Thomas C. Oden
Reviewed by: Carl Trueman
Date posted: 03/30/2008
Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings, edited by Thomas C. Oden. Published by InterVarsity Press, 2007. Paperback, 294 pages, list price $17.00. Reviewed by Westminster Seminary professor Carl Trueman.
If I had my time again, I would probably spend more of it studying patristic or medieval theologians. The reason? Reformed theology, at least as developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drank deep at the wells of the early Fathers and the greats of the Middle Ages. Ironically, to understand Reformation theology, one really needs first to have a good grasp of that which came earlier and which frequently stood in continuity with later Protestant developments. From understanding Christ to living the Christian life, thoughtful Protestantism never cut itself off from the wider Christian tradition. Sadly, more recent evangelicalism has, by accident or design, frequently isolated itself from such historic sources through a sincerely intended but naively executed commitment to the notion of scriptural sufficiency. This has borne unfortunate fruit. Over recent decades, the movement of many evangelicals to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy has been, in part at least, a reaction to such impoverishment of the Christian tradition within evangelical ranks.
The problem, of course, is how to encourage such interest and knowledge among evangelical people. Without doubt, there are important lessons to be gleaned from lrenaeus and Tertullian, but these are frequently hidden in a forest of ideas, polemics, and personalities, which will kill the interest of most lay readers within a few pages.
Given this problem, this volume is a gem. Structured as a weekly devotional which covers a whole calendar year, the book offers helpful quotations from selected Fathers, contemporary reflections upon them, and patristic prayers which drive home each chosen topic in the context of personal piety. In other words, Oden is not so much arguing for the relevance and usefulness of patristic theology as demonstrating the same. In our pragmatic age, this might well prove to be the most compelling way to persuade Christians of the value of early church theology.
Of course, the limits of the book are the limits of patristic theology. Classic Protestant distinctives, such as a robust emphasis on justification by grace through faith, and on assurance, are missing. Thus, the book needs to be supplemented with other devotional reading. Further, the move at points from giving actual dates to using the liturgical calendar for the readings is a little frustrating to a hackneyed Puritan like myself who, beyond knowing the date of Christmas and the approximate location of Easter, wears ignorance of the liturgical calendar as a badge of honor. Yet it should also be noted that the book can be started at any point in the year and still prove helpful.
The church owes Thomas Oden a great debt for his tireless efforts to remind evangelicalism of the riches of the wider Christian tradition. Buy this book; use it; give it away; bring it to the attention of your pastor. And give thanks that you do not have to go to Rome or Athens to connect with patristic riches, as this attractively produced book so ably demonstrates.
(A longer version of this review appeared in Modern Reformation, September-October, 2007 [vol. 16, no. 5].)