Bringing Forward Tradition - An Interview with Thomas C. Oden

Thomas OdenThomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is author of numerous theological works, including the threevolume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty's managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: You have said your path to orthodox theology really began through patristics. Why are the words and witness the Fathers provide so important today?

Oden: They're important because they're true. They're based upon a consensus of Christian believers, not only from the early Christian period, but from the Apostolic Witness. In other words, what was happening in the patristic period was all exegesis, or all interpretation, of the received Apostolic tradition, which later became canonized. So these writings have gone through a social process and a truth testing. And for Christians, we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in that testing process, in the consensus formation process that delivers to the Word of the self disclosure of God in Jesus Christ.

Why do you think many evangelicals, in their searching, are drawn to patristic thought and commentary? What can churches do to encourage those that are searching?

They're drawn to patristic thought because it is wise. They are hungry for wisdom. They are looking for reliable Christian teaching and, in many cases, evangelicals have not been exposed to these documents because they have been focused on Christian doctrine since the Reformation. I, myself, am an example. I grew up in the Methodist tradition and I had some vague idea of what happened before Luther and Calvin and Wesley, but I hadn't really been deeply informed. And even when I went to my doctoral studies at Yale, I did not spend a great deal of time in patristic writers, so I had to find these on my own.

So what can churches do to encourage people that are searching? First of all, they can make accessible the writings that have been long buried, especially within the later Protestant tradition. They were commended by Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Wesley, but not sufficiently taught and transmitted. The texts themselves have largely been buried. Now, fortunately today a lot of these are digitalized. There's a lot more available. So there's almost no excuse for an evangelical who wishes to know classic Christianity, to ignore these teachings.

Would you offer some thoughts on the Church Fathers and their views on poverty? Can the Church learn from them today?

In The Good Works Reader, I deal with such passages as the rich man and Lazarus and relief for the needy. You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.

That does not mean they can be directly transferred into our political situation, but by analogy we can learn from them about the faith that become active in love and produces good works. And the doctrine of good works, of course, is taught in Scripture. Now, that is not, certainly not to Protestants, to diminish the priority of justifying faith for our salvation. We are not saved by our works, but we are called by grace, through our faith, to be active in the works of love.

There is a great deal of material about poverty in patristic exegesis, particularly in commenting on those scriptural texts on stewardship, money, generosity, and hunger. In every Christian community in the ancient world, there were forms of active engagement with the poor. When you went to church, from earliest times you would have an opportunity to give to the poor.

So what happened to those resources thatwere given to the poor? Some people sold all of their goods and gave them all to the poor. So there was an interest in participating in Jesus' life, in the Son's self giving for all humanity. There was an interest in participating in that incomparable selfgiving act. But to those who did not know that they were doing something for Christ, He said, "Whatever you neglected to do unto the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!" (Matthew 25:40).

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria

Let's talk further about the poor boxes. There came a time when a kind of dependency arose out of their use. To some these gifts elicited an entitlement mentality, even in the early Church. That required leadership by the church, to make reasonable rules about how to give aid without increasing the temptation to dependency, which is demoralizing to initiative. That remains a huge problem today. The patristic writers were commenting on Scripture texts in a way that remains important for us today in our understanding of abuses and temptations that may arise out of good motives.

The Church can certainly learn from the Church Fathers in other areas of social witness, for example, those who are marginalized such as prisoners. What thoughts can you offer here?

The ransom of prisoners was a major social concern of early Christianity, especially during times of persecution, when believers were sent as slaves to the mines, and after wars of conquest, where whole populations were made prisoners.

We have a large body of patristic literature that deals with what we today would call social witness. For example, displaced persons, the homeless, and care for widows. How do you care for the fatherless? These were all considered, based on scripture texts. How do you care for sick people? The whole idea of a hospital emerged within the frame of this ethos of caring for the poor and the sick and the needy. Basil of Caesarea created the first hospital as a way of participating in the healing ministry of Jesus. But all across these areas of social witness and marginalization, we have the same concern.

If somebody is hungry, you try to provide food for him, without demeaning him or making him a dependent. If they don't have clothes, you provide clothes. You provide what's needed. If you want an even more condensed study of these sorts of marginalization, you can find it in The Good Works Reader. Among the topics treated there are hospitality to the stranger, the children of war, sexual abuse, and homelessness. Dealing with actual human needs was central to the practice of the Christian life.

You mentioned earlier the ministry to prisoners, like Chuck Colson's prison ministry. That is a wonderful expression in the modern period of a very ancient practice of Christian ethics. If Christians were in prison as they often were during the Roman persecutions in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, they would pray for them, seek to locate them if missing, go visit them, and raise money to free them. There were ways to do that in the Roman period.

