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"He Contributed Nothing New to Theology" Celebrating Tom Oden's 80th Birthday

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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.

In addition to the following interview in Christianity Today check out some Modern Reformation articles and interviews.


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  • [...] “He Contributed Nothing New to Theology” Celebrating Tom Oden’s 80th Birthday  White Ho.... Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterPrintLinkedInMoreDiggStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in The Church. Bookmark the permalink. ← A Helpful Guide to Assist My Parishioners, Who Have Called Me to Teach and Preach the Word of God to Them, in Evaluating My Faithfulness as a Preacher. This Fantastic Article Was Written by Pr. Paul T. McCain. [...]

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  • But isn't Oden an Arminian? And isn't Arminianism by definition "semi-pelagian"? Arminianism is a heresy according to the Canons of Dort. I don't understand why the Reformation isn't over but the Synod of Dort is over?

    The last I checked the Remonstrandts are still rejecting the doctrines of grace in favor of synergism. That would include Tom Oden and William Willimon. While these fellows are entertaining and even nice to hang with, the fact is Arminianism is as controversial today as ever. I find it a bit disheartening to find so much ambiguity in the so-called "Reformed" world. Most Reformed folks today cannot decide if Rome is a false religion or if Arminius was an heretic.


    Charlie J. Ray

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  • Guest - Craig Wallace

    Mr. Ray,

    I agree with and appreciate your position concerning the Synod of Dort pointing to and establishing orthodoxy concerning the doctrines of grace but, in Dr. Horton’s defense, I don’t think he was making a claim that Oden in some way contributed to the defense and promotion of Reformed soteriology, rather, he was highlighting Oden’s contribution to the reestablishment of a diligent study of the early church fathers which in my view would be wonderful for the Reformed Church as well as broader evangelicalism.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Craig Wallace

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  • I understand your position, Craig. Basically "evangelical" ecumenicalism is just an evangelical version of liberalism. Either Oden is an heretic or he isn't. I find it odd that Horton would testify against the Federal Vision proponent, Peter Leithart in the PCA trial while at the same hosting a radio program that is supposed to be against Christless Christianity and that same program has promoted Arminianism (Oden and Willimon) and even Tractarianism (David Virtue).

    I guess the only two essentials in the village green are biblical inerrancy and the trinity. The rest of the fundamentals of the Christian faith are out the window. It's this sort of ecumenical liberalism that has led to the pelagian captivity Horton allegedly complains about on his radio program. Yet he turns around and promotes those who advocate semi-pelagianism or worse. Call me stubborn.


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  • Guest - Michael Horton

    OK, I call you stubborn. Charlie, Charlie. Take a deep breath. (That might provoke the charge of New Ageism: don't take a deep breath). Tom Oden a "heretic"? This is the kind of over-heated rhetoric that gives support to the charge that we care more about being "right" than in being fair in our treatment of others, especially brothers and sisters.

    Tom Oden went on the line in evangelical publications defending justification--including imputation--while other evangelicals (including some in historically Reformed and Lutheran denominations) were challenging it. Oden wrote a book defending justification from the church fathers. To call Tom Oden or William Willimon Semi-Pelagian is, well, just crazy. They and I know quite clearly where our differences lie, but they're not over that. Semi-Pelagianism denies that grace is necessary for the beginning of faith, although it is necessary for its continuance. It' the sort of thing one might have heard in evangelistic appeals: "If you take the first step, Jesus will carry you the rest of the way." When it comes to Finney, Willimon shares our concern that he escorted evangelicalism into a more Pelagian era.

    Evangelical Arminianism, reflected in Arminius, Wesley, and Oden, for example, holds that grace precedes all that we do from the very beginning. Human beings are born in original sin, unable to make any move toward God apart from grace. Where we differ (on this point, not to mention others) is in what we think that grace actually is: does it just make it possible for everyone to exercise their free will now, or does God actually regenerate people so that they can believe?

    As B. B. Warfield pointed out, original Remonstrant Arminianism soon tumbled (for the most part) into Socinian and Pelagian views after Arminius, but was "evangelicalized" in the Evangelical Awakening in Britain, especially by the Wesleys. They joined their nemeses (Calvinistic Anglicans), notes Warfield in championing "the catholic doctrines of the condemnation of all men in Adam and the vicarious satisfaction for sin in Christ. An Arminianism zealous for these doctrines might well claim to stand on a higher plane than that occupied by the Remonstrants." Oden and Willimon represent that heritage of evangelical Arminianism. To say that our differences are at the level of "semi-pelagianism or worse" is as misguided as saying that they are insignificant.

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  • I have heard both Willimon and Oden speak since I did my master of divinity at Asbury Seminary. I know Arminianism inside out since I did my under grad and my master's work at Arminian schools.

    Frankly, I'm beginning to think neo-fundamentalism is a better option.

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  • Good call Horton.

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