A return to primitive Christianity in a modern age

The earliest texts provide shelter from currents of change

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As many seekers have set off in recent years to pursue spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion, another trend has quietly emerged within and across Christian denominations: a return to orthodoxy.

In response to the disillusionments of modern life, this resurgence is gathering believers of many ages and faith communities - mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox - in a vigorous ecumenical exploration of the early teachings of Christianity.

It is perhaps most visible in the least expected place - the liberal mainline churches - where many "renewal" groups are taking an assertive stance, seeking to replace what they consider secularized theology and political activism with biblical authority and evangelical fervor.

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Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, a former liberal turned avid orthodox, describes and makes the case for this new movement in "The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity." While his book seems addressed more to the theologically and philosophically attuned than to the average layperson, his aim is to win believers to the cause of "classic Christianity." That is, Christian tradition as defined by the sacred texts of scripture, the ecumenical councils of the first five centuries, and the teachings of the "fathers of the first millennium."

We are living, Oden contends, not in what many call the post-Christian era, but the postsecular age. The secular ideologies of modern society are collapsing, and have left us with a deep rootlessness and moral confusion. As secular culture pervaded many churches, people lost touch with the scriptures and an ability to set boundaries for what is true. But, Oden writes, "God is at work in grass-roots Christianity, awakening a ground swell of longing for classical ecumenical teaching in all communions." The astonishing survival and growth of Christianity in China, for example, serves as vivid testament to the persistent power and universal relevance of its basic teachings.

The contemporary face of orthodoxy is taking many forms, from ecumenical online journals such as re:generation and Touchstone, run by younger followers, to international evangelical ministries, rediscovery through translation of early scriptural interpreters, and the activism of renewal groups who seek to "reclaim" mainline denominations.

A professor of theology and ethics at Drew University, Oden is a leading voice of this movement. He heads an ambitious scholarly venture to publish - with an ecumenical team of translators and editors - a massive 28-volume commentary called "Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture." Anyone wishing "to think with the early church about the sacred text" will be able to find, in verse-by-verse format, the reflections, deliberations, and debates of Christian monks and leaders of the first to eighth centuries.

Oden also leads the Association for Church Renewal, which coordinates the work of renewal movements within the mainline churches (i.e. Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran). Riven in recent years by divisions over biblical interpretation and social issues, mainline churches struggle with the threat of schism. These movements seek to capture the denominations' institutional resources and theological commitment.

For them, orthodoxy means "right remembering" of the earliest testimony of scripture, along with learning to say "no" to false doctrine. It involves hewing to the creeds, liturgies, and doctrines set by the early councils and accepted over two millennia - including the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection. There is "avid new interest" in setting boundaries for Christian teaching, Oden says, and a growing literature on heresy and apostasy.

Certain that this is a global movement led by the Holy Spirit, the author compares what he considers the bankrupt mainline-led ecumenism of the 20th century with this "new-ancient ecumenism," and argues - though not always convincingly - that orthodoxy is more authentically multicultural, inclusive, fair, and intellectually free than are modernist versions of Christianity.

Oden recounts his own journey of transformation from an agnostic seminarian to a teacher motivated by revolutionary activism to a devout orthodox theologian. On this journey, he says he found that the theological questions his contemporaries were grappling with had already been considered and effectively resolved by the early church.

This rallying call to the faithful to hold fast to that historical consensus is a direct challenge to those who today call for changes to Christian symbols and teachings to speak effectively to a postmodern world. What remains to be seen is whether this emphasis on doctrine can satisfy today's yearnings for direct experience of God and for authentic living that mirrors Jesus' works and the commands given to his followers.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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