I am reposting this 2015 review because Thomas Oden passed away yesterday at the age of 85.
Summary: A memoir of a theologican’s movement from classic liberalism to historic Christianity.
I have been vaguely aware of Thomas Oden but I have not previously read anything by him.
I was first aware of his books on early African Christianity such as The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing the Early Church Tradition. I was not really aware that he was also the driving force behind the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. (Many of which have dropped to $12.99 each on kindle.)
People I know of kept mentioning how good this memoir was and when I had some Amazon promotional credit I bought it (it is the most expensive memoir I have ever purchased, which is why I have not read it previously.)
Oden is similar in age to Eugene Peterson, Kalistos Ware, Pope Benedict, Martin Marty and Richard John Neuhaus. All of these theologians lived through a strange time. They were born between the wold wars in a global recession. The first wave of progressive modernity had passed with the world wars and a new death of god liberalism came to the fore with their adulthood.
Oden fully embraced liberal theology as an academic theologian (and unusual for then, but not today, also a working pastor). In his late 30s he started to struggle with the weaknesses of the liberal movement, ecumenism (as illustrated by the World Council of Churches) and his own faith.
A major turning point was his first sabbatical, which he spent in Europe interacting with many of his theological heroes and as an observer with Vatican II. Over the next decade he started promoting ‘classical Christianity’ through ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, a theological method that rejected innovation but instead relied on early church (Patristic) sources.
Once committed to paleo-orthodoxy (he was differentiating from neo-orthodoxy), he pledged to not intentionally write anything new. For Oden, the way forward was by fully understanding those that were closest to the time of Jesus. These early writers were following in the steps of Paul in 2 Cor 2:2 by saying nothing new about Jesus. Oden is also committed to the consensus teaching. One of his other projects was to determine exactly what is agreed upon by different groups. So one book project was taking over 100 evangelical statements of faith and determining what was affirmed by all of them. (And this was really what at the heart of the Ancient Christian Commentary series as well.)
For an armchair theologian such as myself, this was a fascinating book. Oden has had a global reach, geographically, denominationally and historically. He was friends with a number of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theologians. He credits a conversation with Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) for encouraging him to attempt the Ancient Christian Commentary series. He was involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement as well as a number of other ecumenical movements based around traditional Christian orthodox beliefs.
Oden was also an incredibly prolific author. Based on my count he was the author of at least 58 books, not including the Ancient Christian Commentary series which he was the general editor and also the author of a couple of the books in the series (also not counting different editions of books as multiple.)
As someone that has been seriously working through my own journey of faith and looking back toward the historic Christian streams of faith, it is clear that whether I knew of him or not, Oden is someone that has influenced many that have also influenced me.
For those that are less theology nerds and less interested in historic Christian streams of faith, this will be less interesting. Like many memoirs there is a lot of ‘and then I wrote this’ and ‘and then I met these people’. If you are not aware of at least some of the players and background story it could get a bit boring.
- Essays on the Church by CS Lewis
- When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers by Marcellino D’Abrosio
- The Pastor: a Memoir by Eugene Peterson
- America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by Grant Walker
- Ancient Path Old Lessons Church Fathers New Life Today by John Michael Talbot with Mike Aquilina
- Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth by John Richard Neuhaus
- Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI