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.

Martens does speak to this question about orthodoxy at the beginning of the book. “Labeling something as…heterodox as opposed to orthodox…begs for the definition of that something else.” Indeed. But Martens then backs away. “To dare to even get one’s toes wet in this debate immediately exposes one to the multiple undertows or rip currents that can drag one unsuspectingly well beyond the safety of the shore, well beyond the safety of the solid familiarity of firm ground” (page 2). He ends up with a simple definition: “My criterion is the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God.”

Martens recognizes that many readers of Yoder would find his charge that Yoder is heterodox in relation to this Christian affirmation quite surprising. So, he begs these readers’ patience: “Read my argument through to the end before rendering judgment.” This seems fair enough. We won’t have much chance to learn from Martens if we simply dismiss his charge against Yoder as foolishness from the start and set the book aside. At the same time, Martens does seem to be making a promise here: Stay with me and I will carefully and clearly explain why I am making this charge that may seem absurd to many of you. It is on the fulfillment of this promise that The Heterodox Yoder should be judged. Maybe Martens won’t convince his readers that Yoder was indeed heterodox, but a careful and clear presentation of the case against Yoder’s orthodoxy was would still be quite instructive.

The Yoder of the 1950s

The heart of the book, chapters two through five, offers a roughly chronological survey of Yoder’s theological evolution. These chapters provide a valuable account of Yoder’s development beginning in the early 1950s and continuing on through to the projects he was engaged with at the end of his life in 1997. Martens work here makes a distinctive contribution to our sense of the movement in Yoder’s theology. However, the analysis of Yoder’s work specifically in relation to the question of his orthodoxy is surprisingly quite muted. In fact, in these four chapters Martens hardly raises the orthodoxy question at all in a direct way. He does not return to the simple criterion he mentions in his first chapter where he defines orthodoxy in terms of “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God.”

The reader who is curious how Martens will argue that Yoder is less than orthodox in his affirmation of this belief about Jesus Christ will be pretty disappointed. Martens’ failure directly to provide evidence of Yoder’s Christological heterodoxy as he traces key developments in Yoder’s thought proves to be a major problem since many Yoder readers would assume that if there is anything clear in Yoder’s theology it is his affirmation of Jesus’ particularity, uniqueness, historicity, and divinity. Martens himself notes Yoder’s famous claim in The Politics of Jesus to, in effect, be more Nicean than Nicea in his affirmations about Jesus. So it is surprising that he does not try to make it more clear why he would argue that ultimately Yoder does not meet the criteria for an orthodoxy that Martens suggests should be centered on christology.

Martens does focus on christology in chapter two (“Foundational Theological Commitment”), paying close attention to an obscure essay Yoder wrote in 1954. Yoder never published this essay, “A Study of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ.” As Martens notes, this was a rare foray by Yoder into overtly doctrinal theology. It is true, as Martens does not note, that Yoder kept the paper alive by distributing it to students in his “Christological and Theological Method” class that he taught periodically through 1981. However, when Yoder informally published an edited version of the lectures from this class through the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary bookstore in 1981, he did not include this 1954 essay—indicating that he did not see it as central to his own work.

Given the uniqueness of the kind of writing Yoder does in “A Study,” and given his own refusal to publish it even informally, we can question how important Yoder’s perspective in the essay should be seen to be. However, as a marker in his early theological development, the essay is worthy of attention. We should be grateful to Martens for drawing an attention to an otherwise largely forgotten example of Yoder’s theological analysis.

Martens also pays close attention to a 1957 essay that Yoder co-wrote with David Shank called “What are Our Concerns,” published in the series of booklets known as the Concern series and recently republished in a collection of Concern essays.

From these two sources, Martens helpfully identifies key themes in Yoder’s thought that will indeed be prominent throughout his career. But we already run up against a problem in Martens’ analysis. Martens recognizes that Yoder from early on worked tirelessly to integrate the vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith. For example, salvation and reconciliation go together. Belief and practice go together. Peace with God and peace with our fellow human beings go together.

