Saturday, 10 December 2016

From Bultmann to Pannenberg and the Early Church: The Theological Journeys of Thomas Oden

No other 20th century biblical scholar has divided Christian theologians as much as Rudolf Bultmann. To this day, there is a certain reverence for him in Germany, which no other theologian of his day enjoys. I experienced this myself visiting Bonn, Munster, Mains, Halle and Berlin between 2010-2013. At some point, if you wanted a teaching job at a top German university, you needed to demonstrate your allegiance to him. Bultmann himself also secured important academic appointments for some of his students which, in turn, contributed to the longevity of his scholarship and insights.

On the other hand, Bultmann's controversial work, especially on demythologizing the New Testament, existentialism and form-criticism, was criticised by especially North American scholars, but also a couple of his own German students.

Against this background, the recent death of Thomas Oden, once a Bultmann disciple, provides another chapter to the controversies and continuing fascination with the life and work of Bultmann. Below I place a couple excerpts from Oden's A Change of Heart. A Personal and Theological Memoir, and some comments.

"My fascination with Rudolf Bultmann's demythology project was very evident in the mid-1950s and continued throughout my Yale years. The works of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Bultmann became the prevailing sources for all I sought to do. The Hebrew and Christian sacred texts came alive through existential interpretation of the faith that formed among Jesus' followers-reported first in oral tradition from which the written tradition was derived. But I started to wonder if it was the biblical writers I was absorbing or was it Bultmann.
I was writing and speaking in defence of what I thought was a moderate Bultmannian position in theology. Bultmann had rightly resisted the German liberalism of Adolf Harnack, who sought to base Christian teaching on the moral imitation of the historical Jesus. The Jesus of history was constantly being contrasted with classic Christian dogmas about the incarnate and risen Christ, lord of glory. Bultmann's answer to Harnack was to translate every Gospel passage into what he regarded as its demythologized existential meaning ... Bultmann showed me the way back into an intense engagement with the sacred texts, but not fully into its own premises of revelation. He was investigating historically the memory of the community remembering Jesus, not the Jesus of the text, who was understood by classic Christianity as truly God, truly human. I carelessly assumed Bultmann's method would remain decisive for every serious interpreter of Scripture" (69-70).

At this stage, Bultmann's method was indeed decisive for Oden, who went on to write his PhD on the ethics of Bultmann and Karl Barth. Oden also had personal interaction with Bultmann:

"... my dissertation was approved in time for spring semester graduation in  May 1960. Once accepted, I sent the first half of the dissertation to Rudolf Bultmann as a courtesy with an invitation to respond to any points in my analysis and critique if he wished. I was speechless when I received a long letter from Bultmann, who had diligently examined the details of my arguments. His letter became a featured part of the publication in 1964 ... of Radical Obedience: The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann: With a Response by Rudolf Bultmann."

Indeed, Bultmann himself played a significant role in launching the academic career of the young Oden. As Oden started his teaching career, he explains on pp. 85-86 the content of his own beliefs and ethics by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus in the Apostles' Creed:

"I was able to confess the Apostles' Creed, but only with deep ambiguity. But I stumbled over 'he rose from the dead.' I had to demythologize it and could say it only symbolically. I could not inwardly confess the resurrection as a factual historical event. I was assigned the task of teaching theology, but when it came to the resurrection, I honestly had to say at that stage that it was not about an actual event of a bodily resurrection but a community's memory of an unexplained event.  ... I could not explain to myself or others how Christianity could be built on an event that never happened.
That turned the New Testament into a puzzle of historical investigation about an event that never occurred. I doggedly continued to teach that the disciples' memory of Jesus' resurrection enabled us to understand ourselves anew as the recipients of a new present.
This unrisen Christ was coupled with an ethic that held that the demand of God appears only in the present. It was uniquely given anew each moment. To listen to the need of the neighbor who meets me concretely is to listen for the call of God. That was the basis for a situational view of ethics. The requirement of God was discernible in the present since the neighbor always meets us with genuine needs.
That was my credo in my early thirties. It was new birth without bodily resurrection and forgiveness without atonement. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on. That meant that the gospel was not about an event of divine salvation but about a human psychological experience of trust and freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom. For me that passed for theology, but I remained uneasy about its insufficiencies".

