Thomas Oden’s Theological Method

Introduction

Discussing theological method, according to David K. Clark, is a bit like talking about rules for baseball umpires.[1]  The rules are crucial for playing the game, but they are not the fundamental essence of the game; you cannot have the game without them, yet the game goes far beyond its rules.  In a similar way, theological method is only a means to an end.[2]  The end is knowing and loving God.  The means for doing that is the concern of theological method.  How should theologians categorize and interpret the revelation of God?  This is the central question and concern of theological method.

Put this way, two things become clear from the start.  First, theological method helps theologians to avoid asking the wrong questions.  Much time has been spent and much ink has been spilled brooding and fussing over wrong questions.  Theological method exists to question the very questions theologians ask in their work.  In this way, with a critical eye toward the questions asked in theological discourse, one can avoid asking the wrong questions.  To be sure, this is not a perfect enterprise, but it functions as a means of control for the theological task.

Second, theological method helps theologians to faithfully arrive at the right answers.  The methodological task helps theologians avoid asking the wrong questions, and it assists also in answering the right ones.  At its best, theological method is a means to achieving knowledge of and love for God.  Right answers are one way of accomplishing this end, and the purpose of theological method is to support the journey to such answers.  Having laid a foundation for the task of theological method by way of brief introduction, an analysis of one particular work of systematic theology can now take place.

The purpose of this paper is to explore and examine the theological method of Thomas C. Oden.  Oden’s primary systematic work consists of three volumes: The Living God, The Word of Life, and Life in the Spirit.  These three volumes have been condensed into one: Classic Christianity.  It is this work that is the primary focus of the following analysis of Oden’s theological method.

Oden in Historical and Cultural Context

Before a consideration of Oden’s method can take place, it is important to first consider the historical and cultural context in which he lived, for these undoubtedly had an influence on his theological method.  Oden was an American theologian from the Wesleyan tradition.  A learned man, he attended Yale University[3] and eventually served as Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University.  Interestingly, Oden described his early journey as “every turn a left turn,”[4] signaling his continued trajectory into liberalism.  As his autobiography makes clear, however, he would ultimately have a change of heart.

He lived in a rapidly changing culture for most of his adult life.  The import of this can hardly be overstated.  As the rest of this paper makes plain, Oden’s main goal in the theological task was to go ad fontes, back to the original source (and those in keeping with the conclusions of the source) to garner information about the veracity of Christian faith.  One could argue convincingly that Oden eventually saw through the ever-changing postmodern ideals in the culture in which he lived, and he ached for a deeper, more foundational body of knowledge.  The source that quenched his thirst was found primarily in the patristic era, the early church fathers.  It is there, over against rapidly changing modern scholarship, that Oden sought to return.

Oden’s Theological Method

A discussion regarding Oden’s theological method can now commence.  In Classic Christianity Oden mentions his aim for the book, revealing his theological method in the process.  His “basic purpose is to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.”[5]  In one sense, this is not a direct comment upon theological method; but in another sense, this statement reveals the goal of his method.  What Oden seeks to do is nothing new.  He is not seeking to present Christianity in a new form or in a new way, nor is he looking to categorize his work in a new mode.  On the contrary, as the title of his work suggests, Oden hopes to go back to the early church fathers to establish the faith.

In this way, Oden seeks to remain in keeping with the apostolic Christian faith.  Again, instead of organizing the content of the Christian faith in a new way, his promise “is that of unoriginality.  I plan to present nothing new or original in these pages.”[6]  This is telling because Oden admits that he is only trying to uphold the classical faith of the church, from East to West.  He is not necessarily arguing for the superiority of Rome, Protestantism, or Eastern Orthodoxy; rather, he hopes “to listen single-mindedly for the voice of that deeper consensus that has been gratefully celebrated as received teaching by believers of vastly different cultural settings, whether African or Asian, Eastern or Western, sixth or sixteenth century.”[7]  Therefore, one might argue successfully that the goal of Oden’s method is to return ad fontes.  This is the end, but what means are employed to achieve it?  That question will now be answered.

