Mohler: This is Thinking in Public a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline, theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Thomas Oden has lived one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century and into the 21st. He is now the General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Christian and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He’s also the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. For many years he was professor of theology at the graduate school of Drew University. His most recent book A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir is one of the most moving Christian autobiographies I have ever read. And I’m really looking forward to this conversation with Dr. Thomas C. Oden.
Dr. Oden, when you wrote your book A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, you told a story that only you could tell. And that’s not just in terms of the fact that the particulars of your life are unique to yourself, but rather the theological trajectory you trace is one that was only possible in the 20th century. How did you come to decide this was the way to tell your story?
Oden: I didn’t want to tell my story, I was asked by quite a few people to open a window into all of this. I really didn’t want to. I didn’t think I could write narrative, I just wasn’t prepared to do it. But now that I have worked through it and done it, I’m very pleased to have it out there. How did I decide to, or how do I understand my story in relationship to God’s story with us is the way I would put the issue. I, honestly Al, I think personal autobiography is rather unimportant in relation to the story of God with humanity, and especially his revelation of Jesus Christ. So I don’t have any pretenses about my story being my story being important, it’s just exactly what happened to me. I felt that I had, when I finally committed myself to doing this, I had to tell it exactly like it was. So that was the challenge for me. There’s a sense in which, you know, I’ve lived through the last 80 years, or 80 plus years, and so to tell the story is a little bit complicated. You know, people ask me ‘how did you do all this in one lifetime?’ And by the way, sometimes I wonder about you Al, how did you do all that you’ve done in your lifetime, it’s been amazing. But it really is, taking step by step, it’s just a matter of responding to grace. And I guess the heart of my story is that the first part of forty years of my life; I was way, way out there on a path that I had to go on in order to come back like the prodigal son to the father. But eventually I did and by my fortieth year, I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus…
Oden: … of the ancient Christian writers and their interpretation of Scripture. And of course you know Al, out of that came the Ancient Christian Commentary. So it’s been a wonderful journey for me, and I’m still on it, I’m still very much involved. You probably know that I’m very much involved…
Oden: … in the rebirth of African Orthodoxy.
Mohler: Absolutely. And, you know, you are a library unto yourself, just in terms of your books, and that’s a part of the story. But as well as I thought I knew you and your story, Dr. Oden, I think the thing that surprised me in this memoir was where you get even in page 46, where you speak of the first half of your life and you’re talking about your college experience. And you say that soon after, basically, you graduated from college, you started a period of left turns. And as you say, as early in your book as page 46, “every turn a left turn.” Can you explain how that happened to a young man who was raised in a traditional protestant home and a wonderful family context of a loving family, how did you end up turning left by reflex so early in life?
Oden: I think the honest answer is that I loved the fantasies and I loved the revolutionary illusions. I truly loved them, I loved heresy, Al. And why did I love heresy after I had been, you know, nurtured in faith in the incarnate Lord, and the risen Lord, it was, I don’t want to put it onto the times—it’s not the times that shaped me—but I do think I was, from the day I set foot in the University, which was 1949, that’s the University of Oklahoma, I was interested in exploring things that I didn’t know. So I got quickly, very deeply into Marx. And I had friends that were very much involved in what you would call socialist ideology and I became very much involved in that. And I was very deeply committed to it. I was very much involved early on in the Civil Rights movement and I became very much involved in the existential movement when I was in seminary. I think you know that I went to seminary not to serve the ministry of the Church, but to use the Church as an instrument of political change. Now, when I was doing that, I didn’t understand what I was doing, but it took me a while to learn that there was something much deeper than political action – to which I was deeply committed in my young years.
Mohler: When you write your story about all these left turns, one of those left turns takes you beyond your college and seminary experience to Yale University where you did doctoral work. And you eventually settled on a dissertation having to do with Rudolph Bultmann. So as you think about the theological trajectories of the 20th centuries, in one sense your very doctoral dissertation placed you among the hyper-modernists there at the beginning of the 20th century.
Oden: Yes, I was, I would call it, a moderate Bultmannian. I wasn’t on the left wing of the Bultmannian school as my colleague Schubert Ogden, I believe, was. But I learned a lot from Bultmann and after having cast away the New Testament as being pretty much irrelevant to what I was trying to do at that time, which was political action, Bultmann really did bring me back into taking the text seriously. Of course he didn’t take me far enough into the text to recognize that the resurrection was the basis for the Church’s memory of what happened in Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection turned everything upside down and I don’t think that Bultmann ever, nor did Tillich, ever really confess the resurrection in the way I came to confess it as an event in history. And that came to me on the basis of, really, historical reasoning about the evidences of the resurrection.
