A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir
by thomas c. oden
intervarsity, 384 pages, $40

Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this. One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.

Autobiography need not be so, as this volume by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.

Raised as a Methodist, which he has remained, Oden early in his career was a committed member of the World Council of Churches, first as a youth observer in 1948. Later he served as a staff member at Geneva, in 1966, and then, most dramatically, as a reporter for Christianity Today in Harare in 1998. There he witnessed firsthand what he calls the “love fest” between the WCC’s leadership and the dictator Robert Mugabe. Along the way he enjoyed personal friendships with many of the leading lights of the theological establishment. He was the first person to persuade Wolfhart Pannenberg to take American feminism seriously. He ate chocolate cookies with Herr and Frau Bultmann. He visited Karl Barth in the hospital and engaged in serious theological talk while the patient sat there in a dressing gown. He was to throw all this away.

The decisive moment came when his Jewish colleague Will Herberg pointedly told him that he did not know his own tradition well enough to have repudiated it. Oden had apprenticed himself to the three masters of suspicion: Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Herberg’s rebuke sent Oden back to the sources, specifically the patristic sources. His attention was first caught by patristic theology’s ability to answer humble questions of pastoral counseling. Its unexpected practicality drew him deeper into the theological riches of the patristic writings. The erstwhile committed liberal was defining himself in terms of “paleo-orthodoxy.”

Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy is a commitment to the teachings of the early Church as exemplified in her great creeds. This did not mean retreating to obscurantism. He continued to read and write about his beloved Kierkegaard. But it did mean acknowledging that the project of modernity had come to an end, undermined by its own hermeneutics of suspicion.

Oden saw only two real alternatives at this point: a return to an earlier, premodern way of thinking or an embrace of the chaos of postmodernity (or hypermodernity, as he characterizes it). Like the Marxist Terry Eagleton, Oden sees the consumerism—material and intellectual—of the postmodern world as modernity brought to its logical conclusion. In this context, Oden’s advocacy of paleo-orthodoxy is not a movement of reaction so much as a desire to listen with humility and openness to the testimony of the Church from times past.

Oden’s colleagues at Drew University were bemused and even offended by his change. He became professionally and ecclesially isolated. Covert attempts were even made to prevent his books from being published. But the habit of debate with hostile colleagues and the need to work alongside them at Drew both sharpened his thinking and refined his character. Then controversies within the United Methodist Church drove Oden back to historic Methodist confessional resources and also caused him to think much about the nature of the Church and confession. Paleo-orthodoxy became more ecclesiastical and more confessional.

The Church at large was to benefit immensely from his change of heart. Much of the current Evangelical interest in patristic studies and their application to everyday church life sprang from Oden’s work. Along with many books of commentary on contemporary trends, Oden also wrote a three-volume systematic theology, which served to bring patristic insights to the attention of nonspecialist pastors. And then there is his magnificent trilogy on the theology and practice of pastoral ministry, drawing deeply on the ancients, which is one of my own favorite practical resources.

Perhaps Oden’s crowning achievement, though, is the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, which has done more than anything to make patristic exegesis available for contemporary pastoral ministry and church life. In A Change of Heart, Oden describes the origins of the project in an encounter with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 1988, Neuhaus invited Ratzinger to give the Erasmus Lecture. He also invited a small group of Catholic and Protestant churchmen to remain in New York for a few days in order to meet with the cardinal to discuss biblical interpretation.

The lecture itself was memorable. A protest by LGBT activists led the police to escort the VIP guests, including Oden, from the building and to transport them to safety in a police van. Thus did Oden find himself traveling in a “paddy wagon” with Judge Robert Bork. He would spend the next day sitting at a seminar table with Ratzinger and others exploring the importance of the recovery of premodern patristic exegesis for the Church. Out of these discussions came the vision for producing a set of commentaries that would present to a modern, lay readership the riches of early church exposition of Scripture.

