The Heterodox Yoder?

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The Heterodox Yoder.  By Paul Martens.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. Pp. 166. $20.

Let me say at the outset that I think this book is wrong in its central argument, profoundly wrong.  However, I also think it is instructive, perhaps importantly instructive in a couple of ways.  So, what is its central argument?

As indicated by the title, Martens’ central claim is not subtle.  It is intended to provoke. However, it is also intended to be precise. “To be as clear as possible at this point,” says Martens early in the book, “I argue that Yoder’s distillation amounts to a complex narration of the early Christian church in primarily ethical terms.  Thus, his narration provides an account of the early church’s particularity (a particularity that eventually earns the title of the politics of Jesus), but, as Yoder’s corpus progresses, his narration of the early church’s particularity eventually—and perhaps unwittingly—advocates an ethical or political particularity that becomes so ‘distilled’ that the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a for a form of secular sociology (at worst). This, in my judgment, is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 3-4)

Thus what Martens is arguing is that Yoder’s “theology” is finally reducible to ethics or politics.  Martens unfolds his argument in five chapters, roughly in chronological order.  The first chapter sets up Martens’ interpretive schema.  Engaging various texts in chapters two and three, Martens explores the way Yoder discusses discipleship and church in a way that culminates in “the prioritization of politics,” as announced in the title of chapter three.  The following two chapters attempt to establish—through a discussion of Yoder’s work on Jewish-Christian engagement and ecumenism—that in fact his work following The Politics of Jesus most clearly displays the way in which “the prioritization of politics” or social ethics has become centrally defining for Yoder.  Though Martens believes he has shown that this was always Yoder’s tendency, it has become particularly obvious by the late 1970s to the end of Yoder’s life in 1997 that his ethic is not a “particularly-Christian ethic,” but rather a universalizable ethic for everyone.

Martens’ claim about Yoder reducing theology to ethics is not unique.  What is unique is the scope of the argument and the specific way he makes it.

I’ve come to believe that one of Martens’central methodological moves is misleading.  In his opening chapter he implies that it is only because of privileging a certain inner canon of Yoder writings that some of us can claim Yoder is deeply theological.  We have excluded other writings that would challenge our claims.  This is deceptive in at least two ways.  First, serious Yoder scholars do not exclude any of Yoder’s writings.  However, we do respect the fact that Yoder himself intended some of his writings to be more centrally defining than others. But second, and more significantly, Martens is in fact implying through his use of the image of “the prioritization of politics” that Yoder’s best-known work, The Politics of Jesus is quite properly seen as central.  Because really, according to Martens, this book has announced Yoder’s agenda.  However, having suggested that some of us ignore certain important writings by Yoder, Martens can then claim to have given a more honest portrayal of Yoder’s true theological colors.  And then one of his tasks must be to engage in misdirection so that we forget, e.g., that Yoder said in The Politics of Jesus that his convictions stated there were “more radically Nicene and Chalcedonian than other views.”  That he in fact was affirming “what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man” and that Yoder’s effort is simply to show that such claims should “be taken more seriously” when it comes to embodying social ethics.

Only those with extensive knowledge of Yoder’s overall corpus can engage Martens’ detailed argument.  Truly to refute his central claims requires a contextualizing of the many quotations from Yoder’s writings over his career that Martens provides, as well as alternative contextualized quotes that would challenge his claims.  I cannot offer such detailed rebuttal here. But, let me provide a small sample. Martens claims that one can see the “primacy of the ethical . . . especially as we turn to Yoder’s articulation of community.”  However, I would suggest that it is particularly Yoder’s view of the Christian community that shows Yoder’s consistency in not reducing theology to ethics over his whole career, which is in fact precisely why many non-Mennonite critics have seen him as sectarian.

