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

Why read Augustine?

Newly released edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to the study of the early church preachers and writers (patrology). Nick Needham, a gifted church historian, publishes a fascinating article on why we need to read Augustine today. In part he writes,

“Augustine wrestles endlessly with the most fundamental questions of existence. What can the human mind truly know? What is God? What is truth? What is beauty? What is time? What is history? What is the soul? What is memory? What is faith? What is reason? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is justice? What is human destiny? What are the proper limits of political action? Where does evil come from? How can we reconcile evil and suffering with a belief in a good and almighty God? Augustine sets the example par excellence of a Christian thinker determined to view the whole of life in the light of his faith, rather than give a little private corner of it to Christ, leaving the rest to be squeezed into the mold of contemporary non-Christian culture.”

-Nick Needham in the journal article, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2008 ) p. 39. [download the article as PDF here].

Related: Interview with J. Ligon Duncan on patrology
Related: Review of Nick Needham’s church history books.

Books for Aspiring Patrologists (pt. 1)

In regards to patristics (i.e. the study of the early church fathers) I’ve been accumulating some excellent book recommendations. Some books were recommended in my interview with Dr. Ligon Duncan (listen here), some books have been resting dust-covered on my shelves from previous recommendations, and some from helpful recommendations by Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin.

So this week on TSS I’ll be sharing with you various titles on my reading list for all you aspiring patrologists.

First, Haykin (on his blog) recommends dipping our toes into the pool of patrology with Robert Louis Wilken’s, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Wilken serves as William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

I have found The Spirit of Early Christian Thought to be a refreshing and stimulating study of the characters and thought of the period. At times spiritually devotional, Wilken is always lucid and engaging. His goal is to draw a connection between the spirit and intellect, between worship and reason, as modeled by the early fathers. As with all books on patrology, this one should be read with careful discernment, the fruit of which, however, will be in the beholding a panorama of patristic intellectual fervor and heartfelt piety. It’s available in hardcover ($35.00) and paperback ($14.00).

Three short excerpts—

“In an essay on the church fathers, Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, ‘Greatness, depth, boldness, flexibility, certainty and a flaming love—the virtues of youth, are marks of patristic theology. Perhaps the Church will never again see the likes of such an array of larger-than-life figures that mark the period from Irenaeus to Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine—not to mention the army of the lesser fathers. Life and doctrine are immediately one. Of them all it is true what Kierkegaard said of Chrysostom: ‘He gesticulated with his whole existence.’” (p. xviii)

“All the figures portrayed in this book prayed regularly, and their thinking was never far removed from the church’s worship. Whether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of the one God. ‘This is the Catholic faith,’ begins an ancient creed, ‘that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.’ Often their treatises ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter: ‘to whom be glory forever. Amen.’ They wished not only to understand and express the dazzling truth they had seen in Christ, by thinking and writing they sought to know God more intimately and love him more ardently. The intellectual task was a spiritual undertaking. In the oft-cited words of the desert monk Evagrius, ‘A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.’

The point may seem obvious, yet it is often forgotten. More often than not the church fathers have been interpreted as solitary intellectuals, each working out his own system, beholden chiefly to the world of ideas and arguments, as though they were clandestine members of an ancient philosophical guild. To be sure, many of the best minds in the early church were philosophically astute and moved comfortably within the intellectual traditions of the ancient world. They knew the argot of philosophy, and their books and ideas were taken seriously by Greek and Roman intellectuals. But if one picks up a treatise of Origen or Basil of Caesarea and compares it with the writings of the philosopher Alcinous or the neo-Platonist Plotinus, it is apparent at once that something else is at work.” (pp. 25-26)

“The intellectual tradition that began in the early church was enriched by the philosophical breadth and exactitude of medieval thought. Each period in Christian history makes it own unique contribution to Christian life. The church fathers, however, set in place a foundation that has proven to be irreplaceable. Their writings are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought or an interesting chapter in the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Like an inexhaustible spring, faithful and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with the life-giving water flowing from the biblical and spiritual sources of the faith. They are still our teachers today.” (p. 321)

Studying Church History

“The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism.”

-W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (1933), p. 57. As quoted on page 161 of F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock), 1958.