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.