The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity by Thomas C. Oden, San Fransisco, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 212 pages, US $24.95, CAN $38.95
Orthodoxy, that is to say the doctrines that were taught and defended as sound by the Apostolic and Patristic Church in its early, undivided, state, and which have continued to be held by the various branches which have sprung from the single trunk stem of that Church down through the centuries, has been under attack in Protestantism for the last two centuries. As modernity brought a wave of secularism into Western philosophy and science, turning the efforts of these disciplines towards the finding of naturalistic and materialistic explanations of the universe that excluded the need for divine revelation from God, a growing segment of Protestantism responded with attempts to accommodate this modern way of thinking in Christianity.
It began in the seminaries, in which the academic study of the Bible ceased to be training for the expository preaching of authoritative texts and became instead the source of imaginative theories that explained away the text, and undermined its authority. The source criticism of the Graf-Wellhaussen documentary hypothesis, which tried to isolate the hypothetical original documents that the Torah was supposedly patched together from by a post-Exilic redactor, was followed by various forms of form criticism that sought to reconstruct the oral tradition that preceded the written canon. From the latter came such pursuits as the “quest for the historical Jesus”, based upon the neo-Gnostic assumption that the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith could be distinguished from each other, and “demythologizing”, which tried to distill the kerygma, the basic message of the Gospels, from the “myths” in which it was contained. (1)
While this was going on, in the theological departments of the seminaries, men like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl were developing a new theology in which the doctrines which historically, traditionally, and Scripturally, were the central defining content of the Christian faith – the Trinity of One God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, united in One Person in the Incarnation, His death as the Atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity, His Exaltation, beginning with His triumphant Resurrection from the dead and continuing through His Ascension into Heaven, His sitting at the right hand of the Father, to culminate at the end of time with His return to judge both the living and the dead – were redefined or jettisoned altogether as being peripheral. This new “modernist” or “liberal” theology tended to reduce Christian theology proper to a vague concept of God as loving Father of all, Christian soteriology to a simple universalism, Christian eschatology to the idea that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth through leftist social and political action (2) and Christian ethics to the bland idea that we should be nice to each other.
The result of all of this was the advent of the Modern Churchman, brilliantly spoofed by Evelyn Waugh in his first novel Decline and Fall, who “who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.”
These developments provoked a number of responses. One of the earliest was that of Danish Lutheran theologian and existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who responded by denouncing the rationalism that the liberal theologians were seeking to accommodate and insisting that Christianity was not to be based upon reasoned argument but to be entered by a leap of faith.
The first organized response, however, was that of fundamentalism. Influenced heavily by 18th-19th Century evangelical revivalism and the 19th Century theology of dispensational premillenialism that had begun in the Plymouth Brethren and spread among other Protestant denominations through the Scofield Reference Bible, fundamentalism was an inter-denominational movement that sought to define the fundamentals of the faith (3) and to aggressively defend them against liberal or modernist attacks.
The next major response to theological liberalism was that of neo-orthodoxy. Neo-orthodoxy began in Switzerland with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner and was spread in the United States by the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and Richard, and by Paul Tillich. (4) Neo-orthodoxy rejected the liberal project of adapting Christianity to Enlightenment rationalism and insisted that Christian truth was a revelation from God. Unlike fundamentalism, however, it did not identify that revelation with the words of Holy Scripture but with the believer’s personal encounter with God in the reading of the Scriptures. It was always questionable therefore, whether neo-orthodoxy was a return to orthodoxy from the heterodoxy of liberalism or an attempt to replace the old orthodoxy with a new, different one.
A similar question has been asked on the American political and cultural right, over the last thirty years, about a group of thinkers who had started out on the left as part of the “New York Intellectuals”, become Cold War liberals after World War II, and then re-aligned themselves with the conservative movement after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s. The members of this group are commonly known as the neo-conservatives and those, who have called the authenticity of their conservative conversion into question, and re-asserted the canons of classical Burkean conservative thought in the distinctly American form it was given by Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver decades ago, are known as the paleoconservatives.
