Thomas C. Oden is a fascinating figure in the history of 20th Century theology, and his new autobiography, A Change of Heart, is a fascinating read. Known for The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Agenda for Theology, Oden writes a riveting tale about his early commitment to liberal theology and socialism, and then a 180-degree turn as he embraced classic Christianity and conservative thought in the early 1970s. Truly a remarkable story, Oden’s work is well worth the time.
Oden was born in rural Oklahoma in the 1930s, attended the University of Oklahoma in 1949, and then was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Yale Divinity School to study under Richard Neibuhr, America’s greatest living theologian at the time. Oden wrote his dissertation on Bultmann and Barth, embracing a liberal theology that included a smattering of Marxism, Freudianism, and Nietzsche’s Will to Power. He fit well within mainline Methodist theology in the 1950s, which was attacking capitalism and embracing revolutionary rhetoric. In all this, Oden could only swallow the classic doctrines of Resurrection and Incarnation with an allegorizing, mytholigizing flair.
All this began to change in the 1960s as he went back to reading the Bible and had influential meetings with the leading theologians of the day, including Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg had not only written a forceful critique of the more liberal Bultmann, but had also written an evidence-based defense of the historicity of the Resurrection. As Oden was ruminating on all this, in 1969 he was invited to join the faculty at Drew University in New Jersey. Here he became good friends with Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian 30 years his senior, who, when he became familiar with Oden’s theological works, lovingly but adamantly pulled Oden aside and declared, “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.” Struck with the truth of Herberg’s words, Oden started pouring over the Church Fathers to see what they had to teach him.
The rest, as they say, is history. Oden became the founder of a movement called paleo-orthodoxy, an intellectual return the the roots of classic Christianity informed by the New Testament and the Church Fathers. His book Agenda for Theology, first published in 1979, became an important work that influenced a new generation of theologians who were looking for a way forward with both classic consensual Christianity and postmodernity. And, in the 1990s, he began the pinnacle of his life’s work: editing The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a 29-volume set that gathers the best comments by the Church Fathers on the 66 books of the Bible. The ACCS allows the reader to immediately grasp the importance and history of interpretation of any particular Scripture passage.
It was an influential set of meetings with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1988 (Ratzinger would later become Pope Benedict XVI), that gave Oden the idea for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Oden traveled all over the world to meet with influential Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians to carry the series forward, and he became the center of a new movement of conservative ecumenism. It is hard to over-estimate the influence Oden has had in this movement. There has not been a commentary like the ACCS for centuries, and, as Oden has met theologians from all over the world, he has united an influential and diverse group of the world’s leading theologians to carry paleo-orthodoxy forward. As well, with his How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind and his founding of the Center for Early African Christianity, Oden thoroughly demonstrated to the West the formative place African theology played in the beginnings of Christianity. He has also ignited the imagination of a new generation of African scholars.
All in all, Oden’s autobiography is an enriching intellectual experience. Not only is it an interesting story in itself, but if gives, along the way, a glimpse into some of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century. Highly recommended.
Editor’s Note (1/21/2016): Today, Bob Trube, a regular contributor to the ESN blog posted a review of A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014) on his blog (Bob on Books). We encourage you to check out Bob’s perspective on this important memoir. What a joy to be part of this growing learning community. To God be the glory! ~ Tom