Compass of Divinity: A Conversation with Thomas C. Oden

By Steve Beard

Unbeknownst to him, Professor Thomas C. Oden was the prime agitator to the agony and ecstasy of my seminary experience. It was wading through 1,400 pages of his three volume systematic text books that introduced me to his dear friends Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, as well as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine –– that’s just to name a few.

To be honest, sometimes it felt like fraternity hazing and at other times it read devotionally, healing the wounds of my worn-out and stretched mind.

Looking back on it, I would not have had it any other way.

There are a few notable reasons I have always trusted Oden.

First, he is steadfastly committed to the historic teachings of Jesus. He’s made a professional vow to be theologically “unoriginal,” a counterintuitive move for a brilliant mind within a culture where newer is always considered better and theologians huff and puff to “keep pace with each new ripple of the ideological river.” Oden is sold out to the witness of the martyrs, saints, and prophets –– the faith that has been “everywhere and always and by everyone believed” to be the truth of Christianity.

Second, he has a past. For some reason, I trust those whose skeletons have already been laid bare. He wasn’t always a bleeding heart for orthodoxy. As a “movement theologian,” he dabbled in theoretical Marxism, existentialism, demythologization, Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, humanistic psychology, and parapsychology. Oden liked the bandwagons and everyone winked and nodded. Everyone, that is, except the late Jewish scholar Will Herberg, a brilliant colleague at Drew University who hounded Oden to rediscover his Christian roots.

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I still felt depressed even in acquiescence,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy. “But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy like a bird in spring.”

Taking Herberg’s admonition seriously, Oden incrementally turned his back on the countless trendy movements and “the fantasies of Bultmannianism” he had embraced and ended up being United Methodism’s preeminent and most prolific theologian.

Third, Oden smiles. Sounds insignificant, but it’s not. He is pastoral and deeply concerned about the care of the soul. He’s a lover of ideas, an engaged student and teacher. Oden’s not bitter –– mildly amused, but not bitter. He was actually grateful for his colleagues –– feminist, form critical, deconstructionist, and even heretical –– who challenged him to be more clear in his espousal of orthodoxy. He only asks for a fair hearing.

One would need a billboard to list all his books. Oden spent the last 17 years editing the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Amongst all his writing, he was also one of the original founders of The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church.

Oden’s latest endeavor is the four-volume collection of John Wesley’s Teachings. He shows that Wesley’s instructional homilies addressed the “whole compass of divinity” through his deep grounding in ancient ecumenical teaching.

Oden shows that over fifty-plus years of writing, Wesley covered the waterfront of essential issues surrounding Christian theology with a “cohesive and implicitly systematic core.”

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation about his new project.

 

Steve Beard: You have written, “Wesley’s eighteenth-century movement corresponds closely with classic fourth-century consensus Christian teaching. Wesley’s teaching springs out of what he called, in lower case, the catholic spirit.” Let’s start there. What are John Wesley’s theological and spiritual roots?

Thomas C. Oden: Wesley relied upon and was personally shaped by a deep encounter with sacred Scripture, which he constantly considered normative for the Christian life. But after that it is the history of ecumenical doctrinal formation and scriptural interpretation in the Patristic period that became the grounding for his teaching ministry.

He was particularly drawn to the earliest Church fathers of both the East and West. He found the great writers of the Patristic period very important for him on questions of living the holy life of perfect love: Clement of Alexandria, Macarius the Great and Ephraim the Syrian. As a learned Oxford Anglican, he also had a great great grounding in Augustine. Many people would not notice it but he refers to St. Austin –– that’s just an 18th century term for Augustine. And then, of course, the Reformation writers, both Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as the Anglican reformers were especially important to him. Above all, Wesley preached in a way that was very accountable to the Elizabethan homilies that were largely gathered, conceived, and written by Thomas Cranmer.

With all the diversity of his theological roots, how do you describe John Wesley?

I regard Wesley as an ecumenical writer and an ecumenical teacher that stands in the via media tradition of Anglicanism, but with a very strong focus on the new birth that follows from justification by grace through faith. He did not want that Reformation core to be slighted. Although he never felt that the continental magisterial Reformation was adequately fulfilled, he thought that the evangelical revival going on in the 18th century was a significant fulfillment of what was sought but not fulfilled in classical Lutheranism and Calvinism.

He had criticisms of both Luther and Calvin, but they were not on the basic gospel truths concerning justification by grace through faith active in love. They were tempted to antinomian imbalances of those truths –– the temptation to take Christ as an excuse for disobedience to the law of God, the moral law.

United Methodists might be surprised to learn about his deep dependence upon the ancient writers of both East and West. We don’t really learn to read the Patristics. Have we dropped the ball perhaps?

Oh, yeah, we’ve dropped the ball in almost every way you can imagine.

When Wesley was headed for Georgia as a missionary to the native American Indians, he had to select a few books that he would take along with him. What did he take? Well, he took two large volumes by Bishop William Beveridge, the Patristic scholar at a time when Oxford and Cambridge were experiencing a Patristic renewal period. These volumes written in Latin and Greek were on the apostolic tradition of the early Patristic period.

