open theists often represent their position and themselves as Arminian. This is really an age-old contest between Arminians and Calvinists, we are told. Do you agree? Or is this beyond Arminianism?TO: In writing The Transforming Power of Grace, I have attempted to set forth a mediating position between Dort and the Arminians. Before being simply categorized as "Arminian," without further qualification, I would respectfully like serious colleagues in dialogue to recall or read that more nuanced argument.It is true that many of the "open theists" identify themselves as Arminian. Understanding this identification can in part be viewed as a social location argument. For the institutional location of many of these spokespersons is somewhere in the Wesleyan-Holiness spectrum, or moving toward that direction. My own view is the mediating position I stated in The Transforming Power of Grace. I do not quarrel with those who for whatever reason identify themselves as Arminian, but for reasons clearly spelled out in that book, I do not prefer to be stereotyped in 17th and 18th century categories that bifurcate the more wholesome witness of the ancient church and the ancient ecumenical tradition.

MR: In its heyday, process theology was one of the trends you embraced. Could you pick out one or two glaring similarities and differences? TO: No, I was never a very reliable process theologian. I could see from the outset its temptation to pantheism under the guise of panentheism, its inordinate indebtedness to the Enlightenment hegemony, its resistance to revelation, its easy coptation by faddism, its weak doctrine of Scripture. For these reasons, former colleagues such as Schubert M. Ogden and Don Browning and now colleagues like Catherine Keller have never thought of me, and rightly so, as a process theologian.

MR: Has the Bible been subverted by Greek philosophy in the traditional reading of God's attributes? TO: In my view the patristic writers subverted Greek philosophy. They occasionally used its rhetoric and categories, but never were the main patristic writers, with a few exceptions, subverted by Greek philosophy. This notion of the Bible being subverted by Greek philosophy is indebted to a very tendentious historical method that we see still asserted by the heir of Adolf von Harnack. In chapters two and three of The Living God I have presented a careful discussion of the traditional reading of God's attributes, and for anyone interested in taking this reading seriously into consideration, I would recommend reviewing that argument, which is far beyond the scope of this interview. The locus classicus arguments are cited in those sections on "God's Way of Knowing: Omniscience" and "Divine Foreknowledge." Part Four of The Transforming Power of Grace, "On Predestination and the Permission of Recalcitrance" has two sections: "The Mystery of Foreknowing and Electing Grace," and "Election Made Sure Through Faith." There is nothing new in these arguments. The sources for these arguments are standard classical Christian sources. This is the mediating position I spoke of earlier, which is not simply "my own thinking" but more so what I understand to be consensually received in ancient ecumenical conciliar and patristic teaching.

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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