Back to the Fathers
This article originally appeared in the September 24, 1990 issue of Christianity Today. We are running it today in honor of Oden's 80th birthday.
For many years theologian Thomas Oden advocated trendy theological views—for example, that the resurrection really happened in the hearts of the disciples rather than to the crucified Jesus. Then he began spending more time reading the likes of Chrysostom and Aquinas and less time pondering Bultmann. He read the church's ancient creeds and formulations with new interest. And he found himself questioning the idolatry of the "new." Soon this respected liberal theologian created a stir with books such as Agenda for Theology and Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition. These signaled his "reversal" to what he calls "classical Christian orthodoxy." His recent book, The Word of Life (Harper & Row), second of his three-volume systematic theology, furthers the dialogue, as does After Modernity … What? (a revised and expanded version of Agenda for Theology).
Oden is small but wiry, and one senses that his faith has been tested and strengthened through battles he has faced in the arena of ecumenical scholarship. His ready wit and preference for plain speaking, however, have remained unchanged.
What were the turning points in your movement away from modernity?
Think of an idealistic kid in high school who is actively engaged in the World Federalist Movement, who, when he goes to college, becomes a pacifist and later becomes enamored with socialist theories and reads Freud. Between 1945 and 1965, every turn I made was a left turn. When I decided to go to theological school, it wasn't because I was strongly committed to the biblical message, but to the hope that the church could be an effective instrument of social change. It was at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas that my political radicalism became somewhat moderated by reading Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr. They shocked me out of my pacifism around 1955.
Did you also begin studying Rudolf Bultmann in Dallas?
Yes. Besides Albert Outler, who introduced me to Bultmann, my great teacher at Perkins was Joe Matthews, a radical existentialist with pietistic roots. We read Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and, of course, Bultmann, who was transforming New Testament studies at that time. I can say even today that while I now have great reservations about Bultmann's project, I can still credit him for bringing the New Testament alive for me. It was a dead book up to that point. He made it accessible to me as a modern person. Bultmann's thought had all the elements of existentialism to which I was avidly attracted in the late fifties and early sixties, which was followed and complemented by a consuming interest in post-Freudian psychology.
Everybody was experimenting: with sexual expression, communitarianism, politics, yoga, breathing, drugs, tarot cards, and T groups—much that today is being called New Age.
When did you begin to question this direction of your life?
The last three years of the sixties brought about a gracious disillusioning of the hedonic illusions I had been entertaining. The year of the much-publicized 1968 Democratic National Convention was a turning point for me. By that time I had developed a preliminary revulsion against antinomianism and anarchism, which would soon grow toward moderate political neo-conservatism. When people started throwing excrement at the police in Chicago, I got scared, and I've never been the same since.