Mohler: When you write about that in your book, I want to read back a few of your own words to you because there is enormous revelation in these. You write of that era in your life, “I was able to confess the Apostle’s Creed, but only with only deep ambiguity. But I stumbled over ‘he arose from the dead.’ I had to demythologize it and could say it only symbolically. I could not inwardly confess the resurrection as a factual historical event. I was assigned the task of teaching theology, but when I came to the resurrection, I honestly had to say at that stage, that it was not about an actual event of the actual resurrection but a community’s memory of an unexplained event.” That’s an incredible set of sentences there, Dr. Oden.
Oden: It’s absolutely true and it came out of my theological mentors, Al. I was simply reflecting the ethos of the time when Existentialist theology, especially Bultmann and Tillich, were the fad. They were the main point of reference for anybody in ministry in the United Methodist Church at that time. And I think even the leftward turns that I took early in my life were an evidence of me trying to be faithful to my church, its leadership, especially its national youth leadership and the Methodist student movement at that time. You may remember the magazine Motive, have you ever seen that magazine?
Mohler: I have
Oden: Well that was my history. I mean, that magazine had a very important impact upon me as it did upon Hilary Clinton, Hilary Rodham at that time. And I think that it took me a long time to find my way back to a recognition that the beginning of Christian conversion is the incarnation and the resurrection—God’s coming in the flesh and God’s truly rising to forgive our sins and take our place.
Mohler: In your book, very early on, speaking of your role as a theology professor in a theological seminary, you describe a pattern that in the midst of the controversy years in my own denomination, was spoken of as double-speak, kind of in an Orwellian sense, where there was actually one veteran professor that what he had been taught by other professors in the seminary was to speak one way to the academy and another way to the church. And in your memoir you write, “in my seminary teaching I appeared to be relatively orthodox, if by that one means using an orthodox vocabulary. I could still speak of God, sin and salvation but always only in demythologized, secularized and worldly-wise terms. God became the liberator, sin became oppression and salvation became human effort.” Then this final sentence: “The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity.” Just how widespread was that pattern, or is it, Dr. Oden?
Oden: Unfortunately, Al, I think it was extremely widespread. Not nearly so much in the Southern Baptist Convention, but it certainly was among Methodist circles. And I would say especially Methodists intellectual circles and theological circles. I think that the confession of the resurrection as an even in history, or the incarnation as an event in history of God becoming flesh, I don’t think that I learned that in seminary. I had to unlearn it, I had to go through a long process of searching out myself and the options that were available to me until they became, in the late 60’s, really, just sort of bare and unpromising for me. And that’s the point at which I met Will Herberg.
Mohler: You in one sense kind of invent a vocabulary for us in telling your story. And one of the terms that I have borrowed from you and cited you on repeatedly is where you refer to those days in your life as in your self-description being a “movement theologian.” I think as I look at the history of theology in the 20th century in particularly, certainly continuing into our own times, there are many who are rightly described as “movement theologians.” Can you tell us what you meant by that and how you found yourself a “movement theologian.”
Oden: Well the key phrase here is “the world sets the agenda.” That was a book that written by a Yale professor in, I would say, the late 50’s or early 60’s and if the world is setting the agenda for the church, the church is always trying to catch up: philosophically, with what is happening in existentialism and scientific inquiry, in terms of psychotherapy, it’s always trying to catch up with whatever is the latest and seemingly, apparently, the best and most productive form of psychotherapy. So we could simply call it “faddism.” I was taught to be very attentive to culture without having a sufficient grounding in the classical Christian confession. And I don’t think that was all that was all that unusual in my church at that time, and unfortunately, it is not all that unusual today. I have remained in my church, I haven’t seen any reason why I should leave my church because of its basic sound doctrines; which is basically Anglican evangelical doctrine. But it took me many, many paths that were blocked paths finally. That really is the heart of roughly the first half of my story.
Mohler: Well, in that first half of your story there is one little vignette that I have to ask you to revisit as a Southern Baptist. And that was in the 1960s when, describing yourself, you said you felt like a goldfish in a swarm of piranhas, when you appeared as a self-described ecumenical leader to speak in the 1960s on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Tell us that story. I found a real delight in the reading of that story.
Oden: Of course, that was at the height of my fascination with Bonheoffer and I was asked to be a part of a chapel service. So I preached what I thought was a sermon, but it really was more like a political rally for the at least fragments of what Bonheoffer was saying about religious Christianity. If you can sort of think of that as the context in which we are having a meeting of ecumenical students. These students comes from all over—Texas, Oklahoma, and nearby, this was a southwestern conference. So I went through my talk and then the president of Southwestern Baptist—a wonderful, gentle human being. Do you remember his name, I’m sorry?
