Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (Isa. 55:7).
There is an intellectual dimension to repentance as well as a moral one. Repentance involves not only a change in our ways but also a change in our thoughts. There are ways of thinking that we must abandon. One of them is the self-sufficiency that says, “I have all the wisdom I need in myself.”
The Testimony of Thomas Oden
I want to give you the testimony of a man who, for many years, was wise in his own sight and then experienced a remarkable change of heart. His name is Thomas Oden, and his book, A Change of Heart1, is the very honest confession of a brilliant man, and a widely influential Christian, who has published over fifty books and articles.
I am telling his story because I want you to see the effects of being wise in your own eyes. It shapes your whole approach to Scripture. If you are wise in your own sight, you will evaluate the Bible in the light of your own wisdom. You will take what fits with what you already believe and discard everything else. Instead of listening to the voice of God, you will be listening to an echo of your own voice.
Thomas Oden was born in 1931, and had great influence during the massive cultural changes that took place in the 1960s. He was raised in rural Oklahoma, grew up in a Methodist church, and from early on professed Christian faith.
Oden had a passion for social justice. Describing his student years, he calls himself a “Marxist utopian dreamer”2 and says that he envisioned “a world where all weapons would be banned, opening the way for a world government that would seek social justice and where peace and sanity would prevail.”3
He describes his relationship with Scripture as “a filtering process which permitted those sources to speak to me only insofar as they could meet my conditions, my worldview and my assumptions as a modern person.”4 In college, he “lost the capacity for heartfelt, extemporized prayer.”5
After his college years, Oden went into the ministry to “use the church to elicit political change.”6 At this time, Oden was a “movement theologian”7, continuously shifting from movement to movement toward whatever new idea seemed to be an acceptable modernization of Christianity.8
“For me,” says Oden, “the theos in theology had become little more than a question mark. I could confidently discuss philosophy, psychology, and social change, but God made me uneasy9…. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on.… The gospel was not about an event of divine salvation but about a human psychological experience of trust and freedom from anxiety, guilt, and boredom. The resurrection was not about something that actually happened but ‘a community’s memory of an unexplained event’, though I could not explain to myself or others how Christianity could be built on an event that never happened.”10
Then Oden makes this confession: “I did not examine my own motives. The biblical words for this are egocentricity, arrogance, and moral blindness. I confess now that I became entrapped with the desire for upward mobility in an academic environment.”11
Here is Oden, a man with a brilliant mind. He feels that he has what he needs in himself, so he doesn’t pray. And when he reads the Bible, he accepts only what fits with his view of the world—what he already thinks, and he disregards the rest. He filters everything else out.
He is a professor of theology, but God is little more than a question mark to him. The resurrection is a community memory of an unexplained event. “Atonement” is a word that he chokes on. And everything he writes is cutting-edge, new, innovative, with his own initials stamped on it, because that is the way to upward mobility in an academic environment.
The turn in Thomas Oden’s life began in 1970 when he was appointed a tenured professor at Drew University. There he met a Jewish scholar named Will Herberg, and they became good friends—close enough for Herberg to have spoken to Oden with unusual directness. “If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had better restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.”12
So, Thomas Oden gave himself to reading the church fathers, as Herberg suggested. He discovered that, instead of trying to say something new, innovative and cutting-edge, their great aim was to be faithful to Scripture.
Oden’s “change of heart” was sealed in 1971, when he had a dream in which he saw these words written on his own tombstone: “He made no new contribution to theology.”13 Oden says that he woke up from the dream refreshed and relieved, thinking, “That’s who I want to be. I want to be like the church fathers. I want to be faithful to the Scriptures.”
After that, Oden scrupulously avoided creating any new doctrine. By 1972, he had pledged to “present nothing new or original in basic Christian teaching that would have my initials stamped on it as if it were mine. I have honored that pledge and it has been deeply gratifying to me.”14
In summary of his life, Oden says this: “If my first forty years were spent hungering for meaning in life, the last forty have been spent in being fed.”15 In other words, Oden came back to the Bible and has been nourished by it ever since.
The Promise of Jesus
If you are wise in your own eyes, God will be little more than a question mark to you. You won’t feel much desire to pray. If you study the Bible, you will filter what God says through what you already believe. That is what Thomas Oden did, and that is also what the Pharisees did.
Jesus said to them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
But Jesus promises that, if you will open the Scriptures with a humble heart, God will teach you. Jesus said, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45).
If you will open the Scriptures with humility, you will hear God’s voice and learn from Him. Jesus says the outcome of this is that the person taught by God “comes to me.” In other words, the result of our hearing God’s voice and learning from Him is that we come to greater faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, abandon the kind of thinking that says, “I already understand everything I need to know about God’s Word.” Instead, come ready to listen, learn, and grow!
Go deeper on the doctrine of the Scripture in the leadership training course called Watch Your Doctrine taught by Pastor Colin Smith. Watch a preview clip below.
This article is adapted from Pastor Colin’s sermon, “Overcoming Evil with Humility”, from his series, Overcoming Evil.
1. Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014).
2. Ibid., 42.
3. Ibid., p. 47.
4. Ibid., p. 147.
5. Ibid., p. 54.
6. Ibid., p. 50.
7. Ibid., p. 54.
8. Ibid., p. 80, 81.
9. Ibid., p. 77.
10. Ibid., p. 85.
11. Ibid., p. 56.
12. Ibid., p. 145.
13. Ibid., p. 136, 137.
14. Ibid., p. 144, 146.
15. Ibid., p. 57.
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