Friday, April 23, 2010

Number 15: Thomas C. Oden

The reversal occurred when Will Herberg, my irascible, endearing Jewish mentor and my elder colleague at Drew, held me accountable to my religious heritage. He told me straightforwardly that I would remain theologically uneducated until I had studied carefully Athansius, Ambrose, Basil, and Cyril of Alexandria. In his usual gruff voice he said, "Tom, you have not yet met the great minds of your own tradition. Just as I, after my Communist days, found it decisive to read the Talmud and the Midrashim carefully to discover who I was as a Jew, you will have to sit at the feet of the ancient Christian writers to discover who you are as a possible person of faith. Without solid textual grounding, you will become lost in supposed relevance. If you are going to deepen to become a working theologian instead of a know-it-all contemporary pundit, you had best get at it -- and until you do, you are not a theologian except in name, even if remunerated as one." I was stunned. He had nailed me. (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 2003, p. 87)

I think I could stop there, and you would know almost everything you needed to know about Tom Oden, the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University. And how ironic that Tom Oden, the great champion of Christian orthodoxy, needed to be told this by a non-Christian. It is just one of many ironies that make the story of this Methodist theologian so interesting and compelling. Thomas C. Oden (1931-) is number 15 on my list of the most important theologians in the Methodist tradition since the Wesleys.

First of all, we need to know why the reversal was such a reversal. Oden was from the southwestern corner of Oklahoma. His parents were progressive and pious Methodists. He went to college at the University of Oklahoma and seminary at SMU before obtaining his PhD from Yale in 1960. He has described his early years as remarkably like Hillary Clinton's: a combination of Yale and socially liberal Methodism; the two of them have an amazingly high number of close mutual friends who accompanied and mentored them along that path.

Oden spent the first decade of his academic career trying to use his religion to butress socially liberal idealism. His real authorities were the familiar trio of Marx, Freud, and Nietzche. He says that he spent that time trying to read the New Testament without the premises of incarnation and resurrection-- something he confesses was very hard to do! Then things began to change for Oden beginning in the early 70's.

In addition to the splash of cold water thrown in his face by his Jewish friend, one other factor played a key role in the awakening from his dogmatic slumber. The only time I have personally heard Oden speak was when he came to Duke in 1992 to address our Theological Students' Fellowship. As he spoke to us that night, he recounted how horrified he was to realize in the early 70's what actually happened in an abortion. Of course, he had been an advocate of liberalized abortion and early feminism throughout the 60's. When he realized exactly what he had been defending in the name of choice, it shook him to the core.

Since the mid 1970's, Thomas C. Oden has been churning out book after book on the basics of Christian orthodoxy. I have a review of one of his books here. In numerous places, Oden describes orthodoxy in these terms:

Christian orthodoxy is textually defined by the apostolic testimony, as a fulfillment commentary on the Hebrew Bible. The term paleo-orthodoxy (paleo means "primitive," "ancient") is employed to make clear that we are not talking about neo-orthodoxy , a particular movement within twentieth-century Protestant theology that actually was far more attached to assumptions of modernity than is postemodern paleo-orthodoxy. Were it not for neo-orthodoxy as a popularly recognizable movement, the term paleo-orthodoxy would be an oxymoron. Paleo becomes a necessary prefix only because the term orthodoxy has been preempted and to some degree tarnished by the modern (Bultmannian-Tillichian- Niebuhrian) tradition of neo-orthodoxy.

Christian orthodoxy in its ancient (paleo) ecumenical sense is summarily defined sacramentally by the baptismal formula (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), liturgically by the Eucharistic event, and doctrinally by the confession and its precisely remembered rule of faith as recalled in the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and their subsequent consensual interpretations.... Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, p. 130.

At the conclusion of Oden's book Requiem (1995), he lists by tradition some of his colleagues in the expanding list of paleo-orthodox writers, some of which I will highlight:

Eastern Orthodox: David Ford, John D. Zizioulas
Roman Catholic: Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Ratzinger, and Avery Dulles
Anglican: Alister McGrath, John Milbank, Robert Webber, Lesslie Newbigin
Lutheran: George Lindbeck, Peter Berger, Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, Wolfhart Pannenberg
Reformed: Elizabeth Achtemeier, Brevard Childs, Nicholas Wolterstorff
Baptists: Stanley Grenz, Willie Jennings, Clark Pinnock
Wesleyan: William Abraham, Roberta Bondi, Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon

Thomas Oden played a key role in the formation of the United Methodist doctrinal statement that came out with the 1988 Discipline. He and Dick Heitzenrater had a very public and hotly debated dispute on the doctrinal standards of American Methodism and the status of Wesley's Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament. I encourage the reader to study Tom Langford's book, Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, for the particulars of the debate. Basically, Heitzenrater was arguing that only the 25 Articles of Religion were understood to be doctrinal standards, and Oden was arguing (along with all of Methodist tradition) that Wesley's Sermons and Notes were also doctrinal standards. During the course of this debate, Oden published his book, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (1988). This debate came to a happy conclusion at the 1988 General Conference when a compromise was settled upon: The Articles of Religion were understood to be the clearest examples of doctrinal standards and the Notes and Sermons were recognized historically as the definitive Wesleyan interpretation of these doctrinal standards. (tip: this topic will come up again later in this series....)

