“I Loved Heresy…But the Holy Spirit Found Me” [Excerpts]
[Respected theologian] Thomas C. Oden...died December 11 at age 85. Professor Oden made the pilgrimage from theological liberalism, and what he acknowledged as an infatuation with heresy, all the way to the orthodox affirmation of biblical Christianity....Thomas Oden lived one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century and into the 21st. He was the General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Christian and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He was also the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. For many years he was professor of theology at the graduate school of Drew University.
[TBC: Following are excerpts from an interview with Oden.]
Question: When you wrote your book A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, you told a story that only you could tell....not just in terms of the fact that the particulars of your life are unique to yourself, but rather the theological trajectory you trace is one that was only possible in the 20th century. How did you come to decide this was the way to tell your story?
Oden: I think personal autobiography is rather unimportant in relation to the story of God with humanity, and especially his revelation of Jesus Christ. So I don’t have any pretenses about my story being my story being important, it’s just exactly what happened to me. I felt that I had, when I finally committed myself to doing this, I had to tell it exactly like it was. So that was the challenge for me. There’s a sense in which, you know, I’ve lived through the last 80 years, or 80 plus years, and so to tell the story is a little bit complicated.
Question: You speak of a period of “left turns” in your life, starting when you graduated from college. Can you explain how that happened to a young man who was raised in a traditional protestant home and a wonderful family context of a loving family, how did you end up turning left by reflex so early in life?
Oden: I think the honest answer is that I loved the fantasies and I loved the revolutionary illusions. I truly loved them, I loved heresy, Al. And why did I love heresy after I had been, you know, nurtured in faith in the incarnate Lord, and the risen Lord? From the day I set foot in the University, which was 1949, that’s the University of Oklahoma, I was interested in exploring things that I didn’t know. So I got quickly, very deeply into Marx. And I had friends that were very much involved in what you would call socialist ideology and I became very much involved in that.
Question: You wrote: “...I stumbled over ‘he arose from the dead.’ I had to demythologize it and could say it only symbolically. I could not inwardly confess the resurrection as a factual historical event. I was assigned the task of teaching theology, but when I came to the resurrection, I honestly had to say at that stage, that it was not about an actual event of the actual resurrection but a community’s memory of an unexplained event.” That’s an incredible statement, Dr. Oden.
Oden: It’s absolutely true and it came out of my theological mentors...I was simply reflecting the ethos of the time when Existentialist theology, especially Bultmann and Tillich, were the fad. They were the main point of reference for anybody in ministry in the United Methodist Church at that time. And I think even the leftward turns that I took early in my life were an evidence of me trying to be faithful to my church, its leadership, especially its national youth leadership and the Methodist student movement at that time.
Question: In your book, speaking of your role as a theology professor in a theological seminary, you describe a pattern that in my own denomination, was spoken of as double-speak, in kind of an Orwellian sense. One veteran professor said that the use of double-speak is what he had been taught by other professors in the seminary — to speak one way to the academy and another way to the church. And in your memoir you write, “in my seminary teaching I appeared to be relatively orthodox, if by that one means using an orthodox vocabulary. I could still speak of God, sin and salvation but always only in demythologized, secularized and worldly-wise terms. God became the liberator, sin became oppression and salvation became human effort.” Then this final sentence: “The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity.” Just how widespread was that pattern?
Oden: Unfortunately, I think it was extremely widespread. I think that the confession of the resurrection as an event in history, or the incarnation as an event in history of God becoming flesh, I don’t think that I learned that in seminary. I had to unlearn seminary. I had to go through a long process of searching out myself and the options that were available to me until they became, in the late 60’s, really, just sort of bare and unpromising for me.
Question: You invent a vocabulary for us in telling your story. And one of the terms that I have borrowed from you is where you refer to those days in your life as in your self-description being a “movement theologian.” I think as I look at the history of theology in the 20th century in particularly, certainly continuing into our own times, there are many who are rightly described as “movement theologians.”
Oden: Well the key phrase here is “the world sets the agenda.” That was a book that written by a Yale professor in the late 50’s or early 60’s [who argued that] if the world is setting the agenda for the church, the church is always trying to catch up: philosophically, with what is happening in existentialism and scientific inquiry, in terms of psychotherapy — it’s always trying to catch up with whatever is the latest and seemingly, apparently, the best and most productive form of psychotherapy. So we could simply call it “faddism.” I was taught to be very attentive to culture without having a sufficient grounding in the classical Christian confession. And I don’t think that was all that was all that unusual in my church at that time, and unfortunately, it is not all that unusual today. I have remained in my church, I haven’t seen any reason why I should leave my church because of its basic sound doctrines; which is basically Anglican evangelical doctrine. But it took me many, many paths that were blocked paths finally. That really is the heart of roughly the first half of my story.
(Mohler, “I Loved Heresy…But the Holy Spirit Found Me” — Thomas C. Oden and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy, ChristianHeadlines Online, December 12, 2016).