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Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdom

by Thomas C. Oden

Thomas C. Oden teaches at Drew University Theological School, Madison, New Jersey. This article appeared in The Christian Century December 13, l990, pp. 1164-1669. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions may be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Then and now have specific autobiographical meanings in what follows. "Then" means the period of my personal development before I became immersed in the meeting with and study of the ecumenical councils and leading ancient consensual exegetes. "Now" means what has happened since that meeting became a serious matter for me in the mid-"70s. "Consensual exegetes" are Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Nazianzen and Chrysostom in the East and Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great in the West.

If I rhetorically exaggerate differences between then and now, shaped as I am by present passions, my intent is to describe major reversals between then and now without allowing them to die the death of a thousand qualifications. I am not disavowing my former social idealism, but rather celebrating it as having been taken up into a more inclusive understanding of history and humanity.

The pivot occurred when my irascible, endearing Jewish mentor, the late Will Herberg, straightforwardly told me what Protestant friends must have been too polite to say, that I would remain I uneducated until I had read deeply in patristic and medieval writers. That was in the early '70s, when with long hair, bobbles, bangles and beads and a gleam of communitarian utopianism in my eyes, I finally found my way into the fourth century treatise by Nemesius, peri phuseos anthropon ("On the Nature of the Human"), where it at length dawned on me that ancient wisdom could be the basis for a deeper critique of modern narcissistic individualism than I had yet seen. If you had asked me then what my life would look like now, I would have guessed completely wrong. It now seems that life is more hedged by grace and providence than I once imagined.

I now revel, in the mazes and mysteries of perennial theopuzzles: Can God be known? Does God care? Why did God become human? Is Jesus the Christ? How could he be tempted yet without sin? If Father, Son and Spirit, how is God one? How does freedom cooperate with grace? How can the community of celebration both express the holiness of the body of Christ in the world and at the same time engage in the radical transformation of the world? How is it possible daily to refract the holiness of God within the history of sin? How shall I live my present life in relation to final judgment? Not a new question on the list, nor a dull one.

Then I fancied I was formulating totally unprecedented issues and ordering them in an original way. Later while reading John of Damascus on the oikonomia of God (in The Orthodox Faith) I began belatedly to learn that the reordering of theology I thought I was just inventing (the sequence now shaping Systematic Theology) had been well understood as a received tradition in the eighth century. All my supposedly new questions were much investigated amid the intergenerational wisdom of the communio sanctorum. It was while reading Chrysostom on voluntary poverty that I realized that Peter Berger's sociological theory of knowledge elites had long ago been intuited. It was while reading Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lecture on evidences for the resurrection that I became persuaded that Pannenberg had provided a more accurate account than Bultmann of the resurrection. It was while reading the fourth century figure Macrina and the women surrounding Jerome that I realized how pro foundly women had influenced monastic and ascetic disciplines. It was while reading in Augustine's City of God of the ironic providences of history that I realized how right was Solzhenitsyn on the spiritual promise of Russia. And so it went.

Then focused on interpersonal humanistic psychology, now personal reflection is occurring in the light of the theandric (God-man) One in whom our humanity is most completely realized. Then blown by every wind of doctrine and preoccupied with fads and the ethos of hypertoleration, now I suffer fools a little less gladly.

What has shifted in my scholarly investigation between then and now? Psychologically. the shift has been away from Freudian, Rogerian and Nietzschean values, especially individualistic selfactualization and narcissistic self-expression, and toward engendering durable habits of moral excellence and covenant community; methodologically away from modern culture-bound individuated experience and toward the shared public texts of Scripture and ecumenical tradition; politically away from trust in regulatory power and rationalistic planning to historical reasoning and a relatively greater critical trust in the responsible free interplay of interests in the marketplace of goods and ideas.

Now I experience, wider cross-cultural freedom of inquiry into and within the variables of Christian orthodoxy mediated through brilliant Christian voices of other times and places. Now I experience a liberation for orthodoxy in the endless flexibility of centered apostolic teaching to meld with different cultural environments while offering anew the eternal word of the theandric, messianic Servant in each new historical setting. Then I was seeking to live out my life mostly in accountability to contemporary academic peers; now awareness of final judgment makes me only proximately and semiseriously accountable to peers.

