by Mark Tooley
Appearing almost as Obi-Wan Kenobi speaking as a hologram from beyond about The Force, revered Methodist theologian Tom Oden addressed by Skype some Wesleyan devotees at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) about John Wesley’s view of Scripture. ETS is meeting in Baltimore this week, with over 2000 participating.
“It should be easy after 43 years of study,” Oden remarked of his assigned topic, which he admitted actually required some reflection. Now age 82, and long retired from United Methodism’s Drew Seminary, Oden lives in Oklahoma City and doesn’t travel due to health. He remains a prolific author. Converting from liberalism to orthodoxy over 40 years ago, Oden heroically helped persuade the 1988 United Methodist General Conference to reassert fidelity to core doctrines. (He is also an IRD emeritus board member.)
Oden recalled gratitude for his devout Nazarene grandmother who “prayed for me daily” while he had been spiritually “misguided.” She had a “high doctrine of scripture,” while he grew up in a “liberal Methodist background.”
“We don’t read it without the work of the Holy Spirit,” Oden said of Bible reading. He also credited his eventual appreciation of Wesleyan orthodoxy and the “primal authority” of Scripture to theologian Albert Outler, the “premier teacher of Wesley the last 100 years.”
Oden remembered: “I was socialist, pacifist, Freudian theologian in search of a theological method.” He was also an existentialist who didn’t believe in the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection, thinking it only a “symbol,” and having a “clouded view of the historical Jesus” as interpreted by Rudolf Bultmann.
Being assigned to teach Wesley to seminary students was “Providential,” Oden said. “Going deep into Wesley” awoke within him an appreciation for understanding the Bible through the historic church community.
“It was lonely to be Methodist at ETS in 1989,” Oden smilingly recalled, noting he likely was the first United Methodist scholar to become an ETS member. His ETS membership was “looked at with a cold eye” in United Methodism at the time. Theologians Carl Henry and J.I. Packer helped situate him within ETS.
Oden also credited Jewish philosopher Will Herberg, a former communist who rediscovered Judaism, who “confronted me to go deeply into the primary texts of Christian tradition.” Oden became “transformed, absolute” as he “began to listen to patristic writers,” being “cured” of his previous reliance on psychotherapy, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
This “radical turn in my consciousness” was linked to Oden’s embracing the historicity of the Resurrection. Wesley’s primary appeal is to Scripture, he realized. And “truth is transmitted through apostolic teaching,” with “Scripture remembered through the traditioning process.”
Christian faith is understood “through the reasoning process enabled through grace and embodied through experience,” Oden explained. Wesley held to a “plain and literal sense of scripture unless irrational or unworthy of God’s character,” he noted. Scripture always has “metaphorical aspects” but is best considered in its “plainest sense.” Wesley, who himself didn’t do well in the academic community, emphasized the believer “must know the way to heaven.”
Recalling his own critique of the “failure” of neo-orthodoxy, Oden said “many were unhappy with me.” But he insisted: “I have held fast to what Christianity holds fastest to,” especially the Resurrection.
“I grew up believing in Christmas carols but I couldn’t in seminary,” Oden remembered of his early years. But now he happily very much does again.