The Heterodox Yoder ? [Concluding our Conversation]

August 17, 2012


Page 3 – The Heterdox Yoder? Branson Parler’s Response

The Bible, the Law of Love, and Practical Reason

A central refrain for Martens is that Yoder privileges ethical and/or political claims (it is not always clear if these two are synonymous) over all others. Yoder’s Babylonian captivity, as it were, to the mode of practical reasoning determines his thought on everything from rabbinic Judaism to ecumenism to biblical interpretation. A key sign of this captivity is Yoder’s view of discipleship, obedience, and the notion that “the Christian life is defined most basically in ethical terms.”[ix] In his response, Martens asserts that I do not adequately deal with Yoder’s texts on this issue. To that end, I’d like to offer a brief counter-explanation for Yoder’s emphasis on obedience and discipleship. Is he reductionistic on this score? I think it is helpful here to revisit what Yoder says in his “A Study in the Doctrine of the Work of Christ,” reprinted partly in Preface to Theology (307-313). My intent is not to examine this text in its entirety, nor to affirm everything that Yoder says here (for example, his account of human freedom). I intend to briefly argue that what Yoder is defending here, far from being heterodox, actually draws on the doctrine of union with Christ.

A key presupposition for everything he says on discipleship, Yoder notes, is the “notion of faith-union expressed by the Pauline term ‘in Christ’ and the Johannine [phrase] ‘abide in me.’” Communion with God in Christ is the foundation for all else that follows. From the outset, Yoder works against a reductionistic view by asserting that union with Christ can be “described but not explained.”[x] Yoder expands on this point in 1964, noting that union with Christ is not reducible to our following Jesus: “The essence of following Jesus is not grasped if we view it primarily as a commandment to become the same as Jesus, or to act the way Jesus did; rather following Jesus really means basing our action on our participation in Christ’s very being…This is not about some legalistic approach to copying Jesus, but rather about participating in Christ. We are already part of his body; we do not become so through following him. Following Jesus is the result, not the means, of our fellowship with Christ. It is the form of our Christian freedom and not a new law.”[xi] The ultimate source of our union with Christ is not our good works or discipleship, but God’s gracious work of uniting us with Christ.

The problem that the atonement attempts to solve, Yoder notes, is that humanity, which was “created for free communion with God and obedience in communion,” has chosen against God. Interestingly, in a recent study of union with Christ, J. Todd Billings argues that Reformed orthodoxy, following Augustine, claims that “true humanity is humanity in communion with God.”[xii] Yoder continues, however, by identifying obedience as key to understanding this communion, so that “repentance means ethics” and faith means “commitment to the faith-union of obedience made available to us through the perfect and triumphant obedience of Christ.”[xiii]

Yoder’s target in this text appears to be those who would reduce salvation in Christ to faith as intellectual assent and say nothing about obedience and sanctification or who reduce faith and repentance to internal mental or emotional states. Reformed orthodoxy, for example, would agree and strongly assert that our union with Christ includes sanctification and obedience. If repentance is internal but not external, if faith is assent but not obedience, the Reformed confessions are pretty clear: you need to go back and check your faith, because “it is impossible for this faith to be unfruitful in a human being.”[xiv] Why? Because the Holy Spirit “activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.”[xv] Both Yoder and the Reformed confessions are trying to underscore the big picture of God’s salvation. You can distinguish faith as internal assent and faith/faithfulness as obedience, but if the second facet is missing, then it is perfectly biblical and orthodox to question whether the first is actually present. In this sense, “faith means discipleship”[xvi] precisely because if there is no active, visible obedience to Christ, we have no reason to presume faith. Thus, Yoder’s emphasis on salvation as “restored communion” that is also a restored “capacity to obedience,” far from being an idiosyncratic aberration or capitulation to practical reason, has ecumenical resonance precisely because it is more biblical in emphasizing a holistic picture of union with Christ.[xvii]

The holistic picture of union with Christ is borne out in New Testament texts that emphasize the need to abide in Christ by the power of the Spirit and therefore live a transformed life of obedience. A sample of texts throughout the New Testament makes this clear:

  • In John 15, Jesus declares that are abiding in him can be measured by the extent to which we bear fruit.
  • 1 John 4:15-21 seems to give a quite practical test for whether or not we really love God: do we love our fellow Christians? The confirmation of the statement “I love God” is not about my inner emotion or intellect (although those may be prerequisites to action) but about my obedience to Jesus’ commands to love one another.
  • In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus underscores that prophesying, casting out demons, or doing miracles in the name of Jesus does not guarantee that one participates in the kingdom of heaven. According to Jesus, only the one who does the will of the Father will enter.
  • James says that faith/faithfulness (pistis) without works is dead (James 2:26) and Paul affirms that, in Christ, what matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but “faith working through love,” (Gal 5:6) which produces the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:16-26).

I know that these texts are not news to Martens. But my point is that when Yoder makes statements like “the Christian life is basically ethics,” he is reiterating a biblical point: if intellectual assent or inner experience (and this is not to denigrate either of those) does not translate into a life of Spirit-filled sanctification, you haven’t really grasped the Gospel. If I say I love God but do not love my neighbor, it is not Yoder but the New Testament that says my testimony about loving God is false. It is not Yoder but Jesus who declares that our love for him is measured by whether we keep his commands (John 14:15).

We also must remember the historical context of the mid-1950’s, when Yoder is writing. When Yoder says in “Anabaptist Dissent” that Christianity is about ethics, he is taking aim at Reinhold Niebuhr.[xviii] Imagine someone who says “following Jesus means suffering love” (as Reinhold Niebuhr does in Interpretation of Christian Ethics) but then goes on to say, “but we can’t do that today.” In this view, following Jesus has nothing to do with my obedience to Jesus, but is a state of affairs whereby I go forward by disobeying Jesus and trusting in a notion of justification devoid of sanctification. As a corrective, it seems to me that one should say exactly what Yoder does, which simply echoes Jesus: “if you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Insofar as someone might wish to love Jesus in a way that does not include obedience to Jesus, that person would indeed be unfaithful. Note, however, that loving Jesus is not reduced to nothing more than obedience (as though obedience exhausts the biblical picture of our love for Jesus), but it does mean that love without obedience is not a biblical vision of Christianity.

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