My trajectory changed because of a simple hermeneutical reversal: Before the mid '70s I had been steadily asking questions on the hidden premise of four key value assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic self-actualization, autonomous individualism, reductive naturalism and moral relativism. Now my questions about decaying modernity are being shaped by ancient, consensual, classic Christian exegesis of holy writ. The history of Christianity is a history of exegesis whose best interpretations are offered by those most simply seeking to state the mind of the believing community. Then I was using the biblical text instrumentally, sporadically and eisegetically to support my modern ideological commitments. Now the Bible is asking my questions more deeply that I ever could before. Then mildly contemptuous of patristic exegesis, now I thrive on patristic and matristic texts and wisdom. Now I am at every level seeking guidance in the written word as ecumenically received and consensually exegeted. Now when I teach my brightest graduate students, I have nothing better to offer than the written word as viewed through the unfolding meeting of brilliant and consenting minds in time with that written word (Athanasius, Ambrose and company). Now I preach less about my own sentiments and opinions and more from testimony canonically received and grasped by the believing community of all times and places, trusting that seed will bear fruit in its own time and that word will address these hearers without too much static from me

While reading Vincent of Lerins's fifth-century aids to remembering (Commonitory) I gained the essential hermeneutical foothold in defining ecumenical teaching under the threefold test of catholicity as "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). From then on it was a straightforward matter of searching modestly to identify those teachings.

I have learned nothing more valuable than confessing my own sin honestly and receiving God's mercy daily. Meanwhile I curb pretenses of originality and listen intently to those who attest a tradition of general lay consent.

I do not mean by "then" that I was unconverted or lacking faith in God; rather, I was lacking attentiveness to apostolic testimony and the sanctification of time through grace. I do not mean that now I have ceased being a modern man or become bored with secularization. The world has become ever more alive to me because of the seed of the Word being planted in this fallow soil of the decaying wastes of modernity.

Then I was always on the edge of theological boredom; now no trivial pursuits. Among theological issues most deeply engaging me in the past year are sin in believers, the virginal conception of the Lord, providence in history, prevenient grace, the holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the one church, radical judgment at the end of history and the rejection of sin by atoning grace.

Then I distrusted anything that faintly smelled of orthodoxy. Now I relish studying the rainbow of orthodox testimonies and happily embrace the term paleo-orthodoxy if for no other reason than to signal clearly that I do not mean modern neo-orthodoxy. Now I am experiencing a refreshing sense of classic theological liberation. Paleoorthodoxy understands itself to be postlib, postmodern, postfundy, postneoanything, since the further one "progresses" from ancient apostolic testimony the more hopeless the human condition becomes.

As a Protestant I grow daily more catholic without experiencing any diminution of myself as evangelical. When my path becomes strewn with thorny epithets like fundy or cryptopapist or byzantine or (my favorite) "Protestantism's most Catholic theologian," I feel like I just got a badge of honor. I do not mind being charged by conservative Protestants with drawing too near Rome, for that only opens up an urgent and significant dialogue. I sometimes find myself in the comic position of publicly debating liberal Catholics and suddenly realizing that they are consorting with the old liberal Protestant strumpets of my seedy past, while I am setting forth their own traditional arguments from their magisterium. I grow daily in appreciation of what traditionally grounded Catholics can do for Protestant evangelicals and charismatics, who need their solidity and teaching tradition in order to have something to bounce off of and even at times fight. Now I find few questions in modern society that are not dealt with more thoughtfully in Osservatore Romano than in National Catholic Reporter or Christianity and Crisis. 'Then I was a regular reader of journals forever commending accommodation to modernity; now I am drawn to the tough-love countercultural criticism of Communio, First Things, New Oxford Review and Thirty Days.. Among those I most admire are John Paul 11, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Solzhenitsyn and the mother of Gorbachev.

My shift from then to now is from a fixation on modernity to the steady flow of postmodern paleo-orthodox consciousness. Postmodern does not mean ultramodern. What some call postmodern is an already-dated expression of the last gasps of modernity, an ultramodern phase in its dying throes. We are already living in a postmodern era, but it is not the postmodernity being described by those who fly that flag (the unhappy campers following Derrida, Foucault and the deconstructionist "Posties"). The after-deconstructionist good news is that the disillusionments of the illusions of modernity are already being corrected by classical Christian teaching. They are also being corrected by conservative and orthodox Jewish consciousness. the best traditions of Islam and ancient Hindu and Buddhist teaching. The return to classic forms of religious consciousness is the hope of the deteriorating modern situation, the source of its most profound critique and the practical basis for living through and transcending its identity diffusion, discontent, moral relativism and frenetic quest for relevance. The reason I am now trying to write almost nothing that is currently relevant is that tomorrow it will be less relevant. I am seeking to understand what is perennially true, not what is ephemerally relevant

