If you’ve lived long enough, you’ll begin to realize with increasing clarity that there are definitive, providential turning points throughout the course of your life. Thomas Oden’s memoir, A Change of Heart, is a sustained reflection on the eight decades of his life and how God’s providence has guided him, in both his intellectual maturation and his spiritual transformation. Both of these movements are intertwined throughout, although the structure of the book places most of the emphasis on intellectual change in Part I, and thereafter focuses on spiritual transformation and vocation in Parts II and III. One might say, then, that Oden’s intellectual change of heart is intertwined with and provides a catalyst for his spiritual and vocational change of heart. I do not wish here to take away from the affective way in which Oden tells his own narrative by repeating it in such bland terms as a book review; rather, I will focus on the details that highlight these transformations.
Regarding Oden’s intellectual movement, he describes growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in rural Oklahoma, reared as a United Methodist, but then encountering the revolutionary, counter-cultural, and Social Gospel movements of the fifties and sixties, first at the University of Oklahoma and then at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. Oden became enamored with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, and this led him to seek out existential intersections between psychology and Christian theology. He found a natural teacher in this regard in Rudolf Bultmann’s works, which he studied under the tutelage of H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale University. It was at Yale, though, and in his subsequent junior faculty period at Phillips Theological Seminary (his first teaching post), that his previously liberal views on not only politics but also religion (Oden confesses at one point to taking a Bultmannian view of the incarnation and resurrection during this period) began to be challenged.
Through a series of encounters with everyone from the Niebuhr brothers, Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, to Robert Naylor (then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), as well as through coming to an understanding of the deleterious effects of Marxism, Oden saw his liberal perspective on politics and ethics begin to crumble. The façade crumbled completely at a World Council of Churches meeting in 1966. Oden had previously been heavily involved in many of the radical left’s movements, and shared their attempt to produce ecumenicity via those counter-cultural protests. During a march at the Geneva Conference, and after hearing speeches calling for utopias moderated by liberation movements while ignoring “totalitarian collectivist regimes” (p. 113), the scales fell off and Oden saw the fruitlessness of what he’d worked for up to that point.
It was at this time that Drew University called Oden as a tenured professor, a post he held for thirty-three years. Upon arriving, he became fast friends with Will Herberg, a Jewish scholar thirty years his senior. At a fateful lunch soon after Oden came to Drew, Herberg forcefully challenged Oden to give up being novel, namely through trying to wed modernity’s politics and psychology with liberalized Christianity, and instead to work on understanding and appreciating his own robust, vast, Christian tradition. Oden at this point set out on a quest that would take up the remainder of his life, “to inquire deeply into the greatest minds of the earliest Christian tradition” (p. 137). Upon reading Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and the like, he began to understand and confess the rationality and historicity of the Christian faith. And as the Holy Spirit used these early Christian writers to revive Oden’s faith, he in turn wanted to help others see the beauty of early Christian interpretation and theology. That has been, for the most part, the remainder of his life’s work. Oden describes this turn thusly: “My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my own original home of classic Christian wisdom” (p. 140).
The remainder of the book (over half) is the story of Oden’s ministry and work that is most likely more familiar to many readers here. Oden became increasingly involved in ecumenical movements centered on doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical practice, and shared tradition. He visited the Vatican, worked with Timothy George and John Richard Neuhaus, and befriended Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI). Both his return to the earliest sources of the Christian tradition and his ecumenical work with Rome prompted what is perhaps his most well known accomplishment, not only among evangelicals but among Christians worldwide: serving as the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. Oden tells the long but encouraging tale of how this series came about, and reflects on its continuing impact today. He ends the book by reflecting on his increasing awareness of global Christianity, and particularly its manifestations in Africa, in the chapter entitled, “The 2000s,” and by detailing his spiritual practices, including practicing the Anglican Daily Office and “Hours” tradition, in “The 2010s.” This is particularly moving given how it has sustained him through his wife’s death and now is preparing him for his own.
A Change of Heart is an incredibly encouraging book, one that encourages not only in the sense of demonstrating God’s providential care—which it certainly does!—but also in the sense of encouragement as exhortation. Oden, whether through explicit narrator asides or, more often, through simply telling his story, continually exhorts readers to challenge modernity’s (and now postmodernity’s) prevailing assumptions through a return to the biblical texts and their earliest interpreters. In doing so, they will find not something novel and fleeting, but something grounded and rooted in the grace and guidance of God. It is precisely this confrontation, this turning point, which changed Oden’s life. And as Christians, we all have these turning points, these changes of hearts. As Oden says, “For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace” (p. 140).