Thomas C. Oden

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Thomas Clark Oden (born October 21, 1931) is an American United Methodist theologian and religious author. He was Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in New Jersey from 1980 until his retirement in 2004. He is currently faculty emeritus.[1] Oden has a B.A. degree from the University of Oklahoma (1953), a B.D from Southern Methodist University (1956), and earned his M.A. (1958) and Ph.D. from Yale University (1960).[2] He was born in Altus, Oklahoma, the son of an attorney and music teacher. He married Edrita Pokorny on August 10, 1952. They had three children: Thomas, Edward, and Laura.[3]

Oden is best known as a proponent of paleo-orthodoxy, an approach to theology that often relies on patristic sources. He has published a series of books that he says are tools for promoting "classical Christianity." Oden suggests that Christians need to rely upon the wisdom of the historical Church, particularly the early Church, rather than on modern scholarship and theology, which is often, in his view, tainted by political agendas.

He has written, "The term paleo-orthodoxy is employed to make clear that we are not talking about neo-orthodoxy. Paleo- becomes a necessary prefix only because the term orthodoxy has been preempted and to some degree tarnished by the modern tradition of neo-orthodoxy."[4]

Oden says his mission is "to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christianity."[5]

Oden has been active in the Confessing Movement in America, particularly within the United Methodist Church, and he has served on the board of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Dean Timothy George of the Beeson Divinity School calls Oden “one of the most remarkable Christians of our time [who] has lived through, contributed to and helped overthrow several revolutions.”[6]


Given that no biography has been written, the major source for Oden’s life is his 2014 A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir[7] augmented by interviews and brief sketches in articles. Oden divides his memoir into three parts: I. Early Years (1930s-1960s), II. Change of Heart (1970s-1980s), and III. Homeward Bound (1980s-2010s).

Early Years
Oden characterizes his hometown (Altus, OK) as possessing a “can do” spirit in spite of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. He was nurtured in his early years by a warm “close-knit family” that lived in a “house full of music.” They engaged in religious practices: Bible reading, memorizing Bible passages, and prayer. As a youth, Oden considered two vocations: lawyer or Methodist minister.[8]

At age ten, with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Oden’s “world changed abruptly” including the family’s moving to Oklahoma City. After the war, Oden returned to Altus and high school where he began his vocation of writing and speaking. Then he went to the University of Oklahoma where he was intrigued by “books and ideas.” There Oden met “the love of my life” Edrita Pokorny. They were married with the intention that Oden would be a Methodist pastor and after college, they would pursue “a rigorous program of graduate education that would prepare us mutually for a life of making a family together and being able to engage in the work of ministry and in the life of learning.”[9]

As a teen-ager, Oden became committed to “social change according to the Social Gospel vision.” From 1946-1956, he recalls that “every turn was a left turn” away from the “classic Christianity” of his family and his earlier years. In retrospect, Oden says that he examined the motives of “capitalists and warlords” but failed to see his own “egocentricity, arrogance and moral blindness.”[10]

In a 1990 interview, Oden remembers himself as “an idealistic kid in high school” and that he went to theological school, not because he “strongly committed to the biblical message,” but with “the hope that the church could be an effective instrument of social change.”[11]

During his commitment to the Social Gospel, Oden confesses that “the Scripture texts I had loved as a child had become buried in my secularizing consciousness” with the result that “I had been in love with heresy.”[12]

Change of Heart
Oden’s “change of heart” began when in 1970 he started teaching at Drew University and came under the influence of his “irascible, endearing Jewish mentor” Will Herberg. Herberg bluntly told Oden that he would remain “densely uneducated” unless he “read deeply in patristic writers.”[13]

Oden describes this change as becoming “a political penitent” and returning to the “vitalities of the classic religious tradition” that he had received and rejected. Scripture “found a new life” with him. It was, Oden writes, a “waking up” from his “enthrallment” with modernity to meet “a two thousand year stable memory.”[14] He denied that he was “disavowing my former social idealism.” Rather, it had been incorporated into “a more inclusive understanding of history and humanity.”[15]

One key to his “turnaround” was Oden’s realization that “modernity is over.” However, he found “no good reason to reject modernity in an undiscriminating way.” At the same time, he found “no reason to accept all ancient texts in an undiscriminating way.”[16]

Homeward Bound
The “homeward bound” Oden wants to be thought of as “an ‘ancient ecumenical’ evangelical.” Evangelical friends, he writes, take him to be “very Catholic and sacramental” and Catholic friends deems him “very evangelical and pietistic.”[17] From this diverse platform, Oden says that he wrote for diverse audiences: mainline churches, evangelical churches, and the Catholic Church.[18]

Edrita, “the love of [his] life,” died on January 25, 1998. She had served in “the homeless mission work” of the Madison, N.J. United Methodist Church, and she was “much loved and remembered.”[19] Edrita plays an essential role in Oden’s memoirs. From the beginning, he writes, “my sense of self-worth soared with Edrita by my side.” Throughout their time together, he added, Edrita “bore with my infirmities, forgave my sins and filled my life with mercy.” However, “insidious” and “incurable” cancer led to her death at the age of 66, after 46 years of marriage.[20]

In the years after Edrita’s death, Oden says his deepest wish was “to be left to my books and thoughts, and a quiet life with family and friends.” As of 2014, he continues writing but he no longer travels, teaches, or lectures.[21]


