Thomas Oden

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THOMAS ODEN
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Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals

Oden, Thomas Clark (1931), Methodist minister and theologian, professor at Drew University, was born on 21st October 1931, in Altus, Oklahoma. His father was a lawyer and his mother a music teacher. In 1949 he enrolled in the University of Oklahoma and graduated with a B.Litt. in 1953. He began studying theology formally at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University), graduating with his B.D. in 1956. Ordained by the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church (deacon, 1954; elder, 1956), he served in varied parish ministries. Beginning in 1956 he studied at Yale University, and was awarded his M.A. in 1958 and his Ph.D. in 1960. Hans Frei and H.Richard Niebuhr supervised his work. His doctoral dissertation, revised for publication, was published as Radical Obedience: The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann. One year of postdoctoral study followed at Heidelberg.

In 1958 he began his professional teaching career as an instructor at Perkins School of Theology. From 1960 to 1970 he was associate professor and then professor at Phillips University. In 1971 he became the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of theology at Drew University, where he taught until his retirement.

Oden has also been a guest lecturer or visiting professor at Moscow State University, Oxford, Edinburgh, Duke, Emory, Princeton and Claremont. In addition he has been consultant to the Ethics and Public Policy Center of Washington, D.C., the White House Dialogue on Urban Initiatives (1985), and Public Information Office Briefings (1984-1986.)

Oden has published approximately forty books and 80 articles.

 

Following his Agenda for Theology (1978) republished as After Modernity, What? (1990) with four additional chapters and an introduction by J.I. Packer, Oden described himself as an "out-off-the-closet evangelical." He has continued to distance himself from the ethos of the institutions, images and "isms" that earlier he wore as a badge. His Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (1995) is anguished autobiography concerning the lethal stranglehold that totalitarian "liberals" have on denominational bureaucracies, church conferences, and seminary education. A former left-wing radical, he now affirms the genuine radix of the scripture-normed authority of the post-apostolic writers. His "new" radicalism, inspired and measured by the gospel, nevertheless finds him still espousing out-of-step causes, such as the utter unreformability of the seminaries unless the practice of tenure is overhauled.

Recently Oden has become a contributing editor of Christianity Today. His position there magnifies his influence enormously, as this magazine is the most widely-read evangelical journal in North America.

Never backing away from rendering the judgements that he deems gospel-fidelity to enjoin, Oden has made the rare move of publicly faulting another denomination in another country. The United Church of Canada (Canada's largest Protestant denomination, formed in 1925 of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists), Oden has pronounced devoid of ecumenical identity, "and is no longer thought properly to be called an ecumenical communion"; i.e., is no longer the church in that it has abandoned consensual teaching on creation, sin, covenant sexual fidelity and the blessings of marriage.

By his own admission every turn that Oden took on his way to the theological position with which he is now identified was a left turn. The "turn" that "righted" him, however, was not a right turn or series of compensatory right turns but rather a turn back into the Fathers. Startled at the shallowness and virulence of 1960s radicalism, he looked for theological resources and discovered that Patristic thinkers exhibited a profundity and pertinence that few modern authors could rival.

Oden describes himself as an "orthodox, ecumenical evangelical", where orthodoxy "is nothing more or less than the ancient consensual tradition of exegesis." His work aims at articulating, in the spirit of Vincent of Lerins, the faith of the universal church.

Its focus is the consensus of the first five centuries, since "antiquity is a criterion of authentic memory in any historical testimony." His preoccupation with antiquity means he refuses to renounce his "zeal for unoriginality….the apostles were testy with revisionists."

Its mood is evangelical, reflecting throughout the gospel's particularity and inherent militancy. This mood contrasts sharply with a theological modernity whose treachery has rendered evangelism impossible and orthodoxy unrecognizable. An evangelical invitation suffuses his work as he urges readers to decide for Christ, warning them tenderly yet solemnly about the peril of procrastination: "One who neglects an opportunity at hand may not have another."

Its centre is the rediscovery of ancient ecumenical theology and the recovery of classical Christianity in his evolving Wesleyan tradition.

Its target audience is the working pastor, since Christian teaching is healthy only where living tradition is embodied by an actual community. (Vide his several books on pastoral theology.)

