Thomas C. Oden (1931–2016) is a renowned Methodist theologian. He wrote numerous theology books and was editor of the monumental Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.
The Interpretation Series
The Interpretation series of Bible commentaries was created with the purpose of assisting “preachers and teachers”, focusing on the homiletical applications of the biblical text. It is a very useful series both for personal use and for teaching. I recommend this series it highly. The series includes many prominent theologians among whom I’ll mention: Thomas C. Oden (this volume), Terence Fretheim (Exodus), Walter Brueggemann (Genesis & 1 & 2 Samuel), and Richard B. Hays (1 Corinthians).
Oden’s method in this commentary is primarily to synthesize his own applications from Church Fathers and classical Protestantism. Among Church Fathers, he quotes most widely from Chrysostom and Augustine. Among Protestant authors, he quotes most from Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley.
My intention is to provide a modern commentary on the Pastorals grounded in the classical, consensual tradition of interpretation of these texts. (p. 2)
The author does cite modern commentaries in many cases, but he quotes the classics much more extensively. This lends an enduring interest to Oden’s commentary. Perspectives from the Fathers are often stunningly fresh, coming as voices from outside our culture and our zeitgeist. His focus on speaking from “consensual tradition” means he tends to dwell outside modern polemical arguments.
Arrangement of the Book
Oden’s volume on First and Second Timothy and Titus (1989) is unique in its arrangement. Passages are grouped thematically, rather than in canonical order, so that the book is less repetitive when read cover-to-cover. The Pastorals can be studied in canonical order using the index. For example, all three Bible books are introduced together, but the section that follows covers 2 Timothy 3:14–17 and 2 Timothy 1:3–7, grouped under “The Authority and Traditioning of Scripture”.
As the Pastoral Epistles are read and studied, Oden’s arrangement becomes more intuitive; but it takes some getting used to.
I think in such a commentary, although it is not long, it would be unproductive to try to cover the entire outline, so I will just point out some of the major contributions that I thought were insightful.
Who Wrote the Pastoral Epistles?
Historical evidence for Pauline authorship is a little weaker for the Pastoral Epistles than for the General Epistles. None of the Pastoral Epistles is mentioned in Marcion’s canon, the earliest New Testament canon. Oden argues, though, that the Church Fathers were unanimous in attributing these letters to Paul and ascribing apostolic authority to them. The historical sequence is also messy, comparing Acts to the Pastorals. But for Oden (p. 8), it is simplest to believe that the events related to these epistles occurred after Luke’s authoring of Acts, than to argue that the Pastorals are inauthentic, merely because we don’t have enough data to fit them together into a neat timeline. The Pastorals also differ thematically from other epistles because they differ in audience. Paul is addressing “long-term associates who did not need to be instructed on elementary teachings” (p. 13).
I do not put much stock in studies that seek to identify the author of a text based on vocabulary. Shakespeare, for instance, wrote much more than Paul, in language much closer to ours, and debates still rage about whether he could have written all the plays attributed to him. But, ultimately, they circle back to the man himself, because it takes very hard proof for speculation to oust tradition.
Do Not Rebuke a Mocker
At many points in the book, Oden helpfully points out how Paul dismisses false teachings rather than attacking them. This comes up repeatedly in the Pastorals. Timothy is to “give no heed” to conspiracy theories (1 Tim. 1:4); “spurn” old wives’ tales (1 Tim. 4:7); “flee” fake preachers who profit from the gospel (1 Tim. 6:11); “avoid godless chatter” (2 Tim. 2:16); Titus is to “give no heed” to Jewish fables (Titus 1:14); “avoid foolish questions” (Titus 3:9). Oden argues that even in our dealings with heretics, we should “refuse further dealings”:
This is not the same as excommunication. It is far more passive than that. If you enter into dialogue, you will inadvertently lend legitimacy to the false teacher by granting that his premise is tenable.Oden, p. 86
Women in Ministry
Many readers will be interested in Oden’s comments on women in leadership in relation to 1 Timothy 2:11–15. On 1 Timothy 2:12, Oden quotes Chrysostom, arguing that women are called to “quietness” (ἡσυχίᾳ) rather than “silence” (σιγὴ), and that this “quietness” is a virtue enjoined upon both men and women. Other New Testament uses justify this: Acts 22:2, 1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess 3:12, 1 Peter 3:4. The cognate term in 1 Timothy 2:2 is usually translated “peaceable”. Oden’s conclusion: “It is not that women in general cannot teach but that a woman cannot teach in such a way as to usurp authority over teachers already duly designated.” (p. 97) The juxtaposition is not between “holding authority” (αὐθεντεῖν) and “being in silence” (εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ), which are not very good antonyms; rather, the juxtaposition is between “usurping authority” (perhaps, “domineering”) and “quietness” (or something like “being at peace”).
In his comments on 1 Timothy 2:12, Martin Luther wrote that he believed this verse to pertain to “wives”, not “women”—the two senses are expressed by the same word in Greek, as also in Arabic and many other languages. For Luther, a “wife” (not “a woman”) should not usurp authority over her “husband” (not “a man”). The same lexical problem comes up in treatments of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (see here) and 1 Corinthians 14:34 (see here and here).
Bring the Parchments
Oden writes that Paul’s request, “bring the parchments”, is the most interesting passage in the Pastoral Epistles, and I tend to agree. It certainly sparks the imagination.
Bishops, Presbyters, Elders, Pastors, Deacons … ?
I had planned to write a little about Oden’s ecclesiology and church leadership, which is a major theme in the Pastoral Epistles. He delves at some length into questions such as the distinction between “elders” and “pastors” (hint: for him, there is none). I disagreed with some of Oden’s ideas here and the arguments got a little tricky for me to follow. Many have pointed out that Titus 1:5 and 1:7 seem to collocate “elders” and “bishop” as synonyms, and 1 Timothy 3 only outlines “bishops” and “deacons”, probably because elders were not a third category, but a synonym for “bishops”. This is a frequent argument used in documents that defend congregationalist ecclesiology, which has a flatter hierarchy than most Methodist denominations, in that it has no bishoprics presiding over multiple churches.
I’ve finished three volumes from this series and all have been very good. My main problem with getting through Oden’s book was how it was organized. It is a difficult task writing a commentary that covers portions of scripture that are somewhat repetitive, and yet maintaining readable prose. But his use of classical commentators, in my opinion, made up for this defect. And in spite of his self-proclaimed “fogey”-ness, his style is mostly quite accessible. This book is a refreshing mix of old and new.