“Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition” by Thomas C. Oden

After years of teaching pastors and Christian leaders about the merits of modern psychotherapy, Thomas Oden became “painfully aware of the so-called outcome studies reporting the dubious effectiveness of average psychotherapy.”[1] This awareness lead Oden on a circuitous journey that ultimately concluded with him turning towards the psychological insights held within the pastoral tradition “expressed by the ecumenical consensus of Christianity’s first millennium of experience in caring for souls.”[2] The book under question is the result of this journey with Oden actively promoting the pastoral soul care teachings of the early church.

            The first chapter of the book is devoted to unpacking Oden’s personal research showing the shift in the early 1900’s away from classic tradition of soul care to the teachings of modern psychologists and psychotherapists.[3] The result of this shift is that, in Oden’s option, there is no longer any “distinction between Christian pastoral care and popular psychological faddism.”[4] The problem with this shift is not just a theological issue, but a practical one as the modern psychotherapy cure rate is about the same as what would happen if nothing was done.[5] The answer to this crisis isn’t to forgo modern research, but to develop an approach to pastoral care that blends both the modern and ancient insights into the human soul.[6]

            After this stage-setting chapter, Oden shifts gears to exploring the life and message of the most influential writer on pastoral care in the history of Christianity.[7] The person in question is none other than St. Gregory the Great (540-? C.E.), whose Pastoral Care became the “standard handbook of pastoral care” [8] for over a millennium. To that end, chapter two of Oden’s book is devoted to St. Gregory’s background, pastoral work, theology, and other influences. Chapters three and four dive deeper into the content of St. Gregory’s book with Oden highlighting the overlap between modern clinical psychotherapy and the soul care promoted by St. Gregory.

            On a personal level I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Oden’s book and his promotion of the classical tradition of pastoral soul care. While I firmly believe that psychotherapy can be helpful, I also firmly believe that the role of a pastor is vastly different from that of a professional psychologist. In this I have been influenced by Eugene Peterson who reminded pastors that their job was to call people to worship God and not to be counselors.[9] Accordingly, I found Oden’s comments about recovering the classic role of a pastor very lifegiving and freeing. In this, Oden has fulfilled his goal of helping ministers like myself find freedom from modernity while grasping the “emerging vision of a postmodern classical Christianity.” [10]


[1] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1984), https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/introduction-30/.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/introduction-30/.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-1-recovering-lost-identity/.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-1-recovering-lost-identity/.

[5] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-1-recovering-lost-identity/.

[6] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-1-recovering-lost-identity/.

[7] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-2-why-gregory/

[8] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-2-why-gregory/

[9] Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York City: HarperOne, 2011), 136-142.

[10] Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition, https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/introduction-30/.

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