Constructed Consensus: Thomas Oden's Systematic Theology (Review)
Updated: 5 days ago
At its simplest, theology is “talk about God”. Christian theology, then, is talk about God from a Christian perspective. (In what follows, I will abbreviate Christian theology as theology.) Considering Christianity as a millennia-spanning global phenomenon, it should be rather unsurprising to discover some diversity of opinion as to what the task of theology is understood to be. Systematic theology, however, typically centers on particular themes such as the authority of the Bible, the identity of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of God, faith and reason, the relation of grace and free will, soteriological and eschatological questions, the institution of the church, and so on, while attempting to offer a plausible and coherent account, synthesizing all of these elements, and others, into an all-encompassing and totalizing scheme. It may well be the case that to many a systematic theological account is understood to be normative. Nevertheless, this remains merely one possible theological method, and the orthodox picture Thomas Oden wishes to present in Classic Christianity as “ecumenical consensus” could just as readily be described as the product of a imperially mandated synthesis enacted to consolidate Roman power. The usual appeals to history, to revelation, and to apostolic descent often invoked so as to ground, center, and authorize a certain interpretation of the tradition often fail to take this important fact into account and here Oden is no exception. This, of course, does not rise to the level of an argument per se. Rather, the point of these preliminary remarks are intended to provide some minimal contextualization with respect to the theological background, method, and overall perspective of Oden's project.
While remaining squarely and at all times within an explicitly Christian framework, Oden provides a concise and fairly convincing response to the question of why Christians ought to pursue theology at all, explaining: “When we fail to use our best intelligence around questions as to the nature of God, we diminish the power of faith by the dullness of our minds. We are called to love God with our minds, testing the validity of arguments concerning God” (Oden, 84).
Oden’s Classic Christianity is an exhaustive treatment of theological themes such as one would expect from a multi-volume systematics. Considering the breadth of this text and the limited space available here, attempting anything approaching a granular analysis of specific topics is not possible.
Originally published in three volumes, Oden’s Classic Christianity was later collected and edited into a single imposing volume of 850 pages. The text bears all the hallmarks of what one expects to find in a systematic theology; from the nature of God to the study of last things, and everything in between, Oden has written a coherent and fairly exhaustive treatment of Christianity considered from Oden’s peculiar sense of ecumenicism that can be understood to be largely synonymous with the “classical” apostolic tradition as articulated by the creeds and passed through Wesley. Indeed, Oden is best known for the emergence of what has come to be known as “paleo-orthodoxy” which had set itself apart from the kind of neo-orthodoxy typically associated with Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. The theological movement Oden helped create was characterized by a commitment to retrieving a Christian perspective as would have been found to be common (so the argument goes) prior to the East-West schism of 1054. Given the overtly conservative thrust of this approach, it is curious to consider the way as a Protestant movement Paleo-orthodoxy attempts to, in a sense “get behind” the Reformation, appearing on the theological scene on one side as reaction to neo-orthodoxy as just mentioned, and on the other as a response to the emergence of varieties of Christian fundamentalisms during the 20th century, striking out for a middle path between the two. In brief, paleo-orthodoxy appears as a species of Christian primitivism which fetishizes an ancient (i.e., a more pure, rarified, or authentic) expression of Christian faith that it then understands as normative.
Whatever the case may be, what Oden offers his reader in Classic Christianity is a coherent and plausible systematic that seeks to speak in a particular voice, aiming (or at least presuming) to articulate what is believed everywhere, always, and by everyone (Oden, XV). Putting aside all arguments as to the possible merits (or deficiencies) of this approach, Oden’s project cannot in any way be understood to be a constructive endeavor. Indeed, Oden writes quite emphatically in the preface, “The only promise I intend to make… is that of unoriginality” (Oden, XV). One Christianity Today author (a publication for which Oden was one of the chief editors), begins by reflecting on Oden’s career (Oden died in 2016), writing: “[Oden’s] contribution to theology: nothing new. And that's what made him famous” (Christianity Today). For Oden, theology is understood to be a purely archeological task to which nothing new need be added. Oden thus considers revelation as always-already received, whereupon Christianity’s truths need only be interpreted and received vis a vis patristic consensus as articulated by creedal Christianity. Oden is therefore identifiable as a presuppositionalist who, according to his own Wesleyan hermeneutic, gives considerable emphasis to tradition over Scripture, or at least seems unable to draw any meaningful difference between the two. His is “a theology that cannot think”, as Heidegger might have said, which is to say nothing of its merits or of Oden’s success in what he set out to accomplish.
To that point, Classic Christianity is an impressive and imposing text written in a clear and straightforward manner that is stylistically accessible and often times persuasive. Oden’s incorrigible scholarship remains evident at all times and he seems especially fond of, and makes ample use of Patristics sources to good effect, particularly Augustine, Aquinas, and Irenaeus who are cited quite often throughout. Although Oden states in the preface he is not concerned to engage in criticism of modern liberal theology or the academic study of religion, at certain points throughout the text he appears to forget his own advice, launching into brief polemical interludes - though typically nothing very pointed or extensive - of those he considers to be his intellectual or cultural opponents. I found working through Oden’s systematic theology to be a positive and enriching experience that has deepened my appreciation for the Wesleyan theological tradition that for Oden is normative.
Still, I must admit I remain suspicious of the ultimate aims of any systematized theology because of an innate tendency, as I see it, to permit tradition to over-code (or perhaps underwrite) one’s own thinking. There is, I believe, a peculiar perversion discovered in it as well, not in the sense of having deviated from a center, nor that a center may actually exist, but found in the very givenness of such a center and the often tacit disavowal of the historical context which made theological consensus possible. Thus, from it's inception systematic theology has always been a synthesized theology, which is not to say anything about its constructedness, but rather here is still one other Just as Marion’s synthesized Gospel was rejected as heresy by the Church which instead affirmed the multiple and contradictory elements present in the gospels, why should one seek to enact a similar procedure only now applied to theology? To require that theology speak in a single voice is to render it monotonous in the strict sense of the word. It is to declare knowledge of God, humanity, and the world essentially a completed task best left to professionals and priests. The fashioning of theology into a club, whether to wield or join, has always been the dream of Caesar. In contrast to this approach, we must cultivate vibrant and living theologies which neither leave tradition behind, nor negligently proceed under the spell of the One, but instead critically, faithfully, and continually engage in the task of theology which must be ever renewed. A study of historical articulations of Christian faith certainly remains one important aspect of this task, and one may very well discover through the course of such engagement wellsprings of beauty and wisdom to fund and enrich contemporary formulations of faith. Yet, it is precisely this active and participatory quality which I believe must be emphasized in light of Oden’s paleo-orthodox approach claiming "ecumenical consensus". I don't mean to be entirely ungenerous. Indeed, it would be difficult for any reader to come away from reading Classic Christianity with an impression of Oden as an unthinking or uncritical theologian. Nonetheless, Oden’s explicit and enthusiastic abandonment of the constructive element of theology in my estimation amounts to theological malpractice.
Christianity Today. www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/december/died-thomas-oden-methodist-theologian-who-found-classical.html. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.
Oden, Thomas. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. HarperOne, 2009.