Should Thomas C. Oden proves to be a harbinger of things to come, systematic theology (after taking a back seat to “biblical theology” for several decades) has regained its vitality. Having read Oden’s first two volumes when they were published, I’ve just finished the third, and I recommend all three to anyone seriously interested in both a comprehensive discussion of doctrine and a resolutely “back-to-the-Fathers” brand of thinking.
The trilogy consists of: The Living God: Systematic Theology: Volume One (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, c. 1987); The Word of Life: Systematic Theology: Volume Two (San Francisco: Harper & Row, c. 1989); and Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology: Volume Three (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1992).
Oden seeks to formulate an ecumenical, concensual theology– “an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community” (I,ix), mutually acceptable to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers. Amidst a world culturally collapsing (for “modernity” has passed he thinks), it’s time to unite and rediscover the common roots of the various traditions which will equip Christ’s Church to move rightly into the uncertainties of tomorrow.
That requires us to find guides who are not so much up-to-date as they are dateless, less avante-guarde than guarding the gates, less attuned to the times than in touch with the past. Thus Oden insists that the core doctrines of Christianity were effectively defined during the first 500 years of Church history and are best discerned in the biblical and classical documents preserved from antiquity. We need nothing new! What needs to be said has already been said. What we need is a renewal of what is true! Thus Oden endeavors to be studiously unoriginal, modestly introducing the reader to the wealth of classical authorities.
Those he most trusts are: Athanasius; Basil; Gregory Nazianzen; Gregory of Nyssa; John Chrysostom; Ambrose; Augustine; Jerome; Gregory the Great; Hilary; Leo; John of Damascus; Thomas Aqiuinas; Luther; and Calvin. (Himself a Methodist, Oden also relies frequently on Wesley). Even more important are the consensual documents such as the Nicene Creed, ratified by ecumenical councils–preeminently the “Seven Ecumencial Councils.”
In the final volume, Oden sums up his effort: “Over fifteen thousand specific primary source references to consensus-bearing exegetes are offered in this series. The weighting of references may be compared to a pyramid of sources, with canonical scripture as foundational base, then the early Christian writers, first-pre-Nicene then post-Nicene, as the supporting mass of trunk, then the best of medieval followed by centrist reformation writers at the narrowing center, and more recent interpreters at the smaller, tapering apex–but only those who grasp and express the anteceding mind of the believing historical church” (III, viii).
Such a statement–from one of the admittedly most trendy theologians to ever ride each and every “contemporary” theological tide of the 60’s and ’70’s–reflects the resolute about-face Oden made a decade or so ago and announced in popular pronouncements such as Beyond Modernity (which I reviewed in “Reedings” # ).
In The Word of Life he reflects: “By the middle of the 1970’s the idea had gradually begun to dawn upon me with increasing force that it is not my task to crate a theology. Newman taught me that the despoit of truth is already sufficiently given, fully and adequately. What I needed to do was to listen. But I could not listen because I found my modern presuppositions constantly tyrannizing my listening” (II, p. 219).
Well, in time he learned to listen, largely by discarding the bulk of contemporary theology, which proved bankrupt. The ones he learned to hear were the biblical writers and Early Church Fathers. His resolve to hear them provides both the strength and weakness of Oden’s work: the vast collection of quotations and citations provides us a wealth of valuable information, but it also makes for ponderous reading too much of the time. One must be determined to read all Oden compiles!
That the title of each volume of his systematic theology includes the word “life” indicates a central theme which binds together the entire study. God the Father gives life as Creator, for “God is uncreated, necessary, one, infinite, immense, eternal being, the life of all that lives” (I, p. 52).
God the Son came to save us not simply “through assent to doctrine but through union with the living Christ” (II, p. 434). Indeed, “The ancient ecumenical testimony is that Jesus now lives so as to engender life in us. His living presence is the real energy and force and dynamic and power of historic Christianity and present Christian life” (II, p. 435).
God the Spirit, as defined at Constantinople in 381 A.D., is “the Lord and giver of life” and gives life to all that lives. “Merely to be alive is to be endowed with life by the Spirit of God” (III, p. 36). In the judgment of Cyril of Jerusalem, something radically new transpired at Pentecost as the believers “were baptized completely” in the Holy Spirit–a fresh draught of God’s Presence which instilled a “‘sober drunkenness, deadly to sin and life-giving to the heart'” (III, p. 67).
In The Living God, Oden addresses “the living God” (His names, nature and character), “the reality of God” (his existence and triunity), “the work of God” (creation and providence) and “the study of God” (via revelation, tradition, reason). To begin with a definition, we find: “God is the uncreated source and end of all things; one; incomparably alive; insurmountable in presence, knowledge, and power; personal, eternal spirit, who in holy love freely creates, sustains, and governs all things” (I, 31).
