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No. 2: The Modernity Trap

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 2
March, 1991 Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons

Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity . . . What? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990. Reviewed by Rev. Jeffrey Meyers.

Reading Oden’s After Modernity . . . What? was tonic. There were passages that launched me out of my chair with a hoot to pace the office floor — of course, the door was safely closed to guard my temporary insanity from the secretary; though I’m not so sure what she made of the occasional whoops and yowls. There were passages that made me pound the desk with a "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Passages that went directly into my database without passing "Go" or collecting two hundred dollars — for example, the epidemic of modern theology diagnosed as "diarrhea of religious accommodationism." Passages, even whole chapters ("The Comic Premise of Contemporary Theology"), I wish I could send to all my peers, to every pastor in America, and to every seminary professor on the face of this modern earth. Yes, I really did like this book. This is a book to read! After Modernity revises and updates Oden’s Agenda for Theology (1979). As he himself tells us, this is a "picayunish paragraph-by-paragraph revision," which, among other things, addresses evangelical and neo-evangelicals on what is happening in postmodern circles as the "sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of the classical Christian teaching" (12). Oden’s premise is simple: the ancient ecumenical orthodox consensus must again be seriously considered by modern theologians. "Christian teaching needs to be reformed in the direction of antiquity" (21). The Holy Spirit does indeed have a history and twentieth century Christians better start learning it. The agenda for twentieth century theology, according to Oden, professor of theology at Drew University, is to return again "to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christian exegesis" (34). Reflecting on his students’ rediscovery of the ancient orthodox writers, Oden rhapsodizes, "It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child" (14). According to Oden, this is the untold story of recent Christian thought. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were true. Unfortunately, as an Associate Pastor in Alabama, far from the hotbeds of theological scholarship, I’m not in any position to know. I’ll have to trust Oden.

The Untold Story
Here is the story, told by one who knows (really knows), of postmodern students who are sick and tired of Christianity’s being subjected to watered-down modern interpretations, who have "gone through the long smorgasbord of pop psychologies and political ideologies and various alterations of consciousness by music, chemistry, and social experiment," who have "whored after each successive stage of modernity’s profligacy," and who are now finding hope and answers in the classical Christian heritage "rather than in the trendy ideas of minor modern heretics."Why should I write an essay on the "modernity trap" when Oden has written an entire book on it, and a very good one at that? In fact, Oden is so much better suited to tell this story because it is his own. Oden knows well modern theology and its whore modernity. He speaks from experience. He’s been a preferred customer in that brothel he calls "contemporary guild theology." He was solemnly initiated into all the major modern "movements," each time being re-baptized in the triune name of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Oden characterizes himself in the past as a "movement theologian," addicted to accommodationism. His pedigree is as impressive as it is horrific. If it was a modern movement, Oden was in it, everything from Gestalt therapy to research experiments with mung beans. According to his own confession, he was finally cured of this theological dysentery when he came face to face with the narcissistic and often gruesome realities of the abortion-on-demand movement.Oden says that one of the turning points in his own theological development took place while he was preparing to go on a year-long sabbatical. He obviously could not take his whole library with him, so he had to choose a few boxes of books that would serve him best while he was gone. After a few rounds of eliminations, he looked over the books and was amazed to discover that not a single twentieth century book remained. "Among the books reserved for shipment I was picking Aeschylus, Clement of Alexandria, Epictetus, Tertullian, Nemesius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Hugh of St. Victor, Anselm, and so on. . . . I found the premodern writers more personally significant for my growth. . . . I discovered to my astonishment that if push came to shove I could do without the twentieth-century material altogether." Listen for a moment to Oden’s manifesto from the first few pages of his most recent volume on systematic theology The Word of Life (Harper & Row, 1989): "This book rejects the assumption that the main task of Christology is to make Jesus easily acceptable to the prejudices of modernity. I will not enter into a game whose rules already make one a loser. I will not seek some new ground for making classical Christianity acceptable to its naturalistic critics, whose appetites can never be satisfied. I will not enter square one" (xii). And it gets better, I promise you! (Oden uncovers more of his theological odyssey in Word of Life, pp. 217-220).