The big debate today raging around the issue of hospitality really is immigration. And there are some evangelicals that are saying that we need to take in illegal immigrants. I just think that's kind of an interesting divide right now in evangelicalism in terms of hospitality.

Ancient Christian writers knew that all Christians were being called to receive strangers and travelers hospitably. But that does not quite get to the crux of the question of law as to whether the stranger is entering into a territory under false colors. That's a different question. So there are two moral principles that may, at certain points, conflict. And they do in our society. They conflict dramatically between those who would emphasize the hospitality in an absolute way, and those who would emphasize the moral requirement of following the law as a part of a just social order, including the duty to respect legal borders. Patristic writers sought to hold these in tension. It's a very old conflict.

For somebody just getting started out in studying church history and the Church Fathers, can you recommend a good starting point for them, and how do we read them in a way where we are mindful of their context?

The phrase "mindful of their context" is an important qualifier. If you're going to be the scholar, you must be mindful of the context of an event. But if you're a lay reader, you have broader permission to read ancient writers in their own words and seek their wisdom. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is written for both audiences. For most laity, the best way to get in touch with the heart, mind, soul and spirit of classical Christian teaching is to allow early Christians to speak for themselves. Don't read somebody else's view of Augustine. There's plenty that he said plainly that you can grasp and benefit by. Keep in mind that he was speaking to lay people all the time.

A good starting point is to read good translations of any of the ancient consensual Christian writers. If you are asking for specific texts, I would say read Augustine's Confessions, Athanasius' Incarnation of the Word, or Gregory Nazianzen's Orations as a beginning point.

Saint Augustine

We have read a number of stories of African missionaries in developing nations coming to the United States and other Western countries. What do you make of this?

All who read the New Testament know that there is a Great Commission in Matthew 28: Go into the entire world. Preach. Baptize, Disciple. There are a very surprising number of believers from the continent of Africa, who are forming active communities of believers here in the United States.

I happened to be doing a lecture in Libya. I was in Tripoli lecturing in a Libyan university. I had been trying to get into Libya for years because I have been very interested in Early African Christianity in Libya. I was able to meet there with international diplomats, evangelicals, and people that were there for business reasons. Many of them were from sub-Saharan Africa. They wanted to expand their work into Libya. Those who were Christian believers were meeting in a house church without property. Their missionary activity was taking place there because they hungered for Christian fellowship. Spreading the gospel is intrinsic to the Christian life. I found there an unexpected correlation between the stream of business interests and the stream of evangelization mission. Ironically it was lay business people, not professional or ordained missionaries, who were doing the work.

Do you think there is a crisis in Protestant culture now, related to the lack of teaching when it comes to a theology of suffering? There are a lot of hurting people out there and many times they are looking for help and healing in the wrong places. How, and in what way, would reading and study of the patristics help them?

It isn't just Protestant culture. It's also Western culture. The hedonism of our culture makes us really look for quick and easy solutions to our problems, and one challenge to all human freedom is suffering. Those who read the early Christian writers carefully find in them a huge challenge to our hedonic assumptions about what suffering means and doesn't mean. For ancient Christian writers, suffering is a participation in Christ's suffering. When we suffer, we are doing something that the Son has done in relation to and for the Father. We are being called to share Christ's life, to carry the cross and to share in his suffering.

What has happened to me in my suffering is that it has humbled me. It has made me more empathic. I know this. This is empirically verifiable in my view, because I can see the changes for good that have come to me as a result of this suffering.

That doesn't imply that suffering is a wonderful thing. I wouldn't have chosen it. But under the pedagogy of the ancient Christian writers, it is a part of the Christian doctrine of providence; that God allows us, in our human finitude, to be subject to the risks that go along with that finitude. Otherwise we really wouldn't be free. Human freedom lives within a deep history of human fallenness. Created in the image of God, we are profoundly fallen creatures. This is hard for hedonic cultures to learn. It is very clear in Augustine and John Chrysostom. God does not directly cause any suffering, but he permits it on behalf of our growth in the obedience of faith, and provides a context in which any suffering that we have can be overcome by grace.

Is it possible to say that the mainline Protestant churches are still relevant?

They are growing more and more irrelevant. They are by now more sideline than mainline. The mainline metaphor is largely turning out to be the ideology of left wing partisans from a certain political party. I don't even need to name it. Everybody knows it. I think the bishops have colluded in this by allowing this to happen, and in effect, joining in it. It's still possible to change the leadership of the mainline churches. The laity of the mainline must study and become informed about the money trail that flows out of their churches and into the hands of aging, ideologically partisan bureaucrats.

More of Religon & Liberty's interview with Thomas C. Oden can be found on the Acton PowerBlog at preview-rl-interviews-thomas-c-oden.html.