Thomas Oden's The Living God Book Review
Reviewed by Eric Landstrom © 2001
Christians have been sharing and defending the faith once delivered to the saints of old for nearly two millennia. Over the course of those two thousand years there have been many challenges to the faith that the Lord himself delivered unto us. As we enter the dawning of a new millennium, crossing the threshold of a new age, it is wisdom to give serious consideration of how we can best define and defend the gospel without destroying the simple faith once delivered by the witness of the apostles.
After suffering through the demise of Western thought, the logic of absolutes, the Christian community is now being led back to a study of the Word of God made known in history. Thomas Oden, a Methodist theologian and professor of Systematic Theology at Drew University, has published approximately forty books and 80 articles throughout his career. He is arguably the foremost theologian in the United Methodist Church today, and certainly is their most prolific writer. Recently Oden has been welcomed aboard as a contributing editor of the monthly magazine Christianity Today. His position there magnifies his influence tremendously, as this magazine is the most widely-read evangelical journal in North America.
What makes Oden's systematic particularly interesting, aside its distinctly historical perspective, is learning of Oden's past which reveals that he come out of the quagmire of modern liberalism to embrace orthodoxy. Through his systematic, Oden acts as our tour guide by assembling and systematizing the tenants of faith as believed and fought for by our Christian predecessors. Its target audience is the working pastor, and throughout his effort lay buried nuggets of pastoral theology.
Oden states in volume one, The Living God, that the history of the church is the history of exegesis. By looking back down the hollowed corridor of history to the faith that was delivered up through past generations, who sometimes willingly died as martyrs to protect and pass down the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we rediscover the historical and intellectual roots of the Christian faith. In an article entitled, Defending the Faith Theologically, Dr. Oden states that "the Holy Spirit has a history. When this history is systematically forgotten, it is incumbent upon evangelical guardianship to recover it by new rigorous historical effort." Oden's view is that the wisdom of Christian thought has lain dormant and neglected by the contemporary church for far too long. He believes that it must be recovered so that we may once again discover our historical and intellectual grounding within the Christian faith.
Throughout his systematic theology, Oden tries to make no new theological contribution, seeks no new way to contemplate the Lord, no new method of expressing or articulating the Christian faith. Instead he calls upon with great frequency (over 15,000 times throughout the three volumes) to exegetes of Christian history which, as a group of thinkers, he refers to as classical Christianity, or ancient ecumenical orthodoxy. His goal is to warm Protestants to the richness of centuries of Christian intellectual achievement which led to the Reformation. The Living God, as the two other volumes of this systematic, The Word of Life and Life in the Spirit, draws infrequently from contemporary works, increasingly from authors of the reformation, regularly from the medieval period, frequently from the post-Nicene period, heavily from the Ante-Nicene Fathers and primarily from Scripture to encapsulate the historic teachings of classical Christianity.
Unlike other systematics, where little thought is given to historical exegesis as though the Lord invented Christianity and then placed it on a shelf until the 16th century Reformation, this is a systematic that allows the historic Church to reveal its mastery of Christian thought that the history books ignore. Indeed, a cursory look through his work reveals that Oden's focus is upon the consensual Christian thought through the first five centuries, since "antiquity is a criterion of authentic memory in any historical testimony." His preoccupation with antiquity means he refuses to renounce his "zeal for unoriginality." Appropriately, Oden quotes only from church fathers when they represent ecumenical beliefs. For example, Augustine and Origen are quoted, but not when their views upon a subject were extreme and rejected by the majority of the church. Overall, Oden presents a detailed posturing for any view he presents and it is obvious Oden has done his research basing his positions upon the writings of historic Christianity.
By doing so, Oden has contested against the urge to engage modern and contemporary theologians and theological systems. Through visitation of ancient conflicts the Christian body has fought against, Oden directs the study of God as He has been known to the single mind of the believing church. Throughout his systematic, Oden remains vigilant of the teachings that are confirmed by all of the body of Christ throughout the historic writings of Christian exegetes.
