Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Thomas Clark Oden. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. San Francisco : Harper, 2003.


Thomas Clark Oden. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. San Francisco : Harper, 2003.


Thomas Clark Oden. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. San Francisco : Harper, 2003. Pp. xi + 212. Cloth. $39.99 Can. ISBN: 006009785X


Readers of this book might be advised to begin with Oden’s autobiographical statement, “A Personal Odyssey”( pp. 82-96), wherein he speaks candidly of his captivity to modernity, which captivity he unhesitatingly describes as “chauvinistic” in its arrogant, groundless assumption that the newer is invariably better than the older, the novel better than the tested, the speculative that titillates self-important knowledge elites better than the profound that has gained the consensus of the people of God. He then testifies to a conversion at the hands of God not in a spirit of self-advertisement but in confidence that the grace which brought him up out of the theological “miry pit” will use his testimony to do as much for those who still languish in it.

An American Methodist clergyman, Oden immersed himself in Bultmann’s anti-Incarnation and anti-Resurrection reading of the New Testament, then in Marxist economics, psychoanalysis, the human potential movement, feminism, abortion advocacy. All of this was gathered up in an unabashed politicization of the church’s mission; it issued in the shallowest spiritual faddism.

Oden’s turnaround began when Will Herberg, a Jewish colleague at Drew University whose recent acquaintance with classic Judaism found him returning repentant from the “far country” of communism, insisted that Oden would remain a dilettante until he studied his own tradition, particularly the “paleo” colossuses of the East and West alike: Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, as well as Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Oden’s recovery put him on a theological trajectory that he is still pursuing thirty years later.

Oden’s commitment to orthodoxy (the lower case letter is important, since the churches of the West as well as the East are included) is a repristination of “integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual period”. (p.29) By “consensual” he means “the teaching that has been duly confirmed by a process of general consent of the faithful over two millennia.” (p.29) Plainly he honours tradition. Tradition ought never to be pitted against scripture since it is the conduit of scriptural teaching, even as scripture remains the unnormed norm of tradition while tradition aspires to be the faithful recollection of scripture. Without referencing G.K. Chesterton, Oden resonates with Chesterton’s understanding of tradition as the church’s memory. And just as amnesiac people whose lack of memory means they have no identity and cannot be trusted, Chesterton argued, “amnesiac” churches that disavow tradition can only be treacherous.

Oden pretends nothing else, having been himself both perpetrator and victim. Still, just as he is persuaded of orthodoxy’s soundness so is he convinced of the resilience and militancy of the regenerating power of the ancient faith. Orthodoxy has proved itself such, for it has withstood persistent assault at the hands of mainline denominations that have married modernity and mobilized their vast resources in the service of the ideologies and “isms” now characterizing denominational programs, publications, and seminaries. Oden argues that the World Council of Churches, whose outlook is incarnated in the U.S.A. in the multi-denominational collaboration housed at 475 Riverside Drive , New York City , was manifestly unravelling in the 1960s as it veered toward neo-paganism, shamanism and animistic primitivism. By its meeting in 1998 in Harare , Zimbabwe , the WCC had thoroughly betrayed the vision of its founders at the 1948 inauguration in Amsterdam . The only sounds emerging now from this “old” ecumenism are its death rattle.

The “new” ecumenism, on the other hand, is deliberately grounded in ancient consensus, upholds the distillations of the ecumenical councils, recognizes the arrears of sin even in believers, and remains critical of failed modern ideas (e.g., of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche) that have proved lethal amidst world-occurrence.

Oden cautions readers against confusing “new” ecumenism, orthodoxy, with “neo-orthodoxy.” For the latter (he makes some exceptions for Karl Barth) never was really concerned with the Fathers, life in Christ, liturgy, prayer, discipline, spiritual formation, sacramental live and pastoral care. Sound theology and Spirit-invigorated people, always essential to each other, emerge from a worshipping community whose doxological confession is matched by its willingness to suffer for the One it extols.

