Why I Gave Up Paleo-Orthodoxy…Before I Had Even Heard of It

I heard of Thomas Oden and paleo-Orthodoxy for the first time recently, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that Oden was pursuing an aim which I myself had begun to pursue at the beginning of my training as a historian. There is a certain simple allure in what Oden offers, particularly for those of us deeply disturbed by the ongoing fracturing of the Church and the seemingly endless capitulation of faith to secular culture. The Bible has quite clearly proved insufficient as an objective uniting ground for Christianity. Even the Stone-Campbell churches who share a basic theology and hermeneutic could not stay united on the principle of “the Bible alone.” So in proposing a broadened basis for unifying orthodoxy, Oden’s suggestion of the earliest church as an alternative is promising.

Nevertheless, paleo-orthodoxy and the Vincentian Canon which forms its implicit grounds for unity are flawed in two important ways: one of them historical and one philosophical.

Historically there is very little that has been “believed everywhere, always and by all.” If the full scope of those who claim adherence to the Christian faith is considered, then doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection are out. In fact, what was measurably shared between Gnostics and “proto-Catholics” (to borrow a distasteful term from modern scholarship) is almost entirely semantic, reducible to the name “Christian” derived from largely unrelated understandings of “Christ.” Of course, Oden and others would never suggest that heretics be included in the “everyone” who is believing. Yet, if heresy is excluded some definition of orthodoxy is assumed and the argument becomes circular. The problem is further compounded by the great diversity even between saintly persons who are recognized as authoritative. For example, the Cappadocian and Augustinian views of free will are not merely in tension, capable of coexisting side by side in a reunited Christianity. They are fundamentally incompatible. Oden elects the Cappadocian view over Augustine’s, but the grounds for this are not entirely clear to me. Millions of Calvinists, among others, would certainly object that voluntarism is the universal testimony of the earliest church. Even within the orthodox historical witness, there is so much variation and ambiguity that to suggest that we can in any sense pool the record and come up with a clear majority on orthodoxy is at best optimistic, at worst deluded.

Even if, for the sake of argument, there was sufficient uniformity on matters of faith to select an arbitrary point in time before which orthodoxy would be understood to be in tact, there is a deeper problem to be considered. What are the grounds for assuming that consensus results in truth? The history of the church has rejected this claim as often as it has made it. Certainly Athanasius, who Oden cites as an orthodox father, would not have suggested that the Arian emperor was right to have him exiled by virtue of the Arian majority in the Empire at the time. Maximus the Confessor, another father Oden relies on as a source of truth, was mutilated and died specifically for his claim that even if the whole world testified that he was wrong God would vindicate him in the end. Christian truth can never be understood to be rooted in or even recognized by the consensus of Christians. Truth has as its root the True One, and no other source may be posited. Suggesting that by consensus the Fathers reveal what is orthodox to us is more or less the equivalent of suggesting that Christians might hold a worldwide poll today to determine what we should all believe, with the results being binding on everyone.

I had long since given up on paleo-orthodoxy as a grounds for ecumenicism before I ever encountered Thomas Oden or his theories. Nevertheless, in reading about his theology I am able to better understand precisely why the system is flawed. The practical outcomes of paleo-orthodoxy are certainly desirable as far as I’m concerned. A renewed respect by modern Christians for the theologians who came before. An effort to solve present issues by appealing to the core truths which have been articulated throughout time. A deference paid to the great minds – greater than most of ours, great enough to be preserved much longer than my thoughts here will be – who peered into the abyss that is God and preserved what they saw for the benefit of this blind generation. But as a system for recognizing truth and uniting Christians, it falls woefully short in view of its critical defects. Thus, I agree with Ralph C. Wood (who wrote one of the articles I read about Oden) both when he writes, “Our experience of the Cross is immensely deepened by learning how major (and also minor) theologians have interpreted it. So long as we remain mentally and existentially imprisoned within the cage of modernity, our faith itself is fettered” and, immediately afterwards, when he adds “that the Gospel requires a contemporary re-visioning as much as it needs a classical repeating.” It does nothing, to paraphrase a quote I once read from Florovsky, to have a patristic faith if we spend all our time looking at the Fathers and no time following their example.

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