This may well seem naivete to modern methods of hermeneutics, whose theories presume that we all listen from within a perspective. Hence, the act of "simply listening" as Oden suggests seems bothersome. Yet, it is just this sort of variance that Oden seeks from his reasoning, having summarized his ideology in an item cited in his Parables of Kierkegaard (1978), "Faith disrupts and where public disruption isn't observable, faith hasn't occurred. If as 'believers' we nevertheless protest that we have faith, we are theologians; if we know how to describe faith, we are poets; if we weep in describing faith, actors. But only as we witness for the truth and against untruth are we actually possessed of faith."
Oden's hope is not in that we will all come out orthodox on the other side, but that by listening we will be engaged in the tradition that has sustained the Christian faith from the beginning. His ultimate concern, therefore, is not right doctrine via a reassertion of ancient orthodoxy, but a Christian faith that is historically self-aware and, thereby, humbly open to God's continued leading in the future.
In summary, Oden desires to present the reader with the faith that Vincent of Lerins reflected when he penned, "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est": "that which has been believed in every place, in every time, by everyone." By this, he means those statements of faith that have been claimed by the majority of Christians throughout time. It is the faith shared by all branches of Christendom, as given from the crucial early periods of Christian doctrinal definition through the foundations of the Reformation in the 16th century that Oden uncovers and brings before us.
Oden's systematic proposes "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." Unlike virtually all systematic theologians, Oden insists that the exposition of the traditional theological topics in his work serves primarily as an introduction to the annotations; i.e., the annotations embedded in the text are more important than the text itself. True to scripture, to his native Wesleyanism, and to the Fathers, he regards God's holiness as the linchpin of the entire theological enterprise visiting the subject time and time again throughout his effort.
Considering that The Early Church Fathers embodies 38 volumes on it's own, it is a grand adventure to set out upon. John Richard Neuhaus, said of Oden:
When setting out on a great adventure, you take care to check out your travel companions. Oden is pleased to report that, after numerous disappointments, he has found a splendid company of friends with whom to travel. They have been traveling for centuries, and he has been traveling with them for some time now. He has found them to be faithful, wise, and filled with wonderful stories about the One who promised to travel with them "until the end of the age."Beyond human optimism and anger, he fell, by the grace of God, into the company of some very impressive thinkers who told him that they had heard from God. God spoke. To Abraham, at Sinai, through the prophets, and then God became his speaking in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God. Christian theologians have been trying to figure out what it means, and how best to express what it means for some two thousand years. Thomas Oden has discovered this to be the grandest, most daring, most mind-stretching and soul-searching project imaginable (Richard John Neuhaus, First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 1995).
Oden's systematic is unlike other contemporary systematics not only for it's scope of surveying historical theology, but in the layout itself: for Oden establishes the layout by faithfully adhering to the pattern set by classic exegetes as they pursued theological expository. Similarly, Oden first asks if we can know God and then sets out to define God as He is said to have revealed Himself through both general and special revelation before asking if such a Being can exist. His approach is dialectic, his method is classical, flying in the face of more modern contextual techniques. As stated, theology must establish its historical and intellectual basis, he asserts, before it can have anything pertinent to say to contemporary questions. He further insists, and effectively demonstrates, that most of what we take to be contemporary questions are, in fact, quite ancient. Oden evidences a firm sense of the importance of reconciling historic doctrinal teaching within the ecclesiastical fundamentals of theology while presenting it in a way that will fascinate evangelicals as they row down the river from its headwaters in the New Testament towards modernity.
Repeatedly Oden writes passionately and polemically offering ancient answers for what many believe to be contemporary issues. He knocks the dust off of and brings to bear an antiquated siege engine of intellectual Christian thought combining biblical, Apostolic, Patristic, Medieval and Reformed thought into an excellent exploration of fundamental Christian doctrine.
While theology as the inquiry into God is inherently the most engaging of all subjects, theologians have tended to turn it "into a yawning bore", boring because it can be so very destructive. Theologians write guardedly, for heresy is treasonous, and when protracted, tedious. Aware, however, of the presumption that laps at anyone claiming to be corrective, the stated motive for Oden's systematic was an invitation for readers to test his own fallibility, and in due course, test the fallibility of classic Christian thought.
With no doubt, Oden is an intellectual who does not gloss over challenges that have been levied against traditional Christian doctrines, but almost always he concludes that the traditional doctrines are, in fact, correct, having withstood the test of time and experience.
