From Theological Fads to Timeless Exegesis

Theologian Thomas Oden passed away yesterday at the age of 85. If you have not read his memoir, I highly commend it: A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP, 2014). oden

His story is a gripping and self-effacing reflection from a widely respected theologian who spent much of his life gobbling down political and theological fads. He would change, turn away from those fads to find a new home in patristic exegesis (aka “consensual exegesis,” his saucy label).

Oden summarizes his theological journey from fad to orthodoxy with a characteristic bluntness and honesty that makes his book endearing.

My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my own original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace. . . . 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)

This summary statement is pregnant with the fads he bought into, advocated, and then abandoned (his relationship with feminism alone is worth the price of the book).

But most interesting to me is how his life intertwined with so many theologians, particularly the neo-orthodox like Bultmann, Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr, all of whom he knew personally, and some of them he wrote about extensively. Those theologians would eventually leave him unsatisfied, something he explains in this buried endnote:

None of the neo-orthodox theologians had adequately rediscovered the consensual center of classic patristic teaching. Bultmann had demythologized the resurrection. Barth had trounced many aspects of classic Christian natural-law reasoning. Tillich had turned the gospel into an uneventful philosophy of “being itself.” Reinhold Niebuhr abandoned classic ecclesiology in favor of political actions and arguments. All four had influenced me decisively. I had written books on two of them (Bultmann and Barth). Yet none had followed the classic consensual method. None broke through the illusion of the permanence of modern ideologies. What neo-orthodoxy lacked was the pre-Reformation core of classic Christian exegesis — before Luther, before Calvin, before Harnack. (352–53)

It was finally the patristic writers who got through to Oden, breaking through the illusion of the permanence of modern ideologies. And it was here, in this turn to the patristics, Oden found an earlier premonition fulfilled:

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)

The dream focused his life and attention for many years, and now serves as a fitting epithet over his life and work.

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