From this, though, Martens asserts that for Yoder “the Christian life is, most basically, defined as ethics” (page 24). So much depends here on what one means by “ethics.” Martens fails to engage Yoder’s approach to Christian faith in a way that takes seriously enough how Yoder sought to be biblically centered. Yoder would have insisted that by “ethics” he did not mean modern, Enlightenment shaped definitions of ethics but rather the biblical portrayal of the life of faith that always involves loving the neighbor as inextricably linked with loving God. Martens, in effect, accuses Yoder of reducing Christian life to the practice pole in a modern polarity between belief and practice instead of grappling with Yoder’s effort to insist throughout his career in just about all his writing in a thoroughgoing integration—an integration based on how Yoder read the Bible.

Yoder and politics

The third chapter in Martens’ book, “The Prioritization of Politics,” again both fails directly to engage Yoder’s thought in light of the question of his christological orthodoxy and fails to differentiate between a modern conception of a crucial theme (here it is politics) and Yoder’s effort at an alternative, biblical-based conception. The question here boils down to this: is Yoder’s “politics of Jesus” simply about “politics”? Or is it actually an attempt to redefine politics in an overtly biblical and Christian fashion?

Martens concludes the chapter with a strong charge (not about Yoder’s christological orthodoxy though): “To place a normative priority upon the language of politics for one’s description of the entirety of existence seems to indicate a sort of absurd, inverse enslavement to the logic of Troeltsch and the Niebuhrs that does not do justice to the richness of the biblical witness concerning God’s relationship to creation, including but not limited to God’s chosen people” (pages 85-86).

But is it accurate and fair to Yoder to assert that he is placing “a normative priority upon the language of politics for one’s description of the entirety of existence”? For such a claim to stick, it would seem that the accuser would need to engage Yoder on the level of biblical interpretation. Yoder clearly understood himself, in The Politics of Jesus (and pretty much all the rest of his work), to be seeking to place the “normative priority” on the life and teaching of Jesus understood in its broad biblical context. Yoder uses the language of “politics” because, he would say, he is seeking to reflect the biblical language and biblical concerns.

It is true that Yoder did not do himself any favors in regard to this issue by not making more explicit and prominent his own definition of politics (he relegates it to an aside in a long footnote) and how this definition differs from modern, state-centered and violence-oriented definitions. However, I would expect that most sympathetic readers would readily recognize that he is attempting a thorough redefinition of what it means to be political. Martens, in his eagerness to cast aspersions on Yoder’s theology, seems to miss this point.

I think that for Martens’ criticism about Yoder reducing human existence to politics (understood in the modern sense) to stick, he would have to show either that Yoder misreads the Bible or that the Bible indeed echoes this problem. Simply to make the assertion as if Yoder is not attempting to do biblical politics as an alternative to modern politics seems irresponsible.

The later Yoder

Chapter four, “Restructuring Jewish Christianity,” helpfully engages the concerns that dominated Yoder’s final years. In particular, Martens makes a distinctive contribution in drawing heavily on Yoder’s correspondence with the Jewish scholar Steven Schwarzschild. The links between Yoder’s thought and that of Schwarzschild are fascinating. Martens does not mention this, but the Yoder/Schwarzschild connection prefigures the appreciative interest that Yoder’s work has drawn more recently from prominent Jewish thinkers such as Daniel Boyarin and Peter Ochs.

Sadly, Martens continues the problematic aspects of the earlier chapters. He again does not directly address the christological orthodoxy issue. And he treats Yoder’s valuing of ethics as reflecting a modernist view of ethics. He actually pushes this latter point even harder in this chapter. He does note the obvious point that “it would be hard to imagine Yoder self-consciously subscribing to a neo-Kantian methodology” (page 112). However, Martens goes on to suggest that since Schwarzschild was heavily influenced by Kant, isn’t it likely that Yoder might in the end still be best understood as a kind of closet Kantian.

“We are forced to ask whether Yoder—even if couched in the familiar language of discipleship—operated with the assumption of the primacy of practical reason, with the assumption that ethics is the ‘ultimate meta-criterion’ by which one should interpret Christianity” (page 115).

Again, Martens fails to take Yoder’s effort at grounding his theological ethics in scripture seriously enough. How is Yoder’s focus on lived faith different than the biblical portrayal (if it is)? Martens does not engage this question. Is it not possible that the common ground Yoder and Schwarzschild found had much more to do with their similar ways of reading the Bible—and not the pernicious influence of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosopher? The burden of proof on Martens, it would seem to me, would be to show that Yoder does indeed depart from the biblical portrayal. Such a departure would make him vulnerable to an excessively Kantian influence. But we are not given any evidence of this kind of problem.

