Faith and Freedom

by Schubert M. Ogden

Dr. Ogden is professor of theology and director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His most recent book is Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Abingdon, 1979.)

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 17, 1980, pp. 1241-1244. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A significant shift in Odgen’s recent thinking has been from being preoccupied for the most part with theoretical questions of belief and truth to giving greater attention to the practical issues of action and justice that likewise have their basis in the underlying concern for freedom.

The limits of self-analysis are obvious, and I shall not dwell on them. But as I look back over the past ten years of my life, I am impressed less by how my mind has changed than by how it has remained the same. True, I have already entered my sixth decade, and having thus become older, I should like to believe that I may also have become wiser. But if I have, it is by continuing to live and think along familiar lines, not by gradually or suddenly departing along strange ones. The proof of this, it seems to me, is that I have little trouble now in identifying with a statement I wrote for this journal in 1965, for an earlier series titled "How I Am Making Up My Mind." I find that most of what had, even then, proved constant in my thinking remains so, and that the working hypothesis I there committed myself to test continues to guide my reflections.

Issues of Action and Justice

Even so, my mind has changed in certain respects, as I have tried to indicate by the title I have given to this article. Like the title of the earlier piece, "Faith and Truth," it reflects my continuing conviction that there are and must be two poles to theological reflection insofar as the claims of Christian faith finally appeal for their credibility to our common experience as human beings. But whereas the word "truth" in the earlier title focused attention on the more theoretical aspect of such credibility, "freedom" in the present title is intended to point to the underlying human concern in which the concern for truth itself has its basis. In this way, I should like to signal what I myself sense to be a significant shift in my recent thinking: from being preoccupied for the most part with theoretical questions of belief and truth to giving greater attention to the practical issues of action and justice that likewise have their basis in the underlying concern for freedom.

This shift is occasioned largely by the challenge of the various theologies of liberation, whose influence I have increasingly felt since the early ‘70s as I have become convinced that it is by these theologies, as much as by any, that the cause of Christian theology is today being advanced. In this connection, I have been particularly struck by Gustavo Gutiérrez’s observation that, whereas much contemporary theology seeks to respond to the challenge of the "nonbeliever" who questions our "religious world" as Christians, in a continent like Latin America the primary challenge comes to us rather from the "nonperson" who questions us about our "economic, social, political and cultural world."

The more I have reflected on this observation, the more I have come to believe that the category of "nonperson" is indefinitely more appropriate than that of "nonbeliever" for identifying the one whose questions an adequate theology must seek to answer. If by "nonperson" is meant one who, being excluded from the existing order in one or more respects, is to that extent unfree, a passive object of history instead of its active subject, then even the nonbeliever is a nonperson with respect to the existing religious order. On the other hand, since the nonbeliever is by no means the only person excluded from the social and political order in which the traditional witness of faith is implicated, to think of theology as having to give answer to the questions of the nonperson is more likely to take account of all those to whom theology owes a serious response.

The Faith That Works by Love

Beyond this, Gutiérrez’s observation, along with converging insights of other liberation theologians, has led me to realize that the ideology involved in the traditional formulations of faith’s claims is as much a problem as the mythology they involve in establishing their credibility to contemporary men and women. Positively or negatively, intentionally or unintentionally, the traditional witness of faith has served again and again to justify the interests of one group of human beings against those of others -- whether class, nation, race or gender.

Because this is so, I have come to see an important, if rather obvious, parallel to Rudolf Bultmann’s solution to the contemporary theological problem, which has long been decisive for my thinking. Just as in Bultmann’s analysis the questions of belief and truth that theology now faces can be adequately answered only by way of radical demythologizing and existentialist interpretation, so it is now clear to me that what is required if theology is to deal satisfactorily with the issues of action and justice (which for many persons are even more urgent) is a theological method comprising thoroughgoing de-ideologizing and political interpretation.

Nor is this the end of the parallel. For if Bultmann’s final defense of an existentialist theology is not that it is apologetically imperative, but that it is, with respect to belief, the contemporary expression of the Pauline doctrine that we are justified by faith alone without the works of the law, it seems to me that the final and comparably sufficient defense of a liberation theology is that it is, with respect to action, the contemporary expression of the equally Pauline doctrine that the only faith that justifies is the faith that works by love.

There is no question, then, that my mind has changed as I have tried to come to terms with the theologies for which I am prepared to offer such a defense -- whether black theologies or women’s theologies or the theologies emerging from Latin America and other sectors of the Third World. Although my response to their challenge has hardly been uncritical, I remain profoundly grateful to them for the help they have given me and any number of my students in more adequately understanding our own theological responsibility. On this score, suffice it to add only that if a resurgent fundamentalism confirms that the truth of the Christian witness continues to be a problem for theology as well as the church, the support currently being shown by Christians for the reactionary politics of the New Right makes only too clear that the same is true of the justice of their witness as well.

The Question of the Christian Norm

Important as it is, however, this change has been along lines familiar to me from my background in liberal theology, including the tradition of the social gospel, and thus is a matter of deepening and broadening my thinking more than of substantially revising it. But if this is true even of this first change, it is truer still of the only other development in my recent thinking that I take to be of comparable importance.

Up to this point, I have spoken of theology’s concern with the credibility of the Christian witness, which concern arises from the fact that Christian faith itself claims to be credible in terms of common human experience. In this connection, I have acknowledged my new sense that there is a practical as well as a theoretical aspect to such credibility, and that theology must concern itself with the justice of the Christian witness as well as the truth of that witness if it is to vindicate the Christian claim.