So you can see how far away that is from the mentality of what we now have in The United Methodist Church. What I’m hoping to do is get evangelicals –– not just United Methodists –– to read Wesley.

Wesley was taking the best of Patristic and Reformation scholarship to the people. Plain speaking was a key feature of his personal temperament and his public teaching.

That is really one of the most phenomenal gifts of John Wesley. You knew that he was probably the smartest guy in the room, but he attempted to use his intelligence to pass on the truth to everybody else.

And he did not hesitate to poke holes in the pretenses of the academic guild.

Let me ask about Wesley’s relationship with George Whitfield. Is their relationship a possible model for how modern day Wesleyan/Arminians can work with Calvinists and those from the Reformed tradition?

Wesley was clearly the tutor and mentor for the younger Whitfield. In certain ways, Whitfield overshadowed Wesley, especially in America as a great public orator. Where did Whitfield get the energy of his message, his interpretation of Scripture, his evangelical passion? It really comes from John and Charles Wesley. And close readers of Whitfield will see that even though they had some disagreements, especially on double predestination, the patterns of preaching that Whitfield brought to the United States and in a sense all over the world were inspired by Wesley’s strong preaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Okay, let’s talk about predestination and double predestination.

In speaking of his relationship with Calvin and the Reformed tradition, Wesley wrote that he was only a “hair’s breadth from Calvin.” Wesley had a doctrine of predestination. Anyone who reads St. Paul knows that Christian teaching has a doctrine of predestination. The question is what exactly is decreed by God before the beginnings of the world. Wesley rejected the notion of double predestination –– that God has selected the elect from the very beginning and the elect simply have to become aware of it through hearing the Word preached.

In addition to him being a forefather of modern day evangelicalism, is it fair to say that he is also a forefather of worldwide Pentecostalism?

Yeah, that’s true. Where did Pentecostalism get its ideas about the work of the Spirit, of new birth, of totally transforming humanity through social holiness? From Wesley, essentially. That’s what Wesley, the Methodists, and the Holiness Movement in America had been teaching for 100 years before Pentecostalism emerged.

Modern Pentecostalism began in the 1890s, and who are the people that were shaping the early Pentecostal movement? Some of them were Baptist, but they were Holiness Baptists. Some of them were Presbyterian, but they were Holiness Presbyterians. But the largest number of the earliest Pentecostals were Wesleyan/Holiness preachers teaching on the works of the Spirit going out to the ends of the earth and the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s promise that the Word of God will extend to the whole creation. That is the energy of Pentecostalism. It begins in Kansas, Texas, and Los Angeles and from there everywhere.

That is similar to the spirit of the evangelical revival that was happening in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s in the Wesleyan movement. And as you have pointed out, Steve, there were many anomalies that were happening in the revival.

And Wesley kept a close eye on all of them.

Yes. Wesley was an observer of the work of the Spirit in the heart. And he thanked God for the ways in which the Spirit was moving unexpectedly. But on the other side of Wesley, of course, is a person who sought to utilize reason and tradition to understand how the Spirit is moving.

You touched upon a few aspects of what has become known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral. How would Wesley interpret the way that contemporary United Methodists utilize the quadrilateral?

The way in which it is often distorted is Scripture, reason, tradition, experience. But experience is wrongly put at the top of that list.

In other words, what the liberal church has wanted to do is to include our experience –– our ethnic experience, our gender experience, our personal experience –– as the key determination. And then, you could read Scripture. You can say, “Well, maybe my experience doesn’t quite relate to the account of God’s saving action in Scripture. And maybe I can ignore tradition and reason on the basis of my own experience or our own experience as a community.”

It was exactly the opposite with Wesley. Scripture was at the top of that list. And it was given by God. It is inspired, and we are called to accountability to the written Word of God.

And so these other three become normative in a secondary sense only in relation to the history of salvation revealed in Scriptures. While Scripture is the judge of tradition, nonetheless, tradition is to be highly valued and that’s why Wesley was reading the early Christian writers like John Chrysostom and Augustine and Macarius, because they were closest to the earliest apostolic preaching.

Wesley put at the top of the list the Scripture, and then secondarily the tradition of the memory of God’s saving action. Then underlying all of this is reason –– using the intellectual resources that God has given us to analyze, to make discriminating judgments.

Wesley was not a rationalist in the formal sense because he thought that theistic rationalism had distanced itself from the history of salvation. But it’s a constant feature in Wesley that moral consciousness expresses itself through reason and conscience.

Finally, the experience of the new birth makes personal the knowledge of God’s pardon.

Modernity has turned the Wesleyan tradition upside down by imagining experience as judge of Scripture. And it’s time to get it straightened back up.

What was Wesley’s view of universal salvation?

Wesley is often accused of being an advocate of universal salvation and there is a yes and a no. He was an advocate of universal grace in the sense that grace is for all. God is offering himself on the cross, not just for some, but for all. The gift is for everyone, but it must be received. It requires repentance and faith. So in order to receive it, you must repent and believe and be baptized.

