A Change of Heart, A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas Oden (IVP Academic 2014). Purchase here.
This book was a fascinating read, well written, and I rate it 5 stars. I found myself frequently highlighting content because it was so insightful, and usually I would not highlight content in a memoir or autobiography, as it is narrative. It does have a limited reading audience. Who? Well, those who know who Thomas Oden is (haha), Christian scholars, academically inclined lay folks, Methodists (UMC), or those interested in a story of conversion from liberal Christianity to orthodox, genuine Christian faith. It is easy to give up on such folks. Don’t!
If you’ve never heard of Oden, he’d be good to become familiar with, as he is one of the most influential theologians of the 20th and early 21st century. Most of his career he was a professor at Drew University in NJ. Oden authored dozens of books. He uniquely networked and had friends among the major branches of Christendom: Protestant (mainline and evangelical), Romans Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox all over the world. Oden was a lifelong United Methodist, even pastored rural churches when he was young, and he explains his reasons for staying Methodist even when the UMC became increasingly liberal while he had moved in the opposite direction.
Oden takes you all the way back to his childhood in the 1930s and the book concludes not long before he dies, bringing his life to summary. This was the last book he wrote before his death in 2016. Something that I found a good example is that Oden kept on writing and doing research projects all the way to the end. Even after he retired and was no longer able to travel, he kept gainfully occupied. He was excited about ideas. I was reminded of something Howard Hendricks said: “When your memories are more exciting than your dreams, you have begun to die.” Oden was not dying in that sense!
Parts of the book were a little dull as he reviewed scholarly pursuits that were not that interesting to me, but this was counterbalanced by insightful content, amusing stories, and scholarly pursuits that I found very interesting. For example, in the later part of the book it was fascinating to learn how the unique and expansive Ancient Christian Commentary project came about. Or how Oden became so interested in Africa and its vital role in Christian history. Africa was the seedbed for burgeoning Christianity in the opening several hundred years of the church, but as Christianity began to shift towards Europe (and Islam began) this was somehow forgotten. Africa has a Christian heritage that they should be “proud” of (in the good sense of pride). They have not always been on the receiving end of missionary work. Oden’s passion about this really came out in the book and multiple projects were/are taking place in Africa to re-familiarize Africans with their ancient Christian heritage.
But now I’ll shift more to Oden’s conversion from liberal Christianity to orthodox, genuine faith. In the 1960’s Oden went left, far left, in just about every way possible – theologically, politically, philosophically, etc. He got swept up in all kinds of movements such as social Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis trends, ecumenicalism (World Council of Churches), and the sexual revolution. Of course, this was all “Christianized” in one way or another, that is, blended with Christianity, even though much conflicted with Christianity!
On page 81, Oden states “The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity.”
At this point of his life, he did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Even though he taught theology, he viewed the resurrection, not as an actual bodily event, but a community’s memory of an unexplained event.
“That turned the New Testament into a puzzle of historical investigation about an event that never occurred. I doggedly continued to teach that the disciples’ memory of Jesus’ resurrection enabled us to understand ourselves anew as the recipients of a new present…That was my credo in my early thirties. It was new birth without bodily resurrection and forgiveness without atonement. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on. That meant the gospel was not about an event of divine salvation but about a human psychological experience…” (pages 85-86)
I am very pro-life, was very touched by how repentant and regretful Oden was for his promotion of abortion rights.
“My past visions of vast plans for social change had irreparably harmed many innocents, especially the unborn.” (page 145)
“Prior to the time of my turnaround, I had been teaching social ethics to young pastors. In classes I had been providing a rationale for their blessing of convenience abortions. I had not yet considered the vast implications of its consequences for women, families, and society, but most of all for the lost generation of irretrievably aborted babies. When I tried to explain to God why I had ignored those consequences, the answer kept coming back to me: no excuse. I had been wrong, wrong, wrong….The protection of the prenatal child had been swallowed up in a wave of advocacy for free choice, overriding the incomparable value of life…Deliberate killing of babies in the womb had become the new normal. That was a shock and still is. That realization produced a numbing loss of confidence in a whole series of permissive policies I had previously struggled to achieve. The abortion issue was my wake-up call.” (page 157)
But regarding Oden’s shift from liberal Christianity to orthodox belief – It was initiated in a surprising way, by the challenge of a Jewish professor at Drew University! Oden had only been at Drew a short time, when he became friends with Drew’s esteemed and brilliant professor Will Herberg. Oden gave Herberg a copy of a book he’d recently published, and Herberg was straightforward with Oden about errors he was making.
When Oden tried to defend himself, Herberg told him he was densely ignorant of Christianity, and he would not let Oden throw his life way. Herberg said to Oden, “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas” and gruffly told him he had not yet met the great minds of his own religious tradition.
“Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgment on the last day. He said, ‘If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.’ ” (pp. 136-137).
Oden was stunned but realized Herberg was right. Oden says his reversal began that very moment, but the maturing of his change of heart took place gradually as he began to immerse himself in the great patristic minds (writer theologians from the opening several hundred years of the church). It is not that Oden had never studied these things, but only superficially and not taken seriously, as only the “modern” mind and new ideas had been deemed worthwhile.
“Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away: the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism.” Finally, Oden could “grant to sacred Scripture its own premises: divine sovereignty, revelation in history, incarnation, resurrection and final judgement.” (pages 138-139)
This was a powerful memoir, despite its academic nature, and I could share much more that challenged me! The 180 degree turnaround in Oden’s life affected not only his spiritual life, but his future writing and scholarly pursuits. He ended up a bit of a leader in a different type of ecumenicalism (than the problematic mid-20th century type) where he rallied Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the texts and creeds from the opening 500 or so years of the church when the church had not yet split into these branches.
On the last page of the book (334) he says “Funny I was put on a path to a genuine Christian new birth by a Jew. I who had once been a social radical became a ‘mere Christian’ and finally became a theologian after having only pretended to be one.”
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