Is there also a paleo-orthodoxy in Christian theology?
Yes, as a matter of fact there is and the man who is its leader is Thomas Clark Oden, a United Methodist minister and the professor of theology and ethics at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Like the neo-orthodox, Oden started out as a liberal. Indeed, as we shall see momentarily, that is something of an understatement. He grew disillusioned with liberalism, and, after rejecting the modern assumptions it is based upon, turned to the doctrines that have been considered orthodox by Christians since the early centuries of Christianity. In his 2003 book, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, he writes:
Since 1979 I have used the term paleo-orthodoxy for the orthodoxy that holds steadfast to classic consensual teaching, in order to make it clear that the ancient consensus of faith is starkly distinguished from neo-orthodoxy. The “paleo” stratum of orthodoxy is its oldest layer. For Christians this means that which is apostolic and patristic. For Jews it means that which is rabbinic and midrashic. These two branches of the “paleo” stratum developed side by side during the same timeframe and within the same language world. (p. 34, bold indicates italics in original)
The Rebirth of Orthodoxy is the story of how, in the late 20th Century, Christianity and Judaism both experienced a renewal of interest in the ancient teachings of their respective faiths. As a Christian theologian, he focuses on this renewal within Christianity, but points out certain parallels with what is happening in Judaism. Ironically, the writings of each faith in the period he has in mind, treats the other faith with invective that would make that used by the Reformers against the Reformers against the papacy and vice-versa seem relatively mild in comparison, but that never comes up. Perhaps that is just as well.
Oden begins his story by setting the stage with an account of the death of modernity. The idea of the modern age, as the third age of Western civilization to follow classical antiquity and medieval Christendom, goes back to the Renaissance which is usually thought of as the beginning of that age. In the second half of the 20th Century it became widely accepted that the modern age was ending or had come to an end, some even arguing that it had ended as early as the Second World War. Oden concurs with this, although the modern age of which he writes is an abridged version that begins with the French Revolution and ends with the collapse of Communism in 1989. It was in this period that Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud introduced their destructive ideas and by the end of this period these ideas and ideologies had been largely discredited. In discussing the collapse of modernity and its ideologies Oden helpfully identifies the arrogant attitude which characterizes so much modern thought. This attitude, which he calls modern chauvinism, assumes “the intrinsic inferiority of all premodern ideas and texts, and the intrinsic superiority of all modern methods of investigation” (p. 8).
The irony of modern chauvinism is that while modern ideologies, such as the ones mentioned, had only a very brief lifespan before they were dated, discredited, and bankrupt, traditional faith communities, such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and evangelical forms of Christianity have survived the crisis of modernity and even thrived. The same can not be said for the liberalism that embraced modernity. Wherever it has been adopted it has lead to empty pews, dwindling and aging congregations, and ultimately the closing of parishes.
Oden’s story, however, is not just about how much more persistent and durable traditional, orthodox forms of faith are compared to modern ideas. It is about a rediscovery of ancient orthodoxy that is concurrent with the collapse of modernity and which is taking place not only among Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and others who have remained faithful to their traditional beliefs but also in denominations that have gone liberal.
Indeed, the tenth chapter of the book, entitled “Recentering the Mainline” is all about renewal and confessing movements within the mainline Protestant denominations, i.e., the denominations in which liberalism prevailed for most of the 20th Century. Oden lists and in his endnotes provides contact information for such movements within the Episcopalian (Anglican), Presbyterian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, United Church of Canada and Lutheran denominations, as well as a number of organizations that seek to coordinate the confessional movements in various denominations. He encourages the faithful in such denominations with the example of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church, which in its General Conference in 2000 AD affirmed a number of orthodox doctrines, practices, and moral stances that would have been unheard of at previous such assemblies.
The “rebirth of orthodoxy” of which he writes, however, is not just a returning to the traditional roots of a particular denomination. The orthodoxy that is being rediscovered is that of the early centuries of the Church, an orthodoxy which part of the common heritage of all Christian denominations. It is, in other words, an ecumenical orthodoxy.
