The latest edition of One the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand, includes a helpful piece by Michael Buttrey titled ‘12 ways to prematurely write off Yoder: Some common misconceptions about Yoder’s ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ vision’. Buttrey, who blogs at Beyond the Secular Canopy, identifies the twelve ‘misconceptions’ as:
1. Yoder believes Constantine corrupted the church.
Yoder’s references to the “so-called Constantinian transformation” and to “Constantinianism” are only a shorthand for the fusion (and confusion) of church and world made possible, but not inevitable, through changes around the time of Constantine. As he explains his terms: “I here use the name of Constantine merely as a label for this transformation, which began before A.D. 200 and took over 200 years; the use of his name does not mean an evaluation of his person or work.” (“The Otherness of the Church,” 57)
2. Yoder thinks that there was no salt or light in the medieval church.
No, Yoder affirms the efforts in the Middle Ages to keep the church different and distinct from the world. He specifically highlights “the higher level of morality asked of the clergy, the international character of the hierarchy, the visibility of the hierarchy in opposition to the princes, the gradual moral education of barbarians into monogamy and legality, [and] foreign missions, apocalypticism and mysticism” as examples of how, despite distortions, the medieval church preserved an awareness of the strangeness of God’s people and the visible otherness of the church. (Ibid., 58.)
3. Yoder hates Luther, Calvin and the other magisterial Reformers.
Yoder sees the Reformers as unintentionally complicit in many tragic developments including secularization and the creation of modern secularism. He affirms their view of secular vocations as divinely ordained, their attempts to instruct and humble the state, their intent to renew the visible, faithful body of believers, and especially their faith in the all-powerful Word of God. His primary complaint is simply that “the forces to which they appealed for support, namely the drive towards autonomy that exists in the state and the other realms of culture, were too strong to be controlled once they had been let loose.” (Ibid., 60.)
4. Yoder has a low view of God’s sovereignty over history. Or:
5. He idolizes the early church.
Actually, Yoder has a much higher view of God’s sovereignty than those who believe it is our responsibility to make sure history turns out right. Indeed, he sees one of the fundamental movements of Constantinianism as the switch from faith in God’s rule to faith in the invisibility of the church. Consider his words in “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics”:
Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to ‘take it on faith’ that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history. (137)
In another important essay, he makes it clear that his criticism of the past is not a rebuke to God’s guidance of the church, but to the Enlightenment dogma of univocal progress: “reference … to the early centuries is not made with a view to undoing the passage of time but with a view to properly reorienting our present movement forward in light of what we now know was wrong with the way we had been going before.” (“The Kingdom as Social Ethic,” 87)
6. Yoder inappropriately sees Jesus’ earthly life as normative.
In The Politics of Jesus Yoder politely refuses the mendicant tradition of continuing Jesus’ footlooseness, poverty, or celibacy. He argues there is ‘no general concept of living like Jesus’ in the New Testament, and observes how Paul never claims Jesus as his example for, say, remaining single or working with his hands (130). Rather, there is only one realm where we must imitate Jesus, the way repeated throughout the New Testament and anticipated by the prophets: his relation to enmity and power, as typified by the cross. ‘Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness replaces hostility,’ not only for individuals, but also for the powers and structures of society (131). The rest of the 1972 book demonstrates and unpacks this broader vision of Jesus in ways well-supported by later scholars.
7. Yoder fails to deal with the Old Testament, especially the wars of Joshua.
On the contrary, in The Original Revolution Yoder disavows superficial approaches to reconciling the two Testaments. He rejects most such standard tropes, including claims that Jesus abolished the law and began a new dispensation, that God made concessions to Israel’s disobedience or immaturity, or that the Old Testament is normative for civil order and the New is concerned only with individual relationships. (92–99) Instead, he insists the wars must be understood in their ancient Near East historical context and narrative direction. His final word on holy war is in The War of the Lamb: ‘Yahweh himself gives the victory.’ From Exodus to Judges, ‘victory is a miracle,’ either because ‘the Israelites do not fight at all’ or because ‘their contribution is not decisive.’ (69) So, only ‘if wars today were commanded by prophets and won by miracles would the wars of Yahweh be a pertinent example.’ (70) Indeed, from Judges through Jeremiah, the Davidic kingship and standing military is revealed as a failure to trust Yahweh, and by the second century Judaism has rejected the violence of the Maccabees and Zealots’ as mistakes also. (72–3)
Therefore, the pacifism of today need not do ‘violence’ to OT interpretation but can proudly stand in continuity with the development of prophetic and rabbinic thought. Ironically, then, it is not Yoder but those who claim the OT for a pro-war position who need to answer charges of supercessionism, for they typically ignore the reception of their chosen texts by the rest of the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish tradition.
8. Yoder’s pacifism inhibits any effective witness to the state, especially regarding war.
Actually, Yoder’s aptly titled The Christian Witness to the State shows him to be as tough-minded and practical as any follower of Reinhold Niebuhr.