But as crucial as this concern with credibility seems for any fully adequate theology, I am as little inclined now as I have been all along to suppose that it could ever be theology’s only concern. Equally essential is that theology concern itself with the appropriateness of the Christian witness, by which I mean the congruence of what is meant in this witness, however it may be said, with what is properly taken to be the Christian norm. But this raises the question of just what is properly taken to be the Christian norm, and as I have continued to think about this question, it has become increasingly clear to me why I can no longer answer it as I did a decade ago.

Actually, the turning point came in spring 1974, during a seminar on the authority of Scripture for theology. Like many other Protestant theologians of my generation, I had been led early in my studies to accept the understanding of Scripture typical of neo-orthodoxy. In this understanding, one distinguishes between the Bible itself and the so-called biblical message contained within it, which is taken to be the real source of the Bible’s authority. Thus my answer to the question of the Christian norm, by which the appropriateness of the Christian witness is to be judged, had come to be Scripture, especially the New Testament, understood in terms of its own essential Witness. As a result of my reading and reflection during that seminar, however, I reached the conclusion that this answer is untenable. The reasoning that seemed -- and still seems -- to compel this conclusion goes as follows.

The Criterion of Canonicity

Formally considered, there are two possibilities for making the neo-orthodox distinction between the canon of Scripture itself and "the canon within the canon" of the scriptural witness, depending on whether one does or does not presuppose the first in determining the second. If one does not presuppose the canon, one’s determination of the scriptural witness is open to the charge either of being arbitrary or of depending on some authority outside the scriptural witness that is one’s real norm for judging.

If, on the contrary, one does presuppose the canon in determining the scriptural witness, one is faced with the objection that the writings of Scripture or of the New Testament can no longer be assumed to constitute a proper canon. This objection rests on the claim that, given our present historical methods and knowledge, none of the writings of Scripture as such can be held to satisfy the early church’s own criteria of canonicity.

We now know not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to Christ in the sense in which the early church assumed them to be, but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness to Christ as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence of this point in the case of the New Testament writings is that all of them have now been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic.

But this means, then, that one cannot accept the methods and findings of a historical critical understanding of Scripture while still maintaining the traditional Protestant scriptural principle, even in the revisionary form in which neo-orthodoxy continued to uphold it. Given what historians and exegetes now generally take for granted about the composition of the New Testament, the distinction between "Scripture" and "tradition" breaks down; and one is forced to decide either for a traditional New Testament canon that one can no longer justify by the early church’s own criterion of apostolicity or else for this same criterion of canonicity that now allows one to justify only a nontraditional canon.

I must say that once this choice became clear to me, I was never in doubt how to make it. To me it has long seemed to belong to the very constitution of Christian existence that all appropriately Christian faith and witness are and must be apostolic. If one exists as a Christian at all, either one is an apostle, in the strict sense of being an original and originating witness to Jesus Christ, or else one believes and bears witness with the apostles, solely on the basis of their prior faith and witness. But this is to say that there is nothing in the least wrong with the early church’s criterion of canonicity, however mistaken its historical judgments in applying this criterion. On the contrary, the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real Christian norm, even if we today have to locate this norm not in the writings of the New Testament but in the earliest stratum of Christian witness accessible to us, given our own methods of historical analysis and reconstruction.

The Source of Christian Witness

As for just where we should locate the apostolic witness, I have nothing to add to the proposal of Willi Marxsen. In thinking about this whole matter of the canon, as about other related matters, I find myself greatly indebted to him. Marxsen argues -- in my opinion, convincingly -- that the real Christian norm is the witness to Jesus that makes up the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition. This so-called Jesus-kerygma, which is very definitely Christian Witness even though its christology is merely implicit, in contrast with the explicit christology of the Christ-kerygma that we find in Paul and John and the other New Testament writings, represents the earliest witness of faith that we today are in a position to recover. Therefore, it is here, if anywhere -- in what Marxsen sometimes speaks of as "the canon before the canon" -- that we must now locate the witness of the apostles that abides as the real Christian norm.

This proposal implies, of course, that Scripture is the sole primary source of Christian witness rather than its sole primary norm, and that the first step one must take in using it as a theological authority is historical rather than hermeneutical. Specifically, that is the step of reconstructing the history of tradition, of which the first three Gospels are the documentation, so as thereby to identify the earliest stratum in this tradition, which is the real Christian canon by which even Scripture has whatever authority it has.

But there seems little reason to doubt that this kind of reconstruction can be successfully carried out. The procedures required to execute it are identical with those long since worked out in the quest of the historical Jesus -- with the single, if crucial, difference that in this case there is no need to make any dubious inferences about Jesus himself, once the earliest stratum of Christian witness has been reconstructed. Consequently, if one believes it possible to find the historical Jesus, one may be quite confident of finding what we today can rightly take to be the apostolic witness and hence the proper canon for judging the appropriateness of all Christian witness and theology.

These are the two changes, then, that I myself take to be most important as I review the course of my recent theological thinking. Perhaps now that I have described them, the reader will better understand why, in my own analysis, neither involves an abrupt discontinuity with my earlier life and thought, even though each has made for a different and, I should hope, more adequate understanding.

In any event, I find that I have begun the decade of the ‘80s still firmly committed to the same essential project with which I entered the ‘60s: to work toward a genuinely postliberal theology that, being sensitive at once to the human concern for freedom and to the claims of Christian faith, will be as concerned for the credibility of the church’s witness when judged in terms of changing human experience as for the appropriateness of its witness when judged by reference to its abiding apostolic norm.