A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas C. Oden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What strongly conservative Christian doesn’t thrill to hear a conversion story from theological liberalism—and from an elite academic within that crowd, no less? Thomas Oden, who studied under H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale, most definitely rejects the liberalism he so ardently pursued during his formative educational years, up till age 40. Oden, a constitutionally nice man, reserves the most (the only?) intense criticisms in his autobiography for theological and other liberals (and, in this case, a few evangelical enablers):
The evangelicals had been promised a seat at the table [at the World Council of Churches meeting] in Canberra, but then were ignored and represented only by the evangelical house pets of Genevan ecumenism.
Ouch. The gentle Oden is not against a tiny bit of name-calling when the situation warrants:
The New Age movement of the late 1960s was for me exhilarating. It came as swiftly as it disappeared. The Green Revolution and the heyday of the Human Potential movement moved at top speed. Everyone was talking about peak experiencing and self-actualization. The air was fueled by the revolutionary passions of the sixties, Vietnam, situational ethics, the new morality, sexual experimentation and anti-parent spleen.
But I’ve begun this little review with two exceptions in order to highlight the rule. Mostly, Oden is straightforward and, I come back to that word, gentle.
His chapter on his move from that liberal world to a theologically conservative one gives honor where it’s due, is appropriately self-deprecating, and it straightforwardly critiques theological liberalism. It was the best part of the book—though the entire thing was surely readable and interesting. The pith of his story is that a Jewish scholar who’d gone through his own liberal, Marxist, Freudian rumpsringa as a youth, challenged 40-year-old Oden around 1970: “You don’t know your own tradition well enough to reject it until you read the fathers.” He did, and the “consensual Christian tradition” he discovered there changed his theology, his life, and his heart. I rejoice.
But I’m puzzled.
Alex Stroshine’s review on Goodreads is quite good, but I want to quote it (and use a portion in a way he likely didn’t intend) to explain my puzzlement:
I see a lot of merit to the classic Christian consensus and Oden has ably demonstrated how the churches emerging out of the Reformation are in line with this consensus despite assertions to the contrary by some. But I wish I could find some greater clarification on theological specifics and Oden’s methodology for dealing with them. Oden is a supporter of women’s ordination (as am I!) and while there is solid evidence that women DID have leadership roles (Phoebe was the first exegete of the Epistle to the Romans and there is evidence of female deacons) how does classic Christianity deal with disputes such as women’s ordination? Also, while the conciliar process seeks orthodoxy through agreement by both laity and clergy, what happens when the LAITY (unlike the liberal clergy that plague the mainline) err, as in the laity’s excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary?
Indeed. It’s a good thing that Oden recovered the fathers, and given the popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (and its publication by an evangelical house after others passed it up) evangelicals appear to have been as excited than anyone that Oden did the following:
I began searching for a more reliable grounding for the study of sacred texts. That grounding came only when I recognized the reasonableness of the ancient consensual Christian tradition. It had a more reliable critical method based on historic consensus, which implies centuries of human experience. It had remained surprisingly stable while passing through innumerable cultures for two millennia.
This is characteristic Oden. Throughout the book he asserts, with little apparent concern over the Sic et Non among the fathers, that there is a consensual Christian tradition. He reminds me of a Catholic priest I heard many years ago at Furman University. Weaving the fingers of his two hands together over and over, he kept asserting, as if his hand motions could make it so, that “scripture and tradition cohere.”
And I’m puzzled how such a smart man as Oden could perpetuate such a notion. He does, helpfully, point to “Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great” as the fathers “most consensually remembered, who most accurately gave expression to the faith that was already well understood by the apostles and celebrated by the worshiping community under the guidance of the written Word.” But even that phrase—”most accurately gave expression”—begs the question. Who says? Oden does acknowledge that the fathers didn’t always agree:
Whenever I came upon those points where it seemed that the apostolic consensus had lost its way or broken up irretrievably, I discovered that by looking more deeply into the most consensual interpreters of the sacred text, the truth proved itself to be self-correcting under the guidance of the Spirit. That premise, that the Holy Spirit sustained the right memory of the truth revealed in history, was to me counterintuitive at every step. Yet the constant course correction of the community was the most remarkable aspect of the history of ecumenical consent.
