Review: A Change of Heart

Change of HeartA Change of Heart, Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Thomas Oden narrates his personal and theological journey through social leftist thought, neo-orthodox and process theology, and trends of ecumenism, feminism, and small group psychotherapy until a personal conversation led to repentance and an embrace of classical, patristic Christianity (paleo-orthodoxy) and landmark works in patristic scholarship and the North African origins of Christianity.

Thomas Oden no doubt would go down as one of the most significant theological scholars of the late twentieth century. Authoring numerous books on pastoral and systematic theology, late in life he led a monumental publishing project, the Ancient Christian Commentary Series and a three-volume series on the influence of early North African theologians on European Christianity. In this volume, he narrates the course of his life, which hinged on a pivotal conversation and the changes of heart and scholarship that resulted.

The first part of the book (roughly the first 130 pages) reflects the course of his life up through the 1960s. From his birth and boyhood in rural Oklahoma, we see the rich fabric of family life and faith, challenged for the first time with the ordeals of Depression and World War 2, with older friends who did not return. We see Oden’s turn in college to pacifism and the leftist ideologies favored by mainline youth ministries. He speaks at several points of the common journeys as Methodist youth he and Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled and the common influences of people like Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. He eventually pursues doctoral work at Yale and later travels to Europe, intersecting with Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Gunther Bornkamm, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. This section of the book reveals an Oden imbibing successive “movement” theologians and immersing himself deeply in World Council of Churches ecumenism. All of this led to his appointment at Drew, and to a life-changing friendship with Jewish scholar Will Herberg. He describes a meeting with Herberg to receive Herberg’s critique of his latest book, Beyond Revolution:

    “Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.’. . .

“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).

This led to the “change of heart” referred to in the title, beginning with repentance from the obsession with originality to a dreamed epitaph saying “He made no new contribution to theology.” He moved from the contentious theologies of his peers to the consensual approach to theology of the early fathers. In the circle of New York intellectuals gathered around Richard John Neuhaus bringing together thoughtful evangelicals, Catholics (including then Cardinal Ratzinger) and Orthodox, Oden discovered a different ecumenism energized not by the latest radical theology but rather the classical Christianity articulated in creeds and councils.

This turn to the church fathers and away from the latest progressive causes led to painful breaks with some of his Drew colleagues, but also to the landmark publication project of The Ancient Christian Commentary Series, a commentary series based on the idea of a catena of citations of the church fathers on the biblical text. In the midst of this project, he describes his loss of Edrita, his college sweetheart with whom he was married for 46 years. We see the deep grief of one parted from his beloved only by death, the comfort of the birth of a granddaughter two weeks later and the healing that came in praying the hours, believing that somehow he was communing with both the Lord and Edrita.

The book concludes with the development of a finding implicit in his study of the fathers–the critical role African theologians played in the first five centuries of Christianity, a heritage that has implications for the West, profoundly for Africans and for Christian engagement with the Islam that supplanted it in North Africa. In addition to his writing, Oden founded the Center for Early African Christianity.

I found this to be a powerful narrative of Oden’s life but also the follies of many of the successive theologies of the twentieth century, theologies that distanced Oden from the centrality of the crucified and risen Lord for an empty and unsatisfying activism. His turning makes me examine how deeply I am listening to Christians across the centuries, and not just the “latest thing.” I found myself warned of the danger of being the “know-it-all pundit”. And it left me with a profound sense of thankfulness for Oden’s Jewish friend who risked affection to tell the truth. What a gift this resulted in not only for Oden but for the church.

A colleague, Mark Hansard, also reviewed this book recently. For another take on it, I’d invite you to check out his review.

6 thoughts on “Review: A Change of Heart

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Change of Heart, by Thomas Oden | Emerging Scholars Blog

  2. Thanks for your review Bob, but one must be very careful here. Thomas Oden is a very interesting scholar at a time of transition in Christian theology. Hobbled by a dead Christianity in an imperial and aristocratic Europe at the end of the 1800’s, Christian theologians struggled to come to terms with their responsibilities in the midst of the many social crises of their times. Some began to give emphasis to Jesus’ Good News of the Kingdom today, leading to what came to be called “the social gospel”, and a de-emphasis on the transcendance of Jesus and the God of the Trinity. All of this exploded in Europe after the disaster of World War I, as Christian influence receded in the face of the disasters of failed moral leadership, further blasted by the political disasters that led to and became World War II. The USA suffered in the early 1920’s as well, as some broke away to reestablish old time “fundamentals”, which then turned into a populist legalistic fundamentalism, very much alive today and continuing to hobble Christian witness in our times.

    Though Oden may have turned away from “an empty and unsatisfying activism”, at the very same time other Christian scholars and leaders turned toward activism and away form “an empty and unsatisfying orthodoxy” – Martin Luther King, Jr, whose holi-day we just celebrated, Ron Sider, John Perkins, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and now Bishop Jorge Bergoglio/ aka Pope Francis, to mention just a few very notable names.

    For a time, I was much taken with Oden and his work. Now, it has lost its allure. Yes, study of the history of Christian thought has much to teach, but the answers for the questions and problems challenging us in our day require much more than this.

    In short, a book and an author which can contribute to any conversation today, but I do not find this to be the authoritative text/s that I once expected.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, your point is well taken. The truth is that the gospel of the kingdom has both vertical and horizontal dimensions and cannot help but address the social issues and needs of the day.
      What I think is salutary in Oden’s work is the warning against innovation and originality in theology that breaks with the theological consensus of the rest of the church both across cultures and over time. In our conversations with other university movements around the world, the concern about the theological imperialism of the west on social issues in particular, where we have felt free to break with the rest of the church, leaves others deeply grieved.
      What Oden doesn’t address is how “paleo-orthodoxy” and contemporary theological work and Christian scholarship may intersect in a way that does engage the situations of our present time and both keeps faith with, and builds upon, the work of the saints through history and across cultures. I do not think Oden averse to this, and I think his work on things like the ACCS are meant to resource Christians in the present day for that work. I find myself both grateful for Oden’s work and conscious that others must pick that up and build upon it.


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