Thursday, January 8, 2015

Paleo-Orthodoxy: Moving on from Modernity by Looking Back to Classical Christianity

The following is the second contemporary theological issue paper I wrote for my systematic theology class. I chose my own topic for this paper, namely paleo-orthodoxy, a movement largely within Protestantism that invites interesting comparisons with Orthodoxy.

How does one remain a faithful Christian in the modern world? This is a question staring modern churches in the face. It receives a variety of answers, from generous accommodation to wary separation, which have profound effects on the kind of Christian faithfulness they practice. In the last few decades, an increasing number of Christian theologians and lay leaders have begun seeking another, promising way to respond to the challenges of modernity: the recovery of classical Christianity and the consensus of faith held by the early church. Thomas C. Oden is the chief proponent of this approach, which is known as paleo-orthodoxy.

The title of one of Oden's books, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, is descriptive of his vision for modern Christianity. In it, he defines "orthodoxy" as "integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual classic period”, or “ancient consensual scriptural teaching."1 "It is the faith generally shared by all Christians, especially as defined in the early periods of Christian doctrinal definition."2 In other words, Christian orthodoxy is the faith agreed on by the whole church, preceding subsequent schism and doctrinal disagreements. Orthodoxy is based on the Bible and defined more precisely, both in its central truth and its boundaries, through the creeds, councils, liturgy, and writings of the early church and their interpretations of Scripture.3 In other words, in contrast to conservative Protestant denominations that constantly seek to go "back to the Bible" and may hold a denigrating view of tradition, paleo-orthodoxy considers the consensual tradition of the early church an important guide to knowing the faith "which was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jde 1:3 RSV) J.I. Packer considers this recovery of classical teaching "the historic Christian way of doing theology" and "the authentic evangelical method."4

Paleo-orthodoxy is defined in contrast, and as an alternative, to a version of the Christian faith that has been shaped by modernity. What, then, is modernity? Oden gives a threefold definition: it is basically the time span from 1789 to 1989, more accurately a "mesmerizing, spellbinding vision of the human possibility that has held the human imagination in its grip", and most essentially "a disabling social malaise, a crash of the moral immune system, a collapse of virtue, a moral spinout."5 Oden, a Methodist who was a radical "movement theologian"6 until he discovered the texts of classic Christianity, is experienced in the dangers of modernity for Christian theology: its assumptions of philosophical relativism and naturalism, its preoccupation with novelty, and its tendency to foster oppressive bureaucracy. It is precisely within this environment that he presents the rebirth of orthodoxy as a redemptive possibility.

Modernity is not so much corrupt as it is dead, or at least dying.7 Oden considers paleo-orthodoxy a postmodern alternative and successor to it—defining "postmodernism" simply as "that historical formulation that will follow the era of spent modernity", rather than the philosophy characterized by "deconstructionist literary criticism and relativistic nihilism", which he calls "ultramodernity".8 Postmodern orthodoxy is distinguished from premodern orthodoxy by its history, its experience of aligning with modernity and then leaving it. Postcritical orthodox "have had a rich series of experiences that premoderns have not had. They are able to see Christian truth refracted through these experiences in a way that precritical minds find offensive and impossible."9 Premodern orthodoxy is admirable, but it is not really an option for those who wish to "reappropriate the ancient tradition in the modern setting."10 It is simply "too late to be precritical".11 Indeed, postmoderns' experience with modernity is even an advantage, since Christianity has always been best defended from false teaching by those who have renounced it.