Consider: Yoder is convinced ‘the present aeon is characterized by sin,’ and agrees that ‘we cannot expect the social order at large to function without the use of force.’ (9, 6) Therefore, our witness ‘will not be guided by an imagined pattern of ideal society,’ but will speak of specific criticisms and ‘specific suggestions for improvements to remedy the identified abuse,’ which, if implemented, will be followed by ‘new and more demanding’ critiques and proposals. (32; compare 67–8, where Yoder lauds Niebuhr for formulating this always relevant yet never-satisfied approach.) So, the church must refuse to bless the idolatrous modern crusade mentality, where one nation or bloc pretends to be utterly benevolent. Instead, we should advocate ‘a controlled balance of power.’ (45) The church can also demand that the state conduct war according to the traditional just war criteria, which do not make war ‘just’ for the Christian but do usefully describe the uses of violence that are the least illegitimate. (49)
9. Even for Christians, Yoder’s pacifism is impossible, or at least irresponsible.
Yoder fully recognizes that ‘Christian ethics calls for behaviour which is impossible except by the miracles of the Holy Spirit’ – but unlike many so-called Christian ‘realists’, Yoder believes in the real power of regeneration and participation in Christ. (The Original Revolution, 121)
Consider how he criticizes Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: ‘The body of Christ differs from other social bodies in that it is not less moral than its individual members. If being a perfectly loyal American … makes a man less loving that he would be as individual, the contrary is true of being a member of Christ.’ (The Royal Priesthood, 19. My emphasis.) In other words, the real connection between the church and its head enables Christians to do what they otherwise cannot, because they can have ‘the resources of love, repentance, the willingness to sacrifice, and enabling the power of the Holy Spirit.’ (The Christian Witness to the State, 29) As for accusations of irresponsibility, Yoder is deeply concerned by how such arguments actually function. Behind the rhetoric, ‘responsibility signifies a commitment to consider the survival, interests, or the power of one’s own nation, state, or class as taking priority over the survival, interests, or power of other persons or groups, of all humanity, of the ‘enemy,’ or of the church.’ (Ibid., 36n1) Thus, to Yoder calls for ‘Christian responsibility’ are really a form of disguised egoism, not altruism.
10. Yoder advocates separation from the world that ‘God so loved.’ And:
11. Isn’t Yoder a ‘fideistic sectarian tribalist’ like Stanley Hauerwas?
These common accusations seriously misunderstand Yoder.
First, Yoder’s context was one where he was urging traditionally quietist Anabaptists to realize they had a social ethic and witness to society, while simultaneously calling activist Christians to realize they need not abandon the gospel and take up the methods of the world in their impatience to get things done. Ironically, Yoder has often been taken more seriously by theologians and political philosophers outside his tradition – such as Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles – than those on the ‘inside.’
Second, Yoder has no desire to divide the church further. Indeed, in “The Kingdom As Social Ethic” he deeply objects to the labelling of radically obedient groups as sectarian, for they had no intentions of separating themselves:
[Such groups] have called upon all Christians to return to the ethic to which they themselves were called. They did not agree that their position was only for heroes, or only possible for those who would withdraw from wider society. They did not agree to separate themselves as more righteous from the church at large. (85)
Third, Yoder is fundamentally not interested in withdrawal or separation from society. In “The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People,” Yoder agrees with Karl Barth that ‘what believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. … To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord makes it inconceivable that there should be any realm where his writ would not run.’ (25) Of course, those who seriously see Christ’s commands as normative for all tend to be called fideists or theocrats. Yoder is neither.
Yoder is not a fideist because, unlike most realists, he sees the gospel as having a truly universal appeal. Christian realists typically assume that the gospel is inaccessible and incomprehensible to all other groups, and so it is necessary to use a neutral, ‘public’ language to oblige non-Christians ‘to assent to our views on other grounds than that they are our views.’ (16–7) Indeed, it is not Yoder but his critics who tend to think that their faith is fundamentally irrational and its public demands must be set aside for that reason. This reverse fideism is not surprising, however, given how modern liberal democracies understand religious groups and language.
Further, Yoder is not a theocrat, because he does not call for the violent imposition of the gospel, which would be an oxymoron. Rather, the challenge for the church is to purify its witness so ‘the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.’ (24) Christ’s universal lordship obliges the church to make great demands of the world, but by definition, the gospel witness is a process of public dialogue, not coercion.
In short, the best word for Yoder’s understanding of the church’s witness to society is that of model. Consider some of these potential imperatives for civil society Yoder derives theologically in that same essay:
- egalitarianism, not because it is self-evident (history suggests that it is clearly not!) but because baptism into one body breaks down ethnic and cultural barriers;
- forgiveness as commanded by Christ (he agrees with Hannah Arendt that a religious origin and articulation for forgiveness is no reason to discount it in secular contexts);
- radical sharing and hospitality, even voluntary socialism, as implied in the Eucharist; and
- open public meetings and dialogue, as Paul instructed the Corinthians.
This sketch is almost a political “platform,” and hardly separatist. But for Christians with typical approaches to politics, Yoder’s call for the church to be where God’s vision for society is first implemented and practiced is an enormous stumbling block. It is yet another irony that realists are so often closet quietists: they see the only choice as being between transforming society and letting it go its own way. Yoder, however, asks us to obey Christ even if no one else is interested – although he trusts that the Kingdom will advance if the word of God is faithfully witnessed and embodied amid the powers and principalities of the world.
12. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are the same.
Let me put it this way. If you are concerned that Hauerwas has an anti-liberal, ‘church as polis’ narrative ecclesiology, you must read Yoder’s The Royal Priesthood, The Priestly Kingdom, For the Nations and the often overlooked Body Politics. If you are frustrated by Hauerwas’ less-frequent engagement of the biblical text, you must read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and The War of the Lamb. But if, like me, you deeply appreciate Hauerwas’ work, then you, too, should read Yoder and discover his project, similar yet hardly identical.