One of the problems most systematics face is that they tend to be divorced from practical application of Biblical truth. This serves to fuel the notion that theologians are dark men of mystery who think deep thoughts of God which depths cannot be probed by the common man to even grasp let alone evaluate. As such, often our society regards theology as a useless and profitless pursuit. Nevertheless theology is faced with a very practical dilemma: How is the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be communicated and practiced in the world pragmatically? In today's environment of relativism, should the message of the gospel be accommodated to encapsulate current philosophy, or should it resist accommodation and purposefully follow tradition? To what extent does the message of Jesus require or permit renovation in order to be relevant to the modern or postmodern person?
Oden's answer to these questions is to reach for the Bible, interpreted by the Fathers and the reformers, so that a well reasoned and enduring theology is presented. The result of his effort is a systematic that is very detailed and very comprehensive, which boring to some, will be a great summary of the Christian faith to others.
Oden's approach argues against any form of accommodationism and calls for a return to classical Christian orthodoxy. He writes in the introduction to his systematic theology, "Some may think it mildly amusing that the only claim I make is that there is nothing whatever original in these pages. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no easy new way to salvation" (The Living God, p. xiii). In fact, his theological writing is riddled with so many incidental references to ancient writers that his work becomes difficult to read. No doubt, this was by design to constantly remind the reader of the historic basis for his arguments and conclusions. On the surface, Oden's emphasis on historical orthodoxy seems a sound approach for doctrinal theologyif taken in moderationbut leaves much to be desired in the area of apologetics because of its sole reliance upon the classical approach.
The failing of the classical approach upon the postmodern is that it requires the audience to be familiar with the rules of logic and philosophy. Before the failings of an audience's ability to grasp, let alone evaluate his argument, one disgruntled classical apologist posting at Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry lamented:
Yea, how many times through the course of human affairs has error been born, the sweet light of reason extinguished, through the misapplication of a Than when it should have been a Then, or a Then when it should have been a Than. Curse the perfidious philosopher that makes men burn, how cruel our fate, but for the want of a righteous grammarian!
In communicating the gospel, there has always been a tension between accommodating the current culture and remaining honest before God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In terms of apologetics, Oden clearly errs too far on the side of classicism. His systematic theology includes a section of apologetical support for the existence of God (The Living God, chp. 4, Whether God Is, pp. 133-180), but it is limited to classical rationalistic and evidentialistic proofs from design, morality, causality, beauty, nature, and so forth.
Before the current cultural mindset, Oden has not gone far enough in defending the veracity of the historical Christian faith. But it is important to note that Oden can only be criticized for incompleteness and not for thoroughness of the apologetics he does present. It should also be considered that it was never Oden's intention to include a full apologetic defense of every doctrine he presents within the pages of his systematic theology.
With that weakness noted, the contemporary apologist, in order to keep the Christian faith alive and feasible must defend the faith to his peers by answering and accommodating their fears and doubts according to their needs. Classical apologetics concerns itself with rational support for those whose thinking proceeds with along the lines of classical Greek philosophy. Classical apologetics is capable of furnishing support for Christianity and her doctrine, but it can no longer strenuously argue its cause to the postmodern person who has naturalistic presuppositions and is entrenched in Existentialist thought. This is because rationalistic proofs simply do not address the problems and doubts facing contemporary skepticism. In the effort to make Christianity relevant to the modern climate it is important that the essential doctrinal content is presented consistently and remains the same, and Oden's approach is good for ensuring consistent doctrine before apologetical entanglement with secular thought. But, in our age, which witnesses the complete corruption of liberal, rationalistic Enlightenment thinking, a different method is necessary, such as the one Schaeffer has developed, based upon the postmodern's inability to live according to his naturalistic presuppositions. In contrast, Oden's lack of apologetical justification of his positions makes Christianity run the risk of anachronism.