The Living God, the One Who Is, is very present with us. As St Augustine and medieval thinkers suggested, He is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumferance is nowhere. He simply IS. He BE! So he is naturally present in creation, actively present in providence, attentively present to those who turn to Him, judicially present in our conscience, bodily present in the Incarnate Christ, mystically present in the Eucharist and means of grace afforded the church, and sacredly present in special places where He meets us.
Though we assign God a variety of attributes (many of them pointing to His transcendence), insofar as He is present to us, the Scripture declares that “the Holy One (gadosh) of Israel is understood to be ‘among you’ (Isa. 12:6), constantly addressed as intimate partner in dialogue, ‘my refuge and defense’ (Isa. 12:2)” (I, 81). Thus our awareness of Him focuses on His holiness, for “the beauty of God’s holiness blends all attributes into a single unified effulgence of the divine glory” (I, 38).
Thus Thomas Aquinas declared: “‘Things are beautiful by the indwelling of God,'” agreeing with Gregory of Nyssa’s assertion that “The Deity is in very substance Beautiful; and to the Deity the soul will in its state of purity have affinity’ and will embrace God as like the beauty of the soul herself” (I, 170).
When he turns to discussing the Trinity, Oden resolutely defends the long-established views of “classical exegetes” such as Athanasius and Augustine. Unlike modernists who evade it, Oden celebrates its centrality and importance. He sets forth this “thesis: The triune teaching has been subjected necessarily to a steady, unfolding development through successive stages: preindications in the Old Tetament; the central disclosure of God as Father, Son, and Spirit in the New Testament; and the full development of church teaching in the Nicene definition and its sugsequent interpretations” (I, p. 189).
Against those who argue the institutional Church and its systematizing theologians imposed, long after the New Testament was written, the notion of a Triune God upon the scriptures, Oden argues that trinitarian doctrine clearly resides in Scripture. It is especially evident in the “great commission,” Jesus’ final command to His followers to go into all the world and baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit as well as early liturgical passages. Indeed “there can be no adequate clarification of Scripture without the triune hypothesis” (I, p. 202).
This three-in-one God created all that is and continues to sustain it. As Aquinas said, “‘in the [Nicene] Creed, to the Father is attributed that “He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible”; to the Son is attributd that by Him “all things were made”; and to the Holy Ghost is attributed that He is “lord and Life-Giver”‘–hence, “‘to create is not proper to any one Person, but is common to the whole Trinity. . . . God the Father made the creature through His Word, which is His Son; and through His Love, which is the Holy Ghost,'” who “‘quickens what is created by the Father through the Son'” (I, 248).
This “God is hiddenly at work throughout the whole sphere of natural causality, and is the mysterious, decisive ground of it all. The providnetial care of God is already in the nature of things, in the generation of things, in the transmission of things, and in their awesome movement through history” (I, 304). Though human freedom allows sin to flourish, though creation suffers from the ravages of evil, creation is still good because it is the handiwork of a good Creator.
The Word of Life, the second volume, sets forth Oden’s christology, which is, preeminently “a relation to a person. It is not essentially an idea or institution” (II, p. 1). He divides his discussion into “the Word made flesh,” “our Lord’s earthly life,” “He died for our sins,” and the “exalted Lord.” Or, more briefly: “He came. He lived. He died. He arose” (I, p. 27).
Regarding Jesus, one must choose to either crown Him Lord or deny His claims–there’s no neutral space on this issue. Oden’s choice is unequivocal: Jesus is Lord! “Classic Christian answers without apology: what was said about him is true–he was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the one Mediator between God and humanity, who as truly God was truly human, who liberated humanity from the power of sin by his death on the cross” (I, p. 6).
To be a Christian is to affirm the deity of Christ. God really came into our world. He was fully in Christ. He was the Word Incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary, miraculously conceived and commingling deity with humanity. “Christ is called ‘God’ in precisely the same sense and with the same meaning that the Old Testament applies that address to Yahweh, the one God to whom worship is owed, to whom the divine attributes rightly apply” (II, p. 43).
With marvelous precision Leo I wrote: “‘Invisible in His nature, He became visible in ours; surpassing comprehension, He has wished to be comprehended; remaining prior to time, He began to exist in time. The Lord of all things hid his immeasurable majesty to take on the form of a servant'” (II, p. 88).
He came. He lived. He died. Oden traces the historical details of Jesus’ life, emphasizing the historical accuracy of New Testament documents while emphasizing they primarily portray His saving work for us. That means: Jesus first appeared as a teacher int he prophetic fofice; then as high priest and lamb sacrificed in his suffering and death; and finally by his resurrection received his kingdom and remains active in his office of cosmic governance, as eschatological ruler in this kingdom” (II, p. 280).