For much of the 20th Century an ecumenical orthodoxy would have been a contradiction in terms. For the ecumenical movement was anything but orthodoxy. It sought Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth, and by aligning itself with modern ideas and practices and radical and revolutionary causes, generated more division than it did unity. For this reason, Oden calls the ecumenism of the orthodox “the new ecumenism” – this is the title of his fifth chapter – to distinguish it from what he calls the old ecumenism, i.e., the ecumenism of the World and National Councils of Churches. Of course the identification of these ecumenisms as “new” and “old” relative to each other is only valid within the context of recent history – in the larger context of the entire history of the Christian Church, Oden’s “new ecumenism” is much older, for it is based upon the unity in orthodox teaching and practice of the ancient, undivided, Church.
Early in the book, Oden defines orthodoxy as “integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual classic period.” (p. 29) If the hallmark of a good definition is that it brings clarity to the meaning of the word being defined, Oden deserves a failing grade for that one. Thankfully, he does not leave it at that but explains what he means. Orthodoxy is a tradition that begins with the Scriptures, a canon of sacred texts accepted as authoritative by the faithful and continues with the interpretation and understanding of those texts, the confession of beliefs drawn from those texts, and the living out of those beliefs in the lives of the faithful, all under the direction of the Holy Spirit. That it takes place under the direction of the Holy Spirit – the Comforter Whom Jesus had promised would guide His Church into all truth – is the most important part of this, because without it, Oden’s repeated, annoying, use of the word consensual would suggest the ludicrous idea that truth is something that is determined by democratic vote.
How truth is determined, is the subject of his eleventh and final chapter. In this chapter, he tells us about St. Vincent, the fifth century monk who after much travelling throughout the Christian world and dialoguing with a broad spectrum of Christian leaders and believers, withdrew to a monastery at Lerins, shortly after the Council of Ephesus, where he wrote his Commonitory. In this work, St. Vincent wrote that in distinguishing the true faith from heresy, recourse must first be taken to the Scriptures, then to the tradition of the Church. In this context he gave his famous rule about what to do when the correct interpretation of Scripture is in dispute: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, that we should hold to whatever is believed everywhere, always, and by all. (5)
This was not, as Oden points out, an invention of St. Vincent, but rather something that was commonly understood among the various Christians he had discussed the matter with during his travels. It put forward three criteria for a doctrine to be considered orthodox – universality, that it was held by the whole Church and not just by those within a certain region; Apostolic antiquity, that it had been taught since the earliest days of the Church, and Conciliar consent, that it had been affirmed by the ecumenical Councils of the Church. If a Council had not determined a doctrinal issue one way or the other, Oden suggests that the writings of the Church fathers, in particular those of the great doctors Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great, are a guide to the consensus of the ancient Church.
In an earlier chapter, the seventh, Oden had discussed various scholarly projects underway regarding the earliest interpretation of the Scriptures in both the Christian and Jewish traditions, including the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture that he himself was editing. This return to the texts, tradition, and methodology of classic Christianity is not just an academic exercise. Oden portrays it as being transforming and revitalizing, both for individual believers and for denominations, and uses his own experience as an illustration. As mentioned earlier, he had started out as a liberal. The son of radical parents, he says that he “learned my agnosticism from Nietzsche, my social views from radical Methodists and existentialists, and my theology (God help me, I confess) from Alan Watts.” (p. 84). After pointing out that he and Hillary Rodham Clinton had largely had the same education, early ideals, and influences he writes that when he looks now at her “persistent situational ethics, political messianism, statist social idealism, and pragmatic toughness” he sees “mirrored the self I was a few decades ago”. (p. 85) He credits a mentor and colleague of his at Drew University, Will Herberg (6) for steering him towards orthodoxy. Herberg challenged Oden to study the fathers of the Christian tradition, citing his own experience of studying the early texts of his own faith, the Talmud and Midrashim after his disillusionment with his early Communism, telling him that he “would remain theologically uneducated until I had studied carefully Athanasius, Ambrose, Basil and Cyril of Alexandria” and that until he did he was “not a theologian except in name, even if remunerated as one”. (p. 87)
Herberg’s challenge clearly bore fruit. Oden took him up on his challenge, and through reading the early fathers and conversations with orthodox believers, went from being the kind of person just described to being someone who believes, lives, and teaches the faith once delivered unto the saints.
