Recovering our way: Thomas Oden on the Antinomian infection in North American Christianity

tom odenMy continued reflections on pastoral ministry, the church, and what it means to be in ministry in North America led me back to Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. I first read this book while still an undergrad at Wheaton College but enrolled with special permission in a graduate level class entitle “Pastoral Ministry,” I believe, with Dr. Timothy Beougher. The class was outstanding and I still remember many things from it, including Dr. Beougher’s own wisdom from experience as a pastor.

Tom Oden is perhaps best known today for his turn from liberal Methodism to classic Christian orthodoxy through his encounter with the church fathers and mothers. He traces this journey in two works, After Modernity…What?: Agenda for Theology and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. The fruit of that journey is Oden’s invaluable systematic theology, as well as the renowned Ancient Christian Commentary series.

While returning to this book with one of our staff members at Eastbrook as part of their ordination journey, I encountered this simple, yet vastly important, statement on the antinomian infection within North American Christianity. Here are Oden’s words:

The tradition has used the term antinomianism (from “against law,” or “lawlessness”) to speak of that undernourished view of God’s grace that views the gospel as if it implied no moral response or ethical constraint or norms of redemptive behavior. Antinomianism is the weird, wild, impulsive, unpredictable sleeping partner of much contemporary pastoral care. It mistakes the gospel for license, freedom for unchecked self-actualization, and health for native vitalism. The classical pastoral tradition has struggled mightily against “cheap grace” solutions and premature reassurances in a way that will be reflected on almost every page that follows.

Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice….

As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me not matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.

The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.

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