The Theological Method of Thomas Oden


[**In no way is this a full acount of Oden’s theological methodology. Moreover, please forgive the lack of footnotes…I have not figured out how to import those into a blog post.]

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel states that “our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.” Indeed, the setting for 21st century Christian living is different in ways unimaginable to those in the early church. However, Thomas C. Oden, theologian and long-time professor at Drew University, has spent the last few decades of his career promoting the idea (in different language) that one knows how to live (worship, think, and theologize) precisely by looking to the early church. Once a theological nomad of the landscape of contemporary theology, Oden has anchored himself into the rich traditions of the church and is on a mission to educate Evangelicals, and Christians more generally, in the ways of the consensus ecclesia catholicae. In particular, Oden has developed a particular method (or received, he might say!), called Paleo-Orthodoxy, which when combined with his Wesleyan posture and his commitment to Scripture creates a theological tour de force. In following, an attempt will be made to elucidate and evaluate his theological method. Specifically, attention will be directed towards how Oden’s biographical Sitz im Leben influenced his theological method(s) and their attendant epistemological assumptions.

From A Movement Theologian to an Ancient Theologian

To fully cover Oden’s influences one would need much more space than a few pages. This is because in the early part of his career, Oden was a “movement theologian,” one that moved with the cultural waves of faddism into whichever ideology that seemed situated to be the most potent force of “revolution.” Thus, for Oden, theology, the church, and religion all possessed merely instrumental value as conduits for the prevailing scholarly opinions. Oden was a “pretty serious Marxist, a militant pacifist, a psychotherapeutic camp-follower, a sober existentialist and a zealous defender of women’s liberation,” among many other things! He was convinced, however, that he was engaging in legitimate theological work. He says no less when he states that “the shocker is not merely that I rode so many bandwagons, but that I thought I was doing Christian teaching a marvelous favor by it and at times considered this accommodation the very substance of the Christian teaching office.”
Thus, one of Oden’s early theological principles was accomodationalism. In his studies of modern psychology he learned to trust his experiences heavily. In seminary he learned to treat scripture selectively by filtering it through his political idealism and he developed a habit of trying “to reason out of modern naturalistic premises, employing biblical narratives narrowly and selectively.” Moreover, Oden attempted “to read the New Testament entirely without the premises of incarnation and resurrection—something that is very hard to do!” Perhaps the most pervasive element of Oden’s early practice of theology was that his posture was unavowedly “Bultmannian.” Trained in the ways of modernity through studying at Yale and interacting heavily with Hans Frei and H. Richard Niebuhr, and through pursuing doctoral work on the ethics of Rudolf Bultmann, Oden was driven by what he calls the “four key value assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic self-actualization, autonomous individualism, reductive naturalism and moral relativism.” Consequently, for Oden the task of exegesis consisted of the modernistic potter molding the clay of scripture.
In the mid-1970’s, however, Thomas Oden was changed radically. First, Oden began to indulge in reading classical texts from the patristic period of the church. His friend and fellow scholar at Drew University, Will Herberg, told him, in essence, that he would remain uneducated until he read the classic texts of his tradition. This served to catapult Oden into the ancient creeds, texts and classical writings of the church. Second, through reading Vincent of Lerins he became Vincentian in his theological orientation instead of Bultmannian. Put simply, he became concerned with consensus rather than originality in theology. In reading the ancient texts he began to “move away from culture-bound experience and toward the publicly shared texts of scripture and ecumenical tradition.” Finally, Oden gradually moved on the theological spectrum from a more liberal, revisionistic position to a conservative, Orthodox and, one might even say, Evangelical position. He states that “the very thinkers I once excoriated as ‘conservative’ (the Burkes, the Newmans, the Thomists) I now find annually increasing in plausibility, depth, and wisdom. These experiences have all colluded together and landed Oden in a theological situation he refers to as “Paleo-Orthodoxy” (PO hereafter).
Oden’s Theological Method
What then, is PO and how does it relate to Oden’s theological method? Put simply, PO is his theological method. How are we to understand PO? What are its defining diagnostic structures?
As the name suggests (Orthodox=right belief and paleo=ancient/primitive), PO suggests an Orthodox set of beliefs rooted in the ancient sources. Oden believes that in a culture where newer is often equated with better, we direly need to return to the ancient sources for theologizing. Moreover, he also holds that the ancient sources hold more authority for theology than modern sources and thus seeks to promote a consensus patrum (consensus of the fathers). This must be understood from his background. Oden was a Bultmannian theologian and was committed to mainline theological liberalism. Once he embarked on his reading of the Fathers he learned quickly that the problems he encountered were not new. Moreover, the novel proposals of contemporary philosophers, sociologists and theologians were also present in the patristic era. Therefore the assumption embedded in modernism, that we are intellectually superior and innovative, was defrauded as he realized that the patristic theologians had ably and articulately countered many “novel” ideas that were apparently original to contemporary scholars. Thus, Oden plots the following course for theology:
“The agenda for theology at the end of the twentieth century, following the steady deterioration of a hundred years and the disaster of the last few decades, is to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christian exegesis.”

