The Heterodox Yoder ? [Concluding our Conversation]

August 17, 2012


Page 4 – The Heterdox Yoder? Branson Parler’s Response

The Vanishing Jesus

Martens’ summarizes the heart of his disagreement with what he takes to be Yoder’s stance (and my reading of Yoder), namely, that the particular Jesus becomes codified into the grain of the universe such that “Jesus comes to be an invisible vanishing point.”[xix] The result is that “Yoder seems to leave us with a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm that opens the door for a supersessive secular ethic.”[xx] So, for example, the truth in Gandhi and Havel is true not because of its relation to Jesus but to the logic of the universe. The grain of the universe is defined by “select ethical criteria which, in this process, become the meta-criteria for holding all things together, for determining the entirety of Christianity, including the man named Jesus born in Bethlehem and biblical interpretation.”[xxi] This pertains to Martens’ definition to orthodoxy, which he sees Yoder violating: “My criterion is the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God.”[xxii] Yoder distills Jesus (at best) into a paradigm/example of ethical monotheism.

For a full discussion of this issue, readers can consult my forthcoming book on Yoder; this issue is just too large to address in this format.[xxiii] However, I will briefly note four points. First, Martens’ definition of orthodoxy is not an orthodox definition of orthodoxy, at least in the sense of echoing the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds (which Yoder does affirm in content). Martens’ book spells out that he operates with a very particular definition of what constitutes “particularity” and “uniqueness.” That is fine, but to then label someone “heterodox” based on one’s very particular and personal (and not ecclesially-defined) definition of orthodoxy seems rhetorically misleading. Further, Jesus’ uniqueness and particularity do not preclude him from being a paradigm; rather, they undergird it. Martens is right that if Jesus were nothing more than a paradigm of universal principles, it would be a problem. But then, affirming that Jesus is paradigmatic for all humanity (not merely those who confess him as Lord) does not contradict the fact that he is also unique. There is no heterodoxy in asserting that precisely because Jesus is the unique Word made flesh, he is also the paradigmatic human.[xxiv]

Second, something cannot be related to the logic of the universe but not to Jesus. Jesus is not just an exemplar of the logic/logos of the universe. As divine Word/Son, who assumes human nature in the incarnation, Jesus is the logos (or grain if you like) of the universe. There is no logic/logos of the universe apart from Jesus. So, to say that Gandhi and Havel “enter into a relation not to Jesus but to the logic of the universe”[xxv] does not make sense within Yoder’s framework (which I take to be both biblical and compatible with the creeds). The point here is not that Gandhi is somehow an anonymous Christian; it is that Gandhi is unintelligible apart from Jesus and that Jesus is the ontological basis for whatever effectiveness Gandhi might have.

This is where it would be helpful to have an idea of Martens’ own constructive project. For example, if we should not explain Gandhi by looking to Jesus, then how should Christians account for whatever goodness we see, within or outside the church? In my view, Yoder’s worry is that our accounts of Gandhi on extra-biblical or extra-Christological grounds inevitably open up a kind of natural theology that appeals to “nature” or “reason” that can be divorced from Jesus, the logos who is creator of both nature and reason.

Third, Martens acknowledges that he is not trying to discuss what Yoder meant in terms of “authorial intent,” but in terms of the unintended consequences of the “fundamental mode of reasoning” that Yoder used, despite Yoder’s best intentions otherwise.[xxvi] In other words, Yoder operates with the modern, Kantian theology/ethics divorce despite his stated intentions and his actual definitions of theology, ethics, and politics.[xxvii] If, however, as Yoder says, “ethics is also theology,”[xxviii] ethics is not an “autonomous discipline,”[xxix] and ethics “is not separable from theology without denaturing both,”[xxx] then Martens’ use of the term “ethics” or “ethical” as something that is separable from theology, ontology, doxology, etc., is problematic. Further, if “appropriation of governmental language (the language of politics and the description of the church as polis)”[xxxi] is a problem, then it is not Yoder but the Bible itself that goes awry, for terms such as “kingdom,” “Lord,” “Messiah,” and “king” are integral to the biblical message. If by ethics or politics, Martens means a discipline that is fundamentally disconnected from theology, then that is not what Yoder means by ethics or politics.[xxxii] If theology and ethics are fundamentally interconnected (as in the two great commands), such that one’s ethics are always integrally related to theology, then Martens’ critique seems to dissipate. I fully affirm Martens’ having an axe to grind with those who divorce theology and ethics and then prioritize practical reason; I just disagree that Yoder provides a good place to grind that axe.

Fourth, we might ask, how does Yoder get his “select ethical criteria”? From Jesus. The person of Jesus is not reducible to ethics, however, but the presupposition for ethics. This differs from a natural theology where one simply uses Jesus to reaffirm the ethical position one reaches on other grounds. For example, some pacifists might affirm Jesus or Scripture so long as they are compatible with a pacifism that is already accepted and independent of Jesus or Scripture. For Yoder, this type of pacifism is in fact a natural theology.[xxxiii] In his view, we are pacifist because of the theological confession that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Jesus, not pacifism, is Lord.[xxxiv] Where shall we get our ethical criteria for judging the relative goodness or evil of Gandhi, Havel, Nazism, or nationalism? Not from natural theology (even one that approves of pacifism), but from Jesus.

That being said, if Jesus loves his enemies, then the confirmation of our confession is not merely mental assent to the statement “Jesus is Lord,” but our love for enemies. This is why Yoder claims to take Nicea and Chalcedon with absolute seriousness (and perhaps even more seriously than creedally orthodox traditions): ontology/theology and ethics go together. This does not reduce theological propositions, such as “the Son is preexistent,” “there is one God,” “Jesus is the Word Incarnate,” to an ethical payoff. But it demands that our account of what it means to follow Jesus uses the same measure as Scripture; namely, that we are not just hearers of God’s word but doers.

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