Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? (Part II)

Ted Grimsrud—April 3, 2012

This is the second part of a response to Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder(Cascade Books, 2012). The first part may be read here.

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.

23 thoughts on “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? (Part II)

  1. I don’t know where Yoder ended up in his journey but in 1976 he was truly Orthodox in my book, and in fact the power of his argument that so gripped me was predicated on the incarnation and the normative of Jesus’ life based on the same.

    I have never forgotten this nor have I been able to frame a completely logical argument to refute the position he takes in the Politics of Jesus even though some of my positions have changed with time.

    1. Great to hear from you, Clyde. I sure have clear memories of that eventful year of 1976. You taking that Regent College class from Yoder was one of the most important events of my life!

      I really believe that Yoder’s basic theology changed little between 1976 and 1997. It was very important to me, too, back then that he was orthodox in the way you describe it (more so than it would be now, I suppose). I remember you and I talking about this for hours….

      1. I remember… What I remember most is what a good interviewer you were. The only way you could get a word in edgewise was to make your point by asking questions. Once I was talked out or done thinking out loud I would then take the hint and ask for your opinion, which you were making in the context of asking your questions and would then astutely summarize. I still don’t know how you put up with me.

  2. A very interesting book review and reflection on JHY and “orthodoxy.”
    I’ve never heard of Paul Martens. I am curious whether his exodus from the Mennonite church and his “debunking” of Yoder fit together. I notice from his web bio that he attended Providence College in Manitoba. Having lived and taught in that province, I know that Providence draws quite a few Mennonites who are lukewarm or resistant to the “gospel of peace”–or who at least feel Anabaptism reduces the gospel to that–and also attracts those who espouse, yes, a more allegedly “evangelical” or “Pauline” gospel that does seem to elevate Jesus as “Savior” over Jesus as “Lord.” (My sense, by the way, also is that there is some sympathy among some at Providence for Anabaptism.)

    Your four types of responses to whether Yoder was orthodox are fascinating. I once heard Yoder himself say that one kind of critique of Politics of Jesus that he hadn’t much anticipated was from those who felt he took the Bible too literally (#2?).

    Your reflections raise some questions for me. One is whether Yoder was ever accused of “Jesusolatry.” Is there such a thing, i.e. making the Son so central that the Father and Spirit become truncated? Could this be one way to frame a critique that Yoder was not sufficiently “orthodox?” I suppose Yoder would reply something like, “the incarnate Son is the lens through which we see and know most clearly the Father and the Spirit.” Still, there is a lot in the Bible–which, as you point out, Yoder based his work on–that does not talk about Jesus per se, but does talk about God and the Spirit. Can it be said that, while God and Spirit may not be independent of the Son, they are “more than” the Son? Could a critique of Yoder’s “orthodoxy” (or lack thereof) be based on the charge that he under-emphasized not the creeds so much as the Trinity?

    1. Interesting point. My comment about his Orthodoxy was from the standpoint of Christology, and I had not thought about it in terms of the trinity. He accepts the Orthodox Christology of what use to be the main stream, and turns the table against the non pacifist. He drives the point home hard that since God was in Christ reconcilling the world to himself his uniqueness likewise consists in his life/ethics as a pardigm and an integral part of the reconciling act. He gets strong support from First Peter? Where Peter says that Christ is our example… in suffering etc. He likewise draws support in that the Apostles saw themselves as carrying on his ministry of reconcilliation.

    2. I don’t know Martens well enough, Philip, to say much about his “ex-Mennoniteness.” I know that he was brought up in the Mennonite Brethren church in Canada and, according to an article he wrote in the Anabaptist Scholars Network newsletter a couple of years ago, switched to the Baptist church only upon taking a teaching position at Baylor. So, “exodus” might be too strong a term.

      Your comments about Providence College are interesting. I just the other day read about another younger scholar who attended there and wrote about the strong contrast between the theology taught there and that which he encountered later at Canadian Mennonite University.

      I have heard Yoder accused of “Jesusolatry” (and have been accused of this myself). I think you are right that he reads the Trinity through the lens of Jesus. This may be a quite helpful way to restate the issues. How serious is our confession of Jesus’ divinity if we do otherwise (there is the statement in 1 John that we have never seen God but we have seen Jesus)? And how Trinitarian are we should we posit some “more than” in relation to God and the Spirit that in some sense relativizes what is revealed in and by Jesus?