How does Oden actually do theology? One obvious, and easily overlooked, point is that Thomas Oden is systematic in his theological approach. He presupposes that the disciplines used in theology, especially philosophy and theology, can interface on some level. He states that “these two spheres are not locked in endless antagonism” and that “both think either toward or from the truth.”
For Dr. Oden, what are the sources of theology and what authority do they possess? Oden states that
The study of God in the Christian community proceeds out of (1) authoritative sources, such as Scripture, ecumenical councils, and consensus-bearing early ecumenical theologians, as distinguished from (2) unauthoritative or supplementary sources, which include nonconsensual theologians, scientific and moral inquiries, historical-critical studies, individual experience, speculation, meditation, philosophy, and psychology.

However, at least one question immediately develops upon reading Oden’s assertion. Does Scripture hold more authority than any of the other sources in the first category? Oden sees the ultimate grounding of authority for theology, not in Scripture, but in revelation, which is primarily in the “the word revealed,” Jesus Christ. This is to be commended in that he does not nail down authority to a book or set of propositions but rather to a person, God himself! As a student of Albert Outler and a good Wesleyan, Oden does identify the elements of the quadrilateral, (scripture, tradition, experience and reason) as the legitimate sources of authority for theology. However, they all rest on the “central premise that God has made himself known,” particularly through these instruments with his self-revelation.
However, in what sense is Scripture authoritatively different from tradition, reason and experience? Oden does in fact give a high value to Scripture explicitly in his method, as well as in his practice. In speaking about his Systematic Theology he states that “Scripture itself provides the structural basis for the organization of…this study.” Moreover, in distinguishing between natural theology (which he views as a legitimate possibility as the “human search for God”) and revealed theology (which is “God’s search for humanity”), he affirms that our primary aim is to reason out of Scripture’s revelation. Also, he asserts that “Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions have all agreed on the central premise that Scripture is the primary source and guideline for Christian teaching” and that it “is the only written access that tradition has to the Christ event.” Finally, even tradition, which Oden obviously regards highly, is “simply the history of the exegesis of Scripture.” So although revelation in the Word incarnate precedes the word written, Scripture within the quadrilateral carries the most weight and highest authority.
Two other sources drawn from tradition, the ecumenical councils and consensual theologians, are authoritative; but which councils and theologians and why? For Oden, classic writers are preferred over modern writers because “classic writers have one distinct advantage over modern sources: they have been thoroughly tested, questioned, interpreted, probed, analyzed, reinterpreted, preached, taught, and utilized in different historical situations.” The early writers he appeals to as authoritative include the following: “the four standard ecumenical teachers of the Eastern church tradition (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom) and of the West (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great).” Oden also would include later theologians that are faithful to the ecumenical teaching such as Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Chemnitz, Ursinus, Wesley, Edwards and the consensus-bearing Protestant formularies. With respect to the councils, Oden identifies seven early councils as authoritative which all held the consent of the entire church. Thus, only Scripture and tradition together can verify a teaching as legitimately Christian. Indeed, Oden outlines three conditions for an article of faith to meet: “it must be based upon revelation, stated in scripture, and ecclesiastically defined with ecumenical consent. Teachings that lack any of these conditions are matters of opinion left open for continued debate and speculation.”
What about experience and reason? Oden gives a meaningful place to human experience insofar that it is consonant with Scripture and tradition. The Christian faith has to be true experientially for the subject, otherwise the mind will not embrace what the heart has not validated. However, as Oden cautions, “this does not imply…that personal experience may unilaterally judge and dismiss Scripture and tradition. Scripture and tradition are received, understood, and validated through personal experience, but not judged or arbitrated or censored by it.” Reason, likewise, is a legitimate tool for the discipline of theology. Oden affirms that “the study of God is a cohesive, rational task of thinking out of revelation, yet in thinking it does not cease being active faith.”
How then do the four legs of the methodological stool actually support weight when pressed? Oden highlights their relationship as follows:
The four sources—Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason—must be always held in creative tension. All are responsive to the revealed word. When the word becomes written, we appropriate it amid changing cultural experiences, reflect upon it by reason, and personally rediscover it in our own experience. The study of God best proceeds with the fitting equilibrium of these four sources, one primary and three secondary.