These are the conditions upon which God will receive us back into His favor. So universal salvation is by grace offered by God and received only by complete trust in God’s pardoning love on the cross.

It is a very simple distinction that very few people seem to get. When many people talk about universal salvation, some forget all about the repentance and belief as conditions for receiving grace.

Let’s talk about the experiment at Claremont School of Theology in attempting to train Imams, rabbis, and Hindu leaders under the one roof with United Methodist seminary students. In our pluralistic world, is this a good idea, or have we simply lost our Christian distinction at a United Methodist seminary?

Of course, I taught in a United Methodist seminary. I know the system and I know the ideology and I know the assumptions. And I don’t really know much about this Claremont experiment, but it’s clearly accommodative to modern culture and I think we’ve done enough accommodation.

I think what we need to do is to return to our historic identity, and if we’re going to really have a serious conversation with imams and with gurus, let’s have it on the basis of the real differences between those who are saved by grace through faith and committed to a life of love in action. Let’s talk about that relationship. It’s by grace through the cross. That’s the core: The atonement.

It is perfectly fitting, in my view, to bring in speakers or even teachers from non-Christian traditions –– but without losing their identity so that the process of dialogue ends and becomes a monologue –– simply an absorption without witness.

Let’s talk about your late Jewish colleague Will Herberg.

Will really helped me understand the Christian tradition better by challenging me to rediscover its roots. So you know, I’m not afraid of dialogue, but it’s got to be rooted. That’s a part of what I learned as a result of my conversations with my dear friend Will Herberg, in that I have to be myself as he had to be himself.

Twenty years ago you were on the cover of Good News and we published an account of your adventure back to orthodoxy. Looking back on all of that, what are your thoughts?

I spent the first 40 years trying out every modern path I could find, and found them all a dead end. And that includes Marxism and Freudism and Darwin and most key players in the modern experiment. I was just an ordinary university student. That’s what my teachers were teaching, so I learned it, took it to heart and became an activist. So the first 40 years of my life were very much as a “movement theologian” on behalf of modern ideologies.

Quite simply, I was trying to use the church for the political ideology. That was my purpose. In fact, I went into the ministry with that desire. I decided that the ministry was a place where I could have an effect upon society, particularly through radical social change.

Herberg could see right through this ploy. He helped me to see that I wasn’t a Christian theologian at all. Result: I knew I was going to have to relearn classical Scriptural teaching if I was going to be a theologian. That’s what happened to me in 1970.

In that relearning of Christian theology, what stuck out to you?

I still hold to post-modern paleo-orthodoxy. Now, that sounds like a mouthful, but it has a clear meaning. Modernity is a period of time in which ideologies that are very dysfunctional have become normative.

We are in a period beyond modernity. We are not in the modern period. We are in a post-modern period. And in that period believers are rediscovering our own powerful history. We are reclaiming our own salvation history. So I became orthodox. And then I used the word “paleo” in order to distinguish what I was trying to convey from “neo” orthodox (Bultmann, the Niebuhrs, Tillich, and Brunner). I learned a great deal from these theologians but they did not teach me classical ecumenical teaching. They just didn’t do it. Some of them tried, but I don’t think they considered the incarnation, the atonement, and resurrection as facts of history. Well, we know that the cross occurred, there are very good historical evidences that the cross occurred. But the cross doesn’t mean anything without the resurrection.

You can’t have Good Friday without an Easter Sunday!

The cross and the resurrection are so intimately tied that one is reflected in the other. So my basic question early on in the 1970s was, is the resurrection really just an idea or is it a fact of history? And I finally –– and I think I was influenced by Wolfhart Pannenberg here –– was grateful to embrace the classical Christian view that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He is in fact the incarnate Lord and truly God, without ceasing to be truly God, truly human. The incarnate Lord died on the cross and was resurrected. And then I presented evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. I’ve been doing this for 40 years now.

The crucial turning event for me was: Did this Jesus rise from the dead? Not symbolically, not just as a fragile memory of the earliest Christian rememberers, not just as an ever-questionable matter of fallible human remembering, but did Jesus actually rise from the dead. And finally, I did believe. And that changed my life.

The 2012 General Conference was focused almost exclusively on much-needed restructure. If our guest speaker in Tampa would have been John Wesley, what would his message have been?

Well, it would be very simple. I’ve already stated it. Repent. Believe. Be baptized. Let that baptism emerge in being active in love. Let it be the perfect love empowered by the Spirit. Let it be a complete response, not partial response, to the grace of God. I don’t think Wesley would have paid much attention to the bureaucracy. That’s what’s gotten us in trouble.

We need to think small.

Think small in The United Methodist Church. Think about the congregation with Bible in hand. Think about the lay person who has access to the great good news of God. I think that focus is the potential in the good news. And that’s the potential for the renewal of The United Methodist Church. It’s not going to happen without it.

 

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.