The practice of paleo-orthodoxy (or "postmodern orthodoxy") centers around rediscovering the tradition of classical, consensual Christian teaching and applying its rule of faith to contemporary Christianity. Oden roughly places this tradition in the first Christian millennium, in which the church closely guarded and adhered to the apostolic deposit of faith.12 Contemporary interest in patristic texts and commentaries expressing Christian orthodoxy is growing, as indicated by the numerous scholarly projects to produce and apply definitive translations.13 Oden himself is the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which seeks to collect patristic commentary on the whole Bible.14 The recovery of classic Christian orthodoxy means both redrawing the traditional boundaries of the faith and rediscovering the divine mystery at its center. The former project contrasts with the attitude of tolerance that tends to prevail both in western culture and the church and is in accord with biblical and patristic warnings to guard the deposit of the faith (e.g. Gal 1:8-9, 1 Tim 6:60-21, 2 Jhn 1:9-10). The second simultaneously affirms the diversity of the various Christian traditions without elevating one as permanently normative,15 while cultivating a patristic understanding of life in Christ as the center and ultimate goal of the Christian faith.16

The goal of postmodern orthodoxy, as of early Christian orthodoxy, is to hold fast to the ecumenical faith defined by Vincent of Lérins as "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all."17 Unity of the faith as marked out by Vincent's rule is a better alternative to modern ecumenical methods, which attempt to create unity through collaboration, bureaucracy, or politics.18 Oden further proposes eight "consensual doctors" as especially indicative of classical consensus: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom from the east, and Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great from the west.19 The "apostolic model of orthodox remembering", so critical for the preservation of the Christian tradition from distortion, schism, and heresy, was pioneered by the apostle Paul.20 It is just as important to apply today to free Christian orthodoxy from modern-day heresies. Oden argues that classical ecumenism is actually more diverse and more tolerant than modern-day approaches, which are committed to relativism and intolerant of orthodoxy's truth claims.21

Paleo-orthodoxy is an immensely refreshing movement that holds great promise for contemporary Christianity. It escapes the quagmire of much sola scriptura Protestantism, of trying to re-derive the richness of the apostolic Christian faith from a supposedly self-interpreting Bible starting from modern preconceptions and then wondering why we can't seem to agree on the content of this faith. Instead, orthodoxy is conceptualized as remembering "nothing more or less than the ancient consensual tradition of Spirit-guided discernment of scripture."22 It recognizes the error of trying to elevate Scripture over against tradition (or vice versa) when the two are supposed to be in harmony. And it is a much more faithful response to modernity than capitulating to its demands, embracing what Oden rightly calls "ultramodernism", or adopting a reactionary stance that risks defining the faith by what it is not.

But while I think Oden's heart is in the right place and he brings some very promising ideas to the conversation, I must take issue with some of his conclusions as one who has come to identify the faith of the Orthodox Church with the “classic Christianity” Oden is interested in. Despite his rejection of ultramodern relativism, he still seems to assume something like it in his approach to tradition. In multiple places, he implies that the classical Christian faith has been lost altogether, so every Christian communion stands to gain from returning to patristic texts. This is illustrated when he mentions his arguments as applying equally to Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.23 Since the latter two traditions both consider themselves to have faithfully preserved the apostolic faith by something like the ecumenical process Oden describes, he seems to be taking their beliefs about themselves less than seriously even while drawing inspiration from the traditions they keep. It's similar to the Reformation rhetoric stating that the essence of the gospel has been lost and needs to be recovered; only the prescribed means of doing so is not simply reading the Bible but reading the Bible as interpreted by the early church.

Mirroring this is Oden’s approach to historic Christian traditions. He views Christ as a prism refracting God's love into a variety of sub-traditions, from liberal to Orthodox to charismatic, with no one color being the "best" or normative for the others.24 In his lists of traditional authors he reads, Oden mentions patristic authors but also distinctively Catholic and Protestant authors whose beliefs were frequently at odds with each others', not to mention the patristic consensus.25 The diversity of these traditions is seldom acknowledged; for the most part, Oden seems to consider them all to speak for Christian orthodoxy, which is not possible to do without cheapening the distinctiveness of the traditions they speak for.

As the consensus of patristic Christianity fragments, Oden's preferred sources of tradition roughly follow one trajectory—towards contemporary Protestantism. He does not mention any eastern theologians from after the Great Schism (such as Gregory Palamas), and he mentions few Catholic theologians from after the Reformation. Also, while Oden consistently, strongly, repeatedly contrasts postcritical orthodoxy with modernity, liberalism, and churches that have been influenced by them, he never mentions any possible tension with conservative Protestantism. J.I. Packer even claims classic Christianity as "the authentic evangelical method."26 There seems to be an expectation that historic orthodoxy will confirm evangelicals' cherished doctrines and fill them in, never contradict them.