Methodological Features of Classic Christianity

The methodological goal of Classic Christianity is to retrieve the classical consensus of Christian doctrine from the earliest sources.  Even so, it is not simply a conglomeration of classical sources cited at random.  On the contrary, it is a carefully constructed systematic work that intentionally places certain doctrines before others, which often signals a greater weight and importance given to the first doctrines in the list.  Oden acknowledges this to be true and embraces it, saying, “this compendium consists primarily of the sequential presentation of those texts, both from scripture and tradition, with minimal claim of any originality of arrangement.  Both the texts and their arrangement have been available for centuries.”[8]  What this means is that Oden sees an intentional arrangement of Christian doctrine in the classical sources, and he seeks to recover this and apply it to the modern faith.  Thus, Oden’s methodology, at least in his mind, is not new.  He is only restating the Christian faith in the same order and with the same method that the early church fathers used.

But this type of methodology is open to criticism, and Oden anticipates some of the critiques.  For example, he claims that “the references in this book represent consensual Christianity, not because I say so but because a history of widely recognized consensual advocates says so.  They are not just my opinions and choices.”[9]  This is a central methodological feature of the work, and its importance cannot be overlooked hastily.  Here, Oden argues that his theological method is not original at all; rather, it belongs to all of those saints of the past who agreed with the orthodoxy of the Christian faith.  Rising above cultural differences, the Christian faith, says Oden, has been cherished and proclaimed by “thousands, millions, of believers from multiple cultures over multiple centuries.”[10]  As such, Oden seeks only to be faithful to the consensual method of the church throughout history.  In constructing his systematic work in this way, he is only arguing that his work demonstrates how it has been done for the entire life of the church.

Certain epistemological assumptions also become evident as one reads Classic Christianity.  The objectivity of reality is one such assumption.  In fact, this is not only assumed but explicated: “The historic church does not depend upon modern cultural sources to legitimize it.  Its sources are mature and made sufficient by the ways that the Holy Spirit has brought centrifugal unity to Christian teaching in the earliest centuries of Christianity.”[11]  It is clear that these are objective claims.  One could argue that the work everywhere assumes the objectivity of reality.  What would the point be of presenting classic Christianity unless one truly believed that reality, and therefore the Christian faith that exists within reality, is objective?  Since his methodology seeks to reclaim the classic methodology for today, Oden utilizes the same methods of the early church sources, including the basic assumption of objective reality.

The knowability of reality is also assumed.  It is one thing for reality to be objective, and it is another thing for that reality to be knowable.  Yet these two go hand-in-hand; one cannot go without the other.  The claim that reality is objective entails also that reality is knowable, for the former claim in itself is a knowledge claim.  It would be a self-refuting argument to say that reality is objective (a claim to knowledge) and that reality is not knowable.  These two claims are contradictory, and therefore cannot be held at the same time in the same way.  Thus, if reality is objective, it is also knowable.  Oden argues for this in an indirect way in his section on theological method: “This classic approach [of theological method] indicates: … that the study of the knowledge of God is best derived from the life-long practice of the Christian life rather than vice versa.”[12]  Here, Oden is in the midst of arguing for his particular theological method, yet it is obvious that he assumes both the objectivity and knowability of reality.  To claim that reality is neither objective nor knowable would be utterly pointless for Oden.  Such a claim would jettison the knowledge of God completely, and this militates against what Oden is trying to establish in his work.

Third, Oden also assumes that reality is communicable, that it can be communicated effectively from one person to another.  This is assumed everywhere, and it follows from the fact that reality is objective and knowable.  To even claim that it is objective and knowable is to simultaneously communicate a real, objective knowledge claim.  All three of these points taken together, namely that reality is objective, knowable, and communicable, form the basis of Oden’s epistemological assumptions.

Even so, the issue is a bit more complex than it may seem at first glance.  It is also clear that Oden’s work is not simply a treatise of objective, propositional truth statements placed in logical order.  To be sure, it is never less than that, but it is certainly more.  The subjectivity of human knowledge, while it should not be pushed too far, is an important element in Oden’s thought.  For example, Oden seeks to present the objective reality of the early Christian sources to the reader and then is quite content to leave it to “subjective judgments on whether these texts are intriguing or irrelevant, exciting or boring.”[13]  This means that Oden acknowledges the subjectivity of human knowledge to a certain extent.  For him, the reader’s subjective reaction to the objective truths contained in the book are an important secondary issue.