Mohler: Rob, Dr. Robert Naylor
Oden: Oh, Robert Naylor! What a wonderful man he is, and now, how gracious he was to me. And after I sat down, he came to the podium and he very deftly took almost every point that I had made and just tore it apart. It was not – “tore it apart” is too harsh, because he was never a harsh man. He was a gentle man. But I realized after that, that—it took me several years, I guess—to realize how much he had actually understood what I said and rebuked it. He gave me what I would call a “gentle admonition,” which I think is a great virtue of the pastoral position.
Mohler: he was a very gracious man, Dr. Oden. I just have to tell you that when I was elected president at Southern in 1993, I was just 33, I needed to talk to some people who had run seminaries before that I respected, I flew out to Fort Worth to meet with Robert Naylor, who was so gracious to receive me. And I think you intersect with that story in ways that I didn’t know until I read your book, because when he was giving me practical advice about being a seminary president, he said “look young man” he said, “one of the worst thing you can possibly do is leave a chapel service early.” He said, “you be there so, if necessary, you can have the last word.” And it just may be that you were the reason why he told me that.
Oden: Well, it could be. You came along a few years after me
Oden: You’re younger than I but I think you must have been a dean there, for something like 3 years?
Mohler: I’ve been here at Southern since 1993 and…
Oden: 1993, okay
Mohler: as president. When you and I first met, I was a doctoral student here, and I was an administrator serving on the staff here, and then I was editor of the Christian Index. We spent a delightful conversation in Chicago, I think, back when I was editor of the Index, and I just think of your life story, which you shared so generously here, and I come in, in terms of my life, born in 1959, ten years after you went to college, and I’m just looking and saying “I wish I had read your book when I was 22” because it would have helped me so much. That is one of the reasons why I’m glad to share it with so many now, because I landed in the midst of the people who were taught by the people who taught you. And I was taught the same kind of thing, in terms of movement theology, yet in a Southern Baptist context, there was a sense in which the leftward direction of the Southern Baptist Convention was desperate to catch up with where the United Methodists already were.
Oden: Well, let me just say this, Al: I think what you participated in—you and Pressler, and Paige Patterson, you all participated in a very important corrective, what is sometimes called the Conservative Resurgence, and I had a very similar role among the United Methodists, in the United Methodist Church. I probably have been more isolated and less geared to the political life, you might say, of the United Methodist Church. I’ve had a lot of that, and I’m very glad to be sort of, beyond all of that, although I still remain a United Methodist.
Mohler: The conversation with Thomas Oden thus far points to the fact that not only was he what he describes as a “movement theologian,” not only was he someone who had taken a left turn at every available opportunity, but it happened very early in his life. It’s important for us to recognize that it was tied to his experience in higher education, even in the 1940s and 1950s. But it was really central to the academic project to mainline Protestantism, by the time you reach the late 50s and the 1960s, well into the 1970s. But it’s in the 1970s that Thomas Oden’s life and his thinking took a decisive turn. That’s what makes his story so unique. When you read the book, you find out that he has been virtually everywhere and with everyone at so many of the most important points in church history in the 20th century, he was there. He was there at the Second Vatican Council as an observer, he has been just about everywhere. But the most important thing he would have us to see in the memoir is how a recovery of Christian orthodoxy led him to leave all that, very much behind. And it’s to that very great turn in his life that we now turn.
Mohler: Let me ask you about the most important part of your story, which is not where you were, but how you arrived at your current convictions. And you talk about the turn in your life and you actually trace it, oddly enough, and in a way that I just have to attribute to the providence of God, to the relationship that you had with Will Herberg at Drew—one of the most seminal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century in America.
Oden: He really was important to me because when I first met Will, that was when I first arrived at Drew in 1970, he was the leading professor in the graduate school at that time. His graduate school classes were packed and I wanted to really get acquainted with him. So we had a lunch meeting with my wife and Will about every two or three weeks, and so we got very well acquainted quite early. And Will saw right through me. Of course, at that time, he was writing articles for Bill Buckley and for conservative magazines at that time. He was not so much a political neo-con, but a philosopher on behalf of Neo-Conservatism. And, you know, I gotta say, I don’t think, before I met Will, I don’t think I ever met anybody that I would call a conservative intellectual. I just didn’t meet anybody like that. I was protected from meeting, by the associations and networks I was in. And, anyway, he was a very gruff and direct person in communication. We were having a lunch at Convent Station, nearby Drew where I was teaching, and he got right in my face, he put his finger up, looked straight into my eyes, and with fury in his eyes, he says: “you will never be a theologian until you dig deep into the classical Christian tradition.” And later I learned that he had done that very same thing because he had been a member of the Communist party. And after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, he had left the Communist Party and then become a conservative Jew. So, his path was probably 30 years before mine, but I really took him seriously, I knew that he was right.
