From Theological Fads to Timeless Exegesis

odenI finally got around to reading Thomas C. Oden’s A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP, 2014). The book is a fascinating, self-effacing memoir of a widely respected theologian who spent much of his life gobbling down political and theological fads. He would later become a man who found his place sharing patristic exegesis of Scripture, a work he frequently mentions by the saucy label “consensual exegesis.”

Oden summarizes his theological journey with a characteristic bluntness and honesty that makes his book endearing.

My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my own original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace. . . . I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year stable memory. (140)

This summary statement is pregnant with the fads he bought into, advocated, and then abandoned (his relationship with feminism alone is worth reading the book).

But most interesting to me is how his life intertwines with so many theologians, particularly the neo-orthodox like Bultmann, Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr, all of whom he knew personally, and some of them he wrote about extensively. Those theologians would eventually leave him unsatisfied, something he explains in a buried endnote:

None of the neo-orthodox theologians had adequately rediscovered the consensual center of classic patristic teaching. Bultmann had demythologized the resurrection. Barth had trounced many aspects of classic Christian natural-law reasoning. Tillich had turned the gospel into an uneventful philosophy of “being itself.” Reinhold Niebuhr abandoned classic ecclesiology in favor of political actions and arguments. All four had influenced me decisively. I had written books on two of them (Bultmann and Barth). Yet none had followed the classic consensual method. None broke through the illusion of the permanence of modern ideologies. What neo-orthodoxy lacked was the pre-Reformation core of classic Christian exegesis — before Luther, before Calvin, before Harnack. (352–53)

It was finally the patristic writers who got through to Oden, and who would break through the illusion of the permanence of modern ideologies. And it was here, in this turn to the patristics, Oden found an earlier premonition fulfilled:

In the season of Epiphany 1971 I had a curious dream in which I was in the New Haven cemetery and accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone with this puzzling epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology.” I woke up refreshed and relieved. (143)

O the sweet exchange

In his T4G address, “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?” (audio forthcoming), Dr Ligon Duncan quoted from The Epistle to Diognetus 9:2­–5, a document dated as early as A.D. 117. In the excerpt you can clearly hear an emphasis on justification, imputation, and substitution. Here is the excerpt, taken from Michael W. Holmes’s translation of The Apostolic Fathers [(Baker, 2007), pp 709, 711]:

… when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!


On a related note, two years back I sat down with Dr. Duncan to discuss the church fathers. The fruit of that conversation was the audio interview “Patristics for Busy Pastors.”

Bernard of Clairvaux Day

Bernard of Clairvaux died on August 20, 1153. By all accounts, Bernard was a Church Father who understood the doctrine of imputation, that a righteous standing before God required the perfect merits of Christ, received by faith, as opposed to salvation based (even in part) upon personal merit. Missouri Synod (Lutheran) founder C. F. W. Walther wrote of Bernard:

St. Bernard, the famous abbot of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, is a noteworthy example how the most pious and the best of those in the papacy, when they came into great trials, rejected all of their trust in their own human holiness, in their own works and service, and in the intercession of the saints in heaven, and took sole comfort in the all sufficient service of JESUS Christ for their salvation. Even though in his life Bernard had most strictly pursued holiness and had ascribed such a high value to his position as a monk that he considered it as if it were another baptism (Apolog. Ad Builielm. Abb.), he nevertheless confessed when he suddenly cried out for his salvation because of a severe trial: “I confess that I am not worthy of myself nor can I receive heaven through my own service. But my LORD JESUS Christ has a double right to heaven; first because he is by nature its heir, and then because he has earned it through his meritorious suffering. That first right he has for himself, the second he gives me. Through this gift heaven is mine by rights, so I cannot be lost.

FYI: Calvin’s Institutes include over 40 references to the works of Bernard.

FYI: Dr. Danny Aiken’s PhD dissertation covered the soteriology of Bernard (unpublished).

FYI: Bernard wrote hymns, two you may know: O Jesus, King Most Wonderful and O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.

HT: CB via Veith