The Heterodox Yoder ? [Concluding our Conversation]

August 17, 2012


Page 2 – The Heterdox Yoder? Branson Parler’s Response

Yoder and Language

Key to Martens’ argument is the notion that, for the later Yoder, “language and text are rejected or severely circumscribed in their social usefulness; empirical and sociological practices remain the only possible means of uninhibited communication.”[v] He reiterates this point in his response: “I am convinced that precisely the depreciation of the need for ‘mental or verbal’ communication in the pursuit of paradigmatic visible practices (or, to use the language of The Heterodox Yoder, the rejection of middle axioms) calls into question the continued need for a normative distinction between the church and world living in the pursuit of living with the grain of the universe.”[vi] In my view, two points problematize Martens’ account.

First, Yoder does not reject the idea of middle axioms, even if he stops using that specific term (which was in play in ecumenical circles at the time he wrote The Christian Witness to the State). In 1988, Yoder notes that although he has moved away from the term “middle axioms,” the point of his earlier use of the term remains: “to face the challenge of stating good news in pertinent form.”[vii] The “good news” facet of this statement underscores that it “derives accountably from Yahweh’s intervention in history from Abraham to Pentecost,” not merely from reason or nature. The “pertinent form” element means that “the moral call must be local, occasional, rendered comprehensible and credible by the presence of God’s people with the problem setting to which they speak.” The universal good news must be proclaimed in each particular setting.

Second, in 1992 and 1996, Yoder wrote articles dedicated to underscoring the importance of language, text, and translation in communicating the gospel.[viii] Post-Wittgenstein communitarians are right to recognize that language (including moral language) is community-dependent but they are wrong, Yoder argues, if they think that this means that meaningful communication is impossible. The hand-wringing in academic circles would ease, according to Yoder, if we would pay attention to the actual experience of Bible translators and missionaries who are living proof that meaningful translation can happen. Yoder borrows a page from Barth’s playbook here; while philosophers are wrangling over whether translation is possible, Yoder points out that it is obviously possible because it is already actual. As Bible translators know well, no translation is identical with the original, but this does not mean that accurate and adequate meaning cannot be conveyed.

A more thorough exposition of these texts would be needed to settle the matter. I simply allude to these points because they problematize Martens’ account of a mature Yoder who was jettisoning verbal communication in favor of practices that operate apart from linguistic or verbal explanation of those practices (if there can even be such a thing as practices apart from language). For me, this simply underscores that Yoder is not setting up a choice between either paradigmatic practices or linguistic witness; medium and message belong together and so the faithful Christian community lives and speaks in ways that should be both faithful to the gospel and pertinent to the particular context in which a community lives. As usual, Yoder ups the ante by suggesting that the real question is not whether trans-community communication is a theoretical possibility that some elite linguists or ethicists might undertake; the real question is whether all followers of Jesus are biblical enough to be present in any thought world, taking “every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

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