In the final chapter of Martens’ examination of Yoder’s theological development, “The New Shape of Ecumenism,” Martens focuses on Yoder’s “own idiosyncratic ecumenical vision” (page 139) that attempted to rethink the sacraments. Martens charges that “Yoder tirelessly reduces the sacraments to social processes” (page 138)—but again without engaging Yoder on the level of biblical interpretation. Is Yoder “reducing” faith to ethics or is he working against the grain in a dualistic context to bring about a biblically-based integration? Martens does not engage the issue on this level. Nor does he, in this final opportunity, take up his original charge of Yoder’s heterodoxy in relation to christology in a direct way.

[Part II of this post is here]

8 thoughts on “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? [Part I]

  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with what you have written. On one level, I find Marten’s claim that Yoder is hetrodox a refreshing alternative to those who claim that he is orthodox as defined by Nicaea and the Western theological traditions of orthodoxy or neo-orthodoxy. We know that Yoder and his Anabaptist, free church thought does not easily fit within that mold. Like you, I found much to appreciate in Martens first chapters.

    Martens completely lost me in chapter four when he notes that Schwarzchild was a Jewish Kantian philosopher and implicates Yoder by association. Martens appears to be working within a dualistic frame of faith versus reason or belief versus ethics. Within this paradigm, to be political or to emphasize ethics means that one is reducing faith to ethics–whatever that means. Yoder actively resisted all such dualisms.

    Marten’s main charge against Yoder, in his last chapter, is that Yoder “leaves us with a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm that opens the door for a supersessive secular ethic.” One could similarly argue that ethico-political paradigm underlying Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” or the early church claim that “Jesus is Lord” unwittingly bought into the language and ethos of Roman imperialism in their effort to construct an alternative community centered on love of God and neighbor. And their categorical mistake unfortunately led to the kind of imperial Christianity that followed several centuries later. Now that would be an interesting argument!

    I look forward to reading your next post.

  2. Thanks, Earl! I strongly agree that Yoder resisted these dualisms. That makes me think that one of surest way to detect the presence of this kind of dualism is when someone accuses Yoder of being reductionistic….

    What an interesting theory about the emergence of imperial Christianity. So it was Jesus’ idea all along—or at least his fault!

    1. Perhaps we could collaborate on developing the argument about Jesus’ culpability in the emergence of imperial Christianity. Would that make us orthodox or hetrodox?

      1. I suppose our orthodoxy would depend on whether we conclude imperial Christianity is a good thing or not.

        I would be happy for us to publish this work under your name only, Earl….

  3. Seriously, those who ascribe to various kinds of orthodoxy often express nostalgia for the time before the modern era when Christianity was an integral part of the imperial order. They morn the passing of that world, partly explaining their hostility to Anabaptism and more recent theologies (such as Black theology) that decenter the canons of creedal orthodoxy that emerged when Constantine convened the Council of Nicea. (This partly helps me understand Mennonite theologians who are attracted to the seemingly secure and respectable world of orthodoxy.) The issue is much bigger than Marten’s claim that Yoder was hetrodox. That’s what my smart-alecky comment about Jesus’ culpability in the later emergence of imperial Christianity was poking at.

    1. Good points. One of the things that has baffled me is how pacifist thinkers (maybe most obviously Hauerwas, but also numerous Mennonites and former Mennonites) can be so oblivious to (or at least severely downplay) the historical confluence of creedal orthodoxy and imperial violence. What is the appeal of this “nostalgia” that it would loom so much larger than pacifism?

  4. Ted,
    Your response to Martens is instructive, and I appreciate the dialogue that has taken place in these posts. I just wanted to note one bibliographical point: the Brazos version of “Preface to Theology” does include the “Study of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ” on pp.307-313. The text of Preface states that this text is inserted basically as it was from 1954. From Martens’ summary, it appears that there is little, if any, difference from the unpublished version he used in “The Heterodox Yoder” and the published version in “Preface to Theology.” I just thought I would pass this on, because it appears to me that there are elements of the “Study…” piece (as it appears in “Preface”) that don’t come through in “The Heterodox Yoder.” These are pieces that seem to me to emphasize that even here Yoder is looking for an integrative, holistic way to bring things together, as opposed to Martens’ reading of Yoder, in which he reduces everything to ethics or politics, understood as separable from theology.

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