A Note on the Passing of Theologian Thomas Oden

by W. Jackson Watts

I was saddened, along with many others, to learn of the recent passing of Thomas Oden. Oden was arguably the most prolific, conservative Methodist theologian alive at the time of his death this past Thursday. Mark Tooley, a colleague of his, has published a short tribute to Oden at the Gospel Coalition website.

I know other Commission members and readers of this blog have their own experience with the writings of Oden, as do I. Off the top of my head, I remember Dr. Kevin Hester’s substantial review of Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society back in 2009 (Vol. 52, No. 1). I also recall many years prior hearing Dr. Pinson mention Oden’s Systematic Theology as well as his contributions to a fuller understanding of Arminianism.

My first encounter with Oden’s work was in a now hard-to-find book entitled No God But God (Moody, 1992), edited by Os Guinness and John Seel. Oden contributed a chapter memorably entitled “On Not Whoring After the Spirit of the Age.” It is still very much worth reading as it narrates the cultural captivity of Christianity, especially as it concerns the intellectual idolatry involved in theological liberalism. He also explains how the spiritual vacuity of liberalism compelled him to move in a different direction, toward what he simply called “Classical Christianity.” This chapter alone nearly led me to Drew University for graduate work, the institution where Oden taught for most of his career.

This argument was essentially the premise of an earlier book of Oden’s, After Modernity….What? Agenda for Theology (Zondervan, 1990). But in my view, the most interesting foray into Oden’s work if one seeks to understand both the man and the guiding force behind all of the work from the middle of his career and onward is to read his memoir, A Change of Heart. I published a review of this book at the Helwys Society Forum in 2015, which can be viewed here. I found it fascinating on so many levels (Most theologians, I think it’s fair to say, never publish memoirs or autobiographies. Rather, people tend to write for them in the form of festschrift). But Oden’s memoir is a real gift to the church, especially for those tempted toward novelty in their search for a theological method in the context of academic life and research.

Another notable contribution that Oden made late in his career is his work as General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. These commentaries mine the riches of the early to early-medieval church fathers for reflection on Genesis to Revelation. This series also paved the way for the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and the Ancient Christian Texts series. Oden served as a general editor for these also.

As always, we rejoice in the homecoming of one of God’s children. I also rejoice in the fact that Oden has left the church with such a wealth of resources on classical Christian thought, pastoral care, the thought of John Wesley, African Christianity, and more.

Update (12/19): I have seen where Timothy George has penned a very nice overview of Oden at Christianity Today. Check it out here.

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