From Radical Leftist to Orthodox Theologian: Thomas Oden's Theological and Spiritual Journey
Thomas C. Oden, now in his mid-eighties, underwent a radical change in his worldview from radical leftist apostate theologian to orthodox theologian. He recounts the events in "A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir" (InterVarsity Press, 2014), Oden recounts the turn from radical left ideology to classic Christianity.
Through his training and studies, Oden was on a left trajectory and eventually came to view Christianity as an instrument by which to effect social change - not to restore mankind to a right relationship with God. Through exposure to leftist thought, he replaced historical-theological doctrine with existential, modernist revisions, most notably the social gospel, and other pyscho-therapeutic hermeneutics. As he later recounts, he had “been in love with heresy.”
The biblical gospel was something simply to be glossed over, and reciting the ecumenical creeds without winking or wincing was an impossible feat. Indeed, words like resurrection and atonement were words he “choked on.” He become obsessed with originality, as is often the case in academic circles. As Oden narrates his training and radical trajectory, we learn that he came under the mentorship of political liberals such as Saul Alinksky and Joe Matthews, who also helped shape the socio-political ideologies of Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
The change of heart happened in the 1970s and was sparked in part by key interactions with his colleague and mentor Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian and social philosopher. Herberg, who experienced his own conversion, charged Oden with a failure to seriously engage the traditions of the church. “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas…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.”
These words seared Oden’s conscience and prompted him to reconsider ancient sources and to revisit Scripture. Gradually, they began to have fresh meaning. Oden started to recapture the spirit of classic Christianity through sustained study of patristic Christian writers and contemporary theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg’s Revelation as History served as the important corrective to Oden’s existential, demythologized reading he inherited from Rudolf Bultmann.
His shift toward classic Christianity propelled him to discover afresh the especially rich heritage of African Christianity, and has since served as General Editor of the "Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture" and the "Ancient Christian Doctrine" series.
Christopher Hall recounts what happened to Oden in "Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers". As he summarizes,
Oden himself, a theologian once firmly in the classical, liberal tradition for many years, increasingly recognized in the late sixties that his disrespect for and ignorance of the Christian past had severely warped his own theological, philosophical, historical and political perspective ... His interaction with Scripture and other theological texts was less a dialogue than a "filtering process" where he allowed sources to speak to him "only insofar as they could meet" his "conditions", "worldview" and "assumptions as a modern man".
But as often happens, reality has an inconvenient way of rudely interrupting man-made fantasy. As Oden recounts,
By 1968 I could see the tremendous harm cause by sexual experimentation --- even among my friends. I could also see their lives being torn up by family disintegration and mind-altering drugs. The wonderful world they thought they were creating was simply turning to dust, ashes and pain --- enormous pain."