      But as I suggest at the end of my piece, it could be that “orthodoxy” isn’t supposed to be all that accountable to scripture. If that is the case, I would rather stand with Yoder than be “orthodox.”

  3. I’m not sure that too much should be made of Martens ecclesial location in the context of his argument about Yoder. There are many of us who consider ourselves Anabaptist and are convinced that the gospel has social/ethical import, but at the same time are unable for one reason or another to attend a Mennonite church. Being on the margins of the Mennonite establishment shouldn’t make our convictions suspect.

  4. Your last sentence sounds like you’re a bit sensitive, Anthony. My critique of Martens’ book is based on the content of the book, not on his “ecclesial location.” The point of my one mention of this “location” was actually to note that it is similar to Yoder’s, not different. For Baptists and Mennonites, the creeds, et al, do not traditionally have the same standing as they do for many other traditions.

    Personally, I’m probably at least as suspicious of the convictions of those at the heart of “the Mennonite establishment” as on the margins. I have always felt more at home on the margins.

  5. Hi, Ted. I’ve read Martens’ book and have some questions about it myself (and being one of his students, will be asking him these questions soon!). However, I think you might be missing what Martens is after a bit. I don’t dare to speak for Martens, but my impression after reading the book is that he is attempting to provide a deep reading of Yoder that suggests that, whether intentionally or not, Yoder’s life-long emphasis on Jesus as “political” and “paradigmatic” almost inevitably led to making an ethics (nonviolence) the sole criterion for faithfulness, such that one doesn’t really need a Christian worldview–certainly not a classically orthodox one–in order to live out the “politics of Jesus.” It is in that sense (and perhaps that sense alone) that “the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus” drops out: once you get the politics/ethics right, it really doesn’t matter what else you believe. Of cource Yoder didn’t separate ethics from theology, but that can be taken one of two ways: (a) ethics and theology form a unified whole or (b) theology is just identified with ethics. I take it that Martens’ discussion on Yoder’s meaning of discipleship leans toward (b) (as does basically all of his chapters come to think of it).

    Regarding the Mennonite margins conversation going on in the comments, it should be noted that currently in order to teach in Baylor’s religion department one is required to attend a Baptist Church. Thus, though there are a number of Mennonites at Baylor, most of them attend Baptist Churches that might identify as Jim McClendon lower-case “baptist,” that is, more in the Anabaptist stream than your typical Baptist Church. My family attends the only Mennonite church in Waco, which is quite nontraditional and thus not the best fit for a number Mennonites in the area. But I can personally testify that Martens is still Mennonite through and through, as his ongoing interaction in Mennonite academic discussions also evidences. So, that whole discussion is a complete red herring (and I know you didn’t start it and in fact have tried to squelch it already).

    Perhaps a more interesting point is that Martens never met Yoder personally, as did a good many of those writing on Yoder. So, I wonder (and this is only a hunch) whether some of the strong reactions against the book are based on the person of Yoder (a Mennonite churchman) nearly as much as on the content of Yoder’s writing. As far as I can tell, Martens’ book isn’t concerned at all (or very little) with Yoder the person or even what Yoder may have personally believed(!), but rather with a deep and subtle trajectory that can be found in his work, which has come to fruition in the non-Christian and secular appropriations of his work (Boyarin, Ochs, Coles, Barber, etc.). (In my MQR review essay last year, “Inheriting Yoder Faithfully,” I suggested that the trajectory Martens identifies may be more the result of these non-Christian and secular interpreters of Yoder than with Yoder himself, though now I’m a bit ambivalent on that question.)

    All that to say, you may be right that Martens could have worked this argument out more thoroughly rather than writing such a short (<150p) treatment. But I hope the style of the presentation doesn't cause us to dismiss the substance of the argument too quickly. I suspect this book marks just the beginning of this important conversation, even if Martens leaves it to others to develop his arguments further.

    1. Thanks for this, David. I appreciate your thoughts.

      But I actually think your statement: “Yoder’s life-long emphasis on Jesus as ‘political’ and ‘paradigmatic’ almost inevitably led to making an ethics (nonviolence) the sole criterion for faithfulness, such that one doesn’t really need a Christian worldview–certainly not a classically orthodox one–in order to live out the ‘politics of Jesus’” captures well what I indeed did understand Martens to be saying.