Personally, whenever I’ve dipped into the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, I find some stimulating stuff, yes, but also odd stuff. It’s a mix. Some of what I read is unbelievably fresh, and a lot of it causes headscratching. Here’s what I saw on the comments on Genesis 4, for example:
- Ephrem the Syrian makes up several details that aren’t in the text of Scripture: he says God sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s; he says, too, that Cain didn’t give of the best of his grain and fruit.
- Origen offers an interpretation people still generally take today, that Cain’s sin began before the offering.
- Chrysostom makes an insightful point linking God’s curse of the serpent in Genesis 3 and His curse of Cain in Genesis 4.
- Chrysostom says there was no sexual intercourse before the fall (!).
I just don’t see any good reason to invest special authority in these men. Some of their opinions are well-founded, and surely some of the fathers are astoundingly brilliant. Augustine is a world-historical figure for good reason. I also believe that C.S. Lewis is right when he suggests that modern readers should let the breeze of another century blow through their minds on a regular basis. But that point from Chrysostom is greatly significant: if God didn’t create sex; if even monogamous heterosexual unions are a result of the fall, then we’re in a mess. Where’s our consensus? Is Chrysostom right or wrong, and how do we know?
If Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism are both heirs of a largely healthy Christian tradition, and I think we are, there’s only one way to find out for sure which groups (and which subgroups) are more faithful heirs—go to the Bible. And that’s what this biography lacked. I read it mostly on long flights, so I may have zoned out, but I recall almost no Bible quotations, and certainly no careful discussions of biblical teaching. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and Oden’s partly justified excitement about the tradition manages to obscure rather than cohere with Scripture.
At key points, I was practically begging for Bible:
When some in these groups wanted to leave these [hyper-liberal mainline] denominations, I tried to provide plausible reasons for why they would do better to stay and fight for their reform. To flee a church is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love and the willingness to live with incremental change insofar as conscience allows. An exit strategy is tempting but self-defeating, since it forgets about the faithful generations who have given sacrificially to build those churches. It would be a dishonor to them to abandon the church to those with aberrant faith.
God has some things to say about this in Scripture. “Strengthen what remains,” yes. But also “Mark them which cause division and strifes among you contrary to the doctrine which we have preached.” The job of a theologian should first be to find a way to faithfully use the Bible to answer our questions. If the tradition helps, that’s wonderful. If it muddies the waters or positively contradicts the Bible, then the Bible must remain our norming norm. That’s what sola scriptura means.
I first heard of Oden in the 1990s when he was a signatory of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents. Oden’s book amply demonstrates that there are things to be learned from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’m with R.C. Sproul and the Reformers in seeing a fundamental disjunction between formal Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Oden does define what a Christian is:
I have discovered that I belong to a vast family of orthodox Christian believers of all times and places, which includes historic Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Christian family is far wider, broader and deeper than most of us have commonly thought of it as being. Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith.
Both belief and practice are included in his definition, and biblically speaking I think that’s good. My own evangelical tradition isn’t free of people whose orthodoxy and orthopraxy are questionable (sometimes my own is!). But after hundreds of conversations with Roman Catholics over the years, some of them in places around the world; and after a number of visits to Catholic churches and Catholic blogs and magazines (the stimulating First Things preeminent among them), I’m puzzled. There’s a lot of disagreement there. No, formal Catholic doctrine does not teach pure Pelagianism, but they do a pretty terrible job of informing the laity of that fact, as I’m sure many Catholics will agree. What does that fact say?
In order for Oden to see evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics as part of a “vast family,” he has to be skilled in (gently) papering over deep differences. My going hypothesis after reading this biography is that this papering has been his modus operandi in his academic work and professional life for decades.