Despite Oden's great reversal, some points were retained that he still affirms:

-his five decade defense of women in ordained ministry
-his abiding interest in African and Asian theological traditions
-his repeated defense of interculturalism with an emphasis on the catholicity of the church
-his frequent use of existential analysis as a theologian
-his immersion in experimental psychotherapies and group processes

These are all re-affirmed in Requiem. There is also in this book an ambiguous reference to his pacifism; it was unclear to me if he still considers himself a pacifist or not. If so, it would presumably be because all of the early church fathers he has studied so carefully read the Scriptures in a way that did not allow Christian disciples to use the sword.

Jeffrey C. Pugh, in his article on Oden in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians (1996), recounts the strengths of Oden's work, but he also asks some pointed questions:

Yet the weaknesses of Oden's approach can be found within the strengths. Oden calls attention to the characteristics of the so-called postmodern situation. An emphasis on embodiment, contextuality and construals of the subject are very much in the forefront of the current quest for understanding. In the midst of the voices of modernity that argue that understanding domesticates difference, Oden's work will not have much appeal. But these perspectives cannot be ignored, and the problematics they point to cannot be looked beyond to construct a simple view of the past.... Perhaps the most important concern is whether Oden has sought recovery in a too simplistic manner. Is there a too easy juxtaposition between a corrupt present and an honored past in Oden? (p. 344)
Some will say that Oden's work lacks an ethical edge, and that is probably a fair criticism. Others will point to his work in establishing The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church as a weakness. Although I have sympathy for the Confessing Movement's concern to maintain Christian and Methodist orthodoxy, I am troubled by the organization's tendency to oversimplify and sometimes sensationalize what are really quite complex theological questions. For this reason, I have never been a part of the Confessing Movement, and I think that one of Oden's shortcomings has been his association with this group. This does not change my respect and appreciation for some of the key leaders of that movement, including Oden, Abraham, and Cannon -- all of whom have been a part of this series.

Perhaps one of Oden's most lasting contributions to Methodism and the wider church has been his recovery of Patristic sources and his insistence that just because the early church fathers and mothers happen to be dead, that does not mean that they should not have a vote in matters of church doctrine. Certainly, Oden's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series will be an enduring witness for many decades to come -- not only to Oden's brilliance, not only to the collective wisdom of the early church, but most importantly to the lordship of Jesus Christ over every sphere of human life and indeed over the entirety of all creation.

That word ('inclusive') remains the key shibboleth of my hyper-liberated generation. We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most premodern wisdom. Now I experience a gracious sense of multigenerational inclusion in the communion of saints. Those saints precede and transcend modern life and will survive its death. The faithful belong to a much more inclusive communion than is even conceivable within the limits of modern ideologies.... Now I revel in the very premises I once carefully learned to set aside: the triune mystery, the preexistent Logos, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord, the grace of baptism.... Rather than interpreting the texts, I found the text interpreting me..... It is the winter season for rigorous Christian teaching. Modernity is a winter season for classical Christianity. Spring will come, but only to those who have survived the winter. (quotes taken from various places in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy and Agenda for Theology).


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I first ecountered Oden with the original edition of Agenda for Theology. I like much of his approach, but dislike other parts of it intensely. I think his continued attachment to psychobabble undermines his reclamations of the orthodox tradition. He is a terrible exegete of Scripture--though quite good as an interpreter of post-canonical classics--something that I would reverse in priority.

I don't know enough about the Confessing Movement in the UMC to comment. But I find it telling--and a huge weakness--that his list of paleo-orthodox compatriots in so many traditions are USUALLY political reactionaries and very authoritarian personality types. (Bondi, Hauerwas, Newbigin, Grenz & Wolterstorff are major exceptions.) I find it VERY difficult not to write off anyone who lists Ratzinger and Neuhaus as colleagues and fellow travelers. UGH!

Pannenberg is good, but he considers Ronald Reagan to be the greatest U.S. president and justified the 2nd arms race and even the U.S. pushing nukes into West Germany in the '80s--as well as the contras in Nicaragua.

So, I can't say simply that Oden's theology lacks a strong ethics. It's worse than that: It actively undergirds an oppressive ethics and politics.

Oden, like many for whom opposition to legal abortion is the number one issue, subordinates every other horror in the name of ending legalized abortion. A theology and politics of reaction is usually a bad one.

Still, I find much to like in Oden's 3 volume work--which doesn't address his inter-UMC feuds. I'd include him in this list, but switch his ranking with that of Justo Gonzalez.

John Meunier said...


Thank you for this series of posts. Unlike Michael, I do not have extensive theological training or reading. I greatly appreciate the tour through Methodist theology.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for this. When you have finished the series, I would like to post all the links on my blog. What you are doing is very useful.

Michael, I do not agree with Oden on everything, but I have to say that when I was reading your critique I was wondering if there was a second Tom Oden out there I do not know about.

Robert said...
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james said...

I have been reading Odens systematic theo trilogy and i am liking it a lot. He is accessible and i think puts his finger on some of the contemporary problems with theology when caught up in hermeneutics and philosophy without some nuancing by the church fathers. His familiarity with Kierkegaard gives him a lot of credibility in my estimation. I have posted a great quote from his first part of the trilogy on my own blog. Feel free to check it out at