      My problem is that this statement needs to be evaluated in relation to Yoder’s biblical interpretation—which Martens does not do. I think these are quite debatable assertions (i.e., that Yoder actually makes nonviolence the sole criterion for faithfulness and that his politics of Jesus does not need a Christian worldview), but that it could be a useful debate.

      Unfortunately, Martens does not help us in this debate because he (1) does not deal with Yoder’s self-stated basis for his understanding of Jesus’ politics (or, we could say, Christian faithfulness), which is the biblical testimony. And he does not (2) develop an argument in which he actually uses classical orthodoxy as a stable criterion for evaluating Yoder’s theology. Martens brings up orthodoxy and defines it (briefly and vaguely) and then drops it.

      Just to be clear again, and you seem to notice this but you do bring it up—my only reason for mentioning Martens is an “ex-Mennonite who is currently a Baptist” (using as definitive current church membership and basing my statement on an article Martens wrote in the Mennonite Scholars newsletter a couple of years ago where he stated that he had switched membership) was not in any sense to critique Martens for not being a Mennonite but to note the similarities between Baptists and Mennonites in being traditionally non-creedal.

      I’m afraid that I am so far behind in my MQR reading that I haven’t read your essay. I don’t know how I missed it. I’ll read it tonight and say more about your point about “Yoder the man.”

      The problems I have with Martens book have nothing to do with it being so short—I think that’s a strength. It’s that he doesn’t do what he promises to do.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and I hope we can keep “talking.”

      1. Thanks for this reply, Ted.

        Again to be clear, although at Baylor, I hope my thoughts here are not taken to be “in defense of” or “on behalf of” Martens. I do hope, however, to cut through what has seemed to me to be too quickly dismissive responses to this book, because I feel like, whether he develops it fully or not, Martens is on to something interesting. (Ironically, I personally dismissed Martens’ arguments rather quickly after reading his two earlier essays on this topic–the one in CGR on the sacraments and the other in Power and Practices on Yoder and Jeremiah.) A number of responses (not yours particularly) have simply reasserted the traditional line without taking into account Martens’ clear and forceful criticisms of that reading in his introductory chapter, for instance. In fact, I haven’t seen any substantive response to his questioning of the standard way of reading Yoder.

        You’re certainly correct that more needs to be said about Yoder’s reading of Scripture. It is one thing, though, to base one’s reading on Scripture, and it is another thing to do so in a way that takes the many layers and witnesses of the text of Scripture seriously. (Incidentally, in an essay I wrote for the recently released book I co-edited, The Activist Impulse, I use Yoder to do just that, so I’m not arguing personally that Yoder didn’t do it.) I take it that part of Martens’ argument is that Yoder, following Cullmann and other “biblical realists,” imposed a certain “political” grid on the text such that, though Yoder’s view was “biblical,” it was nevertheless truncated. (How many times, for example, does Yoder do anything with Jesus’s miracles?) Even if Yoder was working with a more biblical than modern understanding of “politics,” if that’s the only–or even the primary–level on which he reads the biblical text, then I think Martens would argue that he was missing something important.

        Regarding Martens and orthodoxy, I wonder if he might mean by orthodoxy something like “Christian exclusivism” (not necessarily “soteriological” exclusivism but something like “alethic” exclusivism). So, as I read Martens, if the essence of Yoder’s Christian message (Yoder’s “orthodoxy”) can be found in Judaism (whether Jeremiah or second temple) or Marcion or Tolstoy or Gandhi or Gene Sharp, then traditional Christian claims are not religiously definitive, which is what I believe Martens would find problematic. Thus, when Yoder shifted from talking about Christianity being “distinctive” (which implies essential differences with other views) to it being “specific” (which doesn’t so imply), that’s where I believe Martens has a problem (see Royal Priesthood, 81).

        Your point on Martens’ religious affiliation is now sufficiently clear, so I hope we can all agree to just drop that aspect of the discussion. Regarding the “non-creedalism” of (Ana)baptism, though, I do wonder if part of what Martens means by “heterodox” (note: not heretical, which connotes if not denotes something more extreme and pejorative) might at the end of the day be something that many Mennonites (you, J. Denny Weaver, others) would not find all that problematic. Indeed, part of my “problem” with the book was that I came to the end sort of wondering, what’s the big deal here? But I believe that’s because as a low-church evangelical Mennonite, I have never put a whole lot of stock into creedal orthodoxy (though I think I have in a way always just assumed the Nicene definition and have increasingly come to appreciate the creeds through my doctoral studies, but that’s another story). If, on the other hand, I were Stanley Hauerwas, for whom Yoder and Episcopalianism need to somehow cohere, or Craig Carter, who though Baptist has become increasingly “Augustinian,” then I could see how Martens’ thesis could be quite startling.