Its orientation is that for which he commends Arminius and those after Arminius; viz., "the gradual Protestant retrieval of the ancient ecumenical consensus on grace and freedom." In this regard Oden consistently disavows the predestinarianism of the later Augustine (even as Augustine remains one of the ecumenical giants) that emerged so very strongly in the Magisterial Reformers. Oden regards this deterministic misunderstanding of election as a departure and declension from the received faith. Characteristically the church has upheld the inviolability of the humanness of God's covenant partners. At the same time Oden discerns and denounces the error of Pelagianism, together with the more subtle seductiveness of semi-Pelagianism. His work incorporates everywhere a nuanced discussion of gratia operans/gratia co-operans that, while strange to Protestants who are unacquainted with Patristic thought, is crucial in any approach to him.

Its most recent expression is the project he is masterminding, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (forthcoming), whose purpose is the recovery of classical Christian exegesis. A major strength of this project, he maintains, is the reviving of texts so very old that they contain no trace of European imperialism (and therefore no inherent revulsion, for instance, for Asian and African Christians.) These texts will therein prove singularly significant as they are brought to bear on the cultural formation of both West and East. In addition ancient exegesis will expose readers to the intimate connection between prayer and study, to the relation of theology to vibrant Christian community, and to worship as the context in which scripture is read. Oden hopes that Protestants especially will peruse the Ancient Commentary. Their doing so will remedy the theological one-sidedness that arises on account of Protestantism's neglect of pre-Reformation texts, and also reduce Pietism's extreme vulnerability to modern consciousness. They can expect to be startled, for instance, by Nazianzen's theological power and Jerome's transparency to the Spirit's energy.

Repeatedly Oden indicates why he has written polemically and prolifically. While theology as the inquiry into God is inherently the most engaging of all subjects, theologians have turned it "into a yawning bore", boring just because it is so very destructive: heresy is treasonous, and when protracted, tedious. Aware, however, of the presumption that laps at anyone claiming to be a corrective, the stated motive for his three-volume Systematic Theology (1987, 1989, 1992) was an invitation for readers to test his own fallibility.

Everywhere Oden sees his work as setting a limit to the license of "guild" (i.e., academically appointed) theologians and exegetes whose perfidy has summoned him to be "someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again." (Heb. 5:12) For this reason his work as a whole and his systematic theology in particular repristinate the elemental, doctrinal "building blocks" of the faith; specifically, theological matters that are articulated in the creed and that appear in the standard regulae fidei. (Precise studies of more detailed matters such as anthropology, liturgy and ethics will be developed in subsequent works.)

Throughout his writings Oden looks first to the four great Patristic thinkers of the east and west: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, together with Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. These exegetes consistently clarify the mind of the believing church; "we are more indebted to these eight exegetes than any since the apostles." While Oden cites other thinkers frequently (especially Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin) they are invoked where they amplify the aforementioned consensus, not where their work is idiosyncratic. Other thinkers deemed non-consensual (e.g., Menno Simons) are scarcely mentioned at all.

Oden's single largest work is his Systematic Theology (1500 pages, 15,000 references to classical writings.) Its purpose is "to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox." Unlike virtually all systematic theologians, however, Oden insists that the exposition of the traditional theological topics in his work serves primarily as an introduction to the annotations; i.e., the annotations embedded in the text are more important than the text itself. True to scripture, to his native Wesleyanism, and to the Fathers, he regards God's holiness as the linchpin of the entire theological enterprise.

 

Oden's theological "journey" brought him to this point after earlier starts that if not false were hesitant at least.

He names five theological instructors who shaped his thought: Albert Outler, Rudolf Bultmann, H.Richard Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Will Herberg. Despite the apparent neo-orthodoxy of these men, Oden subsequently criticized neo-orthodoxy for its non-interest in worship, sacrament, pastoral care, the concrete tasks of ministry, and the holiness of the church. His "best" teacher was Outler, who introduced him to Augustine and Wesley. Although his Ph.D. dissertation was a comparative study of Bultmann and Barth, he soon repudiated the favoured Bultmannism that had first brought him to theological prominence and concentrated on Barth. In the 1960s Oden was concerned chiefly with the relation of theology to psychotherapy. Attentive now to the necessity, nature and integrity of human agency, he came to regard the Eastern church fathers as a corrective to Barth's one-sidedness.

