As I was driving home last night, I was disheartened to hear of the passing of Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016). He was a theologian I met and heard in person only once eleven years ago, but like many of his generation, I was trained and influenced more by those he influenced. As he lived in nearby Oklahoma City, I had hopes of meeting him again through a mutual friend, but that will now have to wait for a more glorious day. I am grateful for his life and contribution to evangelical theology, both in word and deed. He was a Gentlemen Theologian.
In recent years, I read his outstanding autobiography, and found it to shed great insight for me on the development of theology in the twentieth century, among both Protestant liberalism and Evangelicalism. For, as the title of the volume suggests, right around the age of 40, Oden experienced a change of heart. This theological transformation he underwent resulted in a new trajectory away from the theological left of his academic training and toward something older and more solid, what he would call classic Christianity. This new path led him to find a warm welcome among evangelicals, as he would say,
“I found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than the liberals, who were so frequently speaking about inclusion with a narrower view of inclusiveness largely defined by gender and ethnicity. Evangelical and Catholic inclusiveness transcended those divisions and went deeper into transcultural classic Christianity” .
While there is much to glean and learn from the life and thought of Tom Oden, particularly, I am grateful for the revived interest in early Christianity and Patristic theology he helped to champion. In A Change of Heart he tells the story of how this came to pass:
A Collegial Challenge
In the 1970s, while at Drew University, Oden tells of a confrontation he had with a friend and Jewish colleague, who informed Oden, at that time a 39 year old Christian theology professor, that he was “densly ignorant of Christianity.” Oden relates,
“Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition” .
Following this Oden “plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers,” and what he found there changed his life and soul. Through reading Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Macrina, John of Damascus, and John Chrysostom he said the “maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually.” Commenting further,
“I was being guided by the Spirit toward and integral sense of Scripture based on the consensus of the early Christian interpreters of sacred Scripture. Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated
Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away: the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism.
As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence.
It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved” [137-139].
Oden was relieved by what he discovered and the theological and life-altering change he experienced. He shared that he was “elated to realize that there was nothing new in what I was learning; I was only relearning what had been relearned many times before the apostolic witness.” In reflecting on his life to this midpoint, he assessed,
“My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace.
My life has passed through the core phases of the history of modern social change, politics, technology, philosophy and religion. Some may find that my story mirrors their own experience. Putting that mirror in another’s hands is my motivation to write it accurately just as it occurred. Those societal changes have affected everyone in our times, but at the same time the perennial story of salvation awaits anyone ready to hear it.
I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year old stable memory” .
A Prefigured Epitaph
In 1971 Oden dreamt that he was walking the the New Haven cemetery and came across his own tombstone that read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” For him, this prefigured epitaph was a welcomed relief and a sign of his change of heart. He explained,
“The striking image signaled to me that I no longer had to produce something new in theology in order to find a reliable foothold in theological discourse …. Since the first time I ever thought of becoming a theologian, I was earnestly taught that my most crucial task was to ‘think creatively’ in order to ‘make some new contribution to theology’ ….
But this dream prompted me to begin to try to follow the strict rule of Irenaeus that Christian truth must avoid any temptation to ‘invent new doctrine’ … What the ancient church teachers least wished for Christian teachers is that they would become focused on self-expression or become an assertion of purely private inspiration, as if those might claim to be some decisive improvement on apostolic teaching” .
Tom Oden referred to this awakening as his “midlife breakthrough. I was forty,” he said. “My next forty years would be entirely different.” And,
“As with Augustine, it was through a journey of the mind that I had a change of heart. I had to learn than my life was more than my mind, and that my journey had to be experienced without knowing where it was taking me. In the 1970s I learned that it was God the Spirit, prompting, wooing, revealing and guiding the journey” .
As many take the occasion in the coming days to reflect on Oden’s life and theological work, particularly his contribution to the theology of the early church, I am one who remains thankful for Oden’s change of heart and his recovery of classic Christianity.
Thomas C. Oden