Theological #ThrowbackThursday in Honor of Thomas C. Oden
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:9-10)
During this season of Advent we Lutherans, along with other Christians around the world, spend a lot of time hearing from and about John the Baptist, a prophet who prepared his generation for the coming of the Lord Jesus. The Baptizer spoke the words he had been given to say, unpopular and unwelcomed though they were in many circles. He had listened closely to the prophets of the past and spoke their historic Word of the Lord anew for his day and generation. By his truth-telling, the meek and lowly were raised up, the haughty and mountainous personalities brought low. Everything he said pointed to Jesus.
In 1993, Tom Oden visited Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and he was in a prophetic mood. His lecture, which is available in its entirety here, came just a few years after what he hailed as the death of modernism—the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and, with it, the fall of the French enlightenment, German idealism, and English empiricism.
Controversially, Oden grasped hold of the word “postmodernism” and hailed it not as a force detrimental to the historic, orthodox Christian faith but rather as a tool to be used. He reported that a contest was playing out to define and determine whether the church could see postmodernism as a friend rather than foe in its mission to confess Christ in the brave new world. In a prophetic manner, Oden excoriated what he called “fluff posties” and “soft postmodernists” who used the term in academic and theoretical settings to deconstruct modernist ideologies but from the comfort of endowed chairs at prestigious universities. In contrast, he championed “tough posties” or “hard, even ascetic, postmodernists” who were willing to deal with the fallout of the sexual revolution, the ground-level struggle of the AIDS epidemic, and the harsh realities of a very real apocalyptic world left after the havoc wreaked by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Though he himself was employed by a prestigious university, he called the church to stand up to academic postmoderns, calling this task “an Athanasian, contra mundum task.”
Instead of using Derrida, Lyotard, or Foucault as allies, Oden called for Christians to listen to the pre-modern theologians of the church. Though he hadn’t yet founded the ground-breaking Ancient Christian Commentary Series, he encouraged students to return to classical Christianity and to learn from pre-modern biblical interpretation. Reading the Bible with the likes of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, and Chrysostom was the way forward in the age after modernity. Among his Lutheran audience, he also extolled Calov, Hollatz, Gerhard, and especially Chemnitz as exegetes we should read.
And yet, he did not see the possibility of simply returning to a pre-critical world. He was calling us to listen to the prophetic Christian voices of the past not to pretend that we were living back in their day, but rather to let them inform a bold new way of reading the Bible into the new postmodern age. He closed his 1993 lecture by inviting his hearers to remain open to the possibility that even in the crumbling of modernism there would be possibilities for grace. “It’s not that modernity is bad but dead. We now have to be about living, surviving, and re-building.” Over twenty years later, as Christians around the world are remembering his passing, it’s clear that Oden’s students, including the one who now teaches on Concordia Seminary’s faculty, listened to his prophetic pleadings. His voice now joins those of the ancient saints in their reading of the Scriptures and their testifying to our coming Lord Jesus Christ.
The full convocation lecture, recorded on March 10, 1993, is available at scholar.csl.edu.
About this series: Throughout history, God’s people have been eager to learn His Word. We have record of this in the biblical writings which were addressed to these people, copied by scribes, and published by printing presses down to the present day. We are grateful that the Holy Spirit used the technologies of the alphabet, writing, and printing to preserve the word concerning Christ and to deliver it anew to each succeeding generation. In addition to the Holy Scriptures, the church has treasured the writings of the teachers of the church, great servants of the Word like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, and Walther. Their writings have come down to us also through the pen and printing press. But in these latter days, we also give thanks for sound recordings and videos which deliver the Word of God to His people. Concordia Seminary Library has well over a thousand such recordings on cassettes, CDs, and video tapes. Now, thanks to the Generations Campaign and generous donations which continue to come in, we are able to digitize these historic recordings and offer them to the people of God at no charge. Over the next weeks and months here at concordiatheology.org, we will highlight a few of these treasures of the church and show you where to find gobs more. We’ll hear from Scharlemann, Sasse, Franzmann, Piepkorn, Pelikan, J.A.O. and Robert Preus, Caemmerer, Hummel, Brighton, and Feuerhahn among many others.