(This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Standard)
Thomas Oden is a Methodist, ecumenist, evangelical, and patristics scholar who was dissuaded from liberal modernism by a Jewish conservative, becoming himself a theological paleo-orthodox and devoting the last half of his life to the reaffirmation of Christian orthodoxy rooted in the early church fathers. As the author of dozens of books, including a 3-volume work on systematic theology, and the general editor of the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture covering eight centuries, Oden, now 84, is one of the most important theologians of the last half-century.
He also has the distinction of having renounced most of the first two decades of his work, from the 1950s and ’60s, when he was a movement theologian and political leftist, devotee of a radical Methodist youth magazine, and willing captive to the assumptions of such modernist icons as Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Darwin. He recited the Apostles’ Creed figuratively, with his fingers crossed, and he enthusiastically appropriated Saul Alinsky as a model for subverting Christianity for class struggle and political mobilization.
A Change of Heart recounts his dramatic turnabout. After he arrived at Drew University in 1970, his older colleague, the former Communist Will Herberg—by then writing for National Review, having returned to his own Jewish faith at Reinhold Niebuhr’s urging—implored Oden to read the early church fathers before presumptuously rejecting their faith. After months in the library absorbing Sts. Athanasius, Vincent, and Augustine, among others, Oden was stunned by their persuasive powers, which he credited to the Holy Spirit. He would spend his next three decades at Drew as a respected but lonely voice for Christian orthodoxy, tutoring several generations of “young fogey” orthodox scholars and clergy.
No less important, Oden connected with a wider network of conservative religious voices who shared his critique of liberal modernity, including the Vatican theologian Joseph Ratzinger—who, of course, would become Pope Benedict XVI and whom Oden credits for inspiring his Ancient Christian Commentary project—and the Lutheran-turned-Roman-Catholic Richard John Neuhaus, who joined Oden in the ecumenical project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Oden also befriended Avery Dulles, the Catholic-priest son of John Foster Dulles who excelled as a crisply orthodox theologian and became a cardinal.
Unlike other Protestant intellectuals who turned conservative in collaboration with Catholic thinkers, Oden seems never to have been seriously tempted to leave Wesley for Rome. He insists that he would never leave the church that baptized him, which means the small-town Methodism of Depression-era Oklahoma, where he was shaped by the preaching, prayers, and hymn-singing of traditional Wesleyan piety.
In 1930s Oklahoma, Oden’s family would cover windows with newspapers to guard against frequent dust storms. In a similar fashion, the simple Methodist faith Oden acquired guarded him against a complete collapse of faith, even across several decades of intense spiritual experimentation, when mainline Protestantism was moving leftward. The faith of Oden’s youth and his years as a young pastor in rural churches provided a foundation to which he would return as he entered middle age. Meanwhile, he would transit through commitments to the social gospel, one-world government, pacifism, existentialism, Rogerian psychotherapy premised on “unconditional acceptance,” and modernist theologians such as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, who sought to demythologize Christianity.
As a student at the University of Oklahoma during the Korean War, Oden and his friends joined Students for Democratic Action, sang solidarity songs, hearkened to Woody Guthrie, and dreamed of a remade world that they would lead. He admired Norman Thomas and Ho Chi Minh, the not-yet-fashionable peasant rebel against French colonialism.
Oden became a frenetic political organizer and networker on campus through Methodism and the newly forming and influential ecumenical movement embodied by the National and World Councils of Churches. He would later explain to students that he had been influenced by the same social-gospel Methodism that had shaped a young Hillary Clinton. Her influential youth pastor became Oden’s colleague at Drew, and her Wellesley thesis on the “Alinsky Model” paralleled Oden’s own formative years, when he tried “covertly to make his unprincipled amoralism work in the church.”
Yet Oden, despite all his left-wing mobilizing, seems never to have been completely at home in such circles. He broke with pacifism as early as 1956, reacting to the Soviet suppression of the Hungarians, to Niebuhr’s “stunning” essay “Why Is Communism So Evil,” and to an esteemed colleague’s scholarly defense of the 1945 atomic bombings.
As a Protestant observer at Vatican II, Oden recognized further change in his thinking when he debated the Catholic theologian Charles Curran, his friend who was later ousted from the Catholic University faculty in the 1980s for heterodoxy. Oden was expected to be the Protestant liberal in the debate, but he found himself defending natural law while Curran touted contextual ethics. Another transformative moment was when Oden marched behind Margaret Mead in a 1966 anticapitalism demonstration in Geneva during a World Council of Churches confab. Realizing the extent, in the ecumenical movement, to which political dogmatics had replaced confessional doctrine, Oden realized he was in the wrong place, his idealism turning to “revulsion.”
A key episode illustrating Oden’s theological and political turnabout was his attendance at a 1988 consultation on biblical interpretation, led by Joseph Ratzinger at a Lutheran church in New York. Angry gay demonstrators tried to disrupt the conference. To reach a reception at the archbishop’s residence, the leading guests were transported by police in paddy wagons, with Oden sharing a bench with Judge Robert Bork. A decade later, Oden joined the board of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Because of a heart condition, Oden can no longer travel, but he continues to churn out books and receive guests at his home in Oklahoma, where he has lived since the death of his wife. He is admired by orthodox mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and evangelicals for his robust scholarship on behalf of Christian unity. Liberals mostly ignore him, perhaps because they are unwilling to challenge his pervasive knowledge and personal history. He remains a committed United Methodist, having battled furiously and successfully at the Methodists’ 1988 convention in defense of Wesleyan beliefs as binding doctrine.
“Funny I was put on the path to a genuine Christian new birth by a Jew,” he concludes. “I who had once been a social radical became a ‘mere Christian’ and finally became a theologian after only having pretended to be one.”