Thomas C. Oden, a prolific Methodist theologian whose midlife turn from theological liberalism inspired a generation of Southern Baptist scholars, died Dec. 8. He was 85.
Among those to cite Oden’s influence on their lives are Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Provost Jason Duesing, Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School President David S. Dockery and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore.
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Thomas C. Oden
Raised in a traditional Protestant home, Oden became “interested in exploring things that [he] didn’t know” as a college student, he told Mohler in a 2015 interview, and soon found himself studying “socialist ideology” as well as the theology of “existentialist” thinkers like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, both of whom denied the complete truthfulness of scripture.
“I loved the fantasies and I loved the revolutionary illusions,” Oden said. “I truly loved them. I loved heresy.”
After earning a doctor of philosophy degree at Yale University, Oden began teaching at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where a conservative Jewish colleague told him in the 1970s, “You will never be a theologian until you dig deep into the classical Christian tradition,” Oden recounted to Mohler.
Oden took his colleague’s admonition to heart, reading the works of ancient Christians like Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. In the process, Oden said, “I met God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”
Following that experience, Oden began defending traditional, orthodox Christianity, including the reliability of scripture and the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.
Along with this spiritual epiphany, Oden experienced a conversion of political views, including a shift from countenancing abortion to being pro-life.
Among those to challenge him preceding his change of mind, Oden remembered “a gentle admonition” in the 1960s by then-Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Robert Naylor, who, following a lecture by Oden at Southwestern, “very deftly took almost every point that I had made” and refuted it.
The four decades of Oden’s life following his shift from liberalism saw him author a three-volume systematic theology and a 2014 memoir called A Change of Heart among other works. He also served as general editor of the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on scripture, which compiles comments on various books of the Bible by theologians and pastors from the second through eighth centuries.
Additionally, Oden collaborated with Christianity Today, First Things, the Evangelical Theological Society and groups attempting to bring theological renewal to the United Methodist Church.
Oden’s story, Mohler wrote in a Dec. 9 blog post, “is one of the greatest theological testimonies of our age,” and A Change of Heart is “one of the most moving Christian autobiographies I have ever read.”
George told Baptist Press (BP) Oden “had a great influence on an entire generation of Southern Baptist theologians.”
“In a time when liberalism reigned supreme in many circles,” George said in written comments, Oden “showed how a robust engagement with the classic sources of the Christian faith could bring renewal to the whole church. He spoke at [Samford University’s] Beeson Divinity School on many occasions and served as a member of our Board of Advisors.”
Dockery called Oden “a friend and encourager” in a BP column, adding, “The Christian community has lost a giant … A friend and source of encouragement to many, we join with numerous others to offer thanks to God for the life, ministry, influential writings and convictional commitments of Thomas C. Oden.”
Duesing wrote in a Dec. 9 blog post of meeting Oden “in person only once 11 years ago” but being “trained and influenced … by those he influenced.”
Moore tweeted, “What a loss to us all is the death of Methodist theologian Thomas Oden. He is a hero of orthodox conviction.”
On multiple occasions, Oden recounted a dream following his turn to orthodoxy in which he saw an inscription on his own tombstone stating, “He made no new contribution to theology.”
“In the dream I was extremely pleased,” Oden told Christianity Today in 1990, “for I realized I was learning … not to invent new doctrine.”
Oden was preceded in death by his wife Edrita.
(EDITOR'S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)