In 1965 Oden had his first sabbatical during which he visited Bultmann and "Frau Bultmann" in their "warm, book-filled" house in Marburg. Bultmann, eighty-one and in good health at the time, confirmed to Oden that he was the first theologian who offered a substantial treatment of his views on ethics. They discussed unresolved issues in Oden's book, after which Oden attempted to shift the conversation to the resurrection:

"I attempted to raise the troubling question of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, but Bultmann parried it by focusing on the tradition of the resurrection memory rather than its facts" (92).

Quite soon after the publication of The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann, Oden began to have increasing reservations about his demythologized Jesus. Enter the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg:

"I read it [Pannenberg] in amazement as he presented a much more powerful critique of both Barth and Bultmann than I had conceived in my dissertation ... Bultmann had narrowed history to the moment of existential encounter in the now. Oppositely, Pannenberg extended the focus of history to its broadest frame: creation to consummation. That forever redefined my trajectory.
The premise from then on was that universal history is revelation. That meant the study of the whole of history in what the Bible calls revelation. The crucial point is that the 'whole' includes the end. Only through grasping the end of human history was its beginning understandable. For me that was a stunning idea: the meaning of history was known through the end of history. For Christians the meaning of the end of history was anticipatively revealed in the history of Jesus. Here was what I had been looking for. The New Testament taught the meaning of universal history, seen in the light of the  events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and promised final judgement. To my amazement Pannenberg presented evidence-based arguments that the resurrection of Jesus was the decisive event in history pointing to the end of history. Nobody before Pannenberg had made that connection as clearly as he did" (97-98).

While still in Germany, Oden was invited by Dieter Georgi, among the youngest on the Heidelberg New Testament faculty, to attend the annual meeting of the Bultmann-Kreise, the circle of Bultmannian scholars who met annually. Oden's recollection underlines the influence Bultmann and his students had in German and some American universities:

"In January of 1966 we drove to a small village guesthouse to meet the inner circle of the second generation of Bultmann scholars. Among them were some who would come to dominate the departments of New Testament studies in European and American universities in the ensuing decades. The group was dedicated to advancing and critiquing the influential initiatives Bultmann had taken towards the demythology of the New Testament. The more I heard, the more my interest in Bultmann ebbed since it appeared to me that the inner circle was more intent upon acceptance within the historical guild than in listening to the wisdom of the text" (100-101).

Yet, Oden continued to ride the Bultmann wave a little while longer. In fact, his work on Bultmann and experimental psychotherapy continued to open new and more prestigious doors:

"I received an invitation to consider coming to join the faculty of one of America's leading graduate schools at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey ... What they knew of me was my literary record as a centrist Bultmannian, an education experimentalist and an actively publishing scholars. They liked it that a Bultmannian had ventured into the world of experimental psychotherapies ... The University welcomed us heartily and offered me an opportunity to be part of the total rebuilding of the once great faculty ... I could see that my perspective would be significantly enlarged by being in the multicultural New York atmosphere" (126-127).

The final change, which caused Oden to break decisively with his Bultmannian early phase, happened in his first month at Drew University. This was primarily the result of a deep friendship with the former Marxist and "brilliant, diminutive, forceful, bearded Russian Jew", professor Will Herberg:

"Herberg was the master teacher on the university faculty, influencing generations of graduate students in interreligious dialogue, philosophy and theology. He passionately communicated the sacred tradition of Scripture that Jews and Christians share together ... As a Jewish social philosopher, he drew many Christians, including me, toward a deeper understanding of their own Christian faith" (135).

