Reviewed by Jeff Waddington
Thomas Oden has been a prodigious and prolific scholar and author. While Oden is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, he has traveled the road from liberalism to a relatively conservative position within the evangelical fold. Even though he is a Wesleyan-Arminian theologian, he is one we Reformed folk should read to be aware of the wider Christian community. The author has written about his theological pilgrimage before, but A Change of Heart is the most thorough treatment of that journey to date. Readers may be familiar with Oden from his editorial commentary in the pages of Christianity Today and as general editor of the well-received Ancient Christian Commentary series also published by IVP.
I first became familiar with Oden when I was a Wesleyan-Arminian pastor and came across his The Word of Life which was the second volume in his three-volume Systematic Theology back in 1991. That set of volumes, with all its short comings, was a treasure trove of patristic citations and interaction. You can still find used copies of the set on the web and it is available through the Logos electronic library. More recently this set has been condensed into a one volume edition entitled Classic Christianity. Oden’s stress in this set and in all subsequent work (including the present volume under review) falls on conciliar consensual orthodoxy, especially that of the first four hundred years of the Christian church. Oden has adopted the maxim of St. Vincent of Lerins as his own: what has been believed everywhere, by all, at all times (142). Oden made it his goal to make “no new contribution” to theology but to call the church back to its patristic resources. Oden, who taught for years at the “Princeton” of Methodism, Drew University in Madison, NJ (just outside Morristown), has echoed the sentiments of the Presbyterian old Princetonian Charles Hodge a century later from within the Wesleyan fold.
Thomas Oden was not always concerned with theological orthodoxy of any variety (of course as a Reformed minister I now consider his Wesleyan commitment less than robustly biblical and theologically orthodox). Oden has addressed this issue in several volumes going back to the 70s when he first issued a manifesto of sorts that later became published under the title After Modernity, What? In Change of Heart Oden shares with us delightful memories of his childhood in Oklahoma and his first years of academic teaching, writing, pastoral ministry, and marriage and family life. The book moves straightforwardly with each chapter covering a decade. Moving from the 30s to the 2010s we get a tour-de-force of the author’s personal and professional pilgrimage in nine chapters.
Early on Oden was immersed in pious Methodist liberalism, both in the home and in the academy. Related to this was his commitment to ecumenism within the worldwide Christian communion. This ecumenical spirit would remain with Oden even as he transitioned to a more orthodox perspective (he has been an active member of the Evangelical Theological Society for many years now, make of that what you will). His transition from unabashed liberalism to conciliar consensual orthodoxy began when he took a teaching post at Drew University and met the Jewish scholar Will Herberg who told him he needed to learn his own Christian heritage (133-37). There is real irony, which Oden recognizes, in God using an orthodox Jewish social philosopher to bring him to his theological senses (Oden does not use the language of conversion as far as I can tell, but he comes close to it in describing his discovery of the riches of Christian orthodoxy (including the likes of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.)
Herberg turned Oden to the Scriptures and the early church fathers in particular. Ever since that time Oden has been tied at the waist to the church fathers. I have already mentioned his systematic theology from the late 80s and early 90s. It fairly bleeds patristics. As Oden aged and became ensconced in more orthodox circles he began to fall out of favor with radical liberalism, even at his beloved Drew. The author shares an insider’s perspective on significant theological disputes.
A Change of Heart is not all dedicated to professional advancement or theological journeys, although these make up the lion’s share of the book. Thomas Oden reveals the personal side of the theologian. He shares with us memories of his parents, siblings, and aunts and uncles. He lets us peek in on his first encounter with the woman who would become his wife. We watch as Thomas and Edrita grow their family and we enter into the joys and sorrows of family life. The Christian life is not a bed of roses and it is good for us to learn about the personal struggles theologians undergo. I very much appreciate this personal touch.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the memoir is the behind the scenes detail we get about various and sundry book projects Oden had over the years. The most significant is no doubt the Ancient Christian Commentary. Now complete and available in electronic form and in various languages, this set has spawned its own series of similar sets (the Reformation commentary which is in progress comes quickly to mind as does the recent offshoot of books on the African roots of the orthodox Christian faith). The globetrotting that Oden was involved with in pulling off the logistics to produce this commentary is breath-taking in its scholarly depth and breadth and undertaking.
Oden now lives in honored retirement back in Oklahoma. His wife of many years passed on as he began to experience radical liberal pushback within his own academic and ecclesiastical setting. He has the joy of seeing his family mature and have new generations added to the family tree. Oden does not travel as he used to but he still keeps to the spiritual disciplines he learned when he became intimately acquainted with the early church fathers.
As a former Wesleyan-Arminian, now Reformed minister I look at Oden’s pilgrimage with gratitude and yet with an unsettling desire that he would travel further down the road and discover the Reformed heritage which I believe is more biblical and far richer than the Wesleyan heritage that he espouses (he has published a four-volume set on John Wesley’s teaching and on doctrinal standards within the Wesleyan tradition). This is not a mere difference in taste, but a concern for biblical orthodoxy. Oden has come so far and yet has not discovered the beauty and richness of the Reformed faith. I mentioned earlier that Oden has carried with him his strong commitment to ecumenism. Admittedly it is a more orthodox ecumenism. But I was uncomfortable with his acceptance of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as apparently equally valid forms of the Christian faith. I suppose I should not be surprised since Oden has remained in the UMC. He manifests an approach not unlike J. I. Packer’s views on comprehension within the Anglican communion.
This is an eminently readable volume and offers insights into how a former classical liberal thinks. He also provides a window on how one could be so committed to an ecumenism that seems to paper over real theological differences. On the other hand, Thomas Oden reminds me that theological bigotry is not a fruit of the Spirit. Theological conviction is necessary. We need men with steel backbone. But we should be as gracious as we can be, cognizant of the fact that there are times that call for calling a spade a spade. There are those kind of moments in A Change of Heart too. As Cornelius Van Til would remind us, we must be suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. All in all, this book is a good read and I am thankful for the life and ministry of Thomas Oden. If only we would embrace the Reformed faith.
Jeffrey C. Waddington serves as stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansdowne, PA.
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Change of Heart