        If the main problem is simply that the book does not live up to all of its initial promises, that’s fine; we’ll just need to read it as having offered up a number of interesting “promissory notes” that may or may not be fulfilled by Martens but that will need further investigation by other Yoder scholars going forward. But in order to do so, the conversation can’t be cut off before it has gotten started, as a number of folks seem to think has happened with the recent Englewood Review review. I hear, but cannot confirm, that there may be a response to that review by the way, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this conversation will continue for the foreseeable future.

  6. David,

    You say some quite helpful things here. I’m afraid I find it still a bit of an indictment of Martens’ book that you seem so much clearer about what he’s probably thinking than his book is!

    I do think the issue of Yoder’s relationship with traditional Christian theology is interesting. I think Bransen Parler in his review and, I expect, Mark Thiessen Nation’s in his, are too quick to deny that the question is even particularly interesting because they are so certain that Yoder is a good evangelical (and at least “orthodox” in that sense). I say several times in my blog posts that I think the issues Martens seems to say he wants to address are interesting, and I make my own brief contribution to that discussion at the end of the second post where I write about four possible options in relation to the Yoder as orthodox question.

    And I think you are correct that I (and likely Denny Weaver) could be comfortable with accepting that Yoder might be “heterodox” in relation to Martens’ argument and that that is a good thing for Yoder. But again, since Martens says so little clearly about what he means by orthodox I can’t say for sure. I do think Yoder fits very much within the brief definition Martens makes at the beginning of the book (and I would say I do, as well). So your lucidity in explaining what Martens might really have been thinking actually deepens the problem. Then it seems that his definition at the beginning of the book may not actually be what he means. If this is the case, he becomes much less trustworthy in his argument.

    So, what you say about Martens actually thinking about “orthodoxy” in terms of Christian exclusivism makes a lot of sense. It fits with how I read his book. But then, I have to ask what kind of Christianity is it that must in so many central ways have to be exclusively true in order to be true. That would seem to be saying that it is later creedal formulations that actually define the core of Christianity—not Jesus or the Bible. Whoa….

    I am all for a continuing conversation on Yoder’s theology in relation to creeds, orthodoxy, evangelical exclusivism, et al. I just don’t get a handle from this book, though, on what kind of conversation Martens wants. If his book does not actually further useful conversations, I would put most of the blame at his feet.

    1. I’m starting to wonder if I got a different edition of the book than everyone else! Nothing I’ve said comes from any special esoteric or insider information. It comes simply from my straight-forward reading of the book. (Dr. Martens was in Scotland all last semester–my first semester at Baylor–and we haven’t been able to talk about the book since he got back and it came out, though it appears we’ll be doing so later this week.) So, it isn’t as though he has a secret agenda that he isn’t letting onto in the book (at least not one I’m aware of). Rather, he states pretty clearly in the first chapter what he’s after. Ted, you’ve quoted his “critierion” for orthodoxy from page 2: “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God.” But right away on the very next pages he unpacks precisely what he means by this definition in ways quite similar to how I’ve described it above (though I’ll still accept your compliment that you find my paraphrase clearer than Martens original!). Martens writes on page 3-4, quoted here at length:

      “In the pages that follow, I attempt to demonstrate that it is this attempt to ‘distill’ the theology of the early church that leads to what I am calling Yoder’s heterodoxy. To be as clear as possible at this point, 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 form of secular sociology (at worst). This, in my judgment, is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the effects of Yoder’s redescription of Jesus reverberates throughout the rest of his theology, providing occasions for what I take to be secondary disputes about Yoder’s heterodoxy.”