Epistemological Assumptions
What epistemology best interlocks with the method of Oden’s PO? In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Oden, while granting that deduction has valid applications, critiques it for its overly-Cartesian preference for rational capacities and its dispensing of sense experience. His main issue is that, contra Cartesian rationalism, sense experience has always held a valuable place in the Christian tradition. He cites Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God as having their source primarily in sense-based observation and not pure, detached abstraction.
Oden also views the inductive mode of knowing (otherwise known as the experimental method), as lacking in its comprehensiveness for knowledge in particular areas that are crucial for everyday knowing and living. Such impenetrable questions for induction might concern the meaning of sin, atonement, literary analysis, love, etc. How would one set up an experiment to learn more about these? Thus Oden also sees the experimental model lacking in its ability to know.
Oden therefore identifies epistemology as a major obstacle to the human condition. He affirms that both induction and deduction, as the history of philosophy demonstrates, can be problematic–both can be overextended—and neither adequately resolves the tension of human knowing. This leads us to a third possible option: radical skepticism. Oden, along with Thomas Aquinas, rightly rejects skepticism as a legitimate epistemology because it is self-defeating.
As a result, he posits an alternative epistemology that he thinks provides a holistic approach. For a successful journey in Christian theology Oden suggests that the most helpful (and ancient) epistemology is what he refers to as historical reasoning. This reasoning, different from Hegel’s view of historical reasoning, “is derived from Hebraic historical consciousness. It is the unique type of reasoning—reasoning derived from history, especially the history of God’s mighty deeds.” He finds classical antecedents of this form of reasoning in Eusebius and Augustine. As one might guess, therefore, the most significant epistemological event for all of human history is “what happened in Jesus Christ—his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the one mighty deed of God that bestows significance upon all human deeds.” This event is significant precisely because, contrary to Judaic apocalypticists who thought human history is only knowable at its end, it in history “reveals the meaning of the end before the end.” Although Oden doesn’t use these terms, this author suggests that the ontological reality of Christ in history created an epistemological framework by which all of reality can be processed. One might call it realized eschatology, or the age-to-come overlapping with the present age. Regardless, this epistemological situation creates a new mode of “knowing from the heart that hopes to make the knower ‘wise unto salvation…which is distinguishable from objective, testable, scientific knowledge, although not necessarily inimical to it.” Put simply, Oden’s operative epistemology might be characterized as a historical-christological epistemology.
If the best epistemology for theology is historical-Christological reasoning, then this also implies that the role and function of the community is crucial for theology. Indeed, Oden is not unaware of this! He states the following:
The study of God is not well grasped as an individualistic inquiry apart from community that seeks to embody and celebrate it. In studying any discipline, one must enter into its language, artifacts, instruments, data bases, symbols, graphs, and diagrams—whatever the particular discipline requires—and live with those resources for a while, taking them seriously. Likewise, a participative element is required in Christian theology.

Perhaps the most critical reason that theology should be in dialogue with the community is due to the primacy of pastoral concerns. Indeed, Oden himself in the introduction to all three volumes of his Systematic Theology sets forth the premise that his work is primarily geared toward invigorating the pastor and building up the layperson. In his After Modernity…What, Oden draws out some excellent observations:

“Some of the most important periods of the history of theology have not been dominated by the academic theologians holding university positions…If we focus on the early centuries of the church’s existence, we find it difficult to think of a single major theological voice that was not in the pastoral office, serving daily as episkopos or presbuteros in a teaching ministry accountable to an actual pastoral setting. ”

Indeed, Oden goes onto say that “during the first millennium, it would have been unthinkable for anyone to regard himself as a Christian theologian unless serving daily in the pastoral teaching office.” In an age where the academy and pastoral office are widely separated we have much to learn from the early church! One way that Oden lives into this commitment is not only through gearing his works for pastoral concerns, but also through seriously “listening” to the community which has come before him. One ought to never neglect how the Holy Spirit has worked in the tradition of the church.