Oden wrote and edited many books, articles, essays, and speeches on a wide range of topics. The following list is limited to books.[22]

  • The Crisis of the World and the Word of God, 1962
  • Radical Obedience: The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann, 1964
  • The Community of Celebration, 1964
  • Kerygma and Counseling, 1966
  • Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy, 1967
  • The Structure of Awareness, 1969,1978 (Standard Book #:687-40075-9)
  • The Promise of Barth, 1969
  • Beyond Revolution, 1970
  • The Intensive Group Experience, 1972
  • After Therapy What?, 1974
  • Game Free: the Meaning of Intimacy, 1974
  • Should Treatment Be Terminated?, 1976
  • TAG: The Transanctional Game, 1976
  • Parables of Kierkegaard, 1978
  • Agenda for Theology, 1979, rpt as After Modernity...What?, 1992 (ISBN 0-310-75391-0)
  • Guilt Free, 1980
  • Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, 1983 (ISBN 0-06-066353-7)
  • Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, 1984 [1]
  • Conscience and Dividends, 1985
  • Crisis Ministries, was Vol 1 Classical Pastoral Care Series, 1986, rpt as Vol 4, 1994
  • Becoming a Minister, Vol 1 Classical Pastoral Care Series, 1986, 1994
  • The Living God, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, 1987, 1992
  • Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, 1988, rev 2008 (ISBN 0-310-75240-X)
  • Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings, 1988
  • Ministry Through Word and Sacrament, Vol 4 Classical Pastoral Care Series, 1988, rpt 1994
  • The Word of Life Systematic Theology, Vol 2, 1989, rpt 1992, 1998
  • First and Second Timothy and Titus: Interpretation, 1989, rpt 2012
  • Pastoral Counsel, Vol 3 Classical Pastoral Care Series, 1989, rpt 1994
  • Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology, Vol 3, 1992 rpt 1994,1998
  • Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia, 1992
  • The Transforming Power of Grace, 1993 (ISBN 0-687-42260-4)
  • John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine, 1994 (ISBN 0-310-75321-X)
  • Corrective Love: The Power of Communion, 1995
  • Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, 1995 (ISBN 0-687-01160-4)
  • The Justification Reader, 2002
  • The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity, 2003 (ISBN 0-06-009785-X)
  • One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (written with J. I. Packer), 2004 (ISBN 0-8308-3239-4)
  • The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology, 2004
  • Turning Around the Mainline: How Renewal Movements Are Changing the Church, 2006
  • How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, 2007, pb 2010
  • Good Works Reader, Classic Christian Reader Series, 2007
  • Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, 2009 (ISBN 978-0061449710)
  • In Search of Solitude: Living the Classic Christian Hours of Prayer, 2010
  • The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition, 2011
  • Early Libyan Christianity, 2011
  • John Wesley's Teachings
Vol 1: God and Providence, 2012 (ISBN 978-0310328155)
Vol 2: Christ and Salvation, 2012 (ISBN 978-0310492672)
Vol 3: Pastoral Theology, 2013 (ISBN 978-0310587095)
Vol 4: Ethics and Society, 2014 (ISBN 978-0310587187)
  • A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, 2014 [2]
  • Classical Pastoral Care series reprint, 1994
Vol 1: Becoming A Minister (ISBN 0-8010-6763-4)
Vol 2: Ministry through Word and Sacrament (ISBN 0-8010-6764-2)
Vol 3: Pastoral Counsel (ISBN 0-8010-6765-0)
Vol 4: Crisis Ministries (ISBN 0-8010-6766-9)
  • General editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture that Oden describes as a multi-volume patristic commentary on Scripture by the “fathers of the church” spanning “the era from Clement of Rome (fl. c. 95) to John of Damascus (c.645-c.749).”[23] Detailed information about the set can be found at the publisher

Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden

  • Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden, Christopher Hall and Kenneth Tanner, eds, 2002 (ISBN 0-8308-2654-8)


  1. ^ "Thomas Oden Special Collections page". Drew University. Retrieved 5 June 2014. 
  2. ^ "Faculty page". Drew University. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "Thomas Oden Special Collections page". Drew University. Retrieved 5 June 2014. 
  4. ^ Thomas C. Oden, Requiem (Abingdon, 1995), 130.
  5. ^ After Modernity...What?: Agenda for Theology (Zondervan, 1992), 34.
  6. ^ Blurb in Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (2014), 385.
  7. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014)
  8. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 14, 15, 19, 22-23.
  9. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 26, 33-46.
  10. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 47-48, 56.
  11. ^ Christopher A. Hall, “Back to the Fathers,” an interview with Thomas Oden in the September 24, 1990 issue of Christianity Today online at
  12. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 70-140.
  13. ^ Thomas C. Oden, “The Long Journey Home” in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 34/1 (March, 1991), 77-92.
  14. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 43, 70, 140, 155, 164 .
  15. ^ Thomas C. Oden, “Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdom,” The Christian Century December 13, l990. Online at
  16. ^ After Modernity...What?: Agenda for Theology (Zondervan, 1992, 104.
  17. ^ Christopher A. Hall, “Back to the Fathers,” an interview with Thomas Oden in the September 24, 1990 issue of Christianity Today online at
  18. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 203.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 44, 180, 282, 284.
  21. ^ Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (InterVarsity, 2014), 328.
  22. ^,1960-2000--FindingAid-Biography.
  23. ^