Posts tagged with: church

Tom Oden


In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.

I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.

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Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?

Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.

There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.

I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.

The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.

What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.

When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.

You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?

Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.

There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.

I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.

The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.

We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.

The Acton Commentary this week from my friend John Teevan compares church budgets to government budgets, and what “government thinking” might look like if it were reflected in charitable and ecclesiastical budgeting. He writes, “If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people.”

On that point, over at Evangelical Perspective Collin Brendemuehl asks some salient questions in comparing government welfare to private charity.

Is the government 50% efficient? 75% efficient? I can’t venture a guess. But apparently neither can the bureaucrats. But even so, is it a stretch to say that the government is more than likely much less efficient than these charities? Not a tough one, really. Though government has the advantage of being in tough with society on a broader scale, it is also much less capable at targeting specific needs in a short amount of time. Anyone remember how fast Feed the Children and others got into New Orleans ahead of government? They were there faster, with just as much material, and actually met needs. (They did not randomly hand out $2,000 debit cards without accounting.)

Now that’s not to say that efficiency is the only valid factor to consider when evaluating charities or government programs. But it is an important factor and has to do with meeting one’s obligations as a steward of other people’s money or property. It’s in this sense that, as Collin writes, “Government is a servant. At least it ought to be.”

On the question of giving to charities and churches, D. G. Hart has raised this question of extra-ecclesiastical giving in a couple of posts over at Old Life. My final commentary of 2010 made the point that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.” But as I said in a follow-up post over at Mere Comments, I don’t think Christian giving ends there. I wonder why Hart has focused so much on The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Redeemer City to City in particular. It seems his critique would apply equally as well to other organizations like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries.

Over at Mere Comments, and following up on this week’s Acton Commentary, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” I discuss some reasons why Christian giving doesn’t end there.

It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 16, 2010
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In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.

Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”

But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.

Last week Jordan Ballor and I offered short addresses to the crowd that gathered for Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. This is an essay that closely mirrors my comments from the event. It’s a sermon of sorts, and a personal testimonial too.

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Remarks on the “Limit of Politics” for Acton on Tap:

I love elections. Elections produce drama, conflict, and intrigue. It produces statements like this by the former Louisiana governor and federal convict Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

When I was in high school and college my biggest dream besides being a Congressman with an office full of young SEC cheerleader interns, was to be a campaign super consultant, just like two heroes of mine Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater. I idolized them through books and television. You should read Bareknuckles and Backrooms by Ed Rollins and the bio of Lee Atwater titled Bad Boy to get some of the behind the scenes ugliness, conflict, and humor of American politics.
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Last week Ray Nothstine and I hosted an Acton on Tap focused on the topic, “Putting Politics in its Place.” For those not able to join us at Derby Station here in Grand Rapids, I’m passing along this essay based on my comments. You can find Ray’s comments here.

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“Three Questions for Putting Politics in its Place”

In my attempt to articulate a way to put politics in its proper place I want to pursue three interrelated questions. First, I’m going to ask and answer, “What is politics supposed to do?” Second, I’m going to ask and answer, “What does politics do today?” And finally in light of those two concerns I’m going to ask and give some tentative answers for the question, “What should we do as Christians?”
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Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker has an insightful essay over at InsideCatholic.com, “Why Catholics Don’t Understand Economics.”

Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:

I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.

None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”

[...] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods

The whole article is worth reading (there is even a good St. Augustine reference)

One of the inspirations for my little book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, was the incisive and insightful critique of the ecumenical movement from the Princeton theological ethicist Paul Ramsey.

Ramsey’s book, Who Speaks for the Church? A Critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society, has a wealth of both theoretical and concrete reflections on the nature of ecumenical social witness and the relationship between church and society.

He concludes the book with a section titled, “The Church and the Magistrate,” in which he provides some direct comments on the way in which the church can actively be of service to the political authorities. This task is of great importance for the institutional church, but it must be done in such a way that the unique responsibilities of the church and the state are not conflated, and in a way that respects the conscience and individual responsibility of the Christian in civil service.

Thus, writes Ramsey, “If the churches have any special wisdom to offer here, it is in cultivating the political ethos of a nation and informing the conscience of the statesman. The church’s business is not policy formation. That is the awesome responsibility of magistrates (and of churchmen along with other citizens in their nonecclesiastical capacities).”

The role of the church, therefore, is to inform rather than to prescribe in specific detail. “It is not the church’s business to recommend but only to clarify the grounds upon which the statesman must put forth his own particular decree,” argues Ramsey. “Christian political ethics cannot say what should or must be done but only what may be done. It can only try to make sure that false doctrine does not unnecessarily trammel policy choices or preclude decisions that might better shape and govern events.”

