Thomas Oden’s Memoir Is a Must Read

Soon to read – “A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir,” by Thomas Oden. Description–“After growing up in the heart of rural Methodism in Oklahoma, Thomas Oden found Marx, Nietzsche and Freud storming into his imagination. He joined the post-World War II pacifist movement and became enamored with every aspect of the 1950s’ ecumenical Student Christian Movement. Ten years before America’s entry into the Vietnam war he admired Ho Chi Min as an agrarian patriot. For Oden, every turn was a left turn. At Yale he earned his PhD under H. Richard Niebuhr and later met with some of the most formidable minds of the era―enjoying conversations with Gadamer, Bultmann and Pannenberg as well as a lengthy discussion with Karl Barth at a makeshift office in his hospital room. While traveling with his family through Turkey, Syria and Israel, he attended Vatican II as an observer and got his first taste of ancient Christianity. And slowly, he stopped making left turns. Oden’s enthusiasms for pacifism, ecumenism and the interface between theology and psychotherapy were ambushed by varied shapes of reality. Yet it was a challenge from a Jewish scholar, his friend and mentor Will Herberg, that precipitated his most dramatic turn―back to the great minds of ancient Christianity.”

Oden shaped the phrase “PaleoOrthodoxy.” This is a return to the Ancient Church as the platform for both Christian unity and as a tool to battle heresy. I buy into this project. Oden does not deny the development of Christian thought. What he insists on is continuity and authority. In his series Ancient Christian Commentaries he does not refer to any biblical exegetes outside of the first five centuries unless he has to. If the ancient church said it, that’s where he goes, displaying how much of what the great stream of orthodoxy is rooted there. This memory is important, and it is an effective instrument in battling heresy, which is constantly shape-shifting.

Oden has continued in the United Methodist Church, something befuddling to me. Apparently he is one of those Evangelicals like JI Packer who believe that the power of orthodoxy in and of itself will save their denomination. Packer has certainly found otherwise.

But Protestants don’t have too many choices here. Protestantism is shaped by its characteristics to be a carrier of heresy. Yet true Protestants cannot ever see returning to Rome as an option. They (we) had rather constantly fight the battles for doctrinal purity that Protestants necessarily needs to go through. It’s exhausting. And giving nondenominational Evangelical the energy and will to drill down into doctrinal depth is a pipe dream. It just doesn’t do it, not in any meaningful way. It’s too audience driven.

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