A Theological Mentor Has Fallen – Tribute In Memory Of Dr Thomas C. Oden

The name, Thomas C. Oden is indelible in the emergent majority African Church. ‘How Africa Shaped the Mind of Western Christianity’ is not just a title of a well-researched book, but a great revelation of the world’s best kept secret by Oden. The world had been conditioned to believing that Africa was dark, steeped in heathenism and lost, but for cross cultural missionary intervention in the last nearly two hundred years of Western missionary intervention.

It seems sacrilegious for a white American male and evangelical to credit Africa a pride of place for taking the gospel light to savage Europeans and Caucasians. Tom Oden dared to do just that when he opines: “if Christianity was indeed indigenous to any region, it was Africa”. This was Thomas Oden’s sterling contribution among many others, to global Christianity. The Centre for Early African Christianity has unraveled so much of the early beginnings of Christianity, to justify it being an indigenous religion to Africa, far from it being the ‘Whiteman’s religion’ to the African people. This is now common knowledge- thanks to Thomas Oden.

At a personal level, Thomas Oden was a mentor. My first encounter with Tom was through his three volume systematic theology. My seminary experience at Wesley Biblical Seminary was a hybrid between campus and online learning. However, the only route I had to take the systematic theology module was ‘independent study’. The course was not on offer during the limited time I was on campus and it was not online either during my time of study. The independent study required me to work on my own at home but expected to meet all the class requirements and sit the exam like the other students on campus.

This meant listening to Dr Bill Ury’s recorded lectures on tape and reading all the texts, including Oden’s three volume systematic theology—The Living God (vol.1), The Word of Life (vol.2) and Life in the Spirit (vol. 3).  Taking this course privately was daunting, when I realized during my time on campus, how students had to work extra hard for Dr Bill Ury’s class, to make good grades. I was compelled to make super extra effort to ensure I master the content to prepare for same exam as my counterparts on campus. I was most impacted by Oden’s texts and delighted that I managed to score an ‘A minus’. If my library was on fire and had a chance to run away with my life and any three theological books, they would be those three texts. As a matter of fact, seven years ago, I relocated from my country, Sierra Leone to Nairobi, Kenya to assume the office of General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. I left my library in Sierra Leone, except for this trilogy by Oden, which I could not afford to part with. (I also now have the newer version and single volume and in an electronic version- titled “Classic Christianity” on my IPad).

Amazingly, even before I finished my studies at Wesley Biblical Seminary, I had the chance to meet Thomas Oden in person, in Africa. The place was the Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel in Entebbe, Uganda. The occasion was the 9th Quadrennial General Assembly of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, in 2006, where I was representing the Evangelical Fellowship of Sierra Leone. During one of the Tea breaks, I had an opportunity to meet and chat with a quiet looking ‘muzungu’ (Caucasian). His name tag read “Prof. Tom Oden”; but surely, I was not expecting to meet ‘the living among the dead’. In my wildest imagination, the name did not click. However, I was curious to know the discipline of this quiet looking professor and just wanted to chat with with him. Tom let me know that he was professor of theology and I was quick to let him know my interest in theology and that I was in fact, taking classes at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, MS in the US.

I was stunned when Tom said; “oh, I have some of my students there from Drew University like Bill Ury, Steve Flick …” It was like a pad off my eyes and as if I was recovering from blindness and seeing the world again for the first time. It was a sense of awe, when I realized I was speaking with the author of the profound work on classical and consensual systematic theology. I was privileged to have Tom share with me the draft of his book; “How Africa Shaped the Mind of Western Christianity”, that time.

Two years later, I met Tom in Pattaya, Thailand, at the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly. We had a meal together during the conference and I received an autographed copy of the published book, as a gift from him. Among other things, I shared with him my interest in further theological studies (I had now graduated from WBS) and had made an unsuccessful attempt for admission to the D. Min Programme at Asbury Theological Seminary.  Tom encouraged me to re-apply and the rest is now history. I am ‘proud’ alumnus of the Beeson Program of Asbury Theological Seminary and General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa.

He may not have been aware of the impact he made in my life but Oden’s consensual theology forever shaped my own theological leanings and a life ministry of serving denominational conglomerates-national evangelical alliances of churches; denominations of diverse backgrounds.

I am grateful for the lessons of his work and his encouragement and personal reference for reapplying to Asbury Theological Seminary. I missed letting him know the subject of by dissertation, which was published as a monograph by Langham Literature. The title of that work is: Competencies in Leading in Diversity. It goes without saying that ‘Oden, Thomas C. ‘ appears in my bibliography.

Thomas Oden has passed on to eternity but continues live on this side of eternity. Let me take the opportunity to express our heartfelt condolences to the family, colleagues at the Center for Early African Christianity and indeed, the global Church. We give thanks for a life well lived and one that has given so much to the rest of the world. Take your rest Tom.

Aiah Foday-Khabenje

General Secretary

Association of Evangelicals in Africa


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