Thomas Oden’s Change of Mind

By Thomas C. Oden –

The premier teacher in the Drew Graduate School was without doubt social philosopher Will Herberg (1901-1977), the brilliant, diminutive, forceful, Russian Jew who had come to teach at Drew in 1955 (see photograph, page 17).

I had never met a mind so brilliant, a wit so quick and an analyst more probing. When I asked him to talk about his youthful days as a communist youth organizer, he always changed the subject. Just as I had been enthralled by the utopian ideals of Marxism, Herberg, as an idealistic youth, had taken it much further a generation before by actually joining the Communist Party, which was not unusual among Russian immigrant Jewish families of the 1920s. After 30 years of activism in the Communist Party and the labor movement, his heart was changed into becoming a powerful anticommunist critic, writer and conservative college circuit lecturer. He had experienced American communism inside and out before rediscovering his lost Jewish roots.

We both understood the difference between Jew and Christian: One was expecting the Messiah; the other had met the Messiah. Disillusionment with utopianism drew Herberg toward the classic teaching of Judaism in a way amazingly similar to how I was being gradually drawn to classic Christian teaching. I found him to be intensely loyal to his Jewish tradition while being deeply empathic with his Christian students. Though Herberg was not a Christian, he made it possible for me to become one.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 9.44.32 AMHis abrupt disavowal of communism came when he was 39 years old. During that transition, Herberg had weighty conversations with Reinhold Niebuhr on theology and seemed on the verge of converting to Christianity. Niebuhr urged him to rediscover his Jewish roots by studying Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was just across the street from Union Theological Seminary. An irony worth noting: Herberg became a Jew by listening to a Christian; I became a Christian by listening to a Jew.

Herberg was the master teacher on the university faculty, influencing generations of graduate students in interreligious dialogue, philosophy and theology. He passionately communicated the sacred tradition of Scripture that Jews and Christians share together. Both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures affirm salvation history as the basis for social criticism. As a Jewish social philosopher, he drew many Christians, including me, toward a deeper understanding of their own Christian faith.

My change of heart began to happen in my first month at Drew. Will and I hit it off immediately, but it was not until he met [my wife] Edrita that he was most impressed with me. She was a dazzling raconteur, quick-witted and ready for banter. The three of us set up a biweekly schedule of luncheon meetings in which Will and I went at it, with Edrita serving as an active moderator who often softened the decibels.

The decisive moment of our confrontation was inevitable. Soon after our first meeting, I had given Will a copy of my recently published book Beyond Revolution, and he had read, marked and intensely responded in copious marginal notes. I received his annotated copy as a gift after his death, and it has become one of my most prized possessions.

Two weeks after that the three of us were having lunch in the balcony section of Rod’s Restaurant in Convent Station. Will was trying to show me that the errors I was making were much deeper than I had realized. I tried to defend myself. Suddenly my irascible, endearing Jewish friend leaned into my face and told me that I was densely ignorant of Christianity, and he simply couldn’t permit me to throw my life away. 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.

He explained that he had gone through a long season of restitution after his erratic days and found it necessary to carefully read the Talmud and the Midrashim to discover who he was. Likewise he felt that I would have to go to a quiet place and sit at the feet of the great minds of ancient Christianity to discover who I was.

Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgment on the last day. He said, “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.”

In an instant of recognition, I knew he was right, I knew he had said that because he cared deeply about me. His words burned into my conscience. I asked myself, Could it be that I had been trampling on a vast tradition of historical wisdom in the attempt to be original?

From her eyes I knew that Edrita understood what Will was saying. Later she coolly asked me what I was going to do about it. At the time I did not have an answer. I had read some Augustine, Aquinas and Luther, but I had never crawled through patristic texts with a listening heart. I had never truly inhabited that timeless, sacred world.

Why did it take a Jew to turn me to Christianity? I had received little encouragement from Christians to inquire deeply into the greatest minds of the earliest Christian tradition.

The 180-degree of change 

I plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers: Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr. I wanted them to feed my soul. The maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually through quiet reading in early mornings in a library carrel, allowing myself to be met by those great minds through their own words.

While reading Augustine’s City of God on the ironic providences of history, I finally grasped how right [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn was about the spiritual promise of Russia. And while reading Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lecture on evidences for the resurrection, I became persuaded that [Wolfhart] Pannenberg had provided a more accurate account than [Rudolf] Bultmann of the event of resurrection.

While reading the dialogues of 4th century Sister Macrina and the women surrounding Jerome, I now could trace the profound influences of women on the earliest and richest traditions of spiritual formation, especially in monastic and ascetic disciplines.

While reading John of Damascus on the providence of God in The Orthodox Faith, I realized that the reordering of theological ideas I thought I was just then discovering had been well understood as a stable and received tradition in the 8th century.

While reading John Chrysostom on voluntary poverty, I discovered that the existential freedom Viktor Frankl had experienced in the Nazi concentration camp had been anticipated by 4th century Christian teachers, martyrs, and confessors.

And so it went. All of that happened while I was reading, just reading. I was being guided by the Spirit toward an 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. That led to deeper conversations with Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical graduate students and colleagues, whose voices I had not been hearing. 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.

