May 19, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
The renewal movements of The United Church of Canada would be hard pressed to find a better friend and a more helpful ally. Unashamedly he has nailed his colours to the mast: “As a former sixties radical, I am now out of the closet as an orthodox evangelical.” A speaker at an early meeting of “Faithfulness Today” (jointly sponsored by The Community of Concern Within The United Church of Canada, Church Alive and The Alliance of Covenanting Congregations,) Oden has continued to hover our denomination’s theological ventures and pronouncements, living in hope for the day when it would recover its birthright and boldly declare itself “on the Lord’s side.” Raised in the United Methodist Church (USA), a denomination that has long appeared blissfully indifferent to “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3),” Oden himself sashayed into the “far country” in the early days of his career as academic theologian. At that time there was virtually no cause, however tangentially related to the church’s mission or however “far out”, that he didn’t endorse as he roamed the entire spectrum of bizarre theology and avant-garde ethics. Just as he was discovering that far-country fare was non-nourishing and even toxic, the One he had been decrying in the cause of “relevance” and “modernity” overtook him and redirected the course of his living and thinking. And just as Paul, temporarily stunned on the Damascus road, needed another’s help for a while, those whom God’s providence mysteriously appointed to assist Oden came to his rescue. It was a Jew, Ananias, who helped a shocked and staggering Paul; another Jew, Will Herberg, providence assigned to be the one who brought him to see that the path out of the theological morass ran past the homes of the classical exponents of Christian truth. John Henry Newman, for instance, although dead for 80 years, convinced him that the substance of the historic faith was a goldmine whose treasure could be quarried inexhaustibly. Oden’s only responsibility, Newman persuaded him, was to listen. Abandoning his preoccupation with theological invention, Oden now listened “as if my whole life depended on hearing.” As the arbitrariness and anaemia of his theological shallowness sobered him, his earlier support of the abortion platform horrified him. He abandoned the situation ethics he had touted as a cure-all and simultaneously renounced the entire liberal world-view. Courageously announcing his “about face” (also known as repentance) to the academic guild, he came to cherish the “ecumenical consensus”: what Christians of East and West, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, have held in common, and still do. Whereas he had previously regarded such consensus no more than baggage that had to be shed if the church were to move ahead unencumbered, he now realized this consensus to be the ballast in the church-ship’s keel without which the church could never sail against the prevailing wind and would capsize in any storm.
An intellectual whose brilliance has been evident in his lectureships at such prestigious institutions as Edinburgh, Duke, Emory, Princeton, Claremont, and Moscow State universities, in all his work Oden has kept in mind the needs of the local congregation and the working pastor. His major work, the 1500-page tome on systematic theology, is explicitly addressed to the latter, while he has published several works on the pastoral disciplines. In all of this he has claimed to want only to equip those who are called and commissioned to “teach you the elementary truth of God’s word all over again. (Hebrew 5:12)” For this reason the global intention of his work is to develop afresh the “building blocks” of the faith. Only as this task is completed will he turn his attention to more detailed matters such as anthropology and liturgy. True to Scripture, to his native Wesleyanism, and to the Fathers, he regards God’s holiness as the linchpin of the entire theological enterprise.
Waggishly reminding others that “the apostles were testy with clever revisionists”, Oden cites Paul’s rebuke, angry and anguished in equal measure, of the congregation in Galatia: “But even if an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be anathema (Galatians 1:8.)” Yet he must never be thought to be a “nostalgia freak,” someone who hankers after “good old days” that in fact were as evil-ridden as all days. Instead he remains profoundly aware that Christians, theologians, congregations or denominations that jettison memory plunge themselves into amnesia. And the problem with amnesiacs isn’t that they can’t remember where they left umbrella or automobile; the problem, rather, is that lacking memory, they lack identity; and lacking identity, they frequently behave erratically.
Unfailingly possessed of gospel hope (hope, in Scripture, is never wishful thinking but is instead a future certainty grounded in a past reality; namely, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and his bestowal of the Spirit) Oden knows that revival is needed in the North American churches above everything else. And in view of the place that the mainline denominations occupy still in the psyche of the North American people, revival cannot occur without the “mainliners.” Then the prophet’s word to a people in exile — “Behold I [the Lord] am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)” — must entail a renewal of denominations that appear at present to be sidelined. To this end Oden has been a leader in the formation of the Association for Church Renewal. Single-handedly he has convened the Confessing Theologians Commission, a group consisting of mainline academics who extol Jesus Christ, love his people, and have remained at their post in their respective denominations. (The Confessing Theologians Commission has one member from Canada, Victor Shepherd, as a representative of the renewal movements within The United Church.)
Long a lover of Kierkegaard, Oden likes to refer to the Dane’s insistence that faith disrupts, and where disruption isn’t observable faith hasn’t occurred. If as “believers” we nevertheless protest that we have faith, we are theologians; if we know how to describe faith, we are poets; if we weep in describing faith, we are actors. But only as we witness for the truth and against untruth are we actually possessed of faith.