Non Nova Sed Nove
Part One of After Modernity is a brilliant expose of the fundamental assumptions of modernity — "presumptions" might be a better word. Theology in the last quarter has "whored after each successive stage of modernity’s profligacy." Even though this adulterous affair has been going on for two centuries, "it has not been until the last quarter century that there has been a wholesale devaluation of the currency of Christian language, symbolism, teaching, and witness — a total sellout and bankruptcy to support the fixed habits of modern addictions" (31). This sellout Oden blames on the theologians who chase after each new fad in modernity as a dog in heat hunts down and sniffs out each new bitch who happens to stray into the neighborhood. The fundamental eros of contemporary theology is an unrelenting accommodation to modernity, an addiction to faddism. Modern tenured theologians lust for the new and chauvinistically deprecate everything older than yesterday. Why this abandonment of classical Christianity? Now one might think that the reason lies in the informed decision of each theologian and student, who, having been thoroughly schooled in the orthodoxy of the past, has nevertheless, after careful study and deliberation, chosen modernity as something more true than the classic Christian consensus. Think again. Orthodoxy never has its day in court. Students are not even given the opportunity to choose. Academic freedom is a joke. Only the newest, the emergent, the innovative, the revolutionary, finds its way into the university and seminary classrooms.Oden’s eloquent definition and critique of modernity found in chapter 3, "Defining Modernity," must be read to be appreciated. Modernity "has three distinct strata of meanings": First, modernity refers to the "overarching intellectual ideology of a historical period whose hegemony has lasted from the French Revolution to the present." Second, it is "a mentality, found especially among certain intellectual elites, which assumes that chronologically recent ways of knowing the truth are self-evidently superior to all premodern alternatives." Lastly, modernity is a malaise, a deterioration of the above two characteristics to the point where many are now sensing a vague uneasiness, but don’t know where to turn. Oden reveals some of the key characteristics of modernity such as the quest for a highly abstract notion of individual freedom, the hedonistic self-assertiveness that follows in "freedom’s" wake, the arrogant hatred of the past, specifically "a vague boredom in the face of the heroic struggles" of ancient Christian communities, and the elevation of the mentality of adolescence into a world-view with its puerile preoccupation with self-expression and its cocky unwillingness to be parented by the wisdom of historical reason. This is just to list some of his more fertile evaluations. Now, he says, in the late twentieth century, modernity itself has become "a pampered tradition."Oden also exposes another fundamental assumption of modernity, the illusion that it is the ultimate, unsucceedable tradition, the pretense that all futures will certainly reflect the assumptions of modernity. This is a lot of braggadocio since "modernity is from the viewpoint of classical Christianity" nothing but "the amalgam of all modern heresies" (76), and I might add "ancient" as well. I think Oden is right to predict that modern theology will one day be judged by latter historians to be little more than "waggish slapstick or wild buffoonery or outlandish burlesque" (194). I must resist the temptation to summarize the book chapter-by-chapter. Suffice it to say that in Part Two Oden "critiques criticism" by masterfully examining the so-called historical critical method, and in Part Three he encourages theologians and pastors to rediscover, like he has, the ancient orthodox consensus, the consensus fidelium of the Christian Church. There is much more I’d like to comment on in this book, let me conclude with some remarks on the significance of Oden’s work for Evangelical and Reformed churches.

