In the previous post on evangelical identity, we discussed Kwame Bediako’s Theology of Identity. In part three, we look at Thomas Oden. I had the wonderful privilege of sitting under Dr. Oden’s teaching during my doctoral work. I will be forever grateful for our discussions inside and outside the classroom.
Thomas Oden suggests that if we are to understand Christianity’s original meaning or value, we must come once again to see it through the eyes of those who have had to struggle for it and maintain it. It is from the martyrs, saints, and prophets of Christian history that we learn of the value of classical Christianity (Oden 1993, 10). Oden proposes a paleo-orthodox theological agenda for the future of Christianity. He defines his agenda in three ways: (1) sacramentally by use of the baptismal formula, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; (2) liturgically by the celebration of the Eucharist; (3) confessionally in consensual interpretation of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds (Oden, 1996).
Attempting to define orthodoxy in his agenda, Oden utilizes Vincent of Lérins’ (c. 431) consensual method of interpreting Scripture. Vincent became known for his rule for determining orthodoxy, the Vincentian Canon. It is summarized as teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. In utilizing the Vincentian Canon, Oden suggests that Christianity must recover the memory as defended by the Apostolic Fathers and defined by the Church Fathers during the first seven ecumenical councils. It must recover the apostolic consensus that “repeatedly challenged and transformed emerging modernities.”
In his consensual approach, Oden asserts that theology should not be looked at narrowly, but rather with boundaries. In fact, he believes that the rediscovery of boundaries will be the primary occupation of twenty-first century theology (Oden 1996, 13). It is in the context of boundaries where theological reflection is best conducted. Those boundaries were initially set in the first five centuries of Christian history. To understand the doctors of the church is to understand the boundaries of consensual theology that was accepted by East and West.
Defining the boundaries of consensual theology is challenging. In the early church, heresy played a significant role in determining boundaries of orthodox theology. Theological issues, when taken to extreme, molded an understanding of what is or is not correct Apostolic Tradition that was believed everywhere by all. Etymologically, heresy is rooted in the idea of an assertive self-will. Heresy evolved from personal theological biases and offered the occasion to help define orthodoxy. It was in the context of those heresies influenced by diverse cultural presuppositions that the early church set out to assure apostolic continuity (Oden 1996, 12-13). Therefore, the assertion is made that the early church attempted to anchor its theology in the Apostolic Tradition and propagated orthodoxy that was contextual and transcultural by nature.
But what seems apparently absent from Oden’s agenda is a missiological avenue for engaging culture. His agenda is primarily concentrated on recovering orthodox Christianity that was lost during modernity with the rise of Protestant liberalism, historical criticism and neo-orthodoxy. In spite of this, there is a growing interest on the part of evangelicals to return to classical Christianity as outlined by Oden’s call to the “consensual” tradition of the first millennium (Nassif 1998, 109).