Thomas Oden’s Remarkable Reversal

Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016)

By James V. Heidinger II-

We can learn much from the remarkable theological journey of the late Professor Thomas C. Oden, who taught for more than 30 years as a professor of theology and ethics at the theology school at Drew University. Dr. Oden, a longtime colleague in denominational renewal, was a courageous, loyal United Methodist who loved the church. He was a theologian without peer within United Methodism. He was also highly respected in Protestant, Catholic, and orthodox communions as well as numerous evangelical denominations. He authored more than 20 books, including a three-volume Systematic Theology. He was also the general editor of the acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, a 27-volume work published by lnterVarsity Press. The importance of his contribution cannot be overstated.

“I left seminary having learned to treat scripture selectively, according to how well it might serve my political idealism,” he wrote in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. “I adapted the Bible to my ideology – an ideology of social and political change largely shaped by soft Marxist premises about history and a romanticized vision of the emerging power and virtue of the underclass.” This ideology led him to involvement in numerous trendy movements, such as the United World Federalists promoting world government, liberalized abortion, the demythologizing movement (about which he did his PhD dissertation), transactional analysis, parapsychology, biorhythm charts, tarot cards, and the list goes on. Oden looked back on those years with some amusement at his obsession with such trends, and admitted that he felt he was doing Christian teaching a marvelous favor by it and even considered this accommodation the very substance of the Christian teaching office.

He wrote, “For years I tried to read the New Testament entirely without the premises of incarnation and resurrection – something that is very hard to do.” He assumed that truth in religion “would be finally reducible to economics (with Marx), or psychosexual factors (with Freud), or power dynamics (with Nietzsche).” He confessed “I was uncritically accommodating to the very modernity that pretended to be prophetic, yet I did not recognize modernity’s captivity to secular humanistic assumptions.” During those years, Oden acknowledged, “I never dreamed that I would someday grant to scripture its own distinctive premises: divine sovereignty, revelation, incarnation, resurrection, and final judgment.” Reading those words, one is struck that they described, as we have seen earlier, the very premises that were essentially put aside during the heyday of theological liberalism. They were rejected because they assume the reality of the supernatural and the miraculous.

Oden went on to say, “I had been taught that these premises were precisely what had to be transcended, reworded, circumvented, and danced around in order to communicate with the modern mind.” Frankly, this is the kind of theological ballet many evangelicals have watched for decades as liberal pastors and theologians have often “wrongly handled the word of truth” (to paraphrase Saint Paul), dancing and circumventing and rewording the plain meaning of the biblical text. The phrase Oden used is haunting as one reflects upon it. He wrote, “I had been taught.” But taught what, exactly? Well, in his words, taught that the premises of divine sovereignty, revelation, incarnation, resurrection, and final judgment had to be “transcended, reworded, circumvented, and danced around.” He was taught that these premises or theological convictions could no longer be valid in a new era of enlightenment. These were premises we must somehow improve upon. Yes, Oden had been taught, by sincere and no doubt well-meaning professors. One wonders how many seminarians have had such theological instruction in their preparation for ministry but never came back home to reaffirm the integrity and intellectual credibility of apostolic Christianity.

Thankfully, Thomas Oden came back home. He had a major theological reversal, as he described it. He celebrated the grace of God at work in his bizarre journey. He wrote, “Now I revel in the very premises I once carefully learned to set aside: the triune mystery, the preexistent Logos, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord, the grace of baptism.” Let’s admit the obvious here: when you set aside these major themes of Christian doctrine, what remains of the historic Christian faith? There was a commendable honesty in Oden’s admission. He didn’t claim that he was simply reinterpreting those themes. He admitted these were themes he had learned “to set aside.”

What was it, then, that brought about this remarkable reversal in Oden’s life and theology? Hear this brief portion in his own words: “What changed the course of my life? A simple reversal that hung on a single pivot: attentiveness to the text of scripture, especially as viewed by its early consensual interpreters.” Most laity would be perplexed that a theologian might not give great attentiveness to the text of Scripture. That seems so basic to the ministerial vocation. But again, it “reflects how Scripture was, and is, perceived in the liberal/modern perspective. Oden wrote, “Before my reversal, all of my questions about theology and the modern world had been premised on key value assumptions of modern [liberal] consciousness – assumptions such as absolute moral relativism. After meeting new friends in the writings of antiquity, I had a new grounding for those questions.”

Before his reversal, Oden “distrusted even the faint smell of Orthodoxy. I was in love with heresy – the wilder, the more seductive,” he wrote. “Now I have come to trust the very consensus I once dismissed and distrusted. Generations of double-checking confirm it as a reliable body of scriptural interpretation. I now relish studying the diverse rainbow of orthodox voices from varied cultures spanning all continents over two thousand years.”

Professor Thomas C. Oden

One smiles, but with thanksgiving, at this former movement theologian writing of his newly found commitment to “unoriginality.” He insisted, “That is not a joke but a solemn pledge. I am trying to curb any pretense at ‘improving’ upon the apostles and fathers.” Acknowledging the “deceptiveness of originality,” he went on to write, “I can now listen intently to those who attest a well-grounded tradition of general consent rather than a narrow contemporary bias. I listen to voices that echo what has been affirmed by the community of saints of all times and places.”