Thomas Oden is obviously a man that has been on quite a theological journey in his lifetime. From being a theological nomad and innovator to a theological preserver and son of the patristic era, Oden has landed safely in a position that Evangelicalism would do well to consider. Oden presents a balanced account for the four main sources of theology, Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, while maintaining a priority of Scripture and affirming that all these sources are authoritative insofar as they are shot through with the revelation of God. Moreover, he steers a helpful course through the epistemological modes of deduction, induction, and skepticism to arrive at a most helpful mode of knowledge, his historical-Christological epistemology.
Amidst battles such as those concerning God’s knowledge, the emerging church movement, and the omnipresent desire among many (though not all) Evangelicals to reinvent the wheel, Oden offers up a method (PO), which has the force of history behind it and is attested over centuries of theological exploration. Despite a growing consensus concerning the need for a historically rooted faith, Oden rightfully warns the Christian community of today that one can only influence society and know who they truly are when they know where they have been. He states:
“If we should ever in moments of demoralization fantasize that the finest contribution Christianity could make to modernity would be to abandon its great tradition—against which a frustrated modernity has always had to struggle—then we should fear most not for the fate of Christianity (whose continuity is already assured by God’s own promise) but for modernity without Christianity’s compassionate realism. Even the secularization process has received its moral vitality from its constant companion, orthodox Christianity.”

Indeed, this quote must also be applied now to the postmodern situation as well!


Ball, Donald J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989.

Oden, Thomas C. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.

¬¬________. “Can There Be A Center Without A Circumference? A Response to Lewis Mudge.” Christian Century 112, no.12 (1995): 396-403.

________. “Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdom.” Christian Century 107, no. 36 (1990): 1164-1168.

________. After Modernity…What. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.

________. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1987-92.

________. Agenda for Theology. Harper & Row, 1979.

________. Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1988.

________. “Without Excuse: Classic Christian Exegesis of General Revelation.” ETS 41, no. 1 (1998): 55-68.

Shepherd, V. “Thomas Oden.” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. Timothy Larsen, 484-487. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

Tanner, Kenneth and Christopher A. Hall. Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.


11 Responses to The Theological Method of Thomas Oden

  1. I may be unconsciously following Oden’s method in that my faith has been deeply enriched by learning about biblical and church history, and seeking continuity in my faith with those in the past. It has also helped me examine whether what I believe and experience are off the mark or shared by others of faith, so I’m not going off on extremes or being swept up in whatever the latest fad interpretation happens to be.

    Because I have found biblical and church history helpful to my faith, I was drawn to the ‘Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture’ series, for which Oden is the general editor. The volumes I’ve read so far have provided me with a lot material to think about. Incredibly helpful!

  2. Clinton says:

    Hey Cherly,

    Thanks for visiting the site! The Ancient Christian Commentary Series have been incredibly helpful to me as well as I seek to be grounded in my reading of scripture. If you like Oden you should also check out D.H. Williams and Robert Webber.


  3. Daniel says:

    Wow, great post!!

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve not really ever interacted with Oden, but it is helpful to know where he’s coming from.

  5. Clinton says:

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is a privilege to have the next N.T. Wright comment on this blog! How is researching for the good ol’ bishop going?


  6. If you want to see a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this article for four from five. Detailed info, but I just have to go to that damn yahoo to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!

  7. Alan E. Filippi says:

    I’ve come to this perspective years ago (a continually developing process) via liturgy, church history, and
    spiritiualtiy. It interests me and amazes me how the Holy Spirit takes us through meandering ways to come to this point where we can appreciate classical Christanity.

  8. Francis T. says:

    Thanks. Historical Christological epistemology helps me get more of a handle on PO. Sounds like Pannenberg meets Barth with a little higher view of Scripture thrown in.

  9. PB says:

    Oden seems worth looking into more. I had not heard of him until recently, but his perspective intrigues me and worth looking into. Where would you to recommend someone to start with him? His systematic theology series?

  10. Great overview of Oden’s thought. I discovered him while studying for my master’s in Theology at a Baptist seminary, and because of his emphasis on the classical Christian consensus, now call myself an Anglo-Lutheran Evangelical Catholic, accepting the 7 ecumenical councils and the fathers received everywhere. I owe a great debt to him and haven’t even met the man!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: