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Founder of ‘paleo-orthodoxy’ dies

Thomas Oden passed away Thursday at age 85

Thomas Oden Handout

Founder of ‘paleo-orthodoxy’ dies

Thomas Oden, the Methodist theologian known for his study of classical Christianity, died Thursday at age 85.

Oden authored numerous books, articles, and essays on Christian thought and teaching, but he was best known as a proponent of paleo-orthodoxy, a theological approach relying heavily on early Christian writers.

In his 2014 autobiography, A Change of Heart, Oden told the story of his first year of teaching at Drew University in 1970 when a friend challenged him to focus on patristic writers. Oden describes the shift in thought as waking up to meet “a 2000-year stable memory” of Scripture.

“The heart of my story is that the first part of 40 years of my life, I was way, way out there on a path that I had to go on in order to come back like the Prodigal Son to the father,” Oden said in a 2015 interview with Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “But eventually I did, and by my 40th year, I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus.”

Oden wrote extensively on a number of topics, including church controversies, evangelicalism, the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, the Methodist church, church discipline, John Wesley, postmodernism, and more. His focus on the works of early Christian theologians made him popular across denominations—from mainline Protestants to evangelicals to Catholics.

But for all of his work, Oden famously said his goal was to contribute nothing new to Christian theology. In his book After Modernity … What? Oden described a dream:

“I accidently stumbled over my own tombstone, only to be confronted by this bemusing epitaph: ‘He made no contribution to theology.’”

He coined the term “paleo-orthodoxy,” believing Christians should heed the wisdom of the historical Church rather than modern scholars and theologians, whom he thought could be easily tainted by political agendas.

Oden attained undergraduate degrees from the University of Oklahoma and Southern Methodist University and a Ph.D. from Yale University. He spent his lifetime teaching, with positions at his alma maters Yale and Southern Methodist, as well as Phillips University, Texas Medical School, Princeton Theological Seminary, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the School of Theology at Claremont, the General Theological Seminary, and Drew University.

He later served as executive editor of Christianity Today

Oden’s wife, Edrita, died of cancer in 1998 after their 45 years of marriage. He is survived by his three children and their families.

Evan Wilt Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.


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