“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?