Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: RADICAL ECUMENICITY – John Nugent, editor. – Part 2 of 2 [Vol. 3, #18]

“The Active and Persistent Pursuit
of Ecumenical Reconciliation

Part Two of a Two-Part
Review of
Radical Ecumenicity:
Pursuing Unity and Continuity after
John Howard Yoder

John Nugent, Editor.

Reviewed by Stephen Lawson, Chris Smith and Nate Kerr.

[ Read this Book’s Intro Here… ]

Radical Ecumenicity:
Pursuing Unity and Continuity after
John Howard Yoder

John Nugent, Editor.
Paperback: Abilene Christian UP, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

[ Editor’s note:  This review of Radical Ecumenicity, edited by John Nugent is blazing new trails in its format for us here at The Englewood Review.  First, this review represents the first time that we’ve had several reviewers do a part-by-part review of a single book.  It is also the first time we have had a review that spanned two issues.  We reviewed the first half of the book last week and the second in this Friday’s issue.  We welcome your feedback on these new experiments with format. ]

Chapter Six, “John Howard Yoder’s Reading of the Old Testament and the Stone-Campbell Tradition,” by Paul Kissling attempts to appropriate Yoder’s reading of the Old Testament in the Stone-Campbell Movement (SCM). For those familiar with the SCM, it is no surprise to hear that Kissling finds the traditional postures of the SCM in regard to the Old Testament as problematic and short-sighted. Early leaders of the SCM felt the need to affirm the Old Testament as inspired Scripture, but struggled with how to conceive of that inspiration in light of the witness of the New Testament. Most of these founders leaned on doctrines of differentiation and dispensationalism (e.g., the idea that the Abrahamic covenant was starlight, the Mosaic covenant was moonlight, while the Christian covenant is sunlight). Others attempted to demarcate the progress of revelation in ways that hindsight tells us were ill-conceived. These muddled views can often result in a ‘practical marcionism.’

Kissling offers Yoder’s emphasis on the macro-narrative of the Old Testament as a corrective to this tendency. He posits that Yoder’s inclination to read the Old Testament as a whole corrects some of the struggles that readers of the Old Testament have (e.g. ,the monarchy, holy war, etc). As such, Yoder’s posture offers some real insight and a viable alternative to those who implicitly divide between the God of Abraham and the God of Jesus. Furthermore, this narrative reading of the Old Testament prevents the abuses that can arise when the ethics of the church are formed more by the conquest of the first Joshua than by the sermon of the second Joshua (i.e. Matthew 5-7). Yoder “helps those of us in the Stone-Campbell tradition to see that the narrative trajectory of the Old Testament leads us to reject violence and trust in the Lord to secure our future” (133).

The majority of Kissling’s essay is burdened with the task of offering a nuance and corrective of Yoder’s Old Testament reading. Kissling, an Old Testament scholar, suggests that contemporary research (esp. on the post-exilic literature) has the potential to strengthen and solidify Yoder’s project. He posits that Yoder’s critical posture toward Ezra could be corrected by a better informed understanding of Ezra’s canonical shape. Kissling suggests that Ezra prefigures the inaugurated eschatology so central to the New Testament. This ‘already-but-not-yet’ understanding of the fulfillment of promise can offer a critically positive reading of Ezra.

Overall, Kissling’s essay is helpful for those within the Stone-Campbell tradition that are familiar with Yoder. His corrective nuancing of Yoder has the potential to improve the readings of the Old Testament in light of Yoder’s proposed macro-narrative. However, this seems to be a conversation best suited for those more familiar with Yoder and who wish to flesh out his readings of the Old Testament. If one were looking for a general plea for a more Yoderian reading of the Old Testament within the SCM, this is not the place to find it. (Stephen Lawson)

