I have just learned that Methodist theologian Dr. Thomas C. Oden has passed away. I only met Dr. Oden once, at a conference at the Beeson Divinity School on Evangelicals and the Nicene Creed. We had exchanged emails five or six years prior when I wrote to him asking him how credobaptism fit or did not fit into his Paleo-orthodoxy proposal. But while my personal interactions with Tom Oden were limited, the news of his passing has hit me hard and the lump I feel in my throat right now is but one of the many evidences in my own life of the amazing impact he and his story and work have had and will continue to have on me.
I had never heard the name Tom Oden until he came to deliver a lecture at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where I was a student. This would probably have been in 1997. I remember that on the first day of the lectures Thomas Long, then the professor of homiletics at Princeton, delivered one of the most dazzling lectures I had ever encountered in my life. It was on the gospel writers as artists and it challenged me to think in ways I had never thought before about the gospels and the writings of the New Testament. Long was witty, charming, funny, and a very polished speaker.
Understandably, then, when Tom Oden, the next day, began to lecture, I was profoundly unimpressed, especially as the words of Thomas Long and the effect they had on me from the day before were still ringing in my ears. Oden was dry. He was obviously brilliant, but, as he began to talk, I thought, “This is going to be a rough one.” So I settled into my seat in the balcony of the old chapel and tried to listen. Little did I know that that lecture would become a life changing and ministry changing moment for me.
As Oden talked, he unfolded his personal journey from being a 60’s leftist radical movement theologian to his eventual embrace of orthodoxy, what he called Paleo-orthodoxy which, in short, is the classical Christian consensus he saw fleshed out in the patristic and conciliar witness of the Church. He recounted his rediscovery of the church fathers and of the Bible. He told how he came to see that he was enslaved to the conceits of modernity and its manifold trends and fads. He told how he found in orthodoxy theological riches and beauty than he had never found in the arid fields of his own liberalism.
By the time he finished, I was dumbfounded.
Oden’s proposal of Paleo-orthodoxy hit me like a lightning bolt. For reasons too many and varied to outline here, I had been moving toward and looking for something in this direction for a few years but had not been able to articulate it. The fundamentalism of my youth – a fundamentalism that was, I was coming to see, but the other side of the coin of modernity – was profoundly unsatisfying. Even so, the arrogance and vacuity of liberalism held no appeal. I had already begun to see from C.S. Lewis that what Oden would call neophilia, the love of the new, was an intoxicating arrogance that kept us from the riches of the past. And I came to see that, within Christianity, neophilia was really evidence of a staggeringly depleted pneumatology, an almost heretical notion that the Spirit had been largely silent during the earliest ages of the post-apostolic church.
I yearned for what Oden was laying out, and, through his proposal, I saw that one could indeed hold to the best of Protestantism and Evangelicalism yet draw deeply and satisfyingly from the well of classical Christianity. All of this precipitated something of a theological, ecclesiological, ministerial, and psychological crisis in my own life, but that was a journey I needed to take. It is also a journey I am still unpacking in my own life. Regardless, without lapsing into fawning hyperbole, Oden’s lecture opened a door for me. I finally saw it. I was in complete agreement. I saw the way forward. I gladly became what he called “a young fogey.”
So the death of Oden is, for me, the death of one whose works came to hold inestimable value to me. Behind my desk right now I see the many volumes of his Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scripture, for which he served as general editor, the many volumes of IVP’s Ancient Christian Texts, for which he was series editor, and the five volumes of Ancient Christian Doctrine, for which he was series editor.
His memoir, A Change of Heart, is absolutely fantastic and should be read. His systematic theology, now in a one-volume format, is a brilliant summary of patristic thought on the categories of systematic theology. His various works on Paleo-orthodoxy, his works on Wesley, his work on pastoral ministry, his work on early Christianity in Africa, etc. etc. etc. All of these need to be read.
Tom Oden has died.
Yet Tom Oden lives.
He is with the Savior he rediscovered and with the Groom of the Church he so faithfully served.
Rest in peace, Tom Oden.
And thank you.