In light of the emphasis on ancient wisdom written, readers are not surprised at Oden’s reiterated reminder that much modern biblical study amounts to speculation concerning oral traditions that preceded the written text of scripture, together with a magnification of the supposed difference between the oral and the written. The “new” ecumenism, orthodoxy returning, recognizes that Holy writ is the primary source, ground and norm of all Christian (and Jewish) teaching. Unlike their modern counterparts, ancient exegetes looked to the whole of written scripture to illumine each part.

Yet it must not be thought that Oden is naively nostalgic, denying all substance to current concerns. He endorses the legitimacy of the “fairness revolution” (the attempt at redressing social inequities that are sheer iniquities) even if he deplores an approach whose consequences tragically include deepened inequality. He contends, however, that orthodoxy is the ally of the “fairness revolution” in that it corrects the latter’s blind spots, supplies it with a perspective it cannot acquire itself, and lends it staying power. In the same way orthodoxy supports the current concern for diversity, inclusion, tolerance and empathy. What, after all, is more diverse than an ecumenical consensus that included ethno-racially diverse spokespersons from lower Egypt, North Africa , Asia Minor and France ? (Not to mention the fifteen ethnic identities listed in Acts 2.)

While orthodoxy is inherently irenic in its service of the Prince of Peace, it unashamedly upholds the boundary-definitions inherent in Christian teaching. For this reason the critical aspect of orthodoxy, always bent on being constructive, honours in its polemics the faithful who have the courage to say “No”, apart from which their “Yes” would mean nothing. Sophia worship, for instance, is an excrescence whose appearing rightly elicits the faithful’s “No.”

The last chapter in the book, “Recovering the Classic Ecumenical Method,” also the longest, is a masterly presentation of the work and wisdom of Vincent of Lerins (c.450 C.E.) Known for his aphorism, Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“What has been believed everywhere, always, by all people”,) Lerins has furnished a key that has repeatedly unlocked the fetters of the church’s cultural captivity. Oden is his most persuasive in his articulation and deployment of Lerins’s “What has been believed….” Skilfully, patiently, cogently Oden acquaints the present-day Christian (who is now beginning to feel almost sectarian) with the nuances that had to be deployed in the fifth century and will have to be deployed in any era. Expansively but not verbosely Oden articulates the force of ubique: the faith that the church confesses the world over; of semper: the faith confessed by the apostles first and confessed thereafter; ab omnibus: the faith confirmed by an ecumenical council or a broad consensus of ancient Christian writers, affirmed by the laity and expressed in the church’s liturgy. Then Oden illustrates his exposition by juxtaposing “What if…?” to each of Lerins’s expressions: What if — a part of the communion rejects the whole? — a “new gospel” is preferred to the apostolic faith? — ancient witnesses themselves might be wrong? — no conciliar precedent is defined? He concludes the chapter by illustrating all of this by means of critical irruptions in the church’s history: the Donatists, the Arians, Mary as “Theotokos,” Appolinaris, Tertullian, Origen. Oden’s pellucid presentation in this chapter is worth the price of the book.

No less valuable, however, is his consistent inclusion of Judaism within the orthodoxy he espouses. Without trace of that supersessionism which has bedevilled the church and therein excoriated the Jewish people, Oden’s exquisite attention to scripture finds him admitting the place of Israel as Israel in God’s economy concerning church and world. Judaism, having awakened too from its modernistic miasma, is recovering its identity in scripture and the rabbinic tradition forged coincidentally in the Patristic era. Never discounting the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, Oden is glad to say that through the Nazarene, Gentiles have been brought into the faith of God’s covenant with Israel, there being only one covenant (albeit renewed in Christ) as surely as there is only one God. In all of this Oden remains convinced that Jews, no less than the church, have something decisive at stake in the recovery of classic Christianity, even as Christians have as much at stake in the recovery of classic Yiddishkeit.

  Oden’s challenge is as unmistakeable as it is undeniable: “Can classic Christians and confessors of apostolic faith in the mainline churches cooperatively form a plausible accord that effectively resists the apostatizing temptations endemic within the unregenerate mainline?” (p.141) Since the evangelical churches are now seemingly indistinguishable from the mainline in their neglect of long-term memory and in their cultural accommodation, Oden’s question ought to haunt all Christians alike.


Victor Shepherd
Tyndale University College and Seminary