Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Redefining Paleo Orthodoxy

The late Thomas Oden, in promoting what he termed paleo-orthodoxy, sought to unite Christianity based on the ecumenical creeds by heeding the admonition of the Vincentian canon. That is, to accept and teach as truth "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." When I began my exploration of Oden's work, I at first thought this was a good approach as well. I no longer hold to that view. Oden's approach ignores the glaring problem of the discrepancies between much that the Seven Ecumenical Councils had to say regarding theology and ecclesiology, and the teachings of both Sacred Scripture and the early Church Fathers, whom I respect every bit as much as Oden did. True paleo-orthodoxy (ancient correct teaching) is rightly defined as that which is expressly taught in Sacred Scripture first, and the writings of the Church Fathers second. Thus paleo orthodoxy is more accurately an attempt to return to the earliest expression of the orthodox Christian Faith- that of the early Church Fathers.

If we accept Oden's version of paleo-orthodoxy, then we too must reject much from the unanimous witness of the very Church Fathers he selectively quotes to support his position. Not that I think Oden was engaging in conscious dishonesty, but that his position with regard to the Ecumenical Councils forced him to ignore things that conflicted with these councils as if they were either aberrant teachings, or simply not wholly orthodox or apostolic in origin.

The fact of the matter is, Oden's version of paleo-orthodoxy implicitly rejects Apostolic tradition and teaching as found in the writings of the Church Fathers, which undermines his position. For example, if we are to accept the Second Council of Nicaea (787 A.D.), then we must embrace the veneration of icons and statuary of saints and Mary. This council taught that icons are necessary as a protection of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and proclaimed that icons are to be kept in churches and honored with the same veneration shown to other symbols, such as the cross of Christ. This completely contradicts the witness of the very Church Fathers to whom Oden appeals.

"They (Christians) cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images.."- Origen, Against Celsus

"...but it is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images."
                                                                                                          - Origen, Against Celsus

"There shall be no pictures in the church.."- Synod of Elvira (306 A.D.)

"Anyone who honors an image with the name of God falls into idolatry."- Tertullian

Epiphanius (394 A.D.) wrote:

"I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or one of the saints...Seeing this and being loathe that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder.."

He goes on to refer to the use of images as "an offense unworthy alike of the Church of Christ", and of Christians. And this is just one example.

There are many other examples of ways in which the Christianity to emerge from the Seven Ecumenical Councils was not strictly orthodox, which is exactly the problem with Oden's insistence on these councils as a unifying force. Evangelicals and classical Protestants (indeed, anyone with a desire for biblical truth) could never embrace the authority of the councils without reservation, as they are at odds with a purely biblical faith. Rather than insist on these councils as the unifying factor, paleo-orthodoxy should, if it is to be consistent with the very name, insist on fidelity first to the witness of Sacred Scripture (which I grant Oden's paleo-orthodoxy does), and second to the witness of the early Church Fathers. Where Scripture is silent or unclear on an issue, then we turn to the writings of the Church Fathers for clarity. Where they speak in unison on an issue, we can reasonably embrace that testimony as being of Apostolic origin. It seems to me that this would solve many of the more divisive issues, especially among evangelicals. In other words, paleo-orthodoxy is more correctly a return to the faith of the early church, not the religion of the institutions that came to be known, albeit fallaciously, as the catholic and orthodox faiths. What has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all", is not necessarily what the Apostles left. Instead of using the Vincentian model, we should consider Tertullian's position on apostolic doctrine and when it was held in its totality.

"No other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation."

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