Ted Grimsrud—April 3, 2012
Does Martens make the case that indeed John Howard Yoder was heterodox? In a word, “No.” However the reason this is largely an unhelpful book is not because he fails finally to persuade. As I said above, a careful and clear argument that Yoder was heterodox (i.e., did not affirm “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God,” page 2) could still be quite instructive.
The problem with The Heterodox Yoder is that Martens does not provide bases for a constructive conversation. In the end, there are three important elements of such a conversation that he fails to engage.
Martens does not clearly define “orthodoxy”
Even though he starts with a kind of definition of “orthodoxy” that will presumably govern his analysis and critique of Yoder’s thought, Martens actually is thin and vague about what he means by orthodoxy. And, he does not return even to this thin and vague definition of orthodoxy in relation to christology as an on-going and stable criterion for evaluation as he goes through Yoder’s thought. In his discussion of Yoder’s 1950s-era writings, in the analysis of the Politics of Jesus, in the discussion of Yoder on Jewish-Christian relations, and in the treatment of Yoder on ecumenism, Martens does not do what one would expect if he trying to make a case that would overcome the assumption many readers would have that Yoder had a vigorously “orthodox” christology (defined in terms of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a revelation of God).
He does not compare Yoder’s main ideas that are surfaced in this survey with the criterion for orthodoxy. Not even once does Martens try to explain how Yoder departs from Martens’ understanding of an orthodox christology.
Martens does not even bring up his criterion of orthodoxy in his conclusion, even as he again asserts Yoder’s heterodoxy. The closest he comes to revisiting this starting criterion (itself obviously vague and general) is an even more vague and general assertion that, contrary to Craig Carter’s and Mark Thiessen Nation’s readings of Yoder, Martens believes Yoder’s theology “excludes or, at best, renders irrelevant” the core content of “evangelical, traditional, or orthodox theology” (pages 142-3). However, this claim is never supported by a direct compare and contrast kind of argument where Martens identifies the core content of orthodoxy and clearly shows how Yoder’s thought diverges from that content.
Martens does not engage Yoder’s biblical interpretation
A second major lack in Martens’ discussion is his failure to engage Yoder on the level of biblical interpretation. In a nutshell, his critique seems to be that Yoder reduces theology to (neo-Kantian) ethics, that Yoder in the end is simply a modernist. Now besides the point that Martens uses “modern” as a kind of cuss-word without explaining why labeling someone a “modernist” serves as proof that the person is inherently heterodox, the big problem with this critique is that Yoder always presented his thought as being biblically based. Yoder’s criterion for critique usually tended to be the teaching of the Bible.
One could disagree with Yoder’s way of reading the Bible and how he applies it. But if one is going to critique Yoder, especially in the wide-ranging and fundamental way that Martens does, one cannot simply ignore Yoder’s use of the Bible. One would have to show where Yoder goes wrong. A Yoderian argument in response to Martens’ critique on many point would (to paraphrase the immortal words of JHY himself), “you are not arguing with Yoder, you are arguing with Jesus.”
A Yoderian would say that the emphasis on “politics” (and Martens seems to go back and forth in his presentation of Yoder’s understanding of politics: on the one hand he quotes Yoder on how in asserting that Jesus was political he means to point to a different kind of politics, but on the other he complains about Yoder’s turn to emphasizing “governmental” issues) and “ethics” has to do with biblical meanings of politics and ethics. And these meanings are decidedly different than modern, Western meanings.
To say that Yoder is heterodox because he over-emphasizes politics and ethics is a profoundly misguided and unfair (not to mention lazy) accusation unless one is willing to engage Yoder’s biblical interpretation. It could be argued, I suppose, that Yoder imposed modern ideas on the Bible and hence misread and misapplied it. But this is a case that needs to be made in a critique such as the Martens tries to mount, not simply assumed. Or at least make the case that the Bible shouldn’t matter so much to Yoder (though I can’t imagine Martens’ making that claim).
Linked with the failure even to try to engage Yoder in the arena of biblical interpretation is that failure to engage Yoder’s privileging the Bible over later creeds and other official doctrinal statements. Though Martens does not spell this out, one could imagine that his criterion of orthodoxy rests on creedal definitions of the identity of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Yoder’s definitions of the identity of Jesus Christ are different. If so, Yoder would say, it is because Yoder places the highest priority on the biblical portrayal of Jesus. This then becomes an issue not only of Yoder’s interpretation of the Bible but also of the relative weight places later creeds in comparison to the Bible. This is a crucial issue—again, largely ignored by Martens.
Martens does not indicate his own theological convictions
Finally, the third theme required for a useful conversation that doesn’t happen is any hint in this discussion of Martens’ own constructive concerns. The book reads now like simply an effort at debunking rather than as part of a bigger project to work at constructive theology. Of all major theologians of recent generations, Yoder himself modeled how critique works best when subordinated to constructive theologizing.