      Martens then proceeds in chapter 2 to lay out the ways Yoder’s “Foundational Theological Commitments” on things like discipleship, the Bible, the church, etc., already set Yoder on this ethico-political trajectory. The title for chapter 3, “The Prioritization of Politics,” makes this point pretty explicit. Chapter 4, “Reconstructing Jewish Christianity,” attempts to show how Yoder describes the uniqueness of Jesus in ethico-political ways that end up having much in common with certain strands of Judaism. Chapter 5, “The New Shape of Ecumenism,” attempts to show how the sacraments too become reduced to little more than ethico-politico-sociological practices. And the conclusion ties it all together by making his implicit critiques from chapters 2-5 explicit. So, he describes “two critical shifts” (145): (1) Yoder’s adoption of and prioritization of political language and (2) Yoder’s adoption of the language of Jesus as “paradigm,” arguing that this leaves Yoder with “a particular sociological or political position that is in no way particularly Christian [i.e., that doesn’t match Martens’ original criterion for orthodoxy spelled out in the introduction]” (146).

      So, no, Martens did not explicitly tie each chapter back to his original thesis as he went. He was relying on the reader to make some connections as one read along. But then in the conclusion he goes back to his original criterion for orthodoxy and sums up why his previous four chapters show how Yoder doesn’t live up to that definition. Whether or not one agrees with this overarching argument or with all of the details of each chapter, it at least seems pretty straight-forward. So, I’m starting to wonder if other readers got so caught up in the trees that they missed out on the forest!

      (As an aside, Ted, if you don’t have access to my MQR essay on Yoder mentioned above in a previous comment, an unofficial proof can be viewed here.)

      1. David, I appreciate your patience and perseverance in this discussion. You are helping me a lot! I am thinking about why we seem to be reading this book so differently when we clearly share many of the same convictions. Partly, I suppose, it’s that I picked the book with a much more suspicious attitude than you likely did—and I am sure that shaped what I was even able to see even as I wanted to read the book objectively.

        Still, I don’t find your defense of Martens’s clarity very persuasive. I would not want to say that he consciously has a “secret agenda.” However, as I read your latest comment, I am struck that what might be going on is that he states one definition of orthodoxy on page two but actually operates with a different definition (perhaps subconsciously) in the rest of the book—beginning with the helpful quote you provide from pp. 3-4.

        This is why it is a problem that he, as you state rather mildly, “relies on the reader to make some connections….” The stated definition, as I have said, is one I think Yoder totally fits within. The unstated definition, which I understood you to be discerning in terms of Christian exclusivism as the core criterion, is actually quite problematic (especially when it operates in an unstated way).

        To repeat myself from earlier posts, it just seems to me that Martens fails even to try to show how Yoder’s “distillation” goes against (1) Martens’s stated definition on p. 2 of orthodoxy (and I don’t think he could show this; though obviously Yoder’s account of the gospel does go against Martens’ unstated definition) or (2) against the biblical teaching that Yoder argues integrates faithful living (which is obviously what Yoder means by “ethics”—not some “general and universalizable” ethics in the Modern sense) with belief. I think that only someone who splits faithful living from belief could imagine that Yoder is “heterodox” in the way Martens refers to it in the pp. 3-4 quote or “reductionistic” as he states elsewhere.

        So, Martens’s failure to engage Yoder on a biblical level is pretty important. I would say that this failure dooms his argument from the start.

        Your summary of how Martens proceeds through chapters 2-5 seems very close to my own in my original blog post. My point, again, would be that for Martens to state that Yoder becomes increasingly heterodox in these various ways is not the same as showing it. I think his switching definitions of orthodoxy and his failure to deal with Yoder on the biblical level make it impossible to show what he needs to show. It leaves him mainly simply making assertions.

        I don’t have the book in front of me right now so I can’t look to be absolutely certain, but I am pretty confident in saying that Martens does not in fact go back to “original criterion of orthodoxy” in his conclusion. That’s my big critique. What he “goes back to” is his unstated criterion that places Christian exclusivism at the center. This is a very different thing—and, again, is why I am so critical of the book.

        I think if Martens had stuck with his definition from page 2 and referenced that as he built his case he would have written an interesting book (though I can’t really imagine that anyone could do that because Yoder seems extraordinarily orthodox in that sense—more so than most later Christian theology). Or, much more likely, if Martens had stated up front and clearly his operational understanding of orthodoxy and then referenced that throughout the book as he built his case to show in the specific instances how Yoder departed from “orthodoxy,” he would have made a useful contribution to the discussion you, David (and I agree), would be helpful. But I just don’t think that happened.

