Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology

Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology

by Thomas C. Oden

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The final volume in a three-volume systematic theology by a major American theologian.


The final volume in a three-volume systematic theology by a major American theologian.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.27(d)

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Some of the most intriguing and difficult questions of theology lie straight ahead under the topics of the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of persons in community.

The Saving Work of the Spirit

The Living God, first volume of this series, set forth the ancient ecumenical Christian understanding of God, creation, and providence. The Word of Life, volume 2 of Systematic Theology, asked whether the Word became flesh, and whether that has saving significance for us. Life in the Spirit asks how the work of God in creation and redemption is being brought to consummation by the Holy Spirit in persons, through communities, and in the full range of human destiny. Though grounded in this larger sequence, this volume can be read as a self-contained argument. It points toward but does not require the reading of its companion volumes.

The issues ahead have been more prone than others to defensive polemics and special institutional memories. There is an understandable reason why these practical, churchly, and end questions of theology are at sensitive points more resistant to consensual interpretation, for they take the theological task ever closer to the varieties of personal experience, concrete variables of social and political order, ideologies and competing worldviews, histories of church polities, and particular ways of engaging in the mission of the Spirit. Despite these obstacles, this study hopes to find an audience with Catholics without offense to Baptists, with charismatics without losing touch withEastern Orthodox communicants, with social liberationists without demeaning pietists. How? By seeking the shared rootage out of which each has grown.

Defining Sources of Classic Consensual Teaching. Who are the "principal consensual exegetes" to whom the argument so frequently turns? Above all, they are the ecumenical councils and early synods that came to be often quoted as representing the mind of the believing church; the four standard ecumenical teachers of the Eastern church tradition (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom) and of the West (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great), as well as others who have been perennially valued for accurately stating certain points of ecumenical consensus: Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary, Leo, John of Damascus, and Thomas Aquinas. "Classic" in this definition includes classic Reformation sources from Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin through Chemnitz and Ursinus to Wesley and Edwards and consensus-bearing Protestant formularies consistent with ancient consensual exegesis. I do not hesitate to quote at times relatively nonconsensual writers like Origen, Tertullian, Novatian, and Menno Simons, but I do so on those points at which they generally have confirmed or articulated or refined consensual views, not on points where they diverge into idiosyncratic thinking (Vincent of Lerins, Comm. 17, 18, NPNF 2 XI, pp. 143-45).

Because the exegetical questions grow increasingly controverted and technical in these contested theological battlefields, more explanatory detail is required to establish irenic argument. It would be possible to set forth a much briefer summary of these issues, but I am assuming that my reader would prefer to be guided just to that depth that is required for a clear and adequate grasp of the subject matter without unnecessary excursions (Leo, Letters I, NPNF 2 XII, p. 1).

Whether the Intent of Classic Ecumenic Referencing Differs from Modern. The religion-teaching guild functions with an underlying value premise that is besttermed modern chauvinism. Modern chauvinism holds that whatever is premodern is likely to be relatively worthless; that whatever worth might be encased in premodern sources must be translated in terms that are acceptable to moderns before its worth can be extracted; and that whatever is newer is predictably superior intellectually and morally. Accordingly, a major function of footnoting in guild religious studies, fixated as it is upon novelty, is the identification of the most recent sources that achieve presumably new perspectives and transcend the supposed limits of the old. Regrettably, the premise is as common as it is arrogant.

The major function of referencing in the classical ecumenical tradition, by contrast, is the identification of ancient, tried, and consensually reliable formularies and authorities for articulating the mind of the believing church, especially underidiosyncratic or heterodox challenge. The purpose is to set forth sources that havebeen repeatedly and reliably quoted by the believing community to point to shared affirmations and assumptions (Vincent of Lerins, Comm. 1-3, FC 7, pp.267-72).

Hence the ethic of footnoting that pervades the ethos of modern scholarship must be transmuted by classical Christian scholarship, which has always had little desire to state wholly original ideas or to pretend to identify the first pristine occurrence or expression of an idea in time, aware that all ideas in history live in an organic continuum of historical consciousness and gradual development.

The church is approaching its third millennium. It is beyond the capacity of any writer to reference all such sources, especially where the history of exegesishas a multimillennia trajectory. The purpose is not an absolute completeness of reference (the entire project would then turn comically into an endless series of footnotes) but rather a spare and fitting selection of those references that proximately express the mind of the believing church throughout all its history. This has been a variegated history personally unified in Christ, whose oneness is contextually enabled by the Spirit. For the principles underlying this selection, I refer the reader to the prefaces and methodological epilogues to the two previous volumes in the series.

Introducing the Study of the Spirit

Pneumatology is the systematic analysis and interpretation of the texts of scripture and tradition that deal with the regenerating and consummating work of the Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion). Like Christology, it has been typically structured around the distinction between the person (identity) and work (activity) of the Holy Spirit-the overarching subject of this volume. So vast is the subject matter that it requires careful reasoning to establish a fitting route of approach to its range and consequences.

Life in the Spirit. Copyright © by Thomas C. Oden. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Thomas C. Oden is the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University and the author of more than twenty widely read books, including Pastoral Theology, Agenda for Theology, and Kerygma and Counseling. He is also the general editor of the pioneering series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

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