The classic texts reshaped my mind. Soon I was asking how God could become truly human without ceasing to be God. I wondered how human freedom, when so distorted by the history of sin, could become radically atoned on the cross. I questioned that if God was almighty and incomparably good, how could God allow sin to have such a persistent grip on human social processes. And I wondered how the incomprehensible God could make himself sufficiently known to finite human minds. I wanted to understand how God was and is one, if God is Father, God is Son and God is Holy Spirit. I wanted to know how the faithful can mirror the holiness of God within the history of sin. Not a new question, or a dull one, in the list.

Herberg did not answer all of my questions, but he put me on to the road where the answers could be found: classic Christian teaching out of Scripture. By that simple admonition, he did more for me intellectually in the early months of our close friendship than did any other person in my lifetime, by requiring me to ground my thinking in classic wisdom. As I took a deep dive into the early church fathers, they corrected my modern prejudices.

Finding an orthodox foundation

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 stable memory.

Since meeting and dwelling with the Christian exegetes through their writings in their own words, I came to trust the very orthodoxy I had once dismissed. I found myself living within a much larger community of discourse populated not just by modern companions but radiant minds of many past generations from varied cultures spanning all continents for two thousand years. Through this discipline I became even more relevant, not less relevant, to modern partners in dialogue. As I began to immerse myself in classic Christian texts, I found myself standing within the blessed presence of the communion of saints of all generations.

I experienced more cross-cultural freedom of inquiry. Long-ignored theological ideas came alive — like divine foreknowledge, revelation in history, demonic temptation, the lives of saints and angelic succor.

Today the thoughts and prayers of the great minds of the worshiping community are my daily bread. They feed my soul. The patristic writers reveal an amazing equilibrium in their cohesive grasp of the whole course of human history through the sacred texts. They give me an inclusive sense of the whole of human history, beginning to end. The classic Christian mind is at home in every conceivable cultural setting.

A door was opened by a Jewish friend for me to take a path into classic Christian wisdom, but I had to take it on my own. It was not an act of defiance but an act of joy when I was turned aside from the path I was on. I was ushered into a new awareness that no human wisdom is more reliable than the actual history in which God is omnipresent.

Scientific inquiry has had little more than two centuries to establish its orthodoxy. The apostolic consensus has had two millennia. My questions about decaying modern culture were being decisively shaped by the communion of saints who have lived through far deeper crises than this modernity.

My search drew me toward new friends and unexpected recognitions: Gregory of Nyssa on the body-soul interface, Vincent of Lerins’s Aids to Remembering, the classic Christian ecumenical doctrinal definitions of the first five centuries, and the balanced pastoral work of Gregory the Great.

Herberg taught me to read them slowly and thoroughly in their own words, not in secondary diluted interpretations of them. He knew that I would become lost in supposed relevance without that solid textual grounding.

By Christmas 1970 I had found my way into the 5th century Aids to Remembering, the Commonitory of Vincent of Lerins. It provided me with the most accurate description to date of how the faithful had arrived at consensus. Only then did I see explained for the first time in a clear and descriptive way the consensual path for receiving the truth that I had already glimpsed operating in the Great Ecumenical Councils. From Vincent I gained the foothold in defining ecumenical teaching as that which had been believed everywhere, always and by all.

From then on my reasoning gradually became a straightforward matter of identifying those apostolic teachings which believers from all places and times confessed and believed with one voice and for which they had been willing to die. At last I realized that the world was best viewed from the vantage point of the glory of God revealed in history. The seed of the Word was being planted precisely within the fertilized soil of ever waning cultures.

The dream of unoriginality 

In the season of Epiphany 1971 I had a curious dream in which I was in the New Haven cemetery and accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone with this puzzling epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology.” I woke up refreshed and relieved.

I was uplifted to see such an unexpected epitaph prefigured in a dream. That 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. It took no small effort to resist the constant temptation to novelty.

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 lrenaeus that Christian truth must avoid any temptation to “invent new doctrine.” New doctrine meant ideas that would presume to improve on the apostolic testimony. No concept was more deplored by the early Christian writers than the notion that the task of theology is to “innovate.” Innovation was for them equivalent to something “other than” (hetero) the received apostolic teaching. 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.

I set about trying scrupulously to abstain from creating any new doctrine. It was the best decision I had made as a theologian. It was hard for me, but immensely productive. I realized that I could be a theologian simply by reflecting accurately out of the great minds of Christian teaching. That was 100 percent more fruitful than the expression of my own imaginings. For once and for all, I knew my calling would be fulfilled through building bridges between the classical Christian consensus and the lost reality of the modern world. It was not me proposing the consensus but me being found by it.

Thomas C. Oden is a United Methodist clergyperson, the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, as well as the author of numerous books on theology. Dr. Oden is the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and he formerly served as the Henry Anson Buttz professor of theology at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. This essay is adapted from his autobiography A Change of Heart (IVP Academic). Used with permission.



  1. Mike Cooper says

    I have always appreciated Mr. Oden. I have most of his Ancient Christian Commentaries and they are very useful in bible studies. It is refreshing to read someone content to sit at the feet of the Apostles and our early christian forbearers, as opposed to watching the feverish activity of so many, particularly in the leadership of our church, trying to find something new under the sun, a new word from God.

  2. James Lung says

    Dr. Oden’s AFTER MODERNITY, WHAT? was vitally important in my own faith journey, as I moved from cultural christianity with a vague liberal protestant slant to an orthodox biblical faith and worldview.

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