Mohler: Well, the line, Dr. Oden, that he addressed to you is a line that I have now addressed to others. Its sheer concision and brilliance gets right to the point, when as you say in your memoir, he said to you, “you don’t know your own tradition well enough to repudiate it.”
Oden: He was exactly right! I had very little idea about classical Christian teaching, I knew a lot about contemporary theology. That’s what I kind of specialized in at Yale. I worked with Barth and Bultmann mostly, and the existentialists. And so what happened to me was a very simple thing—I decided to take his advice. I didn’t have an alternative in my conscience and so I began reading the ancient Christian writers, first of the all the pre-Nicene writers and the formulators of orthodoxy and the ecumenical councils of the early centuries. And I was just intrigued, there was a whole world that I hadn’t known about, and it was a wonderful world and it became my home—it was like coming home. By the end of my second year there at Drew, my colleagues were kind of wondering what had happened to me and I don’t think they ever quite understood what had happened to me. But it was that I became a participant in the great cloud of witnesses. They were there but I didn’t listen to them, I didn’t hear them. And so it was really a process of reading. That sounds very boring to someone who is in the pietistic tradition, but I met the Lord and I met God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit through reading the ancient Christian writers, it was as simple as that. And that book is still open for anybody who wants to go there.
Mohler: Well and you have, in your latter years, helped so many people to get there by your Ancient Christian Commentary and so many other important works of research. But before I get there, I want to go back to where you began reading the early Church Fathers. Other than Augustine and Athanasius whom I quote more than any other of the Fathers, I quote Vincent. And I was so interested once again to see how Vincent of Lerins had been so crucial to your theological self-understanding. I would appreciate it if you talked about that just a bit, because I will tell you that as a doctoral student, I found much the same influence from the very same source.
Oden: I think Vincent of Lerins is a remarkable man because he understood, in a clear way that nobody else had up to that point, he understood how consensus was achieved on doctrinal matters in the ecumenical councils. I believe personally that he was in fact attending the Council of Ephesus—but that’s a speculation. But I think there’s some good indicators. In any event, he understood how the Council Fathers arrived at decision-making and it was a matter of allowing the apostolic witness to become consensual through prayer, through Scripture study, and through conversation. And his formula, of course, as you know, is that if a dogmatic statement is not found everywhere in the whole range of the universal church, it cannot be ecumenical. If it is not personally received, it cannot be ecumenical. And it must have a continuous tradition of being remembered as received. But received what, received memory of the apostolic tradition. In other words, these ancient Christian writers were not just speculating out of nowhere, they had memorized so much of the Scripture, it’s amazing! And they learned, they studied deeply the Scripture. That’s a point that often Protestants don’t quite credit sufficiently.
Oden: Some of them like Origin or Augustine were deeply immersed in Scripture and…
Mohler: Absolutely, yes.
Oden: … so I think Vincent helped me when, I think I read Vincent before I read the fourteenth volume of the Nicene/Post-Nicene Fathers. And that really changed my mind. I mean, I realized how the Church fought, how the Church arrived at its dogmatic decisions, and then what happened to me, Al, is that I began gradually to trust the Holy Spirit. This is not something that happened without the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit guiding the church towards the unity of the body of Christ and guiding the Church towards the consensual memories of the apostles. I truly believe that despite differences among New Testament scholars, I think the apostles were essentially one in voice as we see for example in the Council of Jerusalem. There were not different Christianities as Bart Ehrman says, there was one Christianity from the very beginning and then it had to face and it had to fend off all kinds of Gnostic and Arian and other kinds of heresies. Once I got through that period of recognizing ecumenical consensus is the way I would put it, it just was a breeze! It made theology so much easier for me. Well, you know the dream that I report of having a dream about my tombstone, which delightfully said “he made no new contribution to theology.”
Oden: Now I took that dream as kind of a wonderful, ironic discovery about myself because I discovered that I didn’t have to create a new theology—which I had been taught all my theological life, that that’s what my life would be about, creating a new theology. It’s almost amusing to think about it now, but that’s what happened to me.
Mohler: I want to press you just a bit on that because where Vincent came into my thinking was as a PhD student in historical and systematic theology, the historical part in particular, where my great discovery in that process, and I have many people who helped me. One of them was our common friend, Timothy George, who is on my doctoral committee at the beginning. And you know, I began to understand that there were two trajectories from the very earliest post-apostolic era. There was a trajectory of orthodoxy and a trajectory of heresy. And you could basically trace these trajectories and so in my own way, by reading as you say, I re-fought the battle of Nicea right down to the creed. I went through every major theological controversy—Augustine versus Pelagius—and then right through the Reformation and the present, and it became very easy. You talked about how easy it became once you understood the basic trajectory of orthodoxy. And I think there are many evangelicals who are actually tremendously vulnerable simply because they don’t know that these two streams are both very old. You mentioned Bart Ehrman, they think this is something new. This is not new at all. Heresy is never new.
