The Unoriginal Oden

Theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) was adamant that he brought nothing new to the table. His goal was to be unoriginal. While that vision may not capture the attention of Silicon Valley or your local trendy university town, Oden believed his approach was precisely what a generation of Christians needed who had lost any anchoring in the 2,000-year tradition that preceded them. Oden was convinced that modern Christians lagged behind their forebears in the ability to read and interpret Scripture and to immerse themselves in a deep understanding of God’s revealed word. In terms of theological reflection and understanding, Oden was always “trying hard to catch up with the fourth century.”[1] 

Oden’s career (a story worth reading) was focused on retrieving voices from the past that had become muffled or muted in the distraction of the present. It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in his journey he was “enamored” with a long parade of theological novelties “that promised the moon but delivered green cheese.”[2] He eventually embraced classical Christian orthodoxy and shed any need to be innovative in what he said about God and the gospel.

In the Preface to his three-volume systematic theology, Oden states that his goal was “to make no new contribution to theology” and “to resist the temptation to quote modern writers less schooled in the whole counsel of God than the best ancient exegetes.”[3] He continued:

“I am dedicated to unoriginality. I am pledged to irrelevance if relevance means indebtedness to corrupt modernity. What is deemed relevant in theology is likely to be moldy in a few days . . . Is this project intransigently antiquarian and reactionary? I can think of nothing more forward-looking than taking the risk of allowing ourselves to be addressed by the texts of scripture and tradition.”[4]

Look back to look forward. This was Oden’s plea. And it becomes clear when you read his work that he wanted to be a mouthpiece for those who came before: Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and countless other flesh and blood men and women of the past who have insight for today.

Why spend time reflecting on Thomas Oden? For those who preach and teach God’s word, there remains a pressure from the world to update, modify, or jettison biblical teaching that is unpalatable to the prevailing cultural psyche. Oden reminds teachers of the word to remain true to what has been historically affirmed by Christianity’s major branches. Theological novelties that upend centuries of Scriptural consensus don’t have staying power. In Oden’s words, they “become moldy in a few days.”

Case in point: Though today it has correctly earned the label of heresy, Arianism (a denial that Jesus is God in the same way the Father is God) was faddish at one point in time (and is still out there today). In commending Athanasius’s stand against this view at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, C.S. Lewis reminds us:

“He [Athanasius] stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”[5]

Lewis’s point is that the heretical Arius thought he was on the right side of history—the sophisticated, cultivated, “sensible” side of history. Today, however, his views are condemned as unbiblical, false, and damning. Athanasius, on the other hand, stood firmly on God’s truth and is now hailed as a hero, as much as he was seen as narrow and ridged then. Athanasius’s work contributed to the clarity of language that we use today about the Son of God, but his teaching wasn’t new. He pointed to the Scriptures as his source. Teachers of God’s word need to do the same. Peculiar theological innovation is too easy. What takes boldness is proclaiming an ancient book as God’s revealed word for today. Of course, unoriginality doesn’t mean we should teach in a way that’s drab or unattractive. Biblical teaching should be compelling and creative, but not driven by chic modern views. As Lewis notes, they fade away.

Perhaps you don’t teach or preach God’s word in a formal setting. Does Thomas Oden (and, more so, his commitment to theological unoriginality) benefit you in any way? I think so. We face numerous moral, ethical, and philosophical challenges today, many of which seem novel. You face challenges at school, in the workplace, in the marketplace, and on television. It seems as if new questions spring up daily that were totally foreign to previous generations.

And yet, a grounding in the Christian tradition reminds us that church history has wrestled with many of these questions—if not in exact terms, certainly in principle—and has arrived at satisfactory answers. This reminder breeds a level of confidence in the Christian worldview that is desperately needed in a world that is increasingly unsympathetic to the Christian vision. Christian, you stand among ages of saints, spanning the globe, who have scoured the Scriptures and left us a venerable body of material that is strikingly applicable today. Have confidence in rich, biblical, orthodox Christianity. It doesn’t need to be adjusted. It just needs to be unleashed.

Thomas Oden was brilliant and colorful and gentle and careful. He loved the Bible and the task of theology. He knew he couldn’t improve upon the inspired Word and the vibrant chorus of church history that constantly rang about his head. He gained great confidence from Christianity’s stubborn refusal to be flattened by any preceding age: “The Christian intellect has no reason to be intimidated in the presence of later-stage deteriorating modernity. Christianity has seen too many supposedly modern eras to be cowed by this one.”[6]

We need not fret and abandon historical Christian doctrine. We need only to recapture and re-present what God has already spoken in Scripture. When it comes to standing firm on biblical truth, embrace Oden’s cheerful, straightforward, and unashamed unoriginality.

[1]Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1983), 7.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology: Life in the Spirit, Vol. III (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), vii.

[4]Ibid., vii-ix.

[5]C.S. Lewis, introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise “De Incarnatione Verbi Dei,” translated and edited by A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1953 [orig. 1944]), 9.

[6]Thomas Oden, After Modernity…What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 149.

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