Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. InterVarsity Press, 2014. 384 pages.
Theologian and Guide
Thomas C. Oden is a leading Methodist and Patristic theologian. His 3 volume Systematic Theology continues to be published by Hendrickson and has received refinement into a one volume edition as Classic Christianity published by HarperOne. Oden’s systematic theology is unique in its focus. Oden takes seriously early Christian consensus and his systematic is filled with ancient Christianity’s contribution. Oden has served the church not only as gifted theologian, but as a guide in rediscovery of ancient Christianity. He initiated and edited the massive undertaking of the Ancient Christian Commentary, 29 volumes, Ancient Christian Doctrine, 5 volumes, and Ancient Christian Texts, 15 volumes. Theology is a journey, and Oden traveled across the entire theological spectrum in his lifetime. Growing up Methodist, Oden immersed himself fully in contemporary liberal ideology both politically and theologically. What's amazing about his story, though, is after firmly establishing himself as a theological liberal, he made a shocking and dramatic theological shift. A Change of Heart tells this intriguing story.
The book is arranged around the decades of Oden’s life:
Part One: The Early Years
1. The 1930’s: Prairie Dawn
2. The 1940’s: A World at War
3. The 1950’s: Love and Learning
4. The 1960’s: The Church of What’s Happening Now
Part Two: Change of Heart
5. The 1970’s: The U-Turn
6. The 1980’s: Charting the Course
Part Three: Homeward Bound
7. The 1990’s: An Outpouring of Grace
8. The 2000’s: A Time for Harvest
9: The 2010’s: After Eight Decades
Below are some brief highlights of the book that I enjoyed most. They are only snippets of an extraordinary story. I hope it wets your appetite enough that you devour for yourself the rich meal A Change of Heart offers.
One of the things that makes A Change of Heart such a worthwhile read is its valuable insights into the mind of a theological liberal. Oden is candid about his thought processes in his liberal days and his fascination with what was novel in theology. Innovation was key in his theological training and subsequent scholarship. As a theological conservative, I found Oden’s theological pursuits bleak, lacking the amazing power of the Gospel. The bleakness made his turnaround all the more amazing. Oden's turn to genuine Christianity began, ironically, in conversation with a Jew. Will Herberg, a colleague of his at Drew University, exposed his superficial theology. "You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas," he told Oden. "If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best rest your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one." Ouch! Following this life changing conversation, Oden was reborn and immersed himself in the early writings of Christianity and Christian consensus.
Recovery: Ancient, Wesleyan and African Christianity
Oden's friendship with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI) laid the seeds of the Ancient Christian Commentary. His discovery of ancient Christianity has led to the recovering of texts long forgotten. Part of the research process of the Ancient Christian Commentary involved hunting down and translating material into English that had remained in the shadows. Oden's work spanning from 1998-2010 gave birth to the Ancient Christian Doctrine, Ancient Christian Texts, Ancient Christian Devotionals. Oden's efforts as editor of these series have gifted the church in rediscovery and preservation of valuable voiced from the past.
While exposing the world to the church fathers, Oden also found himself thrown into the fight for the identity of the United Methodist Church. "Why was I diverted from patristic studies to Methodist doctrine?" Oden wonders, "The answer lies with Mr. Wesley himself, who was a beneficiary of the Oxford revival of patristic studies. He became deeply grounded in the ancient Christian writers and the consensual tradition of ecumenical teaching. He longed for the Societies under his care not to further divide the unity of the church but to maintin her classic ecumenical teachings" (195). His findings led to the publication of his John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity. Undoubtedly, this led to foundation for his more thorough, four volume systematic presentation of John Wesley’s theology, John Wesley’s Teachings.
Another rich contribution Oden has made is his work is in early African Christianity. As Oden worked in early Christianity he noticed northern biblical interpreters were dependent upon southern, primarily African interpreters. Before Islamic domination over Africa, Christianity was moving northward into Europe from there. "Athanasius and Augustine both demonstrated great maturity in conveying this method of reading Scripture to a worldwide recieved tradition. The earliest layers of Latin Christology and ethics passed through the hands of Tertullian and Cyprian before Augustine passed them on to the West. The Bible was first translated into Latin not in Europe but in North Africa," writes Oden (301). Oden's journey into Africa gave birth to three books, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (2007), The African Memory of Mark (2011), Early Libyan Christianity (2011), as well as the Center for Early African Christianity (CEAC). Through the work of CEAC and ICCS Press the work done in discovery in translation has made resources available cheaply to African Christians. ICCs has produced a series of children books highlighting African theologians so that way generations of children can grow up reading about theological giants from their own history. Oden's desire is that the Christians of Africa see their rich history and contribution to worldwide Christianity. That a white guy from Oklahoma played an integral part in the the rediscovery and spread of ancient African Christianity is a testament to the infusing grace of God across cultural, racial, and time barriers.
In full disclosure, I must admit that Thomas C. Oden is one of my favorite theologians. I admire his passion and I’ve gleaned much from his writings. He, along with C.S. Lewis, has been most formative in my journey out of separatistic fundamentalism. His unrelenting focus on early Christian consensus coupled with evangelical theology in a postmodern world has given me an optimistic perspective for the future growth of evangelicalism. In A Change of Heart I enjoyed reading about his exciting life.
His sweeping life took him in and out of liberalism, led him to have
conversation with some of the most influential theologians in the modern
era, allowed him to be present at Vatican II, and play a role in
rediscovery and preservation of Ancient, Wesleyan and African
Christianity. Oden is a giant in contemporary theology and much can be gleaned from his life and theological journey. Let him guide you through his gripping theological change in his fascinating memoir, A Change of Heart.
Rating: Five scorching hot Hatch Green Chiles out of Five