Oden's reading of "orthodox" soteriology is an example. Claiming to represent the classical consensus, he writes that death is a penalty for transgressing God's moral order and offending divine justice;27 that "God does not forgive without atonement or expiation for past guilt";28 that justification is forensic,29 a "pardoning verdict"30 or a judicial act in a courtroom,31 a "formal, juridical declaration" of God's righteousness imputed to us.32 This is heavily at odds with the patristic consensus that death is not a punishment or from God in any way,33 that Christ's death was not offered to the Father,34 and that justification is an organic, life-creating union with Christ rather than a legal declaration. He treats the consensual Christus victor and moral influence theologies of salvation on equal footing with the later, innovative penal substitution and governmental theologies and Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin as sources of a single soteriological tradition, despite their incompatibilities.35 In the name of "diversity", Oden fails to see the roles Augustine and Anselm had in leading the western church away from the patristic consensus. Another example in which he seems to view classical Christianity through an evangelical lens is the subject of icons; despite claiming all seven ecumenical councils as the work of the Spirit,36 the seventh council's approval of icon veneration and their subsequent place in the life of the church receive no mention.

As well, while Oden affirms the visibility and unity of the church, he seems to interpret these things differently than the patristic consensus. Affirming that the various churches and denominations that exist today are pieces of a single church that is united purely through a spiritual union with Christ,37 or that they are "branches" of a church that is expected to diversify as it grows,38 means denying the traditional Catholic and Orthodox view of the visible unity of the church. As well, in his attitude toward "precritical orthodoxy" Oden seems more interested in recovering the apostolic faith than in joining the apostolic church, presumably because no one church has fully preserved the faith—hallmarks of a distinctively Protestant ecclesiology not shared by the ancient authors he studies. His approach seems inverted from the patristic one—rather than defining the church around a shared faith, he defines the “classic” Christian faith as what is common to the church, leaving the precise nature of the "church" open to interpolation.

Paleo-orthodoxy's intentions are commendable, but it is trying to recover what has never been lost. Oden never really takes seriously the claims of the Orthodox Church, which I believe is the keeper of the “consensual Christianity” he seeks to articulate and the fulfillment of his aspirations At best, contemporary efforts to recover ancient, patristic Christianity can produce a replica or simulation of the rich faith that Orthodoxy has never lost. But there is a better alternative: rather than try to recreate the living, classical Christian church, simply join it.

  1. Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 29.
  2. Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity...What? Agendas for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 37.
  3. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 3031.
  4. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 10.
  5. Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 114–116).
  6. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 89.
  7. Oden, Requiem, 111.
  8. Oden, Requiem, 116–117.
  9. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 61.
  10. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 62.
  11. Oden, Requiem, 135.
  12. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 160–161.
  13. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 98.
  14. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 98.
  15. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 177.
  16. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 180.
  17. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 162.
  18. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 56–57.
  19. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), xv–xvi.
  20. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 173–175.
  21. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 115.
  22. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 31.
  23. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, ix.
  24. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 176–177.
  25. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 24–25; Oden, Requiem, 110. For example he lists Aquinas and Luther, Calvin and Wesley together, along with patristic authors like Irenaeus.
  26. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 10.
  27. Oden, Classic Christianity, 404.
  28. Oden, Classic Christianity, 418.
  29. Oden, Classic Christianity, 583.
  30. Oden, After Modernity...What?, 137.
  31. Oden, Classic Christianity, 586–587.
  32. Oden, Classic Christianity, 595.
  33. John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin (trans. George S. Gabriel; Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr Publishing, 2002), 156.
  34. Gregory of Nazianzus, "The Second Oration on Easter," New Advent, <> (3 January 2015).
  35. Oden, Classic Christianity, 435.
  36. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 48.
  37. Oden, Classic Christianity, 724–725.
  38. Oden, Classic Christianity, xiii.

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