Book Review: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Signs of New Life in Christianity, by Thomas C. Oden

Rebirth of Orthodoxy ISBN 9780060097851Harper San Francisco, 212 pages, Reviewed by Donald N. Bastian, Emeritus bishop of the Free Methodist Church.

Is there a changeless “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” as the apostle Jude contends (v.3)? That is, is there a body of doctrine that the People of God are to believe and preserve — even contend for — in every age? Thomas Oden believes there is. It is called “orthodoxy.” Not only does he believe there is such a body of revealed truth but he also believes that there is a resurgence of concern to rediscover orthodoxy in both Christianity and Judaism and to contend for that orthodoxy in our times. His concern, however, is with the Christian aspect of this claim and that’s what this book is about — The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

We may easily raise our eyebrows at such a claim. After all, two millennia have passed since Christianity flowered forth from Judaism and that is a long period of time. During those nearly 2000 years the Christian faith has had many and varied proponents sounding forth in different eras and out of different cultures. Besides, there have been a fair number of pitched battles over doctrinal issues since Christianity’s distant beginnings. Can a dependable strand of orthodoxy be sorted from all this? Thomas Oden says with confidence that it can, and he refers to it as classic Christian teaching or consensual Christian doctrine. He makes his case thoroughly and well.

Oden started his own academic career as a theological professor who was very far to the left — extremely liberal, fascinated with Marxism, Existentialism, even psychoanalysis — but he eventually found those fields devoid of depth. He describes his journey as traveling a lonely back road “which took me from obsessive spiritual faddism to stable classic Christian teaching.” It is this failed pilgrimage and his coming home to Christian roots that give his mature writings on theological matters a deep feeling of credibility. And in this book he brings together his mature unfolding of what he has been saying in his other books and
articles for some time.

How does he make his case? The trusted doctrinal fabric of the Christian faith was woven, he believes, during the first five centuries of the Common Era and its essence can be found in the conclusions of the seven ecumenical councils ranging from A.D.325 to A.D.787. To these he adds the convergent contributions of the great church fathers of the eastern and western church. He holds that where these various influences come together in agreement we have orthodoxy.

All of this he has referred to in his earlier works, but in the last chapter of his present volume Oden gives special attention to a little known but highly important figure of the fifth century: Vincent of Lerins. In a nutshell, this monk arrived at a monastery on the Island of Lerins, off the coast of Cannes, France, and painstakingly drew together the formula he believed had been ecumenically held from the beginning of the Christian era. All teaching could be tested for Christian orthodoxy by this formula, The Vincentian rule is: “In the worldwide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This, the author believes, is the key to recognizing classic Christianity. This is authentic ecumenism.

But is this commitment to orthodoxy really being reborn in our times, as he claims? At the outset of Part II Oden gives a summary of the evidences. And in chapter ten he lists the growing number of renewal movements in the major mainline churches. It’s an impressive list. Oden writes, “Scratch the surface of any mainline church congregation and you will find believers who hunger for a return to classic Christianity.”

I have kept Thomas Oden’s book beside me for several weeks, coming back to it again and again. It takes care and reflection to read. And I confess to a bias as I have read. The older I get the more I desire to be grounded in Christian soil that is as deep and rich as the Incarnation itself. The author writes with a certain optimism about the future of the faith but it is not a romantic optimism. It is an optimism born of the Holy Spirit, and a confidence based on what he perceives to be substantial evidence.

If his case is good for searching Christians in the old line churches I consider it equally good for believers in younger Christian communions, and independent bodies too. In my opinion, it speaks to a certain contemporary doctrinal shallowness that can only be corrected by a return to deep theology that has stood the test of time and links us to the apostles, saints, and martyrs of the earliest times. In short it might be said that evangelicalism of the present needs nothing more than a deepening of its theological roots and this could come about under the Holy Spirit’s mighty influence as we sincerely seek to experience The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

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