Martens’ book comes across as a theological version of Robert Pirzig’s “philosophology” (his deprecatory term in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for philosophers who treat philosophy as having to do with reflecting on other philosophers rather than on the love of wisdom).
Martens’ silence about his own positive vision makes it more difficult to converse with his critique of Yoder. It’s a lot easier to criticize the inadequacies of Yoder’s thought when one is not engaging in reflection of how one could engage the problems Yoder engages in a better way. Perhaps Yoder didn’t get it all right, but it is also possible that his efforts are the best that can be done right now.
How does Martens himself think we should affirm Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity in ways that speak to the lives we are living in this world? A sense of his viewpoint would provide much needed perspective on his critique—instead of the critique coming across mainly as debunking.
So was Yoder “orthodox”?
As I stated above, the general issue Martens says he wants to address—was John Howard Yoder “heterodox” in his theology?—is indeed an interesting issue. I have actually thought quite a bit about this issue for many years. Back in the mid-1980s in my graduate program, one of my professors, the prominent sociologist Robert Bellah, spoke at a conference along with Yoder and numerous other quite prominent theologians and ethicists. Afterwards, Bellah told me, kind of in exasperation, that he and Yoder were the only “orthodox Christians” who spoke. I’m not quite sure how Bellah would have defined “orthodoxy,” but I imagine it was not that far from Martens’ brief attempt to define it in terms of christology.
The way one reads Yoder in relation to theological orthodoxy might vary significantly based on one’s own convictions. We could likely find theologians who answer the question of whether or not Yoder was orthodox in at least four ways.
(1) Some might say that indeed Yoder was theologically orthodox and that this is a good thing. Craig Carter’s book The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Ethics of John Howard Yoder argues this vigorously. He is joined in perhaps a more nuanced way by Mark Thiessen Nation’s John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions.
(2) Others would suggest that Yoder was theologically orthodox and that this was problematic. Specific explicit examples of this might be hard to find. I doubt that Gordon Kaufman ever wrote such a thing, but I can imagine that he might have thought this. Jack Nelson-Pallmyer, in his Jesus Against Christianity, is pretty critical of Yoder’s alleged acceptance of the idea of a violent God. This critique is not framed in terms of the issue of Yoder’s theological orthodoxy, but it probably could have been.
(3) Others would suggest that Yoder was not theologically orthodox and that this was a bad thing. Paul Martens seems to fit here. The late Jim Reimer wrote an essay long ago that explicitly makes this charge, actually linking Yoder and Kaufman together (see “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology” from 1983, reprinted in Reimer’s Mennonites and Classical Theology).
(4) Finally, it is easy to imagine a number of thinkers concluding that Yoder was not theologically orthodox in the most common uses of the term “orthodox” (e.g., centered on the creeds) and that is a good thing. It could be that somewhere J. Denny Weaver has written this. I expect my friend Ray Gingerich would say something like this (as I would).
That Martens fails to engage this issue in a particularly useful way is too bad. I am not quite sure how his argument would have proceeded had he engaged it carefully, respectfully, and thoroughly. If he indeed wants to focus on christology as central to his definition of “orthodoxy” and define orthodoxy as he does in terms of “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” (page 2), he certainly would be going up an extremely steep hill to try to prove that Yoder was not orthodox. Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, after all, bases its entire argument on the belief not simply that Jesus was unique and a revelation of God, but that Jesus was God Incarnate.
However, it could be that we would want to talk about orthodoxy in a slightly different way. Maybe “orthodoxy” could be seen as not so much about Jesus as uniquely revelatory of God so much as about viewing the creeds as inviolable and equal if not superior to scripture in authority for Christian theology. Or maybe “orthodoxy” has more to do with understanding Jesus as Savior in a “Pauline” sense more than as Savior and model for life in a “Gospels” sense (see N.T. Wright’s recent discussion of this issue, When God Became King—like Wright, Yoder and I would emphasize a big difference between “Pauline” in the Augustinian, Reformation, and evangelical sense and the Paul of the New Testament who is fully congruent with the gospels on this issue). Or maybe orthodoxy is to be understood as “evangelical, traditional, or orthodox theology” (page 142) that does not understand practicing biblical shalom to be an integral part of salvation and faith.
If orthodoxy means these kinds of things (and I would argue that in practice it often does, even perhaps [reading between the lines] for Martens), then perhaps Yoder was not orthodox. He was certainly willing to critique Christian theology and practice that did not subordinate the creeds and other doctrines to Scripture. And likewise with approaches to faith that rendered the practice of biblical Shalom extraneous and optional.
However, if we are going to label Yoder heterodox, we would have to admit that orthodoxy is not biblically-oriented. I am sure that if felt he were forced to choose, he would preferred to be “biblically-oriented” to being “orthodox.” I actually think, though, that he believed he was both. This places the burden of proof on critics such as Martens to either show that Yoder indeed was not biblically-oriented, or that he severely misinterpreted the Bible, or to admit that orthodoxy ultimately is not actually supposed to be profoundly accountable to the Bible.