Oden: That’s right, it’s been there, even elements of it or echoes of it in the New Testament itself. But when it got transferred to Alexandria, which was a great university system and a great context for all kinds of experimental thinking, it really had to confront the Gnostics, the serious Gnostics. And there certainly was a stream that claimed to be truly apostolic. It’s interesting to me that the heresies always appealed to the apostles. But they had different memories and different texts. So finally the question of canonization became a decisive one because if you’re going to have an ecumenical world church confessing one Lord, you’re going to have to have an agreement on what belongs in the canon of Scriptures that is read in the church every Sunday.
Mohler: You invent, I think, a term to refer to your own understanding of this theological trajectory. You refer to a phrase you say is not only ironic, but perhaps even a bit comic—that’s the phrase “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” How did you come to that?
Oden: When I first introduced that term to my graduate students, I was partly thinking in jest because at that time Neo-Orthodoxy was the prevailing view. By Neo-Orthodoxy, I mean primarily, at least in my context, it was Bultmann and Tillich and less so Barth but Brunner. And that was Neo-Orthodoxy. Well, it seemed to me, if I had to clarify myself to my graduate students, I had to show why I was not Neo-Orthodox. I mean, Neo-Orthodoxy never had an adequate doctrine of the Church, it never had a fully adequate doctrine of the atonement, these things were so essential in the classical Christian writers. And so I had to show that I was not following the patters, even of Barth, who was so deeply Reformed and Calvinist that he resisted going back, in some measure, I mean he certainly knew Athanasius, but I don’t think Barth ever went really deeply into the ancient Christian writers. Anyway, “paleo” is the word that is obviously the opposite of “neo.” But if you add to that the phrase “post-modern” Paleo-Orthodoxy, which I think is the most descriptive four words for what I do. You see this ancient orthodoxy, the old faith, being renewed in culture after culture, in language after language. And it is perfectly open to being renewed today. And so I also found that modernity, and this I don’t know whether, I think you used the phrase “post-modern” in one of your books, I believe in the subtitle…
Oden: …was it the book on preaching?
Mohler: It was
Oden: Yeah, I appreciated that. But I think what I had to fight off were people that just couldn’t believe that I was really focused on a critique on modernity. And I honestly believe that the key figures in modern consciousness, and you know what they are in my view, they are Frued, Marx, Nietze and Darwin. These are the key figures that everything else in modernity comes out of. So if those key figures are basically off-base, then the whole trajectory is off-base. And I had followed all four of those figures very deeply.
Oden: And I had to find myself beyond them. But when I speak of modernity, I mean something that I think is not completely dead, but morose in its intellectual foundation, and I think we see this for example in Darwinism and the Intelligent Design premise that I think is becoming more and more plausible for more and more serious scientists.
Mohler: Dr. Oden, when you had this change in your own trajectory, you were still in the same institution.
Mohler: The graduate school there, Drew, had hired you as a movement theologian and you jumped out of the movement into classical Christian orthodoxy. How did that go over and what were the lessons that you learned about contemporary theological education from your experience?
Oden: Al, I think that my colleagues were very generous to me. I was tenured from the day I was there, but they put up with me and we had good friendships. But we had very different ways of understanding the situation we were in. I went to Drew in the 70s. If you think back to the 70s, 80s, and 90s, those were the years when everything was trying to accommodate to modernity. Whatever it was, theology was not trying to get ahead of modernity, but sort of just catch up with it. So what happened to my colleagues, well they went on their way. They went on the way of political correctness. And they went on the way of what I regard as a kind of exaggerated understanding of absolute egalitarianism, which does not seek equal justice at all but seeks privilege for privileged voices. And I for example did support affirmative action in its legal sense and court sense, but I did not affirm it in the way in which it was interpreted in my seminary in which proper language about God became a very, very crucial question. I don’t think that ever happened, at least not very much in the Baptist seminaries, but it certainly did in the Methodist seminaries. The real question here, of course, is: “do you call Jesus the Son of God?” and “is God the Father?” And at that point, I had to take a firm stand, and I did. Like I said, we got along okay in a social sense, but I don’t think they ever really understood what I was doing.
Mohler: I’d like to ask you, Dr. Oden, about just a couple of issues that arise in your book because there were clearly some catalysts that helped to crystallize some of these issues for you. One of them was the issue of abortion.