Reformed (According to the Market) Seminaries
I entered seminary hoping to get a thorough going critique of the presuppositions of modern thought from the perspective of traditional Reformed Orthodoxy. The reading and studying that I had already done predisposed me against modernity (not just modernism or modern theology), so I anticipated a thorough grounding in the literature of traditional Christian theology in order to provide me with firm place to stand. Writing in my original application for seminary I expressed the desire to "learn both classical Christian theology as well as the presuppositions of modern thought." I couldn’t imagine how I as a pastor could effectively minister without such a foundation. In many ways I was disappointed. Too much time was spent on "pop" evangelical books and authors, works that will likely be all but forgotten twenty-five years from now. Worse than that, as C.S. Lewis points out in his "Introduction" to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Press, repr. 1989), "A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light." It follows from Lewis’s logic that our seminaries, because they serve a steady diet of contemporary books, will continue to turn out "amateurs," who, for all their theological training, will never have developed the critical freedom that comes from the firsthand knowledge of old books. There were exceptions in seminary, of course. An elective course was offered on Calvin’s Institutes (none, however, on Augustine or Athanasius or Aquinas). Our systematics professor still required Hodge and Berkhof, which rely heavily on the classical orthodox theologians. But this was only a fraction of the curriculum. Looking back, we spent very little time in or out of class reading authors in the classical Christian tradition. In addition to my full schedule, I elected to take a independent study course so that I could read Augustine. I also pursued Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, Chrysostom, Anselm, Luther, much of Calvin, and Van Til outside of (and sometimes in the last row of) my regular seminary classes. I have yet to read any of Aquinas. I still feel cheated. It amazes me that a man (or a woman!) can graduate from an evangelical seminary without having read, let alone studied, for example, the history of the seven ecumenical councils (and the corresponding creeds), Augustine’s Confessions (to say nothing of On the Trinity or City of God), Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Am I out to lunch to insist that a graduate of a Reformed seminary ought to have read Calvin’s Institutes before graduating? Half of it? Some recent graduates can’t even adequately identify Athanasius or Augustine for ordination examinations. Many graduates of Reformed seminaries have never read more than 5 or 6 pages of Calvin or Luther and cannot, upon questioning, do much better than spout some typical platitudes regarding their life and theology. Isn’t this evidence of the very faddism that Oden identifies in modern theology, right in our own Reformed seminaries! Maybe I’m asking too much, but surely a good dose of Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin promises more than modern fill-in-the-blank discipleship books (which are being used in one major Reformed seminary) or the latest techniques for church management and growth. Well, what’s happening? I don’t claim to know all the reasons, but it seems that professors are beginning to cater to the complaints of some students who whine about overdosing on theology and history, demanding more "practical" classes. By this they mean, in fact, courses on the techniques of church growth, or counseling, or small group Bible studies, or church administration, or sermon preparation. "How to" classes are beginning to take precedence over historical, systematic, and even biblical theology. This is the direction of not a few modern evangelical and Reformed seminaries. The transformation of theological curriculum today has thus achieved the illusion of practicality through the multiplication of procedures and techniques (just as the Pharisees did, I might add). But at what expense? In my mind, we are treading the path that leads to the complete acquiescence of traditional orthodoxy to the passing fad of modernity, especially American modernity with its preoccupation with success by means of technological manipulation. Oden knows where that path leads. "Modernity is a winter season for classical Christianity" (199). Evangelicals, listen up. This applies to us as well. Modernity surfaces in evangelicalism in the psychiatric and sociological preoccupations of evangelical seminaries, pulpits, publishing houses, and conferences, as well as in the technique- and method-oriented "help" and "advice" offered in the name of Christianity from TV, radio, and yes, even pulpits. Classical Christian teaching is submerged beneath a continent of "practical" rubbish: "how to" techniques, spiritual disciplines, church growth manuals, advice on health, group dynamics, financial tips, how to cope seminars, and a host of other unclean preoccupations. The hottest thing in Christian conferences for pastors (What an old fashioned word; maybe we ought to call them CEO’s these days, as in "Church Executive Officers"!) turns out to be church growth seminars. A host of parachurch organizations now offer the latest techniques for CEO’s that want to be successful at the business of building and marketing a church. All the latest statistics, studies, and technology, mostly borrowed from the marketing strategies of big business, are marshalled at these conferences for the purpose of equipping ministers for the work of attracting their fair share of the local religious consumers. A high calling, indeed!