From the first page of this systematic the reader recognizes that Oden's style and presentation isn't stuffy or gloomily lethargic. Oden writes, "I ask you to look for the comic dimension of divinity that stalks every page," for it is God that "has the first and last laugh" Oden muses. Oftentimes, at the expense of some long lost heretic, the sharp wit of an ancient apologist or polemicist is shown through as the long lost defender of the faith disseminates the error set before him. Upon the last page of the first volume, Oden's comment rings true: "Theology and comedy remain in [the] closest proximity." Upon this I reflect that systematic theology, though the most rewarding of pursuits is also the pursuit of the divine comedy. Intellectual, yes, but stuffy this work is not.
A caveat should be brought forward for those who plan on using this systematic as a desk reference. I read systematic theology the same way I listen to music: Since I'm forgetful, when I first bring home a new compact disk, I suffer listening through the whole CD and mark upon the jacket my favorite toe-tappers. In this way, when I've forgotten what songs I like, I can simply look at which songs I marked on the CD jacket and know that these are the songs worth playing and listening to again. I also tend to read systematic theologies in the same fashion. I slowly read them through, writing notes and cross-references in the margins, underlining the words and sentences that I found of special relevance to the topic the author discussed. In short, I mine them for information. And let there be no doubt: Oden's systematic is a gold mine for theology, apologetics, and polemics. But mine you must, for the index and glossary are dismal, not being nearly descriptive enough to quickly find information within each volume. Of greater frustration, the indexes are not cross referenced with the other volumes in this series. For a work as rewarding to read and obviously time consuming to write as this was, the lacking of a properly cataloged index is a detriment to an otherwise superb systematic. It should also be noted, as a minor nuisance, that this systematic is in need of the once over by a technical editor, for there are instances where the footnotes record the wrong Scripture reference or reference by a classical author.
Despite these criticisms, Oden gives us an extremely detailed systematic theology; especially considering his is not written from the Reformed tradition, where seemingly, all things God were understood in the 16th century. Thomas Oden's Systematic Theology, now published by Prince Press, is written on the graduate level as far as scholarship is concerned. For the non-reader, or layman there may be too much information to swallow. However for those who love to dig deeper, who relish reflecting upon faith and God, this is the best systematic theology available from a Wesleyan/Arminian perspective. In the first volume, Oden looks at the basic reflections of God presented in the Christian tradition. Such topics include whether we can know God; how we can describe God; whether God exists; is Triune; the nature and character of God; the works of God which then culminates into a great pastoral study on the providence of God. It is in this section that Oden rejects the hard determinist position having dropped hints along the way that he would do so. Oden's method for doing so is simple enough, he displays the harmony of Scripture alongside the early witness of Christianity and arrives at a measured conclusion. In this regard Oden consistently rejects the predestinarianism of the Augustine school of thought (even as Augustine remains one of the ecumenical giants of Christian history) that emerged so very strongly in the Magisterial Reformers. Oden regards this deterministic misunderstanding of election as a departure from the faith that was once received. At the same time Oden discerns and condemns the error of Pelagianism, together with the more subtle seductiveness of semi-Pelagianism. His work incorporates everywhere a nuanced discussion of gratia operans/gratia co-operans that, while strange to Protestants who are unacquainted with Patristic thought, is crucial in any approach to him. Thus, without contesting its premise directly, Oden makes it subtly clear that he believes the Reformation went too far with the doctrine of predestination. He argues for the "gradual Protestant retrieval of the ancient ecumenical consensus on grace and freedom."
In short he affirms the soft-determinism position, that of compatibolism. Laying it out, Oden says that God definitely has foreordained from the foundations what will happen to those whom have followed Him and to those whom have not followed Him, but that God has not predetermined individuals one way or the other. Yet, he says, this does not deny, that God: works to effect things; allows things; positively commands things; negates or negatively requires something not to be enacted; teaches or advises but does not coerce an action. Boiling Oden's presentation down, he argues that just because God hasn't fatalistically predestinated the fate of each individual that this does not mean that God is not active in His creation. Neither does creature choice detract from the Lord's providence or sovereignty over His creation. Nor does creature choice mean that God has not predetermined what shall happen corporately to the aggregate groups of the faithful and the unfaithful. Again, as with the outlay of the Trinity, Oden barely acknowledges opposing views, he simply lays down a measured grazing fire for his position as a machine gunner upon a foreign position. Why engage the opposing view when it has no objections left within its arsenal?