Upon Oden's appointment to Drew University his friend and colleague, Will Herberg, persuaded him to ground his thinking in classical sources. Ironically, says Oden, a conservative Jew was his chief mentor in classical Christianity. With the arbitrariness and weakness of his earlier liberalism now exposed, and himself repulsed by his former support of the abortion platform, he abandoned situation ethics and with it the entire liberal worldview. Rejecting too his earlier notion that novelty is the task of theology, he jettisoned "creativity", now convinced, thanks to J.H. Newman, that his responsibility was to listen to the deposit of truth already sufficiently given. Intrigued by the decisions of the ancient Ecumenical Councils, he plunged into patristics. Quickly he identified himself in terms of "paleo-orthodoxy", an expression coined to indicate the distance now between him and neo-orthodoxy. By his own admission modern psychology had taught him to trust his experience, whereas ancient writers now taught him to trust that scripture and tradition would transmute his experience.

 

Oden has endeavoured to honour his theological parents by means of two books related to Wesley. Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (1988) assesses the nature, place and function of normative doctrine in the United Methodist Church specifically and in the churches of the Wesleyan family generally. It aims at healing the doctrinal amnesia that has largely afflicted mainline North American Methodists.

John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (1994) expounds Wesley's theology on all major points, beginning in the time-honoured way with God's attributes and concluding with eschatology. It is a contemporary exposition and interpretation of Wesley's thought, aiming always at fidelity to Wesley's text. Its subordinate purpose is to convey Wesley to other branches of the Christian family in view of the fact that non-Wesleyans are much less acquainted with Wesley's thought than are non-Magisterial thinkers, for instance, with that of the 16th century Reformers.

Finding Wesley rooted in the patristic, Anglican, holy living and Puritan traditions, he sees Wesleyanism as a bridge between Protestants and Catholics, even as it has profound affinities with the Eastern Church tradition. He deems Wesleyanism's characteristic resistance to co-optation at the hands of party or fad to be one of its major strengths.

Two areas that seem problematic for evangelicals are his seemingly uncritical espousal of the Fathers and an "ecumenical" view of baptism that some may find indistinguishable from sacramental regeneration.

Concerning the first matter Oden affirms repeatedly his agreement with the Fathers that in the "theandric" (sic) One the humanity suffers but never the deity. Specifically he denies that the Father suffers in the Son's crucifixion. Nowhere does Oden acknowledge that the risen, exalted Lord continues to suffer. In the same vein the neo-Platonism of the Fathers is unchecked. Oden cites with apparent approval the patristic neo-Platonism concerning sexual matters, such as Nazianzen's pronouncement that Christ's birth "didn't have its origin in weakness…for sensual pleasure did not precede the birth." A similarly neo-Platonic argument is advanced as to why there will be no marrying in heaven. Circumcision is understood to consecrate "that organ…which…is most likely to be corrupted by idolatry and sin." (His commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, relieved of uncritical support of the Fathers, upholds a more Hebraic understanding of sexuality.)

Concerning the second matter Oden, to be sure, insists "…it is not baptism of itself that saves", yet he appears to undo this assertion throughout his discussion of baptism, as in his remark, "The Holy Spirit through baptism offers, calls forth, and elicits regeneration in a spiritually blessed water in which the whole triune God is by grace effectively present", and "The Spirit remains in those who have received the grace of baptism, who remain indelibly known to God." He appears impelled to speak this way inasmuch as the Fathers do.

Oden predicts that a sign of hope in 21st Century Christian thought will be its preoccupation with the rediscovery of boundaries in theology: "I would love to find a seminary where a discussion is taking place about whether a line can be drawn between faith and unfaith."

A diligent student and teacher of Kierkegaard for decades, Oden's mature work can be summarized in an item cited in his Parables of Kierkegaard (1978.) Faith disrupts, says the Dane, and where public disruption isn't observable, faith hasn't occurred. If as "believers" we nevertheless protest that we have faith, we are theologians; if we know how to describe faith, we are poets; if we weep in describing faith, actors. But only as we witness for the truth and against untruth are we actually possessed of faith.

 

Dr. Victor Shepherd
Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Tyndale Seminary, Toronto