It has already been alluded to previously, but Oden functions mainly from an analytical understanding of epistemology.  This is evident in the fact that he takes various early historical sources, analyzes them for their consensual nature and tone, and subsequently decides to provide them a place within his work.  Thus, in constructing his work like this, it is clear that he assumes a primarily analytical epistemology.  Tight logic and careful analysis of biblical texts and early sources fills the entire work.  However, this does not totally denigrate other forms of knowledge acquisition.  That analytical epistemology is the primary epistemology in use does not eliminate the fact that experiential knowledge is also key in Oden’s thought.  To mention again a quote from above, Oden notes that knowledge of God is best derived from life-long practice of the Christian life.[14]  So, for Oden, it is clear that experiential knowledge also plays an important role in coming to know God.

Oden likewise seeks to demonstrate the horizontal coherence of the classical Christian sources.  This is evident throughout the work, and it stems from the previous discussion of reality as objective, knowable, and communicable.  Oden argues, “consensual documents widely received by the consenting church over a long period of time are valued above statements of individuals.”[15]  For him, the horizontal coherence, the internal consistency, of the early Christian sources provides a valuable framework for discussing the Christian faith in a logical manner.  In fact, one could say that Oden’s entire work is based upon demonstrating the horizontal coherence of the early sources; Oden excludes sources that do not cohere with the majority consensus!  In this way, Oden’s use of sources demonstrates his insistence that theological work cohere internally.

And on the other hand, all of this horizontal coherence would be utterly meaningless unless it was accountable to a vertical reality.  That is, the historical sources only function authoritatively in so far as they cohere to the vertical reality of God’s revelation to humanity.  This is found primarily in the Scriptures, and Oden acknowledges this to be true as well.  For him, Scripture serves as the most important arbiter of authority.  He argues, “these classic Christian writers must not be pitted against scripture, since their deliberate purpose was to illuminate, order, and explicate the truth of scripture.”[16]  This does not mean that their statements should not be compared to Scripture; on the contrary, Oden argues that one cannot successfully demonstrate that the classical writers sought to overthrow the truth of Scripture.  Their purpose was to explain it, not throw it away in favor of their own thoughts.  In this way, Oden is assuming the same epistemological assumptions as his predecessors.  Having considered some of the methodological features and epistemological assumptions of the work, a discussion of the organization of Classic Christianity follows next.

Organization of Classic Christianity

Oden begins Classic Christianity with a discussion of The Living God.  This is important for a variety of reasons.  Again, Oden is not seeking to provide a new methodology for doing systematic theology.  Rather, in placing a discussion of God at the beginning of his work, he argues implicitly that this is the way “systematic” theology has been done through the centuries.  By placing God at the start, Oden claims that the consensus of the church was to place God at the start.  Only later did the early writers contemplate their theological method.[17]  Furthermore, placing God at the beginning focuses the work on the person of God.  In fact, the entire work is structured around God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

These three themes have major controlling significance in Oden’s work.  The framework of all his theological discussion fits within these categories.  To go outside of them is impossible, and to remain within them is to be faithful to the consensual character of the Christian community.  These three themes, if one could even call them themes, form the basis of the work and receive more attention than any other themes.  Oden discusses the life, reality, work, and study of God in the first section; he makes known the Incarnation, life, death, and lordship of the Son in the second section; and Oden rejoices in the personhood and work of the Spirit, primarily in soteriological, ecclesiological, and eschatological terms, in the third section.  Again, Oden is implicitly arguing that the consensus of the Christian church would be to formulate the doctrines in this way, and he makes a convincing case of this throughout his work.

Nevertheless, Oden’s work could not possibly address every conceivable topic of the Christian faith.  This is not his goal, nor is this achievable within his framework.  However, discussing themes that receive little attention proves to be a more difficult task than one might think.  Justification is absolutely vital to a Protestant articulation of the faith, as so many of the Reformers made clear.  Yet Oden’s discussion posits the Protestant view without interacting with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox schemas of the same doctrine.  It is also important to note that his definition of justification would find a few objections from Reformed believers as well.  In this way, it is interesting that Oden’s work spends so little time on an issue that has divided so many believers in church history.  Further, no extended discussion is found regarding the immanent Trinity.  It is here that a plethora of issues divide East from West, yet Oden does not venture into these deep waters.  It may have been beyond the scope of his project, but it is another point of omission.