        P.S. I did read your MQR articles the other night. I liked it a lot. Your list of the various options for reading Yoder was fascinating and helpful. The new book of essays you co-edited also looks great and I plan to get it in due time.

      2. Thanks for your follow up, Ted. I think you’re right that we read the book a bit differently, and I’m not sure much more can be added to the discussion of our differences and agreements at this point (at least not with three term papers looming!). I do find one point you’ve repeatedly made a but curious, though, and I’m wondering if you could clarify. It seems to me that the terms “particularism” and “exclusivism,” though perhaps having slightly different connotations, both seem to designate pretty much the same concept, i.e., that the Christian faith is in some sense uniquely definitive. So, I’m wondering why you keep suggesting that Martens’ unstated working definition of orthodoxy is “Christian exclusivism” (a term I introduced above as a paraphrase of Martens’ definition), when Martens’ own explicit definition uses the phrase “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” Isn’t this pretty much a different way to state the same thing?

        Oh, and one last thing: You mentioned that you might have some thoughts on my earlier comment on “Yoder the person.” I’m curious what those thoughts are.

  7. P.S. Regarding your response #2 to Yoder, Kaufman actually did critique Yoder for being too orthodox. See his review of Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom in CGR, where he commends Yoder’s “paradigmatic” reading of Jesus but argues that Yoder needs to drop the confessional Christian trappings. (I believe Martens also mentions this review in his book.)

    1. Thanks for this reference. I remember the review now. I actually thought of it earlier because it was about the only place I know where Kaufman directly interacted with Yoder’s thought. I think it’s very sad that the two of them were so distant from each other.

  8. David, I don’t want to distract you from your term papers (I have been happy to be distracted from grading, but I’m not as vulnerable to repercussions….), but I do want to respond to your comment/question about “particularism” and “exclusivism” being “pretty much the same concept.” This caused a light or two to go on as to why we seemed to be missing each other a bit (and why it could well be that Martens would find my criticism a bit baffling).

    Could it be that Martens does not actually have two different definitions of orthodoxy? The one from p. 2 that refers to the ““the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” actually does mean the same as the emphasis on exclusivity that you talk about in relation to his overall argument. These are the same thing because by “particularity” Martens (and you) mean essentially the same thing as “exclusivity.” I think I assumed my own understanding of “particularity” (which of course is a major theme in Yoder’s writings, especially the “epistemological” essays collected in A Pacifist Way of Knowing) when I saw it in Martens’s definition and didn’t really imagine that the “or uniqueness” that follows “particularity” had the connotation of “exclusivity” that it apparently does, thus defining “particularity” in a quite different way than I (or Yoder) would.

    I would not understand “particularity” to mean “uniquely definitive”—I wouldn’t even understand “uniqueness” to mean the same as “uniquely definitive.” To say Jesus is “particularly or uniquely true” does not at all seem to be “pretty much the same concept” as saying “Jesus is exclusively true.” It seems to me that Yoder to great pains throughout his career, and certainly in his later writings (such as the “epistemological essays”) to emphasize Jesus’ particularity. Kind of his whole point seems to be how we can talk about Jesus revealing truth that is both particular and still objective (even universal) truth. But he obviously thought this understanding of Jesus’ truth did not make the truth exclusive in the sense that it didn’t overlap (a lot) with the truth revealed in the rest of Judaism. Or other revelations of truth.

    It seemed to me to be so self-evident that to talk about Jesus, in his particularity and uniqueness as a historical person, being a revelation of God (our best revelation of God), was precisely what Yoder was about from start to finish (probably my favorite of his essays is “But We Do See Jesus,” published well after The Politics of Jesus). But now I understand how Martens could try to develop the argument that Yoder is departing from an orthodox “particularity” (meaning “exclusivity”). But this seems like an idiosyncratic use of “particularity” that is doubly problematic since, since besides being idiosyncratic, it ignores how “particularity” is precisely a key concept in Yoder’s on-going work right to the end of his life.

    Ironically, I think a big part of Yoder’s understanding of Jesus’ particularity has precisely to do with just how much Jesus, in his particularity, was a Jew drawing profoundly on the Jewish scriptures, especially the prophets. Yet Martens wants to use Yoder’s emphasis on the links between Jesus’ truth and the truths of Judaism as a way to critique Yoder’s departure from “particularity” (= exclusivity). This seems like precisely the kind of supercessionism that Yoder took such pains to challenge.

