This is a guest post by Evan W. Rohrs-Dodge, a UMC pastor in New Jersey and a founding member of Via Media Methodists. I briefly read Thomas Oden’s memoir before I passed it on to Evan for review. In these pages can be found a great hope for the people called Methodists. While Oden is best known for his role in the Confessing Movement and in paleo-orthodoxy, what will be known after reading this book is his great love for the United Methodist Church, even if it disappoints him. Like so many of us who struggle with our membership, Oden has been there before. And he shows us a way forward.
I was eager to read Thomas Oden’s memoir, Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, as soon as I heard of its publication. My interest in Dr. Oden is not just because I am a graduate of Drew Theological School (although I was not a student during Oden’s tenure). He has been influential in my personal and professional development; I have benefited greatly from much of Oden’s scholarship, including his magnificent four-volume work on John Wesley and his three-volume systematic theology. And, I heard numerous second and third-hand stories about Oden during my studies, both of his keen intellect and his strong will. I have a had a keen interest in hearing, as it were, the other side of the story.
Change of Heart did not disappoint. Each chapter is divided up into decades (1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and so on), and, as such, chronologically highlights his academic training and teaching, his scholarship, his theological journey, and his personal life. Perhaps most central to this book, as indicated in the title, is Oden’s move from radical thought and activism to Christian orthodoxy. Oden devotes much time to describing his interactions and friendships with a variety of notable theologians, such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). On Oden’s theological change, however, no relationship was more important than the Jewish scholar and fellow Drew professor, Will Herberg. Open notes in the book that Herberg was encouraged to study Judaism by the H. Richard Niebuhr, and the Jewish scholar Herberg is the very one who encouraged Oden to more deeply study the roots of his Christian heritage.
Oden’s love and defense of Christian orthodoxy is abundantly clear in this book, and is wonderfully refreshing. Despite his repeated encounters with theological radicalism within both academia and the church, he often found his students hungry for robust, historical theology. They rejected the hubris of modernity/postmodernity, and desired to drink deeply from the wells of orthodoxy. As such, Oden fondly termed them “young fogeys,” and to him, they represent hope for the future of the faith, in both the academy and the church.
If you want to learn about a passionate academic, a devoted husband and parent, and a humble child of God who writes in an accessible, engaging manner, read Thomas Oden’s memoir.