Whatever one thinks about the goal behind Oden’s method, no one can question its consistency.  Throughout his work, Oden is utterly consistent in applying his theological method to all the issues at hand.  This is not to say that it is always readily apparent, nor that there are not some significant areas of controversy.  Further, even though he applies his method consistently, it does not follow from this that his findings are completely consistent.  Even so, Oden always and everywhere applies his method in a consistent way, finding the early historical sources and analyzing them for their horizontal and vertical coherence.

Conclusions

To close, Thomas Oden’s theological method essentially hopes to be as faithful as possible to the classic consensus of the Christian faith.  He desires to articulate his work in a way that is much akin to the method of the early Christian writers, and he makes no apologies for doing this.  A couple of important implications follow from this notion.

One implication of Oden’s method is that modern sources are not as important or authoritative as the early Christian sources.  This claim is almost made explicit in the work, and it is surely a foundational assumption.  Pushed to its limit, this implication basically argues that modern exegesis and scholarship are simply not as authoritative or credible as early Christian scholarship.  While this may be true in some cases, it would be difficult to have many modern theologians agree with this assessment.  To be sure, many modern scholars do not seek to do the same kind of work Oden does, and this may be the reason Oden decries modern scholarship.

Another implication is that the faithfulness of the work of a great number of theologians is swept under the rug in favor of a “classical consensus.”  One example for this will suffice.  Oden was a Wesleyan theologian, though he does his absolute best to try and conceal that fact from the reader of Classic Christianity.  However, one could convincingly argue that it is not always safe or beneficial to rest upon the consensual traditions of the church.  The Reformation was a break from much of the tradition of the day, albeit traditions that were being abused left and right, yet the Reformation view is nowhere near the consensus of the faith.  Nevertheless, this does not diminish the importance of the Reformation itself; rather, this signals that sometimes minority groups are actually more faithful to the Christian faith than the mainstream consensus.

Furthermore, one must ask the question of faithfulness.  Is Oden’s method too simplistic?  Is his goal too optimistic?  To be sure, his method inherently seeks to be faithful to the early Christian writers.  Yet his method may be too simplistic at this point.  Having a desire to remain faithful to the consensual Christian understanding of the faith is a noble goal, yet who actually determines what is consensual?  Again, even if one particular view is the major view in the church, this does not mean that it is to be regarded as the correct one.  More weight may be given to certain doctrines, yet it does not follow that this weight outweighs the actual truth.  Oden would probably grant this point, but he does not seek to answer this critique in a meaningful way.  It seems, then, that his noble goal was a bit too optimistic.  Certain controversies inside the church were (and are) necessary controversies that should not be papered over lightly.

Nonetheless, Oden’s methodology is quite profitable for a variety of reasons.  First, it demonstrates that the mission of God is much larger than most Westerners tend to believe.  The West, and Protestantism especially, has a real tendency to think itself as the only genuine body of believers in church history, despite the fact that the mission of God began much earlier than the Reformation, and it will surely continue long into the future, should the Lord tarry.  Furthermore, Oden’s methodology demonstrates that there is a vast corpus of scholarship centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Surely this is the sum and point of all Christian doctrine, and Oden’s methodology retrieves mountains of information and work done in the service of Christ.  The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has a long history of wrestling with various theological issues, all for the proclamation of the person and work of Jesus.  This is demonstrated clearly by the work done by its members over the centuries.  Oden’s methodology provides believers with a faithful, though not perfect, way of considering the crucial work of the early Christian sources.


[1] David K. Clark, To Know and Love God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), xxiii.

[2] Ibid., xxiv.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 62.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., xiii.

[6] Ibid., xv.

[7] Ibid., xiii.

[8] Ibid., xx, italics added.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., xx-xxi.

[11] Ibid., xxi.

[12] Ibid., 167, italics added.

[13] Ibid., xxi.

[14] See note 12.

[15] Oden, Classic Christianity, xvi.

[16] Ibid., xxiv.

[17] Cf. ibid., 167.


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