Thomas Oden

Do I Really Need to Study Church History?

Q and A With Thomas Oden

       Dr. Thomas Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at The Theological School and The Graduate School of Drew University. A noted scholar and a former Senior Editor of Christianity Today, he is author, editor, or translator of nearly forty books and scores of articles. Oden has lectured all over the world and held numerous positions of leadership in many organizations. With a B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Yale, he has vast experience as a teacher and a psychological counselor, receiving several awards. His most recent book is on Mark. Currently, Oden is the General Editor of a twenty-seven-volume new Bible Commentary using exclusively the Christian writers of the first eight centuries. In the following interview he discusses why every Christian should have a good working knowledge of the writings of the church fathers.


Why is it important to study the church fathers?

A. Most of the texts of the Bible were repeatedly and thoroughly commented on in the first millennium of Christian history. Both clergy and laypeople during that era studied the Bible constantly. The preaching is grounded in the Old Testament and Apostolic witness. In fact, most of the patterns of preaching in our time are refractions of previous preaching patterns in history. Even if these people did not have special wisdom (as I believe they had), they have certainly had great historical influence on us; that's definitely one reason to study them.

But that's not the most important reason. God the Holy Spirit worked in a very powerful way during the period of martyrdom and early formation of Christian doctrine to guide the Christian community into the truth. John says in his Gospel that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. Christians understand and believe this. We know that the Holy Spirit guided this community through all kinds of historical hazards during its early centuries.

It is especially moving for Christians today to see how the Bible was interpreted during the pre-Constantinian period of persecution and after Constantine, when the church was required to be more accountable to the state, the economy, and the domestic order. The church grew a great deal during that period by learning from Scripture in each new cultural situation. Today we have a different task in history. Ours is not that of the Greco-Roman world but that of the contemporary period. Yet, the more we can understand how this Christian community responded to its challenges in those early centuries, the better we will be able to discern the work of the Spirit in our time.


How do your views on church history inform your thinking about the state of the church now and into the next century?

A.Our culture is in disastrous shape. Frankly, we are in a moral free fall. If I saw my culture merely against the backdrop of its value system and not from the point of view of God's work in history, I would rightly feel more anxious and alienated. However, Christians need not feel that way. God is at work in this historical process in ways we do not understand. We can be less defensive about radical cultural change because obviously a work of God the Spirit is securely unfolding in history. We can have confidence in the triune God in history. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work together to fulfill the purpose of redemption.


Does the church educate its people adequately concerning church history?

A.We hardly emphasize it at all. In Protestantism, our historical memory is very short. Baptists remember Baptist history. Presbyterians remember Presbyterian history. Methodists might begin reading church history with John Wesley, the Reformed tradition with John Calvin. But that only goes back a few centuries.

If you read these men, you realize their preaching didn't start with their era, but with the Scripture, and they knew the patristic writers well. If we are going to follow our leaders we should do it as they directed rather than sentimentally returning to a little piece of history for which we have a special affection. In fixating on our own era, we deprive ourselves of a grasp of the Holy Spirit's work through every century, including those of the patriarchs and prophets leading up to John the Baptist and the proclamation of Jesus Christ. It is the whole work of God in history we must understand, not just a small section of it.


How could the church do a better job of educating its people?

A.Preaching, teaching, and scholarship are all involved. In Protestantism we don't yet have an adequate supply of patristic scholarship and texts to develop the kinds of lay teaching and pastoral care that we need. Beginning with seminary education, we would do well to encourage the deep calling and commitment of young people to rediscover the wholeness of the Christian tradition. Seminaries should develop better historical studies in patristic theology, medieval theology, Reformation theology, and mission history. In evangelical seminaries we are much stronger in modern biblical exegesis than in the work of the Spirit in history. We know how to exegete passages by modern standards, but not the way ancient Christian writers did because we haven't studied them much.


How did a study of the early church fathers cause you to become an evangelical Christian?

A.It literally reshaped me spiritually and theologically. Until the early '70s I was a modern, liberal theologian adapting Christian teaching to modern assumptions. But by that time I began to realize that those assumptions were collapsing and that classical Scripture and tradition were much more stable and wise. Until then I had been a Marxist politically, a Freudian psychologically, and a relativist in situation ethics and moral judgments.

I started to read the ancient Christian writers, especially the patristic teachers, such as Athanasius and Jerome. I had had a good education, but no one ever told me about the importance of these people. Once I began to realize the wisdom in that tradition, I knew that the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work in my consciousness. I believe I did not really becme a theologian until that point, even though I had written several books and been paid to be a theologian before that.

I gradually came closer and closer to evangelical dialogue, such as that in the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Evangelical Theological Society, with whom I had had no contact with before. Becoming an evangelical didn't happen overnight, but over about five years I clearly turned to a high view of Scripture and the work of the Spirit in the history of the church in the world.


Has this made you a different person?

A.Yes. I think I look odd to many people -- archaic and interested only in antiquities. But I am more alive to the problems of my own culture because of this development. Now I have a historical perspective that I didn't have before. It has reduced the anxiety, anger, and guilt that I feel as I look at our modern dilemmas. I am learning to trust that God is working even through the absurdities of our culture to bring about His will.


Your four-volume work, Classical Pastoral Care, deals with counseling issues exclusively from views of the church fathers. How can you gain answers from centuries ago for contemporary problems?

A.My wife died this past January. The death of a spouse is the same in the 20th century as in the 4th. My study of the church fathers is helping me learn through my grief. That study has saturated everything I know about -- my understanding of sexual accountability, of love, of that which is durable and does not pass away. I am now learning through that what it means to face and deal with life without her at my side helping me.

I don't think sexual temptation has substantively changed from the 2nd century to the present. Today we might have a wider range of options, and, in a sense, sexual temptation has flourished. I believe sustained values underlie the human condition regardless of the cultural changes. A historical perspective has enabled me to see that the human condition is under God in every century, every cultural situation.


What would you tell people to help them gain a better understanding of church history?

A. Read primary sources. Instead of reading a book about Augustine, read his Confessions or The City of God. Instead of reading a book about the early development of the doctrine of atonement, read Against Heresies by Irenaeus. Let these ancient Christian writers speak to you directly rather than through some filter. Allow the Holy Spirit through the text to speak personally in the same way the Bible does. Keep in mind that these writers were accepted by the world-wide church in that day and constantly referred to the Bible. Gaining a sense of how the Bible was seen and understood in different historical settings is part of the way one grows into a deeper, fuller discernment and perspective.

Get Hooked on Church History

Below are some great books to stir up your interest in reading the church fathers. Warning: once you start, you probably won't be able to stop.

  • The Faith of the Fathers ( 3 volumes) by William Jurgens (The Liturgical Press)
  • After Modernity...What? by Thomas Oden (Zondervan)
  • The Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius
  • Christian History Magazine (1-800-873-6986 or http://rq.christianity.net/christianhistory to subscribe)

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Last updated 09-22-98.