No current moral issue is more deep-going than the acid destructiveness of modernity. No political project is more urgent for society than the recovery of classic Christian consciousness through the direct address of texts of Scripture and tradition. There is nothing better I can do for the moral dilemmas of our time than offer undiluted the ancient wisdom of the community of celebration. From that singleminded decision, everything else has followed. I am only reporting what has very gradually, silently and unspectacularly happened: a slow metamorphosis that still looks slightly ugly to old friends who want me to be more like my old radical activist self.

You may wonder how this reversal has redefined my moral and political commitments. This quiet theological work is more effective politically because less entangled with partisan biases and immediate interests. Then I was devoutly and sentimentally attached to a particular wing of a political party. Now with broken wing I walk more freely through the wide open fields of political options I could not have imagined myself considering a few years ago. Now chastened and somewhat more aware of the transpolitical nature of ordination, I am learning belatedly (out of the countercultural tradition from Polycarp to Menno Simons) some measure of political repentance, mostly in the form of silence, after sinning much politically. That itself is a vast political decision, to turn from partisanship toward political engagement along different lines: teaching the written word. Now I experience greater freedom to attest the received text and let the chips fall. Offering word and sacrament to penitents with conflicting and ambivalent political understandings is quite different now than when I pretended I had some superior political gnosis.

Some may counter that I am just growing quite a bit older, which I am grateful not to have to deny. I am waist-deep in middle age, with three grown kids, all delightful friends very different from Edrita and me -- having negotiated the hazards of post modern history without crippling effects. For those who might have wondered about my physical, condition, I did have open-heart surgery in July of 1989 followed by a myocardial infarction and a second surgery all on the same day -- they cleaned out the old pipes and replaced a few -- but within a month of that ordeal I was walking ten miles a day, and now, in the best physical shape I have been in for years, I am running 12 miles a week, so no one need be overly concerned. Through this brush with death my awareness of how God's strength is made perfect through human weakness has deepened. To my significant other, the courageous woman who has accompanied me for 38 years of this journey, I am incalculably grateful; without her I cannot imagine where I might be -- probably not here, maybe not anywhere.

I want to be permitted to study the unchanging God without something else to do, some pragmatic reason or result. This is what I most want to do theologically: simply enjoy the study of God, not write about it, view it in relation to its political residue or pretentiously imagine that it will have some social effect. The joy of inquiry into God is a sufficient end in itself.

Some dear old friends know how to ask me only, one question: Why are you merely studying God? Why aren't you out there with "our side" on the streets making "significant changes"? -- which usually means the imagined revolutions of introverted knowledge elites. Plain theology is wonderful enough in its very acts of thinking; reading praying, communing and uniting with the body--not for its effects, its written artifacts or its social consequences, though it has these. Spirit-blessed theology is not merely a means to an end of social change, though I can think of no action that has more enduring political significance. The study of God is to be enjoyed for its own unique subject: the One most beautiful of all, most worthy to be praised.

I relish those half days when nothing else is scheduled, when I have no worldly responsibilities but to engage in this quiet dialogue which I understand as my vocation. It is not something I must do or have to do or am required to do, but am free to do. Summer is juicy, and a sabbatical leave is a foretaste of the celestial city. Why? Because I can do what I am cut out to do. Not write, but think. The writing is only a means to clarify my thinking.

When there is nothing on my calendar and I can do what I want, I readpray, studypray, work (so it seems) pray, thinkpray, just because there is nothing else better to do and nothing I want more to do. Then occasionally my old, pragmatic activist friends say to me, But why are you not out there on the street working to change the world? I answer, I am out there on the street in the most serious way by being here with my books, and if you see no connection there, then you have not understood my vocation. I do not love the suffering poor less by offering them what they need more.

We have lived through a desperate game: the attempt to find some modern ideology, psychology or sociology that could conveniently substitute for apostolic testimony. That game is all over. We have no choice but to think about modernity amid the collapse of modernity. We must reassess the role of historical science amid the collapse of historical science. I do not despair over modernity. I do celebrate the providence of God that works. amid premodern, modern and postmodern personal histories. Most people I know are already living in a postmodern situation, though they may still worship the gods of modernity that are everyday being found to have clay feet.

