A Guest Review: McKnight on Oden

As readers will know, this week MoS is focusing on Thomas Oden's autobiography, A Change of Heart.  As I have reviewed it for the January edition of First Things, I asked Scot McKnight, as a friend and representative of another stream of evangelical life, to offer his thoughts on the volume, an invitation he kindly accepted.  To coincide with today's podcast on the book, I post Scot's review here, replete with quotations which give the reader a real taste of the book as a whole.

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). 382 pp. with index.

The tension in Thomas C. Oden’s memoir, tension between a socialist-absorbing and avant garde theology and established reputation among America’s academic elites and (his now well-known) paleo-orthodoxy and refusal to say anything new in theology and disestablishment in the same academic community mirrors the history of the American church in the 20th Century. One might sketch that history with varying trajectories – from orthodox evangelicalism into liberalism in all its forms is a stereotyped story of a slide – but Oden’s story turns that story around for he moved against the grain into a robust embrace of orthodox Christianity.

I first became aware of Oden in the mid-90s when I read both After Modernity … What? (1992) and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (1995). Oden tells his story of participation in the two ends of America’s theological spectrum with candor, humility – confessions about his own culpability for his previous beliefs and teachings and wishes that he had been more firm in rearing his children – and restraint, but nonetheless a baring of his soul:

My past visions of vast plans for social change had irreparably harmed many innocents, especially the unborn. The sexually permissive lifestyle, which I had not joined but failed to critique, led to a generation of fatherless children. The political policies I had promoted were intended to increase justice by political means but ended in diminishing personal responsibility and freedom. Many of the seemingly humane psychological therapies I had supported may have made people more miserable, less able to choose wisely or to seek the virtues required for happiness (145).

Through his own church setting, education and theological studies Oden became a paradigmatic social justice advocate in a mainline church increasingly being shaped by political activism as the core of gospel work.

As it turned out, my church sent their youth to summer camps more to gain a vision of social justice than of personal religious experience (47).

My job as regional youth leader was to take the Social Gospel message to the other district and state camps and gatherings (48).

There I was introduced to a left-leaning political agenda blessed by the church youth leaders I trusted. I was challenged to enter the ministry, but not to a ministry of Word and sacrament or of evangelization or soul care (48).

Youth ministry, it ought to be underlined in red twice with an exclamation point in the margin, charts the future path of the church and his Methodist youth experience, both as a youth himself and as a teacher and leader of the youth movement, turned him into a socio-politico-theological activist. He makes this confession:

I went into the ministry to use the church to elicit political change according to a sort of Marxist vision of wealth distribution and proletarian empowerment (50).

This occurs today at both ends of the spectrum, both by right- and left-leaners, and it has marked the American church in ways that are now destroying the credibility of the gospel and making some of our most gifted youth doubly hesitant about church ministry.

In Oden’s religion-as-political-activism life was a theology at work, one in which he was a well-known author, lecturer and church politician. Here is how he himself describes what he believed:

I habitually assumed that truth in religion was finally reducible to economics (with Marx) or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche). It was truly a self-deceptive time for me, but I had no inkling of its insidious dangers (51).

In other words, theology was all about power. The premier inspiration behind his hermeneutic of suspicion and power was none other than Saul Alinsky.

I learned from Alinsky to think of everything in terms of class conflict. … He taught me how to distinguish liberals from radicals. I preferred the radicals. Liberals talk. Radicals organize (54).

In fact, one can draw a line in some ways from Alinsky to Hilary Rodham Clinton to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, and Oden knows that line is straight – for he and Hilary were living in the same ideological world:

I was a writer for her core curriculum. Our trajectories mirror the same story of many Methodist social activists. We shared the same working sources, which were Tillich’s cultural analysis, Bultmann’s demythology, early feminism and especially Saul Alinsky (86).

Oden’s political and ideological theology, which he taught at Southern Methodist University, Phillips University and then Drew University, had another deep theme – Rogerian psychology.

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy (89).

He doesn’t quite say this, but one has to wonder if Oden knows it was he who established the entrenched idea of God’s “unconditional love” for every human being.

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity (89).

This part of his story is told well, revealing what he now sees as the theological underbelly of the circles in which he moved. He admits candidly and tragically that,

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. The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity (81).

What it all came down to was a kind of existentialist or even situationalist ethic:

To listen to the need of the neighbor who meets me concretely is to listen for the call of God. That was the basis for a situational view of ethics. The requirement of God was discernible in the present since the neighbor always meets us with genuine needs.  … That was my credo in my early thirties. It was new birth without bodily resurrections and forgiveness without atonement. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on (86).

