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]”

Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—July 31, 2011

With Gordon Kaufman’s passing, an era in the Mennonite world is nearing an end. Kaufman, like his contemporaries, was decisively shaped by his personal experience with World War II and its immediate aftermath. (The era isn’t quite over given the still-productive pen of the remarkable Norman Kraus, an exact contemporary of Kaufman’s and John Howard Yoder’s—here’s Norman’s most recent book.)

In an interview given near the end of his life, Kaufman talked briefly about how as a young adult he was planning to pursue a career in mathematics. Then he was drafted in the midst of World War II and chose to be a conscientious objector. He served for several years in Civilian Public Service in lieu of entering the military. By war’s end, he had redirected his aspirations.

John Howard Yoder, the other Mennonite theological giant of the 20th century, also had his life’s aspirations redirected by World War II-based service. Yoder, who was a couple years younger than Kaufman and thus not liable to the draft during the war, went to war-devastated Western Europe on a service assignment shortly after the end of the war, an assignment that determined his educational and vocational pursuits.

With all their differences, Kaufman and Yoder shared something quite profound. They both obviously were brilliant and ambitious young men who had multiple options for career paths. Both also were deeply committed Mennonites. Contrary to the stereotype of Mennonites as withdrawn, “sectarian,” and purity-focused, both of these two extraordinarily gifted people decided to devote their lives to grappling with the world’s most complicated and relevant issue: how to live humanely in a war-devastated environment still in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence. Continue reading “Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder”

Defending Yoder: Part Two—Earl Zimmerman’s Account

In response to a critical review of his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by John Nugent that challenged his reading of John Howard Yoder, Peter Leithart suggests that it is important not to read his book as mainly about Yoder but mainly about his effort to rehabilitate the image of the Emperor Constantine. I certainly defend the right of an author to try to set the frame for how her or his writings should be read. However, I do tend to think the main point of Leithart’s book is to challenge Yoder’s influence among contemporary evangelical Christians. Or at least this is a main point.

In Part One of these blog posts on “Defending Yoder,” I critiqued Defending Constantine and gave reasons for why I see it as a flawed book. I will return to Leithart in Part Three and discuss several of the reviews I have read that also challenge his perspective. In this post, though, I want to step back and reflect on Yoder’s project.

The best study dealing with Yoder’s thought that I have read is my friend Earl Zimmerman’s book, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics(Cascadia Publishing House, 2007). I think this book deserves more attention than it has gotten (Leithart shows no evidence of being acquainted with it); hopefully as Yoder’s stature continues to grow, those interested in his theology will recognize the importance of Zimmerman’s contribution. Continue reading “Defending Yoder: Part Two—Earl Zimmerman’s Account”

Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2011

When John Howard Yoder passed from the scene in 1997, I can’t imagine even his strongest supporters would have expected that his importance would have continued to grow in the realm of theological ethics as it has. I certainly didn’t. Once indication of Yoder’s importance is the presence of a recent book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010), with a clear agenda of trying to counter Yoder’s growing influence.

Leithart’s is a curious book. After I finished reading it, I tried to figure out how to summarize what precisely he is trying to do. And I have had a difficult time. I suspect there may be some hidden agenda at work, because Leithart simply does not give a clear statement of his own constructive concerns. And, though he seems to have some profound disagreements with Yoder and routinely slips in sharp words disparaging Yoder’s scholarship, he has not produced a simple hatchet job. Actually, when the smoke clears he has affirmed Yoder almost as much as condemned him. I would attribute Leithart’s less than total rejection of Yoder’s ideas to the fact that he actually did read Yoder with some care. Continue reading “Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique”

Romans 13 supports pacifism!

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2011

Several years ago I began a project where I would study the writings of Christians who reject pacifism in order to learn from and respond to them. After spending some time on this, the project moved to the back burner—hopefully to be fired up again before long.

Probably the main thing I learned from the reading I did do was that at the center for almost everyone was an understanding that the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13 provide about all Christians need in order to realize that it is not God’s will for Christians to be pacifists.

One place where I encountered this use of Romans 13 to support violence surprised me. The staunchly right-wing Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is well-known to be a deeply traditional Roman Catholic—though that religious affiliation does not seem to hinder Scalia taking strong positions in opposition to current Catholic theology and Papal pronouncements on an issue such as the death penalty. Scalia published a short article justifying his affirmation of the death penalty in the neo-conservative journal First Things. Here, the traditionalist Catholic cites as the core of his position not natural law but the Bible—specifically Romans 13. I didn’t expect that.

So, a Christian pacifist has a problem. How do we respond to these ways of using Romans 13 as a proof text undermining one of our core convictions? We may, appropriately assert that we base our views on a higher authority than Paul: Jesus. But we may also show that Romans 13 actually supports pacifism. Here’s how. Continue reading “Romans 13 supports pacifism!”

Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)

In an earlier post, I reflected on my struggle to make sense of the tension between my teacher John Howard Yoder’s profound theology and his sexual misconduct. In 1992, a five-part series of investigative articles about the allegations of Yoder’s sexual misconduct were published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth. The articles are posted here.