Oden: Oh yeah. Well, this was connected with the time of the 1973 decision on Roe vs. Wade, I believe it was ’73.
Mohler: It was, that’s right.
Oden: And I had been teaching, previously, for the previous ten years before going to Drew, I had been actually active politically for a liberal abortion policy. And I was the County Chairman for Fred Harris’ Senate campaign, and I was taking the line of the Democratic Party at that time. And, well, here’s what happened at that time, Al. I was teaching young seminarians that what they needed to do in their pastoral care of women who were seeking abortion was just empathize with them and not express any judgment about the value of life. Now, at a certain point, I came to a simple ethical revulsion. The revulsion was against the pro-abortion premise that life can be taken arbitrarily and on the basis of convenience. I think that was a moment in my consciousness, and once I passed through that moment, I never changed, I’ve been very pro-life ever since. And all the work I did at a certain time on treatment termination, you know, shows that. And I just think, to put it quite simply, the value of life cannot be compared with any other finite value because life is the pre-condition of thinking about value, you follow me here?
Oden: And once I got through that, I feel like my political life change significantly, because, from then on, Al, my politic life was a politics of repentance. In other words, I had spent a couple of decades doing things politically that I later came to regret. I came to regret the idealization of not just socialism, but the idealization of a society where the planners control everything and they don’t have a critique of their own planning process. That to me is just another example of original sin.
Mohler: Yes sir
Oden: One of the deepest, strongest political aspects of wisdom in the classical Christian teaching is the persistence of sin—the fact that we are given life in its fullness by God, but we always find some way of fouling it up.
Mohler: Well Amen, that is certainly true. And that is what makes the gospel such good news. I want to ask you, Dr. Oden, as someone who has spent your entire life in the Methodist Church, I just want to ask you how do you see the mainline now? These mainline more liberal denominations, where do you think they are headed now in the early decades of the 21st century.
Oden: Okay, simple enough. I think the mainline is now the sideline. The old ecumenical movement from Geneva is now defunct. It can’t raise any money, it doesn’t have any church support. This is also true of the liberal United Methodist Church. The conferences and the jurisdictions that are the most liberal are the ones that are having the most trouble. So I feel very hopeful about the United Methodist. On one simple point, doesn’t ignore all of the other deficits, but on the question of one man and one woman committing themselves in covenant fidelity for life and being responsible for their children. To me that is just so foundational that I think the United Methodist discipline has remained the same on that point.
Mohler: That’s right
Oden: The phrase is “homosexuality is contrary to the will of God” or inconsistent with Christian teaching. Now, I think that the Methodist has held fast to that point where it has folded in the Presbyterian Church – in the Lutheran Church, it is far more cloudy. And for that, and I think that there’s another aspect here, Al – I don’t know if we’ve got time to go into it. But the voices of African bishops and African laity have been decisive in Methodist polity in the last twelve years or so – the last three general conferences because the voices of Africans have been so clear on this – on all points of sexual ethics. And they’ve just made it clear that if the Methodist church goes in the direction of the Ang – of the Episcopalians – you know, the Methodist is just in huge trouble in Africa.
So that has not happened. And I think that some of the people that I’ve been deeply connected with – the Confessing Movement and the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the Good News Movement – these people have fought long and hard within the Methodist political system, I would say, to prevent that from happening. And I regard it as a kind of badge of honor that we have not fallen. And I don’t think we’re going to fall. We’ve got a basic decision before us in the next general conference as to whether we’re going to be a world church or a North American church.
Mohler: But that really is the wonderful irony of all this, because it was the decision to include in the United Methodist Church the churches from elsewhere in the world – that at least in terms of numbers is what has kept the church from joining the headlong rush to redefine marriage and sexual standards as found in Scripture. So there’s an incredible irony where we see a church in some ways rescued by Africa here in North America.
Oden: Absolutely true.
Mohler: Let me ask you another question, Dr Oden. And I just cannot recommend your memoir enough to people. I have found it to be one of the most delightfully written and humbly told stories. And a couple of sentences just stick with me out of the book in terms of the humility with which you write this. And I want to read a couple words back to you.
Writing of the 1970’s, when you were experiencing this great turn towards Christian orthodoxy, looking back at what you had written you wrote, “The twelve books I wrote in the 1960’s were not all wrong, but flawed by the fervent desire to accommodate to modern worldviews.” You wrote, “By 1970, I could see the tremendous harm caused by some of the follies I had promoted. I do not repudiate them overall, but now see the shortcomings of their hidden assumptions that were common to that time.”
It’s incredible that the Lord has allowed you to live long enough to look back that far and write that sentence.
