Where do we draw the line?

“The rediscovery of boundaries in theology will be the preoccupation of the twenty-first century of Christian theology,” says Thomas Oden, United Methodist theologian and Emeritus Professor of Theology at The Theological School, Drew University. This agenda for the next century of theological study comes in his book Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Abingdon 1995). The book is Oden’s critical evaluation of the state of mainline Protestant theological education, a world in which he has lived most of his adult life. The above quote comes as Oden is describing his deep concern that nothing is off-limits in the mainline seminaries. He is distraught by the reality that there is no longer any thing as heresy. From pluralism to paganism, everything is seen as the proper subject of theological inquiry and is adorned with allegedly Christian paraphernalia to justify the inquiry and resulting assertions.
Oden opens his discussion by telling of how he attended a chapel service at his own institution of theological higher education which venerated the goddess Sophia, a deity discernibly distinct from the triune God revealed in Christian scripture, though she was sometimes said to use Jesus as her own agent. If this event is indeed representative of what’s going on in the larger world of the mainline seminaries, then Oden is certainly right that the boundaries have not only been crossed, they have been obliterated.
Oden interestingly points out that these sorts of things come under the auspices of ecumenism. Against such a claim, he argues that ecumenism is not merely a matter of the present but of the whole history of Christian thought. And anything that casts off the claims of what he calls historic orthodox Christian consensus can neither seriously nor authentically be called ecumenism. So, according to Oden, the project for the next generation of Christian theologians is to recover the consensus of orthodox Christianity and identify the boundaries for what may properly be called Christian theology.
My question at this point is this: how do we accomplish that task? I suspect that, as I continue to read the book, I will discover that Oden has some ideas for how this project should be successfully carried out. He promises as much in the opening pages. But he’s got me thinking, and I want to open the discussion up to my readers. I’ve got a thought or two that I’ll likely post later. For now, I want to hear from you.
What do you think? What are the boundaries of Christian theology? How do we discern those boundaries? What is the role of scripture in discerning and defining meaningful boundaries? What is the role of historic Christian consensus in discerning and defining meaningful boundaries? What is the role of the seminary? Theologians? The local church? Pastors? The laity?

Image: Paul via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 thoughts on “Where do we draw the line?

  1. Hey Matt,

    I got into reading Oden (“The Rebirth of Orthodoxy” and “Agenda for Theology” in particular, followed by some of his patristic readers) when I was in seminary, at SMU and he has been extremely influencial for me.

    In my experience of seminary and in my conference I have certainly run across quotations and prayers (usually drawn from contemporary “spiritual writers”) that seem to me to be beyond the edges of Christian theology, or at least questionable.

    I would argue that our United Methodist liturgy (like all classic liturgy) itself suggests that to be a good Christian one's theology should be grounded in the Scriptures as interpreted in the light of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. To be a good pastor one's teaching (and presumably one's believing as well) should also conform to the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith and the general theological principles and themes of Wesley's Standard Sermons.

    So, for a practical example: what am I to believe about the Trinity? I am to believe in classic Trinitarian orthodoxy, and read the relevant Biblical texts in this way, since this is put forth in the Creeds and the Doctrinal standards.

    On the other hand what am I to believe about the Devil? While the Christian tradition certainly gives me a lot of material to work with that presents a relatively consistent picture, nevertheless, there is no particular belief about the Devil prescribed in the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, or in the Doctrinal Standards. Rather than ignoring the topic altogether, I would presumably have some freedom to explore various interpretations, so long as they were grounded in Scripture as interpreted by Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

    Now when one does that, it seems to me that the classical consensus on demonology is pretty clear, and I accept it fully. But I don't know that I would, strictly speaking, be a heretic in the United Methodist Church if I did not, since there is no formally defined teaching on the matter. Does that make sense?


  2. It seems to me that if something is a theological non-essential, it may be not theological at all – which is how I take your comments about Oden's point.

    Take something like 'unconditional election'; if it is a true theological belief than it must have been part of God's self revelation, and therefore worthy of being believed, but if it is not (in other words, it is not a theological essential), than it may not be truly theological at all.

    There is a relationship then, between what is truly theological, and whether or not it has clearly been revealed. Though not all theology must be believed for salvation, all theology must be believed that has been revealed since it must be true (God's revelation cannot be false).

    This gives a fairly simple litmus test, to answer your question; but follow the logic for a second.

    Fundamentally, the bible is about the creator, and His relationship to His creation. As such it has two main subjects, call one the bride-groom, the other the bride, or perhaps we can call one the shepherd, the other His flock (from Genesis through to Revelation I don't any thing else apart from the bride-groom's effort to recover His bride)

    The bride-groom is eternal, unchanging, perfect and without shade or variation. His self revelation reflects this perfection and is the same (God revealed Himself perfectly, as far as I can tell). This suggests that our belief about Him matters. Add to that, the idea that His self revelation reveals important information about man's redemption, and this suggests further that there is something essential (sure) about our belief in Him

    On the other hand, His bride, His flock, as created, is revealed to be imperfect, mortal, constantly changing, unreliable, and certainly full of shade and variation, and having no direct involvement in the redemption of man. So, it seems whatever we think about this secondary character in His revelation, there is room for doubt, variability in thought and belief.

    So if we are to recognize theology then, our litmus test is simple – ask the question “is its gaze fixed on God?”.Since only belief fixed on God can be sure, and only revelation about God, true theology must be fixed on God and based upon His revelation. Everything else is merely non-essential, since everything else is unsure and false. So not everything can/or should be called 'theology' if they are not fixed on God.


  3. I don't think I'm asking about essentials (unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean by essential). It is certainly the case that what was once considered essential is no longer in some quarters. That is part of the question. However, I'm interested in something much larger than essentials. Oden is concerned that the word “theology” has lost its meaning because anything can be called theology and no one stops to ask why. He says that you could offer a course in phenomenology and call it “theology of bracketing” or you could study psychohistory or women's outrage and call it theology. He is worried that “theos” in theology no longer means applying God's truth and God's self-revelation to these sorts of things. They are thought to be theology in and of themselves apart from any concern as to what God thinks or says about them.

    So, the question has more to do with how we evaluate things in light of divine revelation and theological method instead of what constitutes essentials of the faith. Essentials would certainly be a subset of that discussion. The question is though: When are we able to look at a discipline or course of study and say, “That's not theology”?

    Your question is helpful to me. Some of the things Oden is proposing are new thoughts for me, and the question has pushed me to think more about them and, I think, understand the issue better. So thanks.



  4. Matt, in some sense aren't you asking what differentiates a theological essential from a theological non-essential?

    (If it has become 'anything goes', doesn't that suggest what was a theological essential in days past, is now being treated as a theological non-essential?)


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