Finding faith was about returning to Christianity’s roots for America’s most influential Methodist theologian.
Thomas Clark Oden (1931–2016) was born when Herbert Hoover was president and died after the election of Donald Trump. His long and productive life cut a major swath across the landscape of American social, political, and religious history. He was one of the most consequential evangelical scholars and theologians of our time.
A son of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Oden grew up singing the songs of Woody Guthrie to the strums of his five-string banjo. He cared deeply about the things Guthrie sang about: social injustice and radical politics. As a young Methodist minister, Oden read the Bible out of modern naturalistic premises, assuming that religious truth could be reduced “to economics (with Marx) or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche).” By the 1960s Oden had become one of the most prominent figures of the American religious left, embracing ecumenism, pacifism, Rogerian psychologism, and (what he would later call) the “fantasies of Bultmannianism.”
What drew Oden from this world to become one of the most influential advocates of classical Christianity in our time? There were several pointers along the way, including teachers like Paul Ramsey and Albert Outler, evangelical friends like Carl Henry and J. I. Packer, and his beautiful wife Edrita, “who helped me hear God’s footsteps,” he said. But no one had more influence than his “irascible, endearing Jewish mentor” and Drew University colleague Will Herberg. Oden recounted a key moment in their relationship in his 2014 autobiography: “Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, [Herberg] said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study …