John Nugent’s paper “Kingdom Work: John Howard Yoder’s Free Church Contributions to an Ecumenical Theology of Vocation” seeks to piece together Yoder’s understanding of vocation.  Although the only paper that Yoder wrote on vocation was a popular-audience essay published at age 20, Nugent observes that he was “consistent and concise” as the topic would come up in his writings throughout his life.  Two distinctive characteristics of Yoder’s understanding of vocation are that it was both “free church” and “ecumenical.”   Yoder’s free church understanding of vocation is a critique of a Constantinian position that, in effect, baptized “all professions deemed necessary for the smooth operation of the empire.” However, Nugent also notes that because in the present the viability of Constantinianism is increasingly being called into question, Yoder’s take on vocation is increasingly relevant to ecumenical conversations about vocation.  Nugent also describes Yoder’s concept of vocation as eschatological, which follows from his larger theological narrative in which since the redemptive work of Christ’s death and resurrection all creation — including civil society and the state — is moving toward the reconciliation of all things.  The church, of course, pays a primary role in this narrative.  Specifically, with regard to vocation, the church follows in the way of Christ as a servant, representing in its life together a sign of coming reign of Christ and functions as support for its members as they seek to bring the wisdom of Christ to bear in all sorts of work in which the engage: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, etc.  This emphasis on the key role of the Church in Christian vocation is one of distinctive’s of Yoder’s work.  Nugent summarizes it well: “Christians have received a single, all-encompassing vocation, which is to announce and bear witness to Christ’s reign in the context of Christian community to all creation.”   Nugent does a superb job in drawing a robust vision of Christian vocation out of Yoder’s work; I, for one, would love to see this vision fleshed out in greater detail, particularly with attention to the acknowledged limitations in Yoder’s work on vocation, such as engaging in depth traditional Protestant concepts of vocation, and contrasting them with this eschatological perspective.

Branson Parler offers, in his paper “Spinning the Liturgical Turn: Why John Howard Yoder is Not an Ethicist,” a response to Paul Martens’ criticism that “[Yoder] reduces sacrament and worship to social processes and theology to ethics or sociology.”  Parler argues here that Yoder indeed is not being reductionistic, but rather takes an expansionist view in which liturgy is not merely religious but is also social, practical, economic and public.  Parler recognizes in Yoder an extraordinary “ability to see beyond the binary oppositions of many modern theological dilemmas.”  Taking Yoder’s work on the Eucharist, as a case study, Parler shows that Yoder clearly does not want to reduce the Eucharist to social process to but show how the liturgical act in thenent to  gathering of the church community is pertinent in a diverse manner of ways to the whole of life.  Although they were written concurrently, Parler’s work has striking parallels with the preceding paper by Nugent: our fundamental vocation, Nugent argues is to follow Christ in the Church, and then to embody the wisdom of Christ in the diversity of work we do on a daily basis; similarly, Parler reads Yoder as saying the liturgy of the Church is primarily but is deeply connected with all aspects of daily life.  Parler’s work is significant for the Church as a corrective to Martens’ charge of reductionism, which ultimately takes a dismissive tone.  Parler and Nugent’s work here, in contrast, takes on a tone of broadening engagement: Yoder’s work is not only pertinent to theological conversations, but also to the daily life of the church, the manifold and all-encompassing ways in which the wisdom of Christ is being embodied everyday!  (Chris Smith)

The first of the two essays by John Howard Yoder which conclude the present volume first appeared as a series of articles in the Mennonite periodical The Gospel Herald and in 1958 were gathered together into a single essay entitled “The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church.”  Yoder’s concern in this essay is an attempt not simply to engage the ecumenical movement and the concern for ecumenicity as it had emerged within 20th-century ecclesiological discourse, but more importantly to evaluate this movement and this concern with respect to Scripture and with reference to the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.  In this respect, Yoder’s essay is more than simply an appeal to the North American Mennonite churches to “join” the ecumenical movement.  Yoder’s fundamental theological concern appears rather to be with the kind of theological working-over that the so-called “ecumenical problem” undergoes when considered from the perspective of the peculiarly Mennonite concern for Scriptural faithfulness.

With this purpose in mind, Yoder begins by noting the origin of the word “ecumenical” with respect to the Greek noun oikoumene, as meaning that which “that which is inhabited,” or, as used in Luke 2, “the whole world,” in order to distinguish this original meaning from the way in which the modern “ecumenical” movement has given the term a new meaning with respect to a predominantly ecclesiocentric concern to address the divisions among Christians and between the Christian churches.  As a result, the concern for “interdenominational