But once an activist always an activist. Oden had a “change of heart” and a change of mind and a change of ecclesial associations. What happened? Better yet, who happened? The irony’s name is Will Herberg. But it was set up by his experience of the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1966 and then Earth Day in 1969, in Dallas, where he had nothing less than a crisis experience in the depth of his soul that led eventually to a new kind of activism. First, Geneva:

The more I watched the spectacle, the more I knew I was coming to a fork in the road. The road was modern ecumenism, born in 1948 in Amsterdam in the time of my youth and recklessness before 1966, which virtually ended for me on those Genevan streets. I was finally coming to understand that my generation of ecumenists had deeply disrupted the fragile unity of the body of Christ in an attempt to heal it. I felt to some extent personally responsible.

I had been party to tearing down church institutions that could not easily be replaced and moral traditions that would take decades to rebuild. What was replacing the received ecumenical confession was a diffuse vision of supposed positive political change built largely on a Marxist view of inevitable historical change, proletarian revolution and crony wealth redistribution. My generation of idealists had been uncritically convinced we could build something better, more faithful, more humane than all that we had received from all of the previous generations. I could see that what was emerging was nothing like what we had anticipated (114).

Second, Earth Day.

The zenith of these popular movements for naturalistic idealism was for me the first Earth Day in Texas, which happened in Houston one year before Earth Day went national. … I sat on a park bench near the outdoor amphitheater read a handout copy of Socialist World—a propaganda piece of which I hadn’t seen a copy in several years, but its themes were all too familiar to me. The paper was saturated with labor-left messianic rhetoric. I thought back two decades to my Norman Thomas days, when I actually was a socialist (125).

He continues:

For some reason I had in my pocket that day my India paper edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which I had purchased at Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford. I turned to the collect for the day. Under the shade of a majestic gnarled tree I read out loud: “Almighty Father, who has given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” My eyes filled with tears as I asked myself what had I been missing in all of my frenzied subculture of experimental living (126).

That crisis led him back to Drew, to conversations – yea, arguments and diatribes – with his good Jewish scholar friend and colleague, Will Herberg, and here is the highlight of A Change of Heart:

Herberg became a Jew by listening to a Christian [Niebuhr had urged him to learn his Jewish history]; I became a Christian by listening to a Jew (134) … Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes [Herberg] said, “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.” In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition (136).

As Niebuhr pushed Herberg into Jewish texts, so Herberg pushed Oden to the sources of orthodox Christian faith.

I plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers: Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin Martyr. I wanted them to feed my soul (137). … I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year stable memory (140) … In the season of Epiphany 1971 I had a curious dream in which I was in the New Haven cemetery and accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone with this puzzling epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology”. I woke up refreshed and relieved (143).

From those days on Oden became a new kind of orthodox activist, and he began to develop nothing less than a breath-taking, unrevised paleo-orthodox Christian theology that showed up time and time again in his works over the last thirty years, and a few deserve to be mentioned: Systematic Theology (3 volumes, 1987-1992) reduced eventually to one Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (2009), John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (1994), The Justification Reader (2002), One Faith (with J.I. Packer), and the incomparably valuable and successful Ancient Christian Commentary and its various offshoots.

Oden moved from a politico-theological orientation to a classic, creedal orthodoxy and in so doing made new friends and offended old ones. His continued experience at Drew is the all-too-common story of intolerance by those who affirm tolerance most vocally and who, in effect, suppress voices of conservatives.

In the 1980s it seemed that almost every decision had a politically correct component. I valued the attempt at fairness in language and correctives to racism and sexism, but if those correctives were made disproportionately at the cost of quality in basic Christian teaching, I was concerned. I supported affirmative action but resisted its abuses. I could not have predicted the high price I would pay (183).

But Oden’s account is not embittered or embattled; the man is gracious through and through and found new friends – like Richard Neuhaus, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, J.I. Packer and other evangelical luminaries. What he lost he gained.

His rather idyllic country boyhood where family was everything, the Methodist church the center of his community, and hard work and responsibility the air he breathed, led him to a life shaped by needing and finding one’s calling. Thus, “All Methodists back then knew that everyone had a calling that would have purpose and meaning to their lives, but I wasn’t sure what mine might be” (23). He found it in paleo-orthodoxy. A calling more need to heed.


Scot McKnight

Professor of New Testament

Northern Seminary