There were some places where I could not see eye to eye with the author. The largest of these concerns the “fairness revolution”, which is Oden’s general label for the egalitarian movements that have wrought tremendous social changes in living memory. Oden gives the civil rights movement, the so-called women’s movement (feminism), the papal apology for the Crusades, and the struggle over “unconventional lifestyles” in the Boy Scouts, as examples of this fairness revolution. Oden is not blind to the many glaring problems with this revolution, and is particularly critical of its tendency to produce a form of modern chauvinism, in which past generations are condemned for not sharing the current generation’s supposed commitment to fairness. He is also not unaware that the fairness revolution has had some pretty bad consequences:
A dependency population within a welfare state has become a fixed reality. Victimization has become a game. Women suffer more, not less, from divorce and economic instability. Family cohesion has diminished. The children of the fairness revolution are paying an extremely high price in family disorder, adolescent suicide rates, neuroses, and chronic anxiety. (p. 12)
Nevertheless, Oden seems unable to go all the way to the only tenable conclusion about the fairness revolution – that it was from day one, completely worthless and execrable and that it never had any better goal than an insane vision of a society restructured so as to be driven by what is the equivalent of the infantile whine of “it’s not fair, it’s not fair, Johnny’s got a bigger piece of cake than I do, you like Suzie better than you like me, wah, wah, it’s not fair.” Instead, he devotes an entire chapter to arguing that the goals of the fairness revolution are laudable, come from classical Christian orthodoxy, and that the problem with the revolution is its reliance upon secular and governmental agencies to accomplish its ends.
It seems to me that in this part of the book, Oden is confusing, on the basis of a partial surface resemblance, two things that are essentially different and incompatible with each other, classic Christian catholicity in which all people everywhere are welcome to partake of the unity of one Lord, one faith, one baptism one the one hand and late modern ideals of fairness on the other.
That being said, he at least does not treat the fairness revolution with the uncritical adoration it receives from most academics and clergymen. Furthermore that is only one chapter out of eleven, in what is otherwise an excellent, encouraging, and inspirational book. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it for others.
(1) The history of the19th Century “quest for the historical Jesus” was told by famous missionary Albert Schweitzer in his early 20th Century work by that title. Demythologizing is most associated with Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament professor at the University of Marburg. Both men were German Lutherans.
(2) This blend of post-millenialism and socialism was called the “Social Gospel”. Its first major proponent was Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in New York. Today, the concepts of “Social Gospel” and “social justice” are virtually synonymous and interchangeable. In Rauschenbusch’s day, however, “social justice” was a Roman Catholic concept, that taught by Pope Leo XIII in “Rerum Novarum”, which condemned socialism even more harshly than it did liberalism (capitalism).
(3) The term “fundamentalism” was coined by Baptist Curtis Lee Laws, and was popularized by The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, a series of apologetical essays defending the authority of Scripture and the historic doctrines of the faith by conservative theologians of various denominations, that was published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. The movement was by nature and necessity reductionist. The most popular list of fundamentals contained five – the Inerrancy of Scripture and the Deity, Virgin Birth, Substitutionary Death, and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This brought the movement criticism from conservative Protestants that would otherwise have been in sympathy with it.
(4) German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a noted neo-orthodox theologian.
(5) Within the community of believers, that is.
(6) This is the same Will Herberg who wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew and was Religion Editor of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. His own experience, of an early Communist radicalism followed by disillusion, a turn to the right, and a rediscovery of traditional faith – in his case Judaism – was not uncommon among Buckley’s early staff.