Thursday, June 28, 2012

Truth and Ecumenical Dialogue


Thomas C. Oden (Ph.D., Yale University), an American United Methodist theologian, is an executive editor of Christianity Today and author or editor of many books, including After Modernity--What? and Classical Pastoral Care.

Oden, formerly a liberal theologian, is best known as a proponent of paleo-orthodoxy, an approach to theology that often relies on patristic sources. He has published a series of books, titled Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, that he says are tools for promoting "classical Christianity." Oden suggests that Christians need to rely upon the wisdom of the historical Church, particularly the early Church, rather than on modern scholarship and theology, which is often, in his view, tainted by political agendas.

He has written, "The term paleo-orthodoxy is employed to make clear that we are not talking about neo-orthodoxy. Paleo- becomes a necessary prefix only because the term orthodoxy has been preempted and to some degree tarnished by the modern tradition of neo-orthodoxy" (Requiem, p. 130).

Oden says his mission is "to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christianity" (After Modernity...What?, p. 34).

In his book Turning Around the Mainline, Oden offers a critique of mainline liberal Protestant denominations, and chronicles the roots and history of evangelical and orthodox renewal movements. Below are a few excerpts on what he has to say about modern Ecumenical dialogue.

By Thomas C. Oden

When Dialogue Avoids Truth

Lowercase orthodox believers are not seeking a debating society that would aspire to be a religious version of the United Nations. They do not see organic union as the final objective, especially if that objective is reduced to rhetorical evasion and organizational tinkering. What they want to see is the living confession of Jesus Christ transforming human, personal, and social experience. Wherever they see that, they know instantly from the heart their deep affinity with it. Wherever they don’t hear that, they know inwardly how alien and distant are these temptations.

The seductions of dialogue typically draw believers toward subjective feelings, mutual congratulation, and institutional horse-trading. They thrive on negotiation or arbitration models of interaction. They thereby draw us far away from the truth that is declared in Jesus Christ in whom all believers are called to participate by faith. So it should not be surprising that classic Christian believers tend to regard undisciplined dialogue as a temptation…

Confessing Christians have a long history of experience with the frustration and futility of such undisciplined dialogue not ordered under the written Word. It less often leads to the question of truth than to the question of how we “feel,” and how we can accommodate or negotiate our competing interests. That is different from the question of truth announced in the gospel, which alone engenders the unity of believers.

If the central question of Christian unity for classic Christian believers is the truth of the gospel, then the apostolic testimony made known in Jesus Christ is the first step toward unity. All other dialogue, however altruistic it may appear, is truly a diversion, a pretension of searching for truth, a ruse that substitutes narcissistic talk for integrity. What seems an innocent and generous invitation to dialogue actually amounts to a disposed predetermination to replace the truth question with what we “feel” about our own experience. In this way dialogue becomes an instrument of manipulation already shaped by the wrong premises. Global orthodox believers seek unity in the truth, not unity apart from truth, not unity as a substitute for the truth, but unity in the truth of the revealed Word. (Turning Around the Mainline, 66-67).

Unity in Truth

Oldline ecumenical debate and planning are prone to misfire through a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of unity and truth: They do not seek unity based on truth.

Four modern ecumenical arguments in particular misfire, as shown by David Mills. They even make Christian disunity more likely. These four following arguments have prevailed in liberal ecumenism, each unintentionally eliciting disunity. Each is a mistake “if-then” correlation:

1. If we can just get together on some common ethical standards, then we will therefore achieve the unity of believers.

2. If we could have the same open ecumenical feelings or experiences, then we would feel our unity.

3. If we could just be open to dialogue, then we would grow toward unity.

4. If we merge the separate institutions based on different memories created by the Spirit, then we would experience our unity through an institution, and thus we now must renew our commitment to the institutional vestiges of ecumenism.

All these attempts are alike in one way: they put unity ahead of truth. They squander the truth to achieve a superficial unity. All are mistaken. All spawn disillusionment with efforts at Christian unity. Together they have resulted in the ecumenical turbulence that now buffets us.

All misfire for the same reason: they base unity on something other than the truth, by avoiding the only basis from which Christian unity can emerge—that is the revealed Word whose hearing is enabled by the Holy Spirit and received through faith. (Turning Around the Mainline, 111)
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