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Rest in Peace Thomas Oden

thomas-odenOn December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.

A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice.  He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life.  His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors.  Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes.  I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor.  I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.

On the Historical Jesus:

The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.

Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)

On Ministry:

How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)

On Preaching:oden-classic-christianity

Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):

In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)

Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work.  Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen. 

(Book of Common Prayer)

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C.S. Lewis on the Preference for Old Books

Ron Burgundy loves old books.

Should we, the denizens of the 21st century, have a preference for old books? The most articulate defender of classic Christian belief in the last century was a layman with no formal theological training.  This is probably because C.S. Lewis read so many old books (including for devotional purposes).  He makes a case for reading classic texts in the introduction he wrote to a true masterpiece of Christian theology: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

C.s.lewis3

Clive Staples Lewis, courtesy WIkimedia Commons.

A pretty doable ratio: 1:1 or no less than 1:3.  The trajectory of of modern theology would be quite different if our seminary professors and pastors practiced this kind of reading.  The need for “a standard of plain, central Christianity” is why I am a proponent of creeds and catechisms: such are needed to distinguish the massive rivers of Christian truth from negotiable tributaries.  “In essentials, unity,” urged Augustine.

There is much liberty in Christian belief if we have agreement on the essentials.  But as Athanasius knew so well, there are some non-negotiables. It’s no accident he’s known as Athanasius contra mundum (“against the world”).  By introducing homoousious (“of the same being”) into the dialogue at Nicea, Athanasius stood up to the Arian heresy and preserved, against the popular compromise option, the doctrine of Christ’s full divinity.

Old books take us out of the assumptions of our present age – assumptions we often do not notice because we are drowning in them – and invite us to participate in what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

The cult of the present has enough devotees.  Better to pay homage, even if only occasionally, to that great company of women and men who lived and died before our age had dawned.  The results will be truly relevant because they are in touch with the timeless.

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When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.

An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

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