The Social Gospel Revisited
This trend strikes me as the new "social gospel," displaying some remarkable similarities to that early twentieth-century heresy. Early on in this century evangelicals were at war with modernists and liberals over the reduction of Christianity to sociology. Social work and politics swallowed up the classical Christian message. After all, societal justice was the pressing need of the moment, the most practical kind of work the church could do to help the world. Evangelicals denounced this movement as a sellout, a transformation of historic, dogmatic Christianity into a relativistic monstrosity. Now a similar thing seems to be happening today within evangelicalism, with a twist. Today, rather than this-worldly social concerns, it is individual and family "help" and "advice," disguised as "practical Christianity" but just as "this-worldly," that threaten to swallow up the classical Christian tradition. Thus, we once again are in danger of reducing Christianity to "help" and "advice," but this time the focus is on individual and familial help, rather than political and social help. But is there really any significant difference? This "practical Christianity," with its lists of legalistic techniques, spiritual disciplines, and methods of "success," all of which supposedly guarantee victory to the user, ought to be recognized as a "garish modern overlay" (another of Oden’s gems) underneath which classical Christianity is often hardly recognizable. The individualistic focus of this sellout ought not to blind us to its very real similarities to the hated social gospel movement. Both emphasize morality over orthodoxy — what’s really important is how we live. Once during a Sunday school class in which I took the opportunity to give an extended explanation of classic Trinitarianism as it is found in the Athanasian Creed, a member of the class impatiently questioned me after I had finished: "Yes, but how do we get back to the simple moral teachings of Jesus?" I responded by reminding him that the "simple moral teachings" rhetoric originated from within Liberalism and that classic Reformed orthodoxy was opposed to any reduction of the Christianity to simple morality. But you see the man who quizzed me was not in any sense a liberal; in fact, he would consider himself a fundamentalist evangelical. This non-doctrinal and anti-metaphysical impulse is part of the modern Weltanschauung and is not restricted to "liberals." Everything is in danger of being reduced to ethics and morality — what evangelicals call "practical Christianity." Alexander Schmemann noted ironically in For the Life of the World that in so far as American evangelicalism, which is ostensibly bent on overcoming secularism, has redefined the very function of Christianity "in terms of promoting the secular value of help," it has in reality surrendered to secularism. After all, Schmemann points out, "it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religions [or denominations-J.M.], it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him `more help’ — not more truth" (109).Now, you say, what’s all this got to do with Oden? Well, first of all, by skillfully displaying modernity’s key assumptions as well as its varied manifestations Oden challenges us to evaluate just how far evangelicalism has compromised with modernity. He warns us not to blown to and fro by every modern psychiatric, sociological, or economic fad. Transforming the church into a business and the pastor into a expert at religious marketing would seem to be a very obvious sellout. The reduction of Christianity — the very message preached and taught from Evangelical pulpits across the country — to the level of "help" or "advice" in this life is not by any stretch of the imagination in line with the classical Christian tradition. The virus of modernity infects the American Church more than we would like to admit. (If you haven’t seen the article entitled "Seekers," in the December 17, 1990, edition of Newsweek, go get yourself a copy of it right after you finish this article. It reveals the ominous directions towards which "consumer sensitive," "Church Growth" churchianity is headed. Have a barf-bag handy. You’ll need it.)In fact, Oden has the audacity to think that pastors ought to be theologians and not businessmen, competent at caring for souls rather than experts at religious marketing or psychiatric therapy. "Today we erroneously assume that anyone who is pastor of a congregation or administrative leader of the church could not possibly have time to do significant, sustained theological work" (95). Or worse — if he did dare, such activity would be judged by many in his congregation as a colossal waste of the pastor’s time. After all, let’s have results, and let’s have them now! Oden goes on to remind us that during the first millennium of Christianity the theologians were the pastors, "it being unthinkable for anyone to regard himself as a Christian theologian unless serving daily in the pastoral teaching office." He advises pastors: "Ministry will have to learn a new skill that once was taken for granted but now has become long forgotten — the ability to distinguish between doctrinal truth and error" (34). This is the historic "craft of pastoral guardianship," according to Oden. Now, come on, Oden; we all know that this theological stuff is not very practical; it tends to turn people off and isn’t exactly a proven method for church growth. Oden thoroughly trounces this objection in a section called "What if orthodoxy doesn’t fly?" In an age when the young pastor considers it a waste of his time to study theology (let alone to preach it!) when he could be mastering the latest church growth marketing technique, Oden is refreshing, and I hope, prophetic as well.