Similarly, Oden brings to bear one of the best apologetics for accepting doctrine of the Trinity that I have had the pleasure to assimilate. Where other systematics flounder and leave off, Oden is just warming up, laying down a consistent exegetical path of the formulation of the doctrine through the first 400 years of the Christian church. Again, Oden spends precious little time addressing incorrect views of the Trinity, rather he invests his time teaching us the way it is, and why it came to be so. Before this approach heretical views are privy to little ambiguity or argument as the Godhead is defined as One being revealed in the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
There were few times that this reviewer desired to throw rocks at the author or the references he cited. One example was in The Living God on page 69, where Oden in passing wrote that God is mystically present in the Eucharist, and then argued for God's sacred presence. Remembrance doctor, remembrance. Though I readily admit I may have misunderstood Oden, in another section where I found disagreement with him was a beautifully constructed argument along the lines of classical apologetics for tradition. Oden writes, "Scripture, tradition, experience, and reasonmust be always held in creative tensionThe study of God best proceeds with the fitting equilibrium of these four sources, one primary and three secondaryThe overstress on any one of the four ends in imbalance, like that of a chair with uneven legs" (The Living God, p. 341). Here Oden says that Scripture alone is our final authority, yet he contradicts this by saying that all four sources, Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, should be held in equilibrium. To this I disagree, Scripture should not be held equal either reflectively or pragmatically, but above all other sources. Scripture should be the core of our studies of the Christian faith, the others in their place orbiting the equinoctial center of the Lord's special revelation, that of Scripture alone.
Oden continues, "The study of God assumes that one will add one's own creativity and imagination to the interpretive process, within the bounds of the checks and balances of the four criteria. The study of God encourages individual expression, since divine mercy is individually addressed"(ibid). Here I note that while it is true that we must personally understand or experience truth for it to bring us to conviction, a cautionary note should also be extended: the grievous errors of "Christian" cults and heretical teachings began by being both creative and imaginative. Hence, it is wisdom to learn from the Boreans of Acts 17:11 who readily accepted all good news but checked by the Scriptures as their only authority to see if a thing was true. For it was the noble Boreans who trusted not in themselves but in the righteous Spirit of the Almighty God in heaven to morally convict them of His truth rather than the words of men, even the words of the apostle Paul.
Oden's method for both of these arguments was resourcefulhis argumentation, a thing of beauty except for one problem: the premise was self-contradictory. Other than that, Oden's effort throughout the volume held very few boos, and many yahoos as I read through it.
Oden views his work as setting boundaries before the license of liberal academically appointed theologians and exegetes whose dishonesty to the teaching of the Christian faith has summoned him to be "someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again" (Heb. 5:12). Oden's theological pilgrimage has brought him to this point after earlier starts that if not false from the onset were hesitant at least. For this reason his aggregate work in general and his systematic theology in particular are filled with the fundamental, doctrinal building blocks of the faith; specifically, theological matters that are articulated in the creed and that appear in the standard regulae fidei.
Oden highlights the theandric premise, that of the hypostatic union, which sees Jesus as both fully God and fully man, as the key to understanding Christ's person and office. Throughout his work, Oden maintains the triune nature of God, the reality of the resurrection, justification by grace through faith, in short, everything the received historic creeds and counsels have affirmed. At the same time, he seeks answers to contemporary problems such as gender equality, poverty and liberation, sexuality, psychological analysis, and historical criticism (The Word of Life, p. xviii-xix).
Oden's approach to theology is remarkably appropriate for the modern cultural climate in terms of doctrinal formulation. It begins with a sound rejection of the modernist's presumption that new theological ideas and philosophies are inherently more accurate than the old. Oden ridicules the spirit and novelty of modern thought, saying, "with its new theologies every spring season, a wide assortment of 'new moralities,' 'new hermeneutics,' and (note how the adjectives suddenly have to be pumped up) 'revolutionary breakthroughs'" (After Modernity... What? p. 32). It is significant for contemporary theologians to begin by recognizing the absurdities and hubris of modern thought as it is applied to the search for the truth about man and God. Oden's approach underscores two apparent points:
First, it is evident that there has been nearly two millennia of Christian thought regarding the eternally unchanging Creator since God walked among men. It seems reasonable that the consensus of the majority of the church through this time should be granted greater weight than the legion of idiosyncratic theologies that have emerged since the latter half of the 19th century. Similar to an archeologist who makes startling discoveries by searching through the uncataloged finds stored in the basements of museums, Oden suggests that Christianity should look to its classical roots rather than the bizarre teachings of fringe process theologians who hardly resemble what Christianity has taught for so long.
