Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? [Part I]

Ted Grimsrud—April 2, 2012

Paul Martens concludes The Heterodox Yoder (Cascade Books, 2012), his provocatively titled study of John Howard Yoder’s theology, by acknowledging that the object of his study was not a “heretic” but rather was “heterodox” (page 144). It’s not quite clear what the difference between those two terms are—maybe by “heretical” Martens means “directly contradicting the creeds” and by “heterodox” he has in mind being “openly critical of ‘orthodoxy’” (page 144). Martens writes that he prefers the term “heterodox” “because it acknowledges Yoder’s Christian context while also indicating the unorthodox manner in what he construes as authoritative in defining true Christianity” (page 144).

Martens doesn’t say this, but perhaps he likes “heterodox” better because it doesn’t sound as harsh….But, actually, how is asserting that Yoder was “heterodox” different than asserting that he was “heretical”? Either way, this seems like a pretty serious charge.

These two terms are hard to differentiate. Both heresy and heterodoxy are defined in relation to some “orthodoxy.” Perhaps the main difference is that heresy is more commonly used in relation to formal declarations—you don’t have “heterodoxy trials.” But the practical meaning of both terms when used in a theological context seems almost identical: wrong belief in relation to “orthodoxy.” In everyday contemporary usage (when formal heresy trials are quite rare), when we call someone a “heretic” we are not thinking of the formal sense of a person being formally declared such by some official body. I am willing to grant Martens his choice of terms and from now on out I will follow his use of “heterodox.” However, in my head I am going to hold on to the term “heresy” as well to help remember the seriousness of Martens’ charge.

What is “orthodoxy”?

Regardless of whether Martens something different by “heterodox” than he would by “heretical,” the next question follows, what is “orthodoxy.” In relation to Martens’ own ecclesial location (a former Mennonite, currently a Baptist teaching theology at Baylor University) and Yoder’s ecclesial location (a lifelong Mennonite), what is the “orthodoxy” against which Yoder’s theology is to be measured? This would seem like a pretty important question. Continue reading “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? [Part I]”