The years of study that led to the four volumes of the Classical Pastoral Care series and the study of Gregory the Great (Pastoral Care in the Classic Tradition) helped free me to listen to supposedly "precritical" writers with postcritical attentiveness. Now disappointed with the meager consequences of contemporary. so-called "critical" scholarship -- especially the biblical variety, with its ideological stridencies -- I am, more. aware of the resources for exegesis, pastoral care and spiritual formation that dwell quietly in the literature of the first five centuries of the church, the mature period of the widely received exegetes, the ecumenical teachers.

While some imagine postmodern paleo-orthodox Christianity to be precritical, I view. it as postcritical. It is far too late to be precritical if one has already spent most of one's life chasing the fecund rabbits of a supposed criticism based on the premises of modern chauvinism (that newer is always better; older, worse). One. cannot. be precritical after assimilating two centuries of modern naturalistic and.idealistic criticism. If merely to use sources that emerged before a modern period some call "the ageof. criticism". is to be precritical, then in that sense I delight in being so. But note how damning that. premise is to the integrity of modern criticism; it supposes. that one is able to use only sources of one's own historical period. The controversy about modernity centers precisely on whether critical thinking belongs only to our own period. I believe it does not, while much, that is called criticism continues to assume that it does. After Modernity. . . What?, a ten-year retrospect on Agenda for Theology, gave me a recent opportunity to state this critique of criticism more circumspectly.

Once hesitant to trust anyone over 30, now I hesitate to trust anyone under 300. I have found the late 17th century to be a reliable dividing line after which texts tend more to be corrupted by modernity. Once I thought it my solemn duty to read the New York Times almost every day; now, seldom. Why? It hinges on a "need to know" principle: I seem less to need to know all the news that is not quite fit to print than to know what Chrysostom taught about Galatians 2 or Basil on the Holy Spirit. The social and political events that are affecting my thinking are epic movements of despairing modernity, not discrete day-by-day scandal-sheet items like most of the supposed great media events of the past decade. Reading Amos ten times seems rather more important than the Sunday, Times once. Take away all network TV and daily newspapers and give me cable stations C-Span, CNN and A&E, public radio and television, a remote channel selector, some shortwave radio, some heaped-up helpings of classical music, a decent evangelical radio station and a few weekly journals, and I have enough media blitz any given week.

I. have watched my own oldline church tradition decline during the era of the modern ecumenical movement in which I invested heavily. I have watched well-intended ecumenicity become twisted in the interest of 475 ideological assertions and public policy postures. My ecumenical commitment today is far more to ancient than to modern ecumenical teaching. The modern ecumenical movement has more than soured or failed; it has brought disaster and spiritual poverty in its wake. It is now time for the ancient ecumenical teaching to be recovered and show the way to a new formation of the one body of Christ embracing faithful Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox and charismatics. The day is gone when paternalistic oldline Protestant ecumenical advocates could easily claim the moral high ground.

After decades of well-meaning ecumania, I am unapologetically rediscovering my own theological tradition, especially its Eastern patristic and catholic taproots and Anglican-Puritan antecedents. The intriguing study that led me to edit Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings for the Paulist Fathers' Sources of American Spirituality series has awakened in me a burning interest in the history of revivalism, British and American, particularly in its post-Phoebe Palmer holiness stages prior to Pentecostalism, a socially transforming evangelicalism quite different from that shaped by the inerrantist Princeton tradition.

I find it ironic that this CENTURY series focuses on change while I steadily plod toward stability. The only thing that has changed from the old me is my steady growth toward orthodoxy and consensual, ancient classic Christianity, with its proximate continuity, catholicity and apostolicity. This implies my growing resistance to faddism, novelty, heresy, anarchism, antinomianism, pretensions of discontinuity, revolutionary talk and nonhistorical idealism.

When the Lord tore the kingdom of Israel from Saul, Samuel declared: "He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he would change his mind" (I Sam. 15:29). God's constant, attentive, holy love is eternally unchanging. Awakening gradually to the bright immutability of God's responsive covenant love is precisely what has changed for me. Yahweh must have laughed in addressing the heirs of the old rascal Jacob with this ironic word: "I the Lord do not change. So you, 0 descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed" (Mal. 3:6). Still it is so: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1: 17). But how difficult it would be to edit a series on "How My Mind Has Remained the Same."


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