In his autobiography, A Change of Heart, he described it as a “cycle of learning, unlearning and relearning.” This was reflected in “my joyful reception, then in my sophisticated rejection, then later in my embracing the hymns of my childhood.” At first he believed naively that God had come in the flesh. Then he learned that God had not really come in the flesh “but rather in some symbolic sense acceptable to modern assumptions.” Then, “At last I learned to recover the uncomplicated truth that God precisely becomes human in the flesh, dies for me, rises again and saves me from my sins. All these are viewed by consensual Christianity as historical events.”

It should come as no surprise that a theologian who spent his professional life in the world of theological education would write a book that addressed the problems of modern-day seminary education. Oden did so, though regretfully he admitted, as he loves the United Methodist Church and he loved the school of theology at Drew, where he spent so much of his professional teaching career.

In Requiem, he critiqued the failure of contemporary theological education and called for a return to classical Christian theology. He could have chosen to just gloss over the current ailment in the seminary world, he admitted, but “not with a healthy conscience.” While confessing that he is a “conflict-avoiding peace lover,” he wrote these sober and troubling words: “So after a lifetime of teaching … I am very nearly convinced that the present system is practically irreformable. This I say sadly, not irately.” He lamented the seminaries being “tradition-deprived,” and wrote about an academic tenure system that is “fixed in stone.” He also noted the academic distrust of the parish. In fact, “brilliant academics with no experience whatever in the actual practice of the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and pastoral care are often those who compete best in the race to become teachers of ministers in the trendy, fad-impaired seminary.” He noted sadly that having parish experience is more likely to be a negative factor than a positive one when seeking a teaching position in the seminary today.

Oden also cited the triumph of latitudinarianism, that is, a complete tolerance of all doctrinal views. The result is the complete absence of heresy. He wrote frankly that “heresy simply does not exist.” This is something never before achieved in Christian history, he observed. But the “liberated seminary” has finally “found a way of overcoming heterodoxy [departure from traditional doctrine] altogether, by banishing it as a concept legitimately teachable within the hallowed walls of the inclusive multicultural, doctrinally experimental institution.” The only heresy one might possibly encounter, said Oden, is an offense against inclusivism. One might add another – the failure to use politically correct language for God. (This, perhaps, would be considered a part of inclusivism.)

In the late 1970s, studies reported the sobering news that United Methodism’s seminaries were failing. There was a high dropout rate among young clergy, both male and female. In addition, there was an increasing struggle for student registration and tuition. Oden suggested at the time that if his seminary would only appoint a few new faculty who could connect with evangelical students, it would help solve that problem. Unfortunately, the new faculty appointments were “all in the opposite direction,” Oden wrote in A Change of Heart. “Most new appointments were made to left-leaning scholars who were dedicated to their ideologies and who either ignored, loathed or demeaned evangelicals.”

The day of ignoring what is happening in our denominational seminaries is over, according to Professor Oden. In a word of warning in Requiem, he wrote, “Christian worshipers can no longer afford to neglect what is happening to the young people they guilelessly send off to seminary, entrusting that they will be taught all that is requisite for Christian ministry.” He concluded with a sober but very timely warning to the church about seminaries that have clearly lost their way theologically: “When the liberated have virtually no immune system against heresy, no defense whatever against perfidious [treacherous, breaking of trust] teaching, no criteria for testing the legitimacy of counterfeit theological currency, it is time for laity to learn about theological education.”

Professors often justify teaching anything they want to teach by appealing to academic freedom, but Oden was not so ready to let them off the hook on that. He wrote, “If the liberated have the freedom to teach apostasy, the believing church has the freedom to withhold its consent.” He made the case even stronger: “If they reach counter-canonical doctrines and conjectures inimical to the health of the church, the church has no indelible moral obligation to give them support or to bless their follies.”

Oden affirmed that as a former sixties radical and now an out-of-the-closet orthodox evangelical, he shared concerns with a new generation of young classic Christian men and women who affirmed the faith of the apostles and martyrs. He found himself “ironically entering into a kind of resistance movement in relation to my own generation of relativists, who have botched things up pretty absolutely.” We must not miss the sobering implications of what he said – that he as an “orthodox evangelical” saw himself as being part of “a kind of resistance movement” in today’s church. He would assure us that this was not fantasy or hyperbole or some messianic obsession. He engaged the church theologically for more than four decades and his words are a sobering critique, perhaps an indictment, of the theological setting in contemporary United Methodism: to be an “orthodox evangelical” is to be part of a “resistance movement.” Many evangelical seminarians would understand that sentiment from their own personal seminary experience.

James V. Heidinger II is the publisher and president emeritus of Good News. A clergy member of the East Ohio Annual Conference, he led Good News for 28 years until his retirement in 2009. Dr. Heidinger is the author of several books, including the recently published The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed). This essay is excerpted from that volume with permission.

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