Second, there is no objective reason to assume that modern critics and theologians know the historical or doctrinal truth of the Bible better than classical theologians simply because they have in their possession more accurate information about physics or astronomy. If anything, historical verifiability and accuracy decrease with the passage of time. Because of this, it is reasonable to assume that patriarchs of the church had a much better grasp of the events that occurred in their recent history than that of modern scholars. Furthermore, the consensus of the early church should be the obvious guide for Scriptural interpretation, because it faithfully carried the gospel and doctrine handed down from the original apostles who were taught by Jesus himself. Oden sees God the Spirit revealing himself not only through the canon of Scripture, but also through the living history of the faith collectively recorded in the writings of a community of believers. In an age where there are hundreds of different ideas about history and doctrine and the church is fractured into a multitude of denominations because of doctrinal squabbles, Oden offers a realistic way of instituting ah honest and truthful reading of the Bible.
The approach that Oden takes is especially appropriate to postmodern thinking because it displays intellectual integrity in its use of history, stresses ecumenism, offers a solid doctrinal foundation, and is profoundly relevant. The stress on ecumenism presents a consistency within current evangelical thought which appreciates the diversity of the Body of Christ while insisting on an absolute core of true Christian doctrine to differentiate belief with disbelief.
In contrast to the climate of confusion that accompanies modernistic relativism, Oden offers real doctrinal substance and a reason to believe. Before the spiritual emptiness of form criticism, deconstructionism, process theology, and openness theology, Oden's approach to the study and understanding of God gives a basis for a personal relationship with the true God of the Bible. Grounding faith in Christ that is wrapped within the trappings of a historical theanthropic person rather than the inconsistent Christ of faith that liberal theology has continually found itself left with. The essence of the orthodox gospel is profound and preeminently meaningful, it offers eternal life and meaning without compromising intellectual integrity. Oden's reliance on the patristic convictions of the early church for forming doctrine and interpreting Scripture provide a valid and reasonable option to the doctrinal relativity of the postmodern world. The patristic faith has real substanceit holds to one God. The Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, with a real life, death, resurrection and redemption; and the Holy Ghost who inspired and now illumines the Scriptures, who is alive and moving within the community of believers. The content and substance of credal doctrines is a realistic answer to the diluted, though imaginative, theologies of modernism and the empty arrogance of modern criticism.
Oden presents the ancient faith and it is appropriate for the current age of decline because its substance implies and demands application. Secularism has left the postmodern person with no consistent grounds for morality or even action of any sort. In contrast, credal Christianity holds to a series of absolutes which demand moral attention and action. Modernism has been left with only empty rhetoric for its causes and equated strong feelings of moral outrage with true morality. The relativistic postmodern can rail and curse against the horrible immorality of racism, sexism or environmental irresponsibility, but only orthodox Christianity provides a true and rationally coherent basis for these morals our conscience tells us are real (cf. Gal. 3:28; Ps. 24:1). Oden's return to historic theology means a renewal of the recognition of true morality and of the motivation, based upon the love of God and the person of Christ, to follow it.
Oden's historical approach towards theology is suitable for this confused modern/postmodern generation because it honestly evaluates what Christianity was meant to be by studying the doctrines passed down by the consensus of the early church. By basing Biblical interpretation on historical consensus, Oden escapes the presumption of modern critics to know what really happened in Jesus' time, who the writers of the Bible really were, and what they really meant. The weakness of his approach is that though it provides a good guide to defining what Christianity really is and what the apostles really taught, it does not help the postmodern to determine whether Christianity is the truth.
Facing the reality of the Great Commission, it is important for the Christian to be prepared as a postmodern ready to witness and give answer to premoderns, moderns, ultramoderns, as well as other postmoderns. Oden's historical approach of exposition is reasonable to them all, but the way in which it must be defended is contingent upon the worldview of the aggressor.
