I loved visiting Tom Oden at his home in Oklahoma City. His home was on a lake surrounded by beautiful trees that were often filled with egrets. Tom called it Egrets Point. The house was filled with books both old and new. He had an excellent rare book collection, which I loved to peruse. I could pull down an incunabula of something by Erasmus or Luther, or Leo or Augustine. Tom was most at home with his tomes, because they were a window onto the world of the ancient church, the cloud of witnesses of which he is now a part.
On one of those visits, Tom told me about the time he had received an advertisement in the mail for a Bible commentary series by the Church Fathers. This had happened during his time as professor of theology and ethics at Drew University. He thought the commentary series was a great idea. He had recently had a conversation with Will Herberg, a Jewish scholar and mentor at Drew, who had told Tom that he would never understand Christianity until he read his own Fathers in the faith. Tom was ready to purchase the series then and there—only to find that the offer was bogus.
Still, he thought that someone should compile a commentary on the Bible by the Church Fathers, and doing so became one of his lifelong ambitions. The “project,” as we called it at Drew, became the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (ACCS), published by InterVarsity Press. It appeared at a time when Evangelicals were ripe to read the Fathers, and Catholics and Orthodox were looking for allies in the Great Tradition against the tide of modernist and postmodernist assumptions undercutting the faith and life of the church. Tom Oden was such an ally.
Tom was my mentor at Drew when I was a graduate student there in patristics. He was also my colleague on the Ancient Christian Commentary—that’s how he treated us graduate students, as colleagues. Tom was a loyal friend, secure enough in his own position that he would give younger scholars a shot at doing significant work with him, as opposed to for him. I will miss his friendship greatly.
Tom saw as his primary task the discernment of how the Holy Spirit was leading the church and how, in his role as a pastor and academic, he might fit into the Spirit’s leading. He viewed it as providential that the church was renewing its interest in the Fathers. He believed that a study of the Fathers could lead to an ecumenism based on what he often referred to as the “classical Christian consensus”—or, put another way, “That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (the canon of Vincent of Lerins).
Tom loved quoting Vincent on this point. The Vincentian Canon shaped his systematic text Classic Christianity, which itself has become a classic among Evangelicals. It also formed the basis of the new ecumenism he championed. Tom hoped that the Vincentian Canon would provide a vehicle for churches to talk to each other, moving beyond the post-patristic divisions to an earlier time when there had been more consensus on what the church believed, taught, and confessed. Not everyone believed that such a move was possible. Some might even question whether there ever was such a time, and such a consensus, in the life of the church. But Tom was convinced that God was doing something new in our time—something that at the same time was very old. This is why he considered the dialogue of Evangelicals and Catholics Together so important for the life of the church. He was much involved in the early stages of this dialogue, and he would have remained a part of it had his health not prevented him.
Tom published his autobiography a couple of years ago. The title, A Change of Heart, refers to the change in his life and career. He often referred to this change as a conversion—from one of the premier theological liberals of the mid-twentieth century, to a paleo-orthodox son of the church by the end of the century. He talks in the book about his early years, surfing the waves of liberalism. He didn’t like talking about those years very much in person. He seemed almost embarrassed by them. Yet he knew that the early part of his life had shaped who he was, and he accepted God’s providential working there too. There were a number of conversations we all had about how he should title his memoirs. Tom settled on “a change of heart,” because he truly believed that the change had not been to his career alone. It had been a change to who he was, by the work that God the Holy Spirit had done in and on his heart.
I was always amazed at how Tom was able to anticipate what would be the next big thing in the life of the church. He had seen how a return to the Fathers could renew life among Evangelicals and build bridges across denominational lines. He saw how the Fathers could energize a whole new generation of young scholars. But his vision didn’t stop there. He had noticed while reading the Ancient Christian writers that as many as 40 percent of them had lived on the continent of Africa. Around 2006 or 2007, he began to muse about what the significance of this fact might be. He organized a consultation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, gathering church leaders and academics from all over the continent. Out of that consultation, the Center for Early African Christianity was born. It was nurtured at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania and is now located at the MacMillan Center at Yale University.
Tom has initiated a number of subsidiary projects dealing with Africa, including his book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. It was important, he wrote, that African Christians realize the significant intellectual contribution Africa had made to world Christianity. And he fully expected those contributions to continue. Since Tom’s death I have heard from a number of African leaders and academics who mourn his loss. One scholar, Fr. Michel Willy Libambu, a Roman Catholic who is head of a seminary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wrote: “Tom was our ancestor who showed us the way of our brotherhood in Christ. Our brotherhood today is a heritage from Tom, Father and Friend for all people.” This, I believe, is Tom Oden’s legacy: the common brotherhood and friendship we share in Christ, nurtured by our fathers and ancestors in the faith. This is a legacy that spans churches, continents, cultures, and time itself.
Tom is now, no doubt, talking to the very saints he studied. I would love to be in on that conversation. But for now, perhaps it is fitting to quote the first verse of one of my favorite hymns. I will be thinking about Tom when we sing it next in church: “For All the Saints who from their labors rest. All who by faith before the world confessed, thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia. Alleluia.”
Joel Elowsky is professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.