    You also asked: “You mentioned that you might have some thoughts on my earlier comment on ‘Yoder the person.’ I’m curious what those thoughts are.”

    As I think about your “hunch,” I have the sense that there really is nothing to it, so far as I can tell. Neither Nugent nor Parler knew Yoder, as far as I am aware (if they did they had to have been very young at the time!). And they are the ones jumping most quickly into the debate with Martens. Nation was a friend of Yoder’s, but we don’t know yet what his critique of Martens actually is, beyond his saying that he didn’t particularly like the book. I’ve even talked with Nation about Martens’s book, but still don’t know what he doesn’t like about it.

    I knew Yoder but we were scarcely friends. He was not really the kind of person to inspire a lot personal feeling and loyalty (unlike, say, Stanley Hauerwas). I don’t think my concern about what Martens has written has anything to do with my knowing Yoder. I certainly didn’t know Yoder as a “churchman.” He was pretty distant from the Mennonite Church over the last couple of decades of his life.

    For me, at least, part of my reaction to any sustained criticism of Yoder is to test it pretty carefully. I see my own theology as profoundly shaped by his writings, and so any critique of his thought is to some degree at least relevant to my own thought. I hope this testing is borne out of a desire to grow toward truth, not to defend a settled ideology. But I think it makes sense to ask for pretty good evidence before granting that Yoder’s (and, maybe by implication, my) theology is deficient in major ways.

    1. Excellent, I think we’re coming to some common understanding at last. I think you are right that two uses of “particularity” are in play here and that Martens’ is different than Yoder’s from “But We Do See Jesus.” Perhaps Martens intended “particularity and uniqueness” to be something of a hendiadys so as to distinguish it from the way Yoder used particularity. I don’t know. Though it would have been nice for Martens to have spelled out his definition vis-a-vis Yoder’s, I’m not sure that either is “idiosyncratic.” Indeed, often in discussions of religious diversity, when the typology of pluralism-inclusivism-exclusivism is used, “particularism” is used as a substitute/synonym for the latter term. (I don’t have any references in front of me at the moment, but having written my MA thesis on pluralist philosopher John Hick, I’m pretty confident with this claim.) There can also be a kind of radical pluralism that affirms the “particularities” of each religion though, i.e., that we all have different historical/theological particulars, but they are couched within greater commonality. Don’t quote me on this, but I suspect that Martens would argue that truly particularist (i.e., “orthodox”) Christianity cannot escape being particularist-exclusivist and even supercessionist to some degree (though one would need to be careful to distinguish supercessionism from anti-Semitism, of course). So your admission that Yoder “took such pains to challenge” supercessionism might actually work in favor of Martens’ thesis. The question would then become simply whether that was a good thing or not, which is where you and Martens might part ways. But in that discussion I’ll let Martens explain and defend his own arguments, should he think that it’s necessary to do so. But at least now we’re on the same page regarding Martens’ working with a single definition of orthodoxy throughout the book.

      I’m happy to revoke my hunch about Yoder the person so long as it isn’t pulled out by others later as a trump card in this discussion (though you are right that it hasn’t yet happened). I’ve found in the past that debates about Yoder can come to a screeching halt when one side pulls out the “Well, one time Yoder explained to me at a conference . . .” line. Then there becomes this kind of friends-of-Yoder esotericism that is impossible to respond to unless you were one.

      I do also wonder what’s the deal with Yoder’s distance from the Mennonite church, though, and how that plays into the discussion of particularity. But I’ve probably been doing too much wondering out loud lately!

      Finally, I should note that I benefitted greatly from reading The Pacifist Way of Knowing. Despite having read most of the articles at one time or another, it was nice reading them in succession all in one place.

      It’s been nice chatting with you, Ted. I trust we’ll be in touch again soon. In the meantime,

      Best regards,

      1. I’ve enjoyed this, too, David. Not to insist on the last word but I want strongly to affirm your point about “the friends-of-Yoder esotericism.” It’s great to have you point that out. I am sure (in ways I’m sure that I have not been sensitive to) this is a pretty effective way of creating a sense of separation between the “true insiders” and the “newcomers.”

    1. Thanks much for this, David. I will read it with great interest a.s.a.p. It looks substantial!

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