Change of Heart (Thomas Oden)

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Autobiographies written by those who lived through the Great Depression have a certain feel to them.  Extra points if you were in the Dust Bowl. Methodist theologian and patristics scholar Thomas Oden describes his life growing up in a poor farming community in Oklahoma to become a radical activist towards ending up as a respected Patristics scholar.  

As a liberal professor he read the New Testament not around the central themes of Incarnation and Resurrection, but around man’s guilt, anxiety, and freedom.  He was a Bultmannian. Fun fact: In the 60s Oden was a devotee of Saul Alinsky, who influenced Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

I was surprised at how much psychotherapy dominated liberal Protestant thought.  Carl Roger’s “unconditional acceptance” became God’s “unconditional love” with Tillich’s “accepting our acceptance.”

His chapter on the 60s made it seem like he personally knew every major American existentialist theologian.  And then there were the hippies. And Oden was always writing about the “next big movement,” all the while slowly abandoning liberalism.

The 1970s were a U-Turn.  It was when Oden met the Jewish conservative Will Herberg that he became a true theologian.  Herberg told him he was a fake because he was a know-it-all pundit who had never read the real Tradition.

Nemesius of Emesa corrected Oden’s psychology as he described the body-soul interface.

The 1980s.  He had open-heart surgery and nearly died on the table.  He describes his soul feeling peace and light. He describes “being bathed in a world of glorious light–stunning, radiant light of a different source than I had ever seen.  The light seemed to be not the light from the operation room ceiling, but from somewhere far beyond.”

Classic pastoral care:  meant caring for the health of the inner life of the person. 

He tells how he visited Cuba and the poverty there.  American democrats today would be shocked to learn “that was real socialism.”

Oden has a thrilling section on Early African Christianity.  He tells of his travels in Africa, meeting with Coptic and Ethiopian leaders, sub-Saharan leaders struggling with Mugabe, how the World Council of Churches loved Mugabe, and such.

Odens ends the book with a reflection on his own spiritual formation, the Office of the Hours, etc.


Oden knew all of the mainstream figures in mainline Protestantism.  His book reads as a “Who’s Who?” 

He tells the neat story of how the Ancient Christian Commentary series (ACCS) came about.  As someone who has been reading the church fathers on a weekly, if not daily basis for the past 12 years, my own experience with this series is mixed.  I get the idea that we need to move beyond the extreme criticism. Yeah, that’s useless to the life of the church. Yet on the other hand, the Spirit has continued to work in lexical studies.  Our knowledge of Hebrew is so much better. That’s not arrogant. We know more about the Hebrew language now than we did 1500 years ago.  

Where the ACCS is valuable, though, is in spiritual formation.  That’s probably closer to what the Fathers intended, anyway.



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