Oden: Well, it’s absolutely true. I was one of those who was probably way out on the far left edge of accommodating to modernity. And I don’t know how but the Holy Spirit found me – I guess through – oddly enough, my Jewish colleague. Which is one of the ironies of my history, that I became a Christian through the testimony of a Jew to the Jewish tradition and his depth knowledge of rabbinic and midrashic writings that I followed his path that led me to the writings that changed my life. I did have a change of heart.
Mohler: Well, a change of heart, a change of mind. And yet what I think has – I’ll just say to you Dr Oden, from having blessed opportunities to be with you and to get to know you, for which I’m just tremendously thankful. Just the intersection points of our life – I can think of being in different places and was so glad to have you here, and in my library. Just to know that fellowship. But there’s a graciousness about you, a joy that – of course I’ve only known you in the second half of this story, but the joy is just tangible. As you are now in your ninth decade of life, having written this story and shared it with your brothers and sisters in Christ, what is your great joy in this season of your life?
Oden: It’s really the joy of reflecting on the providence of God. My story – put it this way – I don’ think I could have had a credible critique of modernity – I couldn’t have had a credible critique of Marxism and Freudianism and Nietzsche and Darwin without going through it. The providence of God allowed me to be a prodigal, if you will, and by that I learned to rejoice just as did the prodigal in coming home to the Father.
Mohler: That is so kindly and graciously said. And I just want to ask you as a final word: if you were to speak to me (as you are now) and if you were to speak to a generation of evangelical Christians coming behind, what would be your word? What would you want us to hear from you and we look to the challenge of faithfulness in the future?
Oden: Trust that the Holy Spirit is creating unity of the body of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that is at work to bring us – you know Baptists and Methodists for example. There’s a Baptist church and a Methodist church in my home town. They were very different. But you and I represent a new time. And it has been a work of the Spirit that we have come to the point of grounding ourselves anew in the apostolic tradition and in the earliest concentral Christian interpreters of it. I think that is – to any young person I would say, just don’t fail to at least make an attempt to listen to these voices. They are so valuable, so wise, and so profound.
Mohler: Dr. Oden, I’m so thankful for you. So thankful for this time together. I pray for you, and for your health and continued vitality. You’re a great gift to the church and I want you to know I mean that first of all, very personally.
Oden: Thank you so much, Al. And I value what you’ve done as a strong leader, as an intelligent apologist. You’ve been out there on the front on a lot of tough issues and I value that very much.
Mohler: Well, I say goodbye only in the sense in that I hope it is not long until I hear your voice again. God bless you, Dr Oden.
Oden: Come and visit me in Oklahoma.
Mohler: I will seek to do that very thing. God bless you.
Oden: Thank you, Al.
Mohler: Well by now you know what I said in the beginning is true: this is one of the most amazing stories in terms of recent church history. This is one of the most amazingly well-written and humble memoirs that you can find anywhere. And I certainly hope you find this book and you read it and having read it you commend it and give it to others. This is an important story. As I said in my conversation with Dr Oden, I wish I’d had this book when I was twenty-two years old, because I wish I could have learned some of the lessons I had to learn later in my life by learning those lessons by reading Thomas Oden’s autobiography; his memoir of his turn from what he describes as a ‘movement theologian’ taking every option by turning to the left to someone who came to embrace – and to embrace with great joy and with great depth the classical Christian tradition of orthodoxy.
The conversation with Thomas Oden reveals him to be such a gracious man. He is just one of the most gracious and humble persons with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to have this kind of conversation. Considering the immensity of his research and scholarship; considering the years of his teaching experience and the prominence he earned within the theological academy; considering the fact that he has been virtually with everyone and has been just about everywhere, he could write with a very different spirit. But instead he writes with a very gracious spirit. The very spirit you heard in that conversation – even in the tone of his voice. This is a man who understands the great turn in his life; the recovery of the Christian gospel to be due to the intervention of the Holy Spirit in his life by drawing him to the grace that is in Christ Jesus and then drawing him to the richness of the Christian tradition.
Very important to me, and the most important thing I learned early from Thomas Oden in conversation with him – even as he began writing in the 1980’s in particular about this great theological turn – one of the things I came to understand was what I was learning in my own theological pilgrimage and research. My own doctrinal study, to be precise, I was learning about those two theological trajectories. The way that leads into heresy; the way that leads into classic Christian orthodoxy. Now in one sense that’s a very old Christian story. That’s a story that Athanasius could have well understood. That’s a story that Augustine does tell in one sense, in his great book The City of God, telling about two different cities. That’s a story that John Bunyan well understood as he wrote that great Christian classic, A Pilgrim’s Progress. That’s a story that someone like Gresham Machen – J. Gresham Machen – the great defender of Presbyterian orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy in the early decades of the twentieth century understood when he wrote his most important book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. I cite that book so often because again, it had a decisive impact on my life. When he makes the point that what we’re looking at with the rise of Protestant liberalism over against classical Christianity is not two versions of Christianity, but rather, two different religions. That’s something that comes through every page of Thomas Oden’s book. That’s why Thomas Oden, writing as one who has experienced, knowing what it is to be a ‘movement theologian,’ an accommodationist as he writes – someone who reflexively took every left turn where there was a left turn possible ; then became someone who knew the grace of God in Jesus Christ, embraced the gospel, and sought to defend in every way Christian orthodoxy.