The articles were based on extensive interviews with several of the women Yoder harassed who detailed their allegations of his behavior—which included major boundary violations involving both inappropriate touching and speech/personal writings. The journalist, Tom Price, also interviewed numerous prominent theologians and provides fascinating quotes from people such as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and Jim McClendon of Fuller Theological Seminary (like Yoder, one of my grad school profs).

Maybe the most interesting of the articles summarizes one of Yoder’s unpublished papers (“What is adultery of the heart?”) that seems to provide an intellectual rationale for some of his behavior. Based on Price’s summary, it does not seem clear to me that Yoder’s ideas (admittedly a bit idiosyncratic) would necessarily have made one suspect he would be a serial sexual harasser. However, in light of his behavior, the ideas in the article take a new light. Basically, he seems to argue for the appropriateness of close physical intimacy between men and women in the church that would not cross the line into actual sexual intercourse.

Continue reading “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)”

Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part two

[This is the second of a two-part post—the first part, posted 1/9/11 is here.]

In raising the question, “is Karl Barth good for Mennonites?”, I am trying to be a little playful. I have several friends, as I have mentioned, who are clearly fine Mennonites and also quite favorably inclined towards Karl Barth’s theology. So, in a genuine sense, this question has been answered in the affirmative already.

And there is also a genuine sense in which I am one of the last people who has any business saying who or what is “good for Mennonites.” I retain several important affiliations with Mennonite institutions (church member, ordained minister, college professor), but I have never been in a position to serve as any kind of gate-keeper or boundary definer. I am sure I am further from playing any such role all the time.

However, I do have a serious intent in raising the question. Perhaps if I switch to the less institutionally or ethnically linked term “Anabaptist” I can better get at my interests in writing about Karl Barth. Part of my question is what kind of theology should present-day Anabaptists be trying to articulate (on this question, I have actually written a couple of books and posted several essays [here and here] at my Peace Theology website). And the question after that is how positive a contribution would paying close attention to Karl Barth’s theology make to said articulation.

As I mentioned in my first post, I ask this question about Barth and our theology with genuine sincerity. I have numerous reasons (touched on in that post) for being favorably inclined toward Barth as a theologian and as a human being. But I also have some questions. And so I intend to read the entire Church Dogmatics over the next two years and grapple with my questions about Barth’s thought.

Continue reading “Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part two”

Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part one

[This is the first of a two-part post—the second part, posted 1/13/11 is here.]

It seems that everywhere I turn in my theological life, I see Karl Barth. I’m not quite old enough to remember when the great Swiss Protestant theologian died (December 10, 1968, the same day as Thomas Merton). That is, I was alive and sentient in 1968, but as a 14-year old I just didn’t have any contact at all with theology.

Since I discovered theology in the mid-1970s, though, Barth has loomed large. And in the past 35 years his presence seems only to have grown. In recent years, especially, I have friends and acquaintances, even relatives, by the dozen it seems, who are enamored with the thinker many would argue was the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century. I guess if Barth truly were the greatest, it would not  be surprising that many would be enamored with his theology!

I can’t say I ever drank deeply from the wells of Barth. However, unlike some of my other theological friends, I have not reacted negatively to what I have read of his or learned about his thought either. In fact, I have for the past 35 years wanted to read more Barth and learn more about his thought because he has always seemed interesting—at times due to who was critiquing him, at times due to who was praising him. But I haven’t quite taken the plunge and really sat down with Barth.

Just recently, for several reasons, I am realizing that if I am going to try to come to terms with Karl Barth’s theology I had better get going. Probably the strongest catalyst for this realization has been my awareness of the attraction many Mennonite thinkers have for Barth. So, that leads to wanting to try to answer the question I ask in the title of this post: “Is Karl Barth good for Mennonites?” Continue reading “Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part one”

Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the Christian theologian who has influenced my thinking more than any other—John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s published writings, beginning with The Politics of Jesus down through the recently published posthumous collection, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking have provided the intellectual bases for my pacifism as well as many other of my core convictions. However, his legacy is seriously tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct. So I am left with a puzzle—how to reconcile the theology that has helped me so much with practices that seem repugnant and that surely contradict that powerful theology. Here is a kind of tribute I wrote shortly after Yoder’s death that only briefly touches on this problem. I have continued to reflect on these issues and want to share a bit of my more recent thinking here.

Yoder’s books were the main catalyst in my wife Kathleen and me first seeking Mennonites out back in the 1970s. His presence at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary is what took us to northern Indiana as students in 1980. And our experience at AMBS was the main reason we decided to become Mennonites. Now, these past 30 years have seen a lot of stresses in our relationship with the Mennonite world. Still, our joining up with Mennonites has and continues to define so much in our lives—and it’s hard to imagine that happening without our encounter with Yoder’s writing.

My interest in and valuing of the Yoder published corpus remains strong. I recently co-edited A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Cascade Books, 2010), a collection of Yoder’s fairly obscure writing that touch on epistemology. I also published an article on this theme of epistemology a number of years ago that is not in the book. I have introduced myself at theology conferences as a “Yoderian,” and I probably still would, depending on the context. Continue reading “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder”