Turning Hearts to the Fathers
Excerpt From A Conversation with Thomas C. Oden
Orthodoxy is a term that emerges out of the history of Christianity. It is distinguished from heresy in that any heretical view is other than that which has been received in the apostolic Tradition. Orthodoxy is that exegesis of the texts of the apostolic Tradition (that is the New Testament itself) that has been generally received by the widest circle of Christians, East and West. Those who argue for “ecumenical orthodoxy” cannot argue it either from the side of the East or the West. You have to argue it from the side of synods and writers in the East that were received in the West and synods and writers in the West that were received in the East—those consensual Christian writers and those councils and synods that were widely received ecumenically. Take the Second Council of Orange, for example: it was a regional council but it became very widely received as a statement of the relation of sin, grace, and freedom.
It is this set of documents—those texts both of the conciliar process and of specific theologians that were reflecting the conciliar process—that are the ones that best represent the orthodox Tradition. So, we are not without a means of scientifically studying the orthodox Tradition. In other words, we can inquire into it as a literary corpus. We have texts to study and there’s no mystery about what those texts are. Generally speaking, they are the seven ecumenical councils, they are those regional synods that have interpretively followed from the seven ecumenical councils, and they are eight theologians that the Tradition has frequently named as most accurately stating the mind of the believing Church, four of the East that are received in the West and four of the West that are received in the East; Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen in the East and Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great in the West. Anybody who knows the conciliar Tradition knows that when you go to those theologians you get a fairly accurate reading of what the consensus was. Not an absolute one hundred percent accurate reading because even as good as those theologians were they sometimes missed the mark, but basically they’re extremely reliable interpreters of the consensus. So, what I mean by ecumenical recovery is not the recovery of modern ecumenism or the bureaucratic contemporary-liberal form of ecumenism, but it is the recovery of ancient ecumenism as it is manifested in those texts. My theological inquiry is a highly textual concern. When I work with students, I work essentially with those texts and we try to understand what those texts say.
I tend to distrust myself when I begin to imagine that my creativity is somehow going to come up with something that is just a little better than what the apostles received from Christ and delivered to the Church. Before I began to read the ancient Christian writers the education that I received taught me to be creative and to look for innovative solutions. I considered it my duty to bring to each text of theology a critical attitude, requiring that text to conform to my modern assumptions about the world. That is what I thought I was supposed to do as a theologian. If there is any single hermeneutical reversal that occurred in my thinking it was just the simple recognition that it’s not my job to improve on the apostolic testimony.
It was John Henry Cardinal Newman who taught me that the deposit of truth is already sufficiently given, fully and adequately. What I needed to do was to listen. But, prior to my reversal, I could not listen because I found my modern presuppositions constantly tyrannizing my listening. Then, while reading Nemesius [early Christian philosopher, bishop of Emesa in Syria], something clicked: I realized that I must listen intently, actively, without reservation. Listen in such a way that my whole life depended upon hearing. Listen in such a way that I could see telescopically beyond my modern myopia, to break through the walls of my modern prison, and actually hear voices from the past with entirely different assumptions about the world and time and human culture.
Of course, embedded in the deepest idea of listening is obedience (hypokoe). I find it difficult to convince colleagues that the most important single lesson I have learned hermeneutically is obedience to the text. Carl Rogers taught me to trust my experience. The ancient Christian writers taught me to trust that Scripture and Tradition would transmute my experience.
This is an excerpt from a two-part interview with Thomas C. Oden by Kenneth Tanner, Touchstone, Summer and Fall issues, 1995.
Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and an ordained United Methodist minister. In the early 1970s, he discovered the ancient Christian writers, an encounter that reversed his theological vision. He is General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the author of many theological works, including a three-volume systematic theology.
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“Turning Hearts to the Fathers” first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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