Thomas Oden had a dream in which he was walking through a cemetery and came upon his own tombstone, which read, “He contributed nothing new to theology.” Given his trajectory, there was nothing in the life and work of the young Methodist theologian that would have suggested such a testimony, much less that he would celebrate that epitaph. Under the thrall of radical existentialism, Tom Oden was like most of his friends in the theological guild of the 1960s. Then he discovered the great conversation that leads from the New Testament to the ancient creeds and Christian writers to the Reformation. Consequently, he began to wrestle with the claims of the gospel in the light of the claims of modernity. After Modernity, What? served as a kind of manifesto for his new course. He saw (and helped to create) a fresh crop of younger evangelicals and erstwhile liberals for whom the orthodox faith shone brightly in the twilight of modernity. He calls them “young fogeys.”
I recall fondly several occasions when Tom was a guest on the White Horse Inn, spending hours afterward regaling us with selections from Athanasius and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The house was always full on those nights with young people hanging on his every word. There was a lot of laughter. In fact, on the program he made the point that the radical gospel of God’s grace in Christ frees us to laugh. He observed that fundamentalists and feminists don’t laugh very much. They take themselves with a deadly seriousness. Tom has written many books, including a systematic theology, but his greatest legacy will undoubtedly be the Ancient Christian Commentaries series.
Robert Godfrey often says, “If you do the old thing long enough it will be new again.” Actually, Tom Oden has contributed much that is new to theology, at least to modern theology. He has not only introduced moderns (and postmoderns) to forgotten giants, but has done so as our contemporary, struggling to free himself of the ancients didn’t wrestle with modernity. Of course, they struggled to find the right formulations for apostolic teaching within their own Greek and Latin backgrounds. However, Oden’s own vocation of retrieval (which is different from repristination) has indeed been one of the new things that continues to enrich evangelical faith and practice.
At a time when so many Christian leaders are putting their finger to the wind, waiting for the latest trend either of academic culture or pop culture to show the way, Oden’s cry, “Back to the sources!”, has led many to take historic Christianity more seriously and to drink from its wells more deeply. He isn’t reducing the richness of the orthodox faith to a few fundamentals. Rather, he is pointing the way to resources that we have often neglected. He actually believes that the Trinity, Chalcedonian Christology, the atonement, and justification through faith alone are more interesting than church growth strategies and forming political coalitions. We join so many other grateful beneficiaries in thanking God, and congratulating our friend, on his 80th birthday.