From Radical Leftist to Orthodox Theologian: Thomas Oden's Theological and Spiritual Journey

From Radical Leftist to Orthodox Theologian: Thomas Oden's Theological and Spiritual Journey

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Oden CoverIn the tradition of the Apostle Paul and other innumerable saints, church theologian Thomas C. Oden, now in his mid-eighties, experienced a series of events that led to a dramatic shift in his life’s orientation. In A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity Press, 2014), Oden recounts his turn from what he calls radical left ideology to classic Christianity.

In this autobiography, Oden takes readers through his life decade by decade, narrating aspects of his childhood growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, then presses on toward details of his education, pastoral ministry, and post at Drew University as Professor of Theology and Ethics.

Through his training and studies, Oden was on a left trajectory and eventually came to understand the Christian faith as an instrument by which to effect social change. He accepted Bultmann’s demythologization project and replaced historical-theological doctrine with existential, modernist revisions, most notably the social gospel, and other pyscho-therapeutic hermeneutics. As he later recounts, he had “been in love with heresy.” The biblical gospel was something simply to be glossed over, and reciting the ecumenical creeds without winking or wincing was an impossible feat. Indeed, words like resurrection and atonement were words he “choked on.” He had become obsessed with originality, as is often the case in academic circles. As Oden narrates his training and radical trajectory, we learn that he came under the mentorship of political liberals such as Saul Alinksky and Joe Matthews, who also helped shape the socio-political ideologies of Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

The change of heart happened in the 1970s and was sparked in part by key interactions with his colleague and mentor Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian and social philosopher. Herberg, who experienced his own conversion toward conservatism, charged Oden with a failure to seriously engage the traditions of the church. “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas…If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.”

These words seared Oden’s conscience and prompted him to reconsider ancient sources and to revisit Scripture. Gradually, they began to have fresh meaning. Oden started to recapture the spirit of classic Christianity through sustained study of patristic Christian writers and contemporary theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg’s Revelation as History served as the important corrective to Oden’s existential, demythologized reading he inherited from Rudolf Bultmann, and Oden found Pannenberg’s project of a historicized faith to be more promising than even the leading Protestant theologian of the century, Karl Barth.

When public figures have a change of heart, they tend to come under immense scrutiny and suffer criticism that most people typically don’t have to endure. While not without his share of political conflict, Oden’s shift from the radical left appears to have propelled him onto a trajectory of promising work opportunities with deep impact, both for the church and for scholarship. Before and after his dramatic shift toward classic Christianity, Oden’s work led him to meetings with some of the 20th century’s most brilliant theologians, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), Richard Niebuhr, Hans Gadamer, Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and others. In fact, he was at the Second Vatican Council as an observer. But his shift toward classic Christianity propelled him to discover afresh the especially rich heritage of African Christianity, and has since served as General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Christian and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series.

What becomes evident throughout Oden’s memoir is that, though having traveled far and wide and having met some of the most influential people in the church, there is a sense in which Oden prefers the company of ancient saints. Indeed, Oden shares that he was reluctant to narrate his own story, much preferring to tell the story of God. He does nonetheless share his life in a humble and non-embittered way. We learn that Oden’s heart is for faithfulness to God, recapturing classic doctrines such as the incarnation, conversion, and the promise of resurrection. When he passes onto the next life, he wants his tombstone to read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” This book is for anyone seeking inspiration or encouragement in the face of the challenges of modernity, to press on in faithfulness to the gospel which was once for all handed down to the saints.

Get the book A Change in Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.

View some of Thomas Oden’s other important works:

Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology
The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity
After Modernity…What?Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity
Systematic Theology


3 Responses

  1. Thank you for posting this!

    I have been learning a great deal about Thomas Oden. I wish Oden was able to get involved in writing or podcasting with Seedbed in his “retirement”. As a fellow orthodox/confessing United Methodist, hearing what he has to say is invaluable.

    He was initially persuaded by neo-orthodox theology. Converted to true faith in Christ after seminary / Ph.D., based on a challenge to know what he really believed via patrology as challenged by a Jewish scholar. It’s unreal how and in what ways the Lord has opened the heart & mind of Oden. I pray that more United Methodist look into the Church fathers, or even the writings of Wesley for that matter — all of whom recognize, stress, and implement the authority of scripture in their doctrine. Reading what the Church has consistently taught throughout the ages would lead to more liberally minded people finding the faith of our fathers in Jesus Christ.

    I would also recommend listening or linking to this fantastic interview with Al Mohler.

    May God bless the ministry of Seedbed during this time of awakening!

    1. p.s. I recently read this footnote C.S. Lewis’ “Modern Theology & Biblical Criticism” from “Christian Reflections”, which reminded me of Oden’s story:

      While the Bishop was out of the room, Lewis read ‘The Sign at Cana’ in Alec Vidler’s Windsor Sermons (S.C.M. Press, 1958). The Bishop recalls that when he asked him what he thought about it, Lewis ‘expressed himself very freely about the sermon and said that he thought that it was quite incredible that we should have had to wait nearly 2,000 years to be told by a theologian called Vidler that what the Church has always regarded as a miracle was, in fact, a parable!’] One thing led to another and before we were done I was saying a good deal more than I had meant about the type of thought which, so far as I could gather, is now dominant in many theological colleges….

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