In his 1954 essay, “The Anabaptist Dissent” Yoder was arguing against the dominant view regarding “responsibility” joined to an understanding of justification by grace through faith as merely forensic.  In that context Yoder suggested that we ought not to be “optimistic about either the world’s or the Christian’s goodness.”  However, in Christ Christians know “empowering grace,” so that “we may walk in newness of life.”  This is what sets the church apart, claimed Yoder.  He affirmed this again in his provocative 1960 essay, “The Otherness of the Church,” which he reaffirmed in 1994 by including it in the collection, The Royal Priesthood.  Among other things, here Yoder says, “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.  The short-circuited means used to ‘Christianize’ ‘responsibly’ the world in some easier way than by the gospel have had the effect of dechristianizing the Occident and demonizing paganism.”  In his book Nevertheless, in both the 1970s and the revision in the 1990s, Yoder distinguished his own understanding of pacifism from the many others described in the book. There he says: “To say that this is the pacifism of the messianic community is to affirm its dependence upon the confession that Jesus is Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  “Therefore,” says Yoder, “in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement.”  In critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr, Constantinianism and H. Richard Niebuhr from the 1950s to the 1990s Yoder would argue that each of these problematic approaches had a distorted view of the church community that denied empowering grace, the power of the Holy Spirit and the regeneration made possible in Christ.

Though I believe Martens is wrong in his central claim, nonetheless there are two reasons why I see the book as helpfully instructive.  First, it helped me to see more clearly the strands within Yoder’s writings that have led some mistakenly to claim that Yoder didn’t believe that true theological convictions mattered that much.  That is to say, he believed that strictly theological matters regarding God, church, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. are really not that important, except as means to an end; thus they are dispensable means to an end.  Because the true end, really, of Yoder’s central project is a full embracing of progressive politics and peacemaking—in an effort to transform the world over into a religious image of “Democracy Now” (the most progressive political program on NPR).

Second, I have come to agree with Martens that his book is a cautionary tale.  Even more than Martens, James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, in the midst of a caricaturing portrayal of Yoder and Hauerwas, has nonetheless helped me to see how the “politicization” language of neo-Anabaptism can easily become theologically reductionistic.  I have come to believe—especially with influential writers like Yoder—it is not enough merely to signal reminders of what we should believe (e.g. orthodox beliefs about Jesus and the trinity).  We must continually offer theologically rich accounts of discipleship, social ethics and “politics.”  Similarly, Yoder should have listened more carefully to the cautions of his teacher, Karl Barth, about apologetics.  Yoder knew—especially after the popularity of The Politics of Jesus—that many dismissed him for being sectarian.  Perhaps he worked too hard, or without enough theological carefulness, to demonstrate he was not sectarian.  And thus some of his very language for doing apologetics to convince the cultured despisers could be turned against him.

Sometimes it is helpfully clarifying to have a faulty argument that names important issues, such that it elicits careful, thoughtful critiques.  For this book clarifies the elements of Yoder that have been distortingly drawn upon to make arguments that don’t truly fit Yoder’s central project.  Thus I am hopeful that the more thoughtful critiques of Martens’ book will bring some clarity to some false ways of appropriating Yoder.  (In relation to Martens’ basic argument as presented in earlier essays, I attempted to do this in an essay published last fall: “The ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ Yoder,” The Conrad Grebel Review (Fall 2011): 73-87.  Already, a quite helpful, 38-page review of Martens’ book has been written by Branson Parlor as an e-booklet, The Forest and the Trees [PDF], followed by an exchange between Martens and Parler in the online book review, The Englewood Review of Books.  Branson Parler’s new book, Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture will also indirectly challenge Martens’ argument.)

A closing thought.  Karl Barth says: “Our contention is, however, that the dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the Christian doctrine of God, is ethics.” (CD II/2, 515) Perhaps if we can simply convince those deceptive Barth scholars to quit privileging the Church Dogmatics we could establish that Barth really reduced theology to ethics. It’s just a thought.

(I wrote this a couple of months ago. It will be published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. When it is published–or when I know it is close to publication–I will remove most of it from here.)


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2 Responses to “The Heterodox Yoder?”

  1. Scott Shifferd

    Good article. I really do not understand how anyone can reduce theology to simply ethics. This just seems like a way to minimize Christ, so that one’s morality is pressed into a relative ethic.

  2. Marco Funk

    I’ve also heard Yoder dissected into the binary of evangelical vs. social justice orientation. I’d love to hear your engagement with that false reading of Yoder; and I’m guessing it would have some similar pieces to what you wrote in this post.
    thanks for your work on this.