Friday, July 17, 2009

Ancient Consensual Scriptural Teaching

When I first quoted this book, a lot of people thought I meant Russian Orthodoxy. The thing is, that I didn't really know what I was talking about myself. You see, the title of the book* is written in all capitals, so by merely glancing at the book, you can't tell whether it is about "orthodoxy" or "Orthodoxy." And I capitalized it in my blog title, which was misleading (I have fixed it now. However, "today" could also be written with either a big or little "t," depending on what you mean).

It turns out to be "orthodoxy" with a little "o." I think. It took me awhile to make sense of this book.

full post/-

As I searched for a passage that might explain what this book is about, I came across the following, in the third chapter:

"By orthodoxy (in its lowercase form) I mean integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual classic period. More simply put, orthodoxy (as defined by both Jews and Christians) is ancient consensual scriptural teaching."(29)

Ouch, my brain.

"For Jews this means rabbinic and midrashic teaching; for Christians it means the doctrine taught during the period of ancient ecumenical Christianity-doctrine that is commonly called classic Christian teaching. "(29)

I have to admit, I felt like a dummy reading this book, and it took me quite a while to get through it. I got tired of all the "big words" and wondered if they were really necessary. But at the same time, it is refreshing to read a contemporary work by a Christian author who seems educated.

I was pleased to read a book in which the author focuses on a positive trend rather than a negative one. I'm not sure I agree with all of his observations, but I like his attitude.

Thomas Oden's claim is that the Church is showing signs of new life. The layers of transformation that he lists are: Personal transformation, Faithful scriptural interpretation, Ancient ecumenical multiculturalism, Well-established boundaries, Ecumenical roots reclaimed, and Consensual ecumenical discernment. (73-74)

He follows this list with a handy chart, in which, for each layer, he lists where it is happening, how it is happening (by what means,) and who the key leaders and writers are. I knew practically none of the people he mentioned. I don't know what that means.

One point of Oden's that I liked is what he calls "Originality Versus Consensus." While reading some more contemporary authors, he realized that these observations had already been made by classic authors such as Basil, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Oden concludes, "Since [reading] Leary I have remained committed to unoriginality...I am trying to curb any pretense at 'improving' upon the apostles and fathers." (93) With this statement, this man has earned my respect.

Is Oden right about these trends in returning to orthodoxy? I can't argue with the examples he lists, but I cannot say whether or not they are truly trends or a few isolated examples.

Oden concludes with a list of imperatives which lead toward regeneration (188). They are:

  • Tell others the true story of your own rediscovery of ancient religious teaching.
  • Study the classic religious writers.
  • Enjoy and respect the cross-cultural, intergenerational nature of the religious community.
  • Live within doctrinal and moral boundaries fixed for millenia.
  • Reclaim faltering religious and educational institutions.
  • Apply the ancient ecumenical method of discernment to contested questions.
As I began the book feeling confused, the conclusion also leaves me a little bit unclear about what each of these imperatives means, and whether or not they are really the big questions for Christians. Read Augustine and tell others about it? Change my church's dress code? Petition for the liturgical service at church? (which was canceled recently)

I'm not quite sure what to do with the concepts I encountered in this book. As the author makes many comments on culture and the current state of religion in the U.S., I will probably begin to test out these theories. But it would be a bit hasty to say whether I agree or disagree.

*Oden, Thomas. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.


  1. I'd also have an uphill battle with the language, but I think I like the idea that orthodoxy is resurging. Sadly, in my parish it WAS. But the parish that seems to be overtaking ours is NOT of that ilk. Catholics call it the "new Catholic Renewal" - the resurgence of orthodoxy in many parishes - led first by JP the Great and now by our present Pope. Our parish was in the midst of it, but a change of pastor can transform everything unfortunately.

    Dress code? I didn't get that idea from your list of his primary suggestions. In real life that particular idea just stems from the sense that we should outwardly show respect for the sacred - occasion or place - through modesty and care in what we wear. I don't "preach" it, but I try in a little way to teach it to my children, with varying success; somedays you are just lucky to GET to church.

    Thanks so much for wading through this for us. I'd love to read the book, but know I never will have the time and energy, unfortunately - so I'm glad to have the Elizabeth Review.

  2. John Paul II was on his list of participating leaders.

    I think by "dress code" I was referring to morals (boundaries). Kind of a long-shot, but I can see how some churches might take it in that direction.

  3. Elizabeth, I love reading your thoughts - really thought-provoking and edifying to me, even when I don't always agree with every interpretation!

    In the quotes from the book, the one I find most salient is this one:

    "Apply the ancient ecumenical method of discernment to contested questions."

    I think the church could use a lot more of true biblical discernment applied to "contested questions" and I think the answers would often surprise a lot of people (myself included at times of course).

    To that end, while I do not agree with everything that the poster "V . . . ." wrote I do agree with some of points who and where Jesus would focus on and I think that sometimes our broader church-y interpretations of scripture tend to focus on a few "controversial or "contested" hot-button issues and in so doing overlook the people and issues and activities that Jesus gives the most attention to.

    To help with this, I find an occassion re-reading of I John to be most helpful - he really boils it down to the basics. Love God. Follow his commands. Love one another.

  4. Those are good points, Sue. I think you and V(itali) are right about Christ focusing more on the people. When you stop and look someone in the eye, some of those issues go right out the window and you wonder why they seemed so important. Or the opposite might happen; you realize that this is what you had been fighting for, and that you would like to fight more fervently.


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