Rest in Peace Thomas Oden
On December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.
A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice. He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life. His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors. Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes. I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor. I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.
For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.
On the Historical Jesus:
The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.
Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)
How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)
Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)
On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):
In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)
Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work. Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.
O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
(Book of Common Prayer)