Now that raises some very significant questions. Where exactly do we find that trajectory of health in the church? Thomas Oden as a Methodist theologian in the context of Drew University, challenged by Will Herberg –that phrase simply ought to resound in all of our ears, when Will Herberg, the Jewish theologian at Drew turned to Thomas Oden who was identified as a Christian theologian and said, ‘You don’t know your tradition well enough even to repudiate it.’ When we start to look at that we start to recognize that Thomas Oden found the great resource for his theological recovery – not only in terms of the so-called ‘great tradition of the Church’ but specifically in the church fathers. And it’s really interesting – if you read his book and follow his argument – how that came to pass. He was and is a Methodist. Which he understands to be continuous with the Anglican tradition. A tradition that claims to be continuous with that great Christian tradition. And so as he read the Christian fathers he discovered there was a depth of doctrinal consideration, a depth of intellectual thinking, a great deposit of the faith, and he drew a direct line from the New Testament to the great theological affirmations of the early church in the early church’s councils and the early church’s creeds – that apostolic era that helped define the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.
The question is now, where is that trajectory to be identified? How can we make sure we are in the right line? Not in a line that leads to heresy, but rather a line that leads into a biblical orthodoxy? In that sense, I’m incredibly indebted to Thomas Oden, and to his research and writing – especially in his two massive writing projects that he’s doing – for helping us to understand the richness of the apostolic tradition. And beyond that, the riches of the seminal thinkers of the patristic era. With him I certainly want to affirm that the great doctrinal achievements – certainly on the two key doctrines of the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity – those are absolutely essential. They are indeed one of the primary roots of what can only be described as biblical orthodoxy wherever it is found. Wherever biblical orthodoxy is found – wherever true Christianity is found – it will embrace the doctrine of the Trinity as it was affirmed in those ancient councils and creeds, and it will embrace the doctrine of the person and of the work of Christ as found in those early Christian creeds. We repeat them, we study them, we embrace them in those doctrines without reservation.
But I would also have to point to the Reformation. And I don’t want to skip over some of the periods in between. I certainly point to Augustine as one of the seminal influences in my thinking – perhaps more influential even than I can myself recognize. But I have to go to the Reformation, because I believe, as an evangelical theologian, that that trajectory simply must include the great doctrinal achievements of the Reformation. And that means a further definition of the issues. A further embrace of the Christian truth – that great Christian tradition that is truly biblical as requiring the great achievements of the Reformation in Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, for the glory of God alone. In other words, I would have to root that biblical orthodoxy in justification by faith alone. I would also have to ground it in sola scriptura.
When Thomas Oden speaks of what he now calls classical Christianity, I want to stand in the very same place. I just have to define classical Christianity further than the early church fathers, by also embracing (without any hesitation or reservation) the doctrinal achievements of the Reformation. Also won at great cost and int eh midst of great controversy. And then, on the basis of drawing a line from the New Testament and the apostles to the achievements of the early church fathers on Christology and Trinity, and then moving beyond that to the Reformation, we understand that right up until the present those two trajectories remain pretty much the same. It is a choice between true Christianity and heresy. There are all kinds of attempts to create mediating positions – positions that will somehow be able to accommodate modernity while also affirming the faith once for all delivered to the saints. But one of the most important of Thomas Oden’s titles of the past is After Modernity What?. That’s a great question. In the wake of modernity, the only true Christian response is to embrace the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. The same faith that was known to the apostles, as was known by those of the church fathers who stood in the faith, and affirmed by the Reformers in the sixteenth century and beyond, and now affirmed by their heirs living in these very modern, perhaps even postmodern times.
I truly believe that the most interesting autobiographies and memoirs are those that tell the truth about a change of mind. But this was no mere change of mind. This is also a change of heart. And what a great heart was shared with us in this conversation. I will forever stand in debt to Thomas Oden for this book and for his honesty and for his story. And now that you’ve heard at least this much of the story, the same is true for you.
Profound thanks to my guest Thomas Oden for thinking with me today. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.
I’m Albert Mohler.