And in a prophetic statement that indicts the contemporary fascination with “social justice” (which so often conflates the concept with love), Ramsey writes, “Christians should be speaking more about order as a terminal political value along with justice, without the naïve assumption that these are bound to go together without weight given to both.” Just how much do you hear about “social order” from those campaigning so vociferously for a particular form of “social justice”?

Ramsey’s book is well worth reading. If you can pick up a used copy somewhere, do so and count yourself as having found a bargain.

resurrection_241Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3

John Wesley said of the new birth, “It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is created anew in Christ Jesus.” A message he often preached was “Since we were born in sin we must be born again.” The resurrection of Christ affirms the everlasting power of Christ to save and deliver humanity from sin and death.

This Easter, Christians all over the world celebrate an event that points to our present and future hope and glory. In American slave and Appalachia culture, the afterlife was always celebrated and stressed through their words and music, because of difficult trials on earth. The resurrection is the real theology of liberation, as Samuel Medley wrote in his great hymn “I Know that My Redeemer Lives:”

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

The resurrection was foundational everyday preaching for the Apostles in the early Church. As witnesses, their focus on the resurrection was also the cause of their persecution by the ruling authorities (Acts 4:3,4). Today some who claim to be ministers of the Gospel deny the miracle of the resurrection or dismiss it as “merely symbolic.” Sadly, they deny Scripture and Church teaching.

The Apostles knew that when they saw the risen Christ they were looking at the beginning and the end of history. The complete purpose and promise of Christ and humanity was made known and it’s an incomparable comfort. Humanity has a purpose and a place to call home. One of the most perplexing and haunting aspects of life is death. Life on earth is all we know and death for so many is very troubling and a topic to be avoided. Many churches and houses of worship avoid it. This is sad and it shows a wide displacement from the early Church and Church Fathers. For the believer, they will share in the resurrection of Christ and “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:42-54).

Often in the burdens that afflict our inner most being we can only find meaning in the resurrection. The trials, despair, and pain of this life crushes us too much. But when we spend our time dwelling on the risen Lord, our despair turns to hope. We know that he will not abandon us or forsake those who love and worship him, especially beyond the grave. The resurrection is a cause for endless celebration. It is the seal that we will fully dwell in the everlasting with the Triune God who created us for relationship with him for his glory.

The current issue of Touchstone magazine features an impressive cover essay by Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In “The Audacity of the State,” Farrow uses the biblical Ichabod motif to examine the crumbling pillars of the family and church, which when properly respected form critical foundations for a flourishing society.

In their place, writes Farrow, is the “savior state,” which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being. The savior state is the paternal state, which not only sees to the security of its territory and the enforcement of its laws but also promises to feed, clothe, house, educate, monitor, medicate, and in general to care for its people.” As Lord Acton said, “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

In a piece as far-ranging and challenging as this, there are bound to be some minor points with which to quibble. For instance, Farrow’s characterization of the role of Erastianism in the overarching narrative seems to be a bit of a caricature, or at least not contextually sensitive. But in any case, there is one larger lacuna in Farrow’s otherwise admirable, impressive, and worthwhile essay, a piece which has far too many worthwhile sections and quotes from which to pull an adequate nosegay. Farrow’s piece must be read in its entirety. (And while you are there, sign up to receive Touchstone.)

But in discussing the elements of civil society, those institutions other than the state which provide it with limits and humble its would-be soteriological ambitions, Farrow considers only the church and the family, “the two most prominent pillars of political freedom, the pillars that have always provided for a roof or shield over the individual and his conscience.”

To be sure, there is some historical basis for considering only these three (church, state, family). These are, after all, the so-called “three estates,” orders, or institutions of classical Christian social thought. These estates have in some form or another functioned vibrantly in the discussion of Christian social thought from Luther’s own time to the present. Richard Baxter (Weber’s proclaimed paragon of the Protestant ethic), for instance, had a threefold distinction beyond personal ethics: economics (referring in the older sense to family), ecclesiastics, and politics.

But in speaking of the tyrannical habitus of the state, at least passing reference must be made to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified as the fourth institution: the realm of work, business, culture. It is understandable why Farrow might not pay much attention to this multifaceted pillar of civil society, especially since that pillar has largely been ground to a nub in the course of the twentieth century. But state control and invasion of this sector of social life is as far-reaching, perhaps more so, as it has been with the state’s involvement in the church and family.

The church and the family certainly have their defenders in the public square, although they are too few and fragmentary, as Farrow rightly laments. But who will speak against the audacity of the state for the realm of labor, work, and cultivation? These need their defenders, too, and that in one sense is precisely what we aim do here at the Acton Institute.