Major Book Reviews -- Life in the Spirit (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3) by Thomas C. Oden

By Fackre, Gabriel | Interpretation, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Major Book Reviews -- Life in the Spirit (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3) by Thomas C. Oden


Fackre, Gabriel, Interpretation


Life in the Spirit, by Thomas C. Oden. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3. HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992. 548 pp. $30.00. ISBN 0-06-066349-9.

Life in the Spirit is the third and concluding volume of Oden's ambitious (1561 pages) effort in systematics. The distinguishing mark of Oden's work within the flood of current books in this genre is its self-identified "paleo-orthodox" perspective. The sources are scripture, the fathers and councils of the ancient church, and the classic Reformers; and the spirit is implacably antimodern, resulting in a position variously described as "consensual centrist," "perennial ecumenical teaching," "irenic systematic theology," "consensual reception of consensually received texts," "the centrist ecumenical tradition," and "centered orthodoxy."

With the triune structure and sequence of the ecumenical creeds as guide throughout the three volumes, the author takes up where their third paragraph and thus the person of the Holy Spirit and Spirit's work in subjective soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. In returning to the ancient touchstones, Oden cites the leading doctors of the Western and Eastern traditions on each topic and expects systematic colleagues to pay like dues as a way out of our captivity to contemporary culture.

Oden begins with the classical understanding of the third person within the immanent Trinity, critiquing Western depersonalizing tendencies and asserting the Spirit as divine subject. Aware of tritheistic dangers, he emphasizes the mystery of triadic coinherence and thus the divine unity of the "inseparable, distinguishable and coeternal" persons (p. 23). In treating the Jilioque, Oden briefly describes the conflicting Eastern and Western perspectives and observes that "the two positions appear to be gradually converging in current ecurilenical dialogue" (p. 25). Missing here is a discussion of that dialogue (as represented by the Apostolic Faith study of the World Council of Churches) decision to eliminate the filioque and explore formulations that honor the concerns of each tradition, as in the Spirit proceeding "from the Father of the Son."

Oden holds to the "omnipresence of God the Spirit...among all peoples, all cultures, all times and places" (p.17). Following the creedal framework, however, most of the volume is devoted to the work of the third person in "the administration of Redemption after the Incarnation" (p.49). An introductory section explores the epistemological ministry of the Spirit with attention to the inspiration of scripture and the illumination of the church and the believer. The issue of glossolalia is taken up with the good advice to test all claims against the Christ of scripture, noting that "the fiery tongues were portrayed in early Christian art and exegesis as located not in the mouth but crowning the head..." (p. 66).

A major section on subjective salvation focuses on the application of the benefits of Christ's work as both pardon and power, the imputation of an alien righteousness to us as sinners, and the impartation of new life in the Spirit. Employing a version of the ordo salutis as framework, Oden addresses the issues of justification and sanctification with the help of a cascade of metaphors, including baptism of the Spirit, sealing, adoption, union with Christ, and indwelling. He honors the importance of traditions that stress the forensic dimension because of the temptations of works-righteousness as well as those wary of antinomianism which accent the imperatives as well as the indicatives and/or growth in grace. Oden's Methodist heritage is apparent in the long section on "perfecting grace," one that argues in a nuanced way for a "sustained radical responsiveness to grace."

Typology--helpfully used in the earlier volumes--sets the stage for the next section on the Spirit and the church, with the quest for an "irenic consensual" view that incorporates the best of "evangelical," "liturgical," and "liberal" accents and rejects their heterodox tendencies.

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