Meet Thomas Oden: How A Skeptical Biblical Scholar Was Born Again
Thomas Oden is not a household name, but he’s written a fascinating autobiography—Christian pastors and leaders should seriously consider reading it. Oden was a prolific scholar, had a PhD from Yale, and taught theology at Drew University, in New Jersey (a training ground and one of the leading theological institutions for United Methodist clergy) for many years. He died in 2016 at the ripe ol’ age of 85.
For his first 40 years, Oden says every turn he made was a “left turn”—politically and theologically. He became a strong advocate of the pro-abortion cause, and an articulate critic of the Bible as an inspired revelation from God. He also became an admirer of the social Marxist, Saul Alinsky (who had a huge impact on the political left in America), and his epic classic, Rules for Radicals. Oden writes of Alinsky, “I learned from Alinsky to think of everything in terms of class conflict.”
Oden further embraced atheists such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Karl Marx. He writes, “I was peculiarly drawn to the agnostics and atheists.” He also admired the writings of Paul Tillich, the famous German protestant theologian who, although writing a three volume Systematic Theology, denied the existence of a personal God. Oden eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rudolph Bultmann, one of the most radical, skeptics among New Testament scholars in the 20th century. Bultmann was both a titan and a legend in the world of New Testament academic studies, writing a steady stream of books that denied the supernatural element in the New Testament, and most of all the reality of the historical Jesus. Oden even had a chance to go to Germany and meet Bultmann before he died in 1976. In short, Oden became a thoroughly liberal theologian from beginning to end. How did this work with people in the pew?
Oden tells us that many of his seminary colleagues actually engaged in a kind of double-speak, a kind of an Orwellian trick. He says the goal of many professors in graduate theological schools is to speak one way to the academy and another way to the church. In his memoir he writes, “In my seminary teaching I appeared to be relatively orthodox, if by that one means using an orthodox vocabulary. I could still speak of God, sin and salvation but always only in demythologized, secularized and worldly-wise terms. God became the liberator, sin became oppression, and salvation became human effort.” Then this final sentence: “The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity.” What a confession! Lest you think this is rare, Oden warns us that it is not. This goes on in far too many schools. His 1995 book Requiem, was a wakeup call about the secular drift of theological education in America. The classrooms of many theological graduate schools would absolutely shock people in the pew—they are filled with skeptics, agnostics, pantheists, feminists, atheists and radicals of all stripes and pedigrees.
In an interesting admission, Oden said it became difficult to read the Bible and try to adopt a theology that denied the categories of incarnation and resurrection. Oden reminds us that the academic world is actually dominated by a rigid intolerance. The “academic guild” cannot brook any rival. Objectivity is a myth. Hatred for the God of the Bible and all things evangelical is very real. The view of God in the academy is far removed from the Holy God of the Bible. For example, Oden reminds us that the phrase “unconditional love” as applied to God did not emerge in theological or popular literature until the 1960s. No one in church history ever talked about the “unconditional love of God” prior to that. Our theological ancestors believed in the love of God, and His goodness, but no one ever used language of God’s unconditional love.
SO…what happened to Oden? At the age of 40, he began to read the early Church Fathers (Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian, Polycarp etc.), and he began to see how distorted his view of Christianity had become. He began to see how far he had drifted from his rural Methodist Bible roots in Oklahoma. He was jolted back into reality and came to his senses. He also began to read and talk to top notch evangelical biblical scholars such as J.I. Packer and Carl F.H. Henry. Oden writes, “My faculty colleagues at Drew were embarrassed that I was even talking with conservative evangelicals…I found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than liberals.”
Oden eventually accepted the authority of the Bible and finally embraced Jesus as His Savior, affirming His literal bodily resurrection from the dead as a historical fact. He then became a prolific author and scholar for evangelical Christianity. He is the editor of the impressive 27-volume, Ancient Christian Commentary series (IVP).
The moral of the story is this: don’t ever give up praying for someone to come to a knowledge of the truth—who knows what “right turns” God may lead them to. Oden is a real-life example of someone who was seized by the living God. Jesus is still in the business of opening blinded eyes!