There are, of course, areas where Oden’s thinking is open to challenge. His passion for encouraging modern African Christians by placing Africa back in the narrative of Christianity through emphasis on early north African patristic contributions is surely admirable. But in that he tries to make a significant political point from a coincidence of geography.

Oden’s ecumenical vision in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, while laudable, was limited. A thoroughgoing ecumenism by its very definition is ecclesiastical and so can take place really only between institutional bodies that identify themselves as churches and that, to some extent, recognize each other as churches. Engagement between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals thus falls at the first hurdle: Rome is a church with an understanding of orders and institution, with a clearly and formally defined catechetical faith; Evangelicalism is an amorphous movement with neither universally identifiable officers, ecclesiastical structure, nor creed. Oden acknowledges this, speaking of ECT as representing personal hope for ecclesiastical reconciliation, not as a formal church action in any sense. ECT represents at best a prelude to formal ecumenical dialogue. Yet one wonders if other Evangelicals saw it that way: Both opponents and participants seem to have regarded it as profoundly significant. I suspect that Oden’s ecclesiastical thinking is more the exception than the rule in the Evangelical circles to which he belongs.

Oden’s vision of church unity built around the patristic consensus raises questions about doctrinal development. If church unity is to be found in the creedal consensus of the early Church, does not that essentially relativize all later doctrinal developments to a very significant degree? To put this in a more pointed, practical, ecumenical form: Does this not require that Roman Catholics and Protestants concede what makes them Roman Catholics and Protestants is essentially secondary and negotiable? There are distinctions that can be deployed here that might help refine such a blunt conclusion, but one cannot entirely escape the feeling that Oden’s position appears to amount in practical terms to a call for us all to become Eastern Orthodox.

Having raised these criticisms of Oden’s project, I would yet close by stating once again what a delightful and insightful book this is. It is a powerful analysis of a broader phenomenon: the movement from the political left to the right, and from an infatuation with novelty to an appreciation of tradition. Oden came to see that, while the political left has attractive rhetoric, its record of delivery is catastrophic. He also recognized that the thin ideologies of modernity and postmodernity cannot satisfy the deeper longings of the human soul. Modernity asked many good questions; but ironically, better, deeper, and more-satisfying answers had been provided by earlier generations. Augustine knew well the restless nature of the human heart. Luther understood the agony of Anfechtungen. Pascal saw through the specious satisfaction of consumerism and the pleasure industry.

Yet his story also leaves the reader with the feeling that we shall not see Oden’s like again. To recover tradition as he did, one must not simply see that modernity, or postmodernity, has failed. One must also have the tools for appropriating earlier patterns of thought. Paleo-orthodoxy is not simply a set of propositions or even an attitude to the past. It is also a way of thinking. The texts that enabled Oden to rebuild his theology require time and effort to master. One cannot read Augustine in tweet-sized pieces. One cannot grasp the full significance of his thought from a Wikipedia article. Oden’s story assumes a way of thinking and a way of reading that is passing from the Church. The same basic questions about human existence remain, but I wonder if the rising generation will have even the technical skills to address them as Oden has done. Hypermodernity is superficial not just in its conclusions but also in its methods. The challenge to us is even greater than it was for Oden.

Finally, it is important to note that this book is on occasion deeply moving: When writing of his late wife, Oden expresses love and loss in words that are powerful and touching, eloquent testimony to the tragedy of human life and to the power of Christ to meet us in our darkest moments. At one dramatic moment near the end, Oden suddenly addresses God directly, talking of a book of prayers and meditations he wrote after his wife’s death: “There were three voices in those personal prayers and reflections, which included You (lord), me and her.” All human lives end in loss and grief; yet even there Oden saw the Lord as present.

Unusual for an autobiography, this is not an exercise in ego but rather the testimony of a remarkably talented and yet touchingly humble man. Oden has lived an extraordinary life at the very center of the revival of church interest in both patristic thought and what he so helpfully characterizes as paleo-orthodoxy.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.