Surprised by Orthodoxy

CLASSIC CHRISTIANITY lives out of a history of consensual ecumenical worship. It depends not upon any particular individual’s view but upon how the classic consensus molds a particular person’s daily life. My story is living evidence of how a life can be radically reversed by meeting the saints of classic Christianity.

After Ph.D. studies at Yale, I taught in two seminaries. Although it was assumed that I was teaching theology, my heart was focused on radical visions of social change and on the blatant politicizing of the mission of the church. I was uncritically accommodating to the very modernity that pretended to be prophetic, yet I did not recognize modernity’s captivity to secular humanistic assumptions.

The reversal occurred when Will Herbert, my irascible, endearing Jewish mentor told me that I would remain theologically uneducated until I had studied carefully Athanasius, Ambrose, Basil, and Cyril of Alexandria.

In his usual gruff voice, he said, “Tom, you have not yet met the great minds of your own tradition. Just as I, after my Communist days, found it decisive to read the Talmud and the Midrashim carefully to discover who I was as a Jew, you will have to sit at the feet of the ancient Christian writers to discover who you are as a possible person of faith. Without solid textual grounding, you will become lost in supposed relevance. If you are going to deepen to become a working theologian instead of a know—it—all contemporary pundit, you had best get at it.” I was stunned. He had nailed me.

As I worked my way through the beautiful texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of the secularizing maze to delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and in the recurrent puzzles of human existence. Rather than interpreting texts, I found the texts interpreting me. They freed me to ask a broader range of questions: How can God have become truly human without ceasing to be God? How can human freedom, when so distorted by the history of sin, have been radically atoned in the cross? If God is almighty and all good, how can God allow sin to have such a persistent hold on human social processes?

Every question I thought was new I found had been already much investigated. I was on the threshold of the intergenerational wisdom of the ancient community of faith, which I found was still persisting as a living, caring community. I now stand within the blessed presence of the communion of saints of all generations.

What changed the course of my life? Attentiveness to the text of Scripture, especially as viewed by its early consensual interpreters: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Chrysostom in the East; Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great in the West.

In 1972, I read through the 14th volume of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers in a few days of engrossed concentration. It is an unadorned report of the definitive canons (including pastoral judgments, not merely the dogmatic decrees) of the ecumenical councils and significant regional councils that fed into the great general councils of the first millennium. I have not been the same since. That reading affected everything I would touch as a teacher, writer, and editor for the rest of my life.

I have been searched out and found by ancient wisdoms. CH

By Thomas C. Oden

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #85 in 2005]

Thomas C. Oden is general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (InterVarsity Press). The above account is adapted from his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (Harpercollins, 2003).
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