"A great read, an encouraging read, about a contemporary theologian who realized the moral bankruptcy and theological impoverishment of liberal Christianity and who also teaches the merits of a broad consensus Christianity which is preferably to narrow and sectarian varieties."
Those words come from a quick review by Michael Bird of Thomas C. Oden's autobiography A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014).
I am looking forward to reading the book - on order for the Theology House library - and appreciate the brief review Michael Bird provides. The review highlights, I suggest, one of the great issues in the life of the church today. This issue is present when (say) we visit a church and find that 80% of the congregation are aged over 70 years, or we shake our heads and wonder at the future of theological education and ministry training when we find that yet another seminary somewhere in the Western Anglican Communion is closing down or just reconfiguring, or, as this week, we see that Libby Lane has become the first woman bishop in the C of E.
I guess the issue could be described in various ways such as how we interpret the Bible or working out tradition in modern contexts but, working from Bird's review of Oden's memoirs, I describe it as the church discerning the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Oden, it seems, spent a number of years pursuing that discernment along a pathway which promised much and delivered little. At that point Oden rediscovered the pathways charted by the ancient Fathers, including the Super Highway charted by Athanasius Augustine and Aquinas. In part this is about resisting the temptation to love heresy more than orthodoxy (remembering that heresy is not the opposite of orthodoxy but an attractive deviation from it) and in another part this appears to be about the ongoing matter of God's truth in human contexts or the relationship between revelation and culture.
When we worry about church attendance declining or participation in church life reducing to one or two senior generations rather than the all generations, or argue over whether women may or may not be discerned for presbyteral or episcopal ministry, we are engaging, directly or indirectly, in reflection of God's truth in human contexts. What is the Word of God for today? How do we answer that question honouring the Word of God in its fullness and precision while living in a world which did not exist when the Word of God was revealed to us in the form we read as our Scripture?
If, taking one issue, we have no young people in our churches, what has happened to the Word of God which the remnant elderly generations once heard as a clarion call to follow Jesus? Taking another issue, in a world sensitive to full participation of women in human community, what does the Word of God mean for the life of the church when it announces that male and female are one in Christ and declares that humanity is made in the image of God?
That in some parts of the church we might (as in 'just might, let's pause and think about this very carefully') be misunderstanding God's Word as we seek to discern its full meaning for life is highlighted when we find absurd applications being pursued. In that part of the church led by the Bishop of Rome, we find some oddities around persisting with segregation of men and women in leadership so that not only may women not be priests but some think girls may not be altar servers either (here). But that is perhaps nothing much in oddity terms compared with the extraordinary compromise the CofE has carefully and seemingly secretly worked on which prevents the Archbishop of York from laying hands on Philip North at his ordination.
Back to Oden. His approach to theology has a very interesting parallel with that of Jaroslav Pelikan, as we read about the latter in First Things. My question of both theologians as they followed the ancient ways of orthodoxy is whether they picked and chose what they consider to be orthodoxy! Oden remained a Methodist which suggests he did not agree with everything he read in Augustine and Aquinas (for the combined logic of both, if agreed with, must lead to membership of the church of Rome). Pelikan eventually eschewed Lutheranism in favour of Eastern Orthodoxy which highlights a choice to no long subscribe to the creed of Western Orthodoxy!
All theology involves choice as we seek to fully discern the Word of God written for us in Scripture. Notwithstanding the impressive scholarship of Oden and Pelikan and the power of their arguments that in modernity theologians have made some bad choices, neither offers an infallible method for maintaining, let alone developing orthodoxy. To wit, the creedal differences between East and West remain; Rome has not reversed its teaching on the assumption of Mary; Aquinas has not proved to be the last word on the mystery of the sacraments.
On a specific contemporary question, doubly highlighted by the ordination of Libby Lane this week in England and by the extraordinary manner in which his archbishop and other bishops will be 'absent' at Philip North's ordination next week, it is easy to charge the church of God as colluding with culture by ordaining a woman to the episcopate and to invoke the spectre of failure to maintain the orthodox faith of the church of God. It is harder to explain how orthodoxy with its conundrums highlighted by the differing examples of Oden and Pelikan guarantees that in 2015 we may KNOW that woman may not be bishops.
Actually, almost hidden in the review of Oden's memoirs, is a clue we could reflect on concerning knowledge of God's revelation in its full depth and breadth. The great strength of orthodoxy has been its consensus, the sensus fidelium in which the people of God agree together on what is and is not God's truth:
"Oden treasures “consensus Christian” which is a lot like C.S. Lewis’ “mere Christianity.” Oden says, “The clergy did not create this consent; it was achieved by an act of the worshiping community confirmed by the laity in song, prayer and Scripture” (p. 176)."
In the end the question of whether women bishops represent the church colluding with culture or are a proper application of our discernment of Galatians 3:28 will not be sorted on this blog, but by the reception of the people of God in the ages to come ...
But I could be wrong!