In summary, Oden believes that to rightly grasp the roots of Christianity's original message, that we must come to see it through the eyes of those who struggled for it and perpetuated its foundational beginnings. It is from the martyrs, saints and prophets of Christian history, more than from recent reckless interpreters that pour their own meaning into the faith, that we learn of the value of the faith once delivered unto the saints of old. To this end the sons and daughters of the contemporary church are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had once been forgotten, of embracing a long lost friend now found.
Oden argues persuasively, that theologians have over the past century assumed of theology, as with computers and automobiles, that newer is better and the newest way of thinking of God is the best way of thinking of God. "We have it just backward when it comes to theology and moral philosophy, Oden contends. Having wandered in the byways of modernity for many years before moving to conservative orthodoxy, Oden is well equipped to offer a devastating critique of today's faddish theologies in which pastors and theologians run to 'keep pace with each new ripple of the ideological river.' In the words of J. I. Packer, Oden sees 'regress to orthodoxy as the true way forward. Indeed, back to the future!'" (Back to the Future with Thomas C. Oden, Good News Magazine, January/February 1993.)
Oden, mimicking the same charge that Gresham Machen levied some 70 years earlier in his book, Christianity & Liberalism, states, "The same addiction that has degenerated modern art has also infected theology. An inversion of value has occurred in which the highest value is placed not on aesthetic imagination, craft, meaning or beauty, but on novelty and compulsive uniqueness. The more outrageous it is, the more "creative" it is viewed by connoisseurs, and the more boring it is to most of us" (ibid).
Oden predicts that the sign of hope in 21st Century Christian thought will be its preoccupation with the rediscovery of boundaries in theology: "I would love to find a seminary where a discussion is taking place about whether a line can be drawn between faith and unfaith" he writes. Certainly his systematic will help draw those lines of demarcation.
Oden's systematic is an edifying and clear-headed antidote to many of the sentimental and historically misinformed theological debates of today. Though the reading can be difficult, not because Oden fails to define terms, or through the use of ambiguous language, but because his work is broken up by so many references to classical Christian exegetes. As I lamented earlier, I wish he had determined to use a footnote system of documentation, rather than inserting the reference into the text itself so that the reading would have been easier. Nevertheless, Oden's systematic is well worth the reading effort, for it puts you in touch with what the great and enduring Christian teachers have thought of God and the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As one reviewer remarked, "this is a work that will be valuable to Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Wesleyans, High-Church and Low-Church. In sum, it is an incredibly worthwhile and satisfying read!"
While not wishing to downplay the differences within the Body, Oden harbors within the pages of his systematic theology an ecumenical focus that is surprisingly evangelical. In short, I highly recommend this systematic as it may well be the best systematic theology on the market. Undoubtedly, it is the best Wesleyan/Arminian systematic available today. As a fellow brother in Christ once wrote me when he first introduced me to Oden's systematic:
Even if you have to get them in paperback, get them, Eric. They will be invaluable to you, especially in seminary. Oden's work is unique in systematic theology because he doesn't just quote the Bible or just quote tradition. His analyses are excellent. They are also useful in the work of apologetics...Likewise, it is ecumenical, useful to Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and others in the orthodox traditions. Oden is a Wesleyan by affirmation, but he also agrees with Reformed theologians on many issues. Truly these works are an example of systematic theology at its best. Indeed, by reading them, you will gain remarkable insight into how to address other Christians (and non-Christians) in discussion and/or debate. I attribute much of my own approach to my old systematic theology professor and to Thomas Oden's writing style. I can't recommend these volumes enough.
I agree with him, and I've read a lot of books on doctrine and theology.
If you are interested in obtaining Oden's systematic; you may purchase all three volumes from Christian Book Distributors for $25.00 (instead of $80-120.00 everywhere else). Specifically, you can order them from the web address provided or call Christianbook.com at 1-800-247-4784 (CBD Stock Number: WW6349).
Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity... What?, Zondervan, 1990.
The Living God, Systematic Theology: Vol. 1, Prince Press, 2001.
The Word of Life, Systematic Theology: Vol. 2, Prince Press, 2001.
Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology: Vol. 3, Prince Press, 2001.
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