By Timothy George
December 13, 2016
Thomas Clark Oden (1931–2016) was born when Herbert Hoover was president and died after the election of Donald Trump. His long and productive life cut a major swath across the landscape of American social, political, and religious history. He was one of the most consequential evangelical scholars and theologians of our time.
A son of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Oden grew up singing the songs of Woody Guthrie to the strums of his five-string banjo. He cared deeply about the things Guthrie sang about: social injustice and radical politics. As a young Methodist minister, Oden read the Bible out of modern naturalistic premises, assuming that religious truth could be reduced “to economics (with Marx) or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche).” By the 1960s Oden had become one of the most prominent figures of the American religious left, embracing ecumenism, pacifism, Rogerian psychologism, and (what he would later call) the “fantasies of Bultmannianism.”
What drew Oden from this world to become one of the most influential advocates of classical Christianity in our time? There were several pointers along the way, including teachers like Paul Ramsey and Albert Outler, evangelical friends like Carl Henry and J. I. Packer, and his beautiful wife Edrita, “who helped me hear God’s footsteps,” he said. But no one had more influence than his “irascible, endearing Jewish mentor” and Drew University colleague Will Herberg. Oden recounted a key moment in their relationship in his 2014 autobiography: “Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, [Herberg] said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition.”
This encounter propelled Oden of down a road of recovery and retrieval. For the first time now, he began to work through “the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity.” Until then, Oden had been like the prodigal son, wandering in the nether parts of the far country, “going away from home as far as I could go.” Now his life was “unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace.” Oden said, “My redirection is in part a hermeneutical reversal by which I learned to listen to pre-modern texts… listen in such a way that my entire life depended upon hearing.” From then on, Oden’s life was reversed thunder. Read the rest at Christianity Today.