Medieval Modernism
But, you see, we’ve forgotten that one of the most welcome achievements of the Reformation, especially evident in Calvin’s Geneva Academy established in 1559, which became a model for Protestant theological training for centuries, was the remarriage of ministerial and theological training. During the latter Middle Ages there was nearly a complete divorce between theological studies and preparation for the parish ministry. The result was radical indeed. Theological studies were controlled by elite "doctors" and "masters," who had virtually no contact with the man in the pew. Biblical and theological knowledge served the purposes of the university rather than the local congregation. Parish priests entered their ministries with little or no theological or biblical sense; their major concerns where the details of ecclesiastical administration. Now today in twentieth century American Evangelicalism all that the Reformers strived for is in danger of being lost. Our situation today is in some respects quite like that of the latter Middle Ages. Advanced theological study has virtually ceased to exist in most evangelical seminaries for M. Div. students, and if it does it is restricted to students who plan to go on to graduate degrees that will prepare them for university studies. I understand that in one large Reformed seminary only two or three M.Div students out of several hundred are enrolled in a exegetical or theological concentration (systematics or historical theology). The rest have concentrations that focus on professional ministerial technique (church planting, counseling, etc). Shall we welcome this as an advance or shun it as a return to a kind of pre-Reformation monstrosity? Clearly, Calvin’s Geneva Academy, once the paradigm for seminary education, no longer commands our allegiance. "Calvin gave the teaching of the Bible and theology the ascendancy over the disciplines of the monastic life and the sacramentally and liturgically oriented clergy, and the authoritarian bureaucracy of the established church" (Charles E. Raynal III, "The Place of the Academy in Calvin’s Polity," in Timothy George, ed., John Calvin and the Church, 131). Lest anyone sooth his conscience with the thought that we evangelicals at least are free from the monastic and sacramental errors of the pre-Reformation Church, think again. Worthless "how to" classes covering the various areas of the Christian life, psychological techniques for counseling, experts and consultants on marketing the church to the modern religious consumer, and preoccupation with the techniques of communication theory in preaching and growth theory in church administration (to name just a few areas) — such "ministerial techniques" are the new "means of grace" in a sacerdotal system that rivals that of Medieval Roman Catholicism. The high priests of these "sacraments" even claim that their techniques possess a kind of ex opere operato guarantee. Someone has run an ad in World magazine for months now soliciting "a tested and proven church growth program" for pastors. I received a slick, four-page color advertisement in the mail this past week from a major southern Reformed seminary promoting a conference in Atlanta on "Marketing Your Church" that promised expert advise on the latest sure-fire strategies of church marketing. Modern evangelical seminaries are preoccupied with this kind of crap. Where are the Luthers who will stand up to these modern Tetzels?The Lord willing, Oden still has some productive years left. He was graced to discover when he did the futility of constructing theologies after the pattern of modernity. He has already completed two volumes of a three-volume systematic theology arranged according to the Trinitarian model: The Living God (1988) and The Word of Life (1989). As Oden himself admits, these works consist of his outlines stuffed with quotations from the classical Orthodox tradition. But Oden’s fascination with ancient ecumenical orthodoxy extends beyond the merely academic, as we have seen. He has also compiled four volumes that focus on pastoral theology as well. The series is entitled Classical Pastoral Care, and it is unashamedly orthodox and traditional. One should compare these recent works of Oden to his earlier attempts to psychologize pastoral work (just look at the titles of his earlier books!) in order to appreciate the paradigm shift that was effected when Oden began to read and study the ancient Christian theologians.I only have only one minor beef with After Modernity. Oden occasionally catalogs the kind of authors that young, postmodern theologians are, or ought to be, interested in reading (70), but without a footnote or a title! Now maybe I’m announcing my ignorance here, but I want to know what has been written by Philip Reiff, Seymour Lipset, and James Dittes, to name just a few of the unfamiliar names. I wish he had included a bibliography of what he considers helpful "postmodern" works in addition to his fine list of ancient orthodox sources. It goes without saying that this book is not easy reading, nor is it exactly devotional reading, as "devotional" literature is defined today. But once again, "devotional reading material" is another modernistic disease that often, in its worst form (pietistic anecdotes with moralistic lessons tacked on), ensures that we will never break out of our own restricted contemporary outlook. C.S. Lewis advises that the modern Christian "needs to be instructed as well as exhorted [by devotional works]. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that `nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand" ("Introduction" to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation).Oden’s book will make your heart sing. Buy this book, get a pencil, and sit down with a pipe (or a cigar) for a good read. Oden has discovered the ancient orthodox consensus, and is now its passionate advocate. He has a quick wit and knows how to turn a sarcastic phrase against modernity. He is the voice of postmodern orthodoxy. What’s so invigorating about Oden is that he has found life in tradition, vitality in antiquity, discovering Christ afresh in the ancient orthodox theologians of the church — and he’s not afraid to say so.