Thomas Oden, considered by many to be one of the premier Methodist theologians in America, died yesterday at the age of 85.
Oden was the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. He also served as the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and was the general editor for both the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series.
As Mark Tooley says, Oden “was uniquely distinguished and admired not just within Methodism but also within wider Protestantism, evangelicalism, and even among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. He was arguably one of America’s most important Christian theologians over the last 50 years.”
In 2011 Ray Nothstine interviewed Oden for the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty:
Nothstine: Would you offer some thoughts on the Church Fathers and their views on poverty? Can the Church learn from them today?
Oden: In The Good Works Reader, I deal with such passages as the rich man and Lazarus and relief for the needy. You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.
That does not mean they can be directly transferred into our political situation, but by analogy we can learn from them about the faith that become active in love and produces good works. And the doctrine of good works, of course, is taught in Scripture. Now, that is not, certainly not to Protestants, to diminish the priority of justifying faith for our salvation. We are not saved by our works, but we are called by grace, through our faith, to be active in the works of love.
There is a great deal of material about poverty in patristic exegesis, particularly in commenting on those scriptural texts on stewardship, money, generosity, and hunger. In every Christian community in the ancient world, there were forms of active engagement with the poor. When you went to church, from earliest times you would have an opportunity to give to the poor.
So what happened to those resources that were given to the poor? Some people sold all of their goods and gave them all to the poor. So there was an interest in participating in Jesus’ life, in the Son’s self giving for all humanity. There was an interest in participating in that incomparable self-giving act. But to those who did not know that they were doing something for Christ, He said, “Whatever you neglected to do unto the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!” (Matthew 25:40).
Let’s talk further about the poor boxes. There came a time when a kind of dependency arose out of their use. To some these gifts elicited an entitlement mentality, even in the early Church. That required leadership by the church, to make reasonable rules about how to give aid without increasing the temptation to dependency, which is demoralizing to initiative. That remains a huge problem today. The patristic writers were commenting on Scripture texts in a way that remains important for us today in our understanding of abuses and temptations that may arise out of good motives.