Oden and Herberg met on a cold rainy day, and immediately became friends. Oden, his wife Edita and
Herberg set up a biweekly schedule of luncheon meetings, with Edrita "serving as an active moderator who often softened the decibels". Here follows Oden's description of the decisive moment which changed him:

"The decisive moment of our confrontation was inevitable. Soon after our first meeting, I had given Will a copy of my recently published book Beyond Revolution, and he had read, marked and intensely responded in copious marginal notes ... Two weeks after that the three of us were having lunch in the balcony section of Rod's Restaurant in Covenant Station. Will was trying to show me that the errors I was making were much deeper that I had realized. I tried to defend myself. Suddenly my irascible, endearing Jewish friend leaned into my face and told me that I was densely ignorant of Christianity, and he simply couldn't permit me to throw my life away.
Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, 'You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.' In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition ... Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgement on the last day. He said, 'If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.'
In an instant of recognition, I knew he was right, I knew he had said that because he cared deeply about me. His words burned into my conscience. That  was the opening bell that led to a bruising personal dialogue about my self-deceptions. All of its implications were not realized instantly, but my reversal began then and there on that very day, that very moment.
I asked myself, Could it be that I had been trampling on a vast tradition of historical wisdom in the attempt to be original?" (136-137).

All the time, Oden's wife was part of the conversation. Later she asked him what he was going to do about Will's challenge. He had to concede that he had never truly worked through patristic texts with a listening heart. Reflecting back, Oden asked a number of penetrating questions:

  • Why did it take a Jew to turn me to Christianity?
  • Why did I get so few warning signals from Christians against the long range consequence of pacifism, collectivism and naturalism?
  • Why did I have to wait for a former socialist Jew who had been through those illusions himself to confront me with how futile they were?
Over time, Oden plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers: Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin Martyr. The maturing of Oden's change of heart was gradual through quiet reading in early mornings in a library carrel, meeting "those great minds through their own words" (138). And so the journey continued, reading Augustine, Jerome, John of Damascus, Sister Macrina, John Chrysostom etc. Bultmann's name re-emerged:

"And while reading Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lecture on evidence for the resurrection, I became persuaded that Pannenberg had provided a more accurate account than Bultmann of the event of resurrection" (138).

Remarkably, Oden's deep dive into early church texts made him realise that every question he previously thought of as ground breaking, had already been much investigated. Modern biblical scholarship was not as modern and original after all:

"Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away ... As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence. It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved ... [before] I had been unprepared to grant sacred Scripture its own premises: divine sovereignty, revelation in history, incarnation, resurrection and final judgement.
I had put too much uncritical trust in contemporary methods of historical study and behavioral engineering ... I was elated to realize that there was nothing new in what I was learning; I was only relearning what had been relearned many times before from the apostolic witnesses. I was amazed that the intergenerational wisdom of the ancient community of faith was completely accessible within modernity. There was no need for apology to university colleagues, no need to diminish my learnings by requiring them to conform to transient modern assumptions. There it was, still pulsating as a living, caring community that had survived unnoticed underneath the illusions of modernity" (139-140).

What a journey ...

Friday, 9 December 2016

Thomas Oden and Political Correctness ...

I was deeply saddened to learn that Thomas Oden passed away recently. His theological journey has inspired me and helped me rediscover the importance and significance of Patristic theologians for contemporary New Testament scholarship.

Oden's theological journey at Drew University in particular fascinates me. It demonstrates the role politically correct and left wing agendas can play in mainline seminaries. Will be interesting to hear the thoughts of the likes of Len Sweet, Peter Enns, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne's on this ...

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Harvard, Calvin College, and serious non-Christian thought - Alvin Plantinga

Probably the most important 20th century Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, concluded a summary of his spiritual and theological journey as follows:

"Calvin College has been for me an enormously powerful spiritual influence and in some ways the center and focus of my intellectual life. Had I not returned to Calvin from Harvard, I doubt (humanly speaking, anyway) that I would have remained a Christian at all; certainly Christianity or theism would not have been the focal point of my adult intellectual life".

The background for this claim is fascinating: