This week, the blog and podcast is going to focus on Thomas Oden, specifically his delightful memoir, A Change of Heart. Now, one of the key contributions of Thomas Oden to evangelical life was his involvement in 'Evangelicals and Catholics Together.' I will be reflecting on this over at Reformation21 next week, along with two participants in ECT, distinguished theologians Thomas Guarino and Timothy George. Today, however, I want to offer reflections on ECT as evidence of a cultural change in evangelical leadership style.
As I read the section on ECT in Oden’s memoir, I was struck once again by the significant shift that has taken place in evangelical leadership over the past twenty or thirty years. Setting aside the theological controversies over ECT, leaders such as Oden and Packer were not men likely to fill stadiums nor indeed who cared to do so. For good or ill, they were leaders because they were thoughtful, well-read, and articulate theologians. They had established their credentials, ecclesiastical, academic, and personal, over many years of service.
Oden’s reading and writing will be the topic of tomorrow’s post. Suffice it here to say that it was deeply rooted in the history of Christian theology. There is a modesty and stability that comes from such reading: men and women who read deep, classic theology from across the centuries not only know ephemeral fluff when they see it; they also have a deeper understanding of the insignificance of the present moment, indeed of the present age, in the grand sweep of history. They see their theology as an inheritance from their forefathers and their task as its faithful transmission to their spiritual descendants. That is an attitude which naturally cultivates modesty.
Indeed, the style of such as Oden and Packer was modest and understated. That does not mean that these men were bland. Far from it. It merely indicates that the depth and sophistication of their grasp of their faith was expressed in a form designed to focus attention on content not aesthetics. Ironically, what we have today is often far more bland. Today’s Big Eva generally cooks up theological tofu whose inoffensive taste and texture is carefully disguised by the garish packaging in which it is marketed.
I suspect this shift in the type of men who have emerged as the headline leaders also touches on another point. Whatever one’s opinion of Oden’s ecumenism, it was clearly motivated by a passionate desire for the unity of Christ’s body, the church. I believe the way ECT developed indicates that he was very naïve at a number of key points, but his motivation was good; and naivete is, frankly, one of the more pardonable sins. Today’s informal ecumenism by stadium platform appears less motivated by a naïve passion for unity. In fact, it has more than a whiff of cynicism about it, focused on market-share and thus on consumer appeal. Low-key intellectuals need not apply.
Reading Oden’s memoir inspired a curious nostalgia in me, a longing for a world run by pipe-smoking older men in ill-fitting suits who had probably studied Classics and certainly earned their status as statesmen over many years by a combination of talent and sheer hard work in local churches and denominations. And it made me even more impatient with our current world, governed as it is by Big Eva's Top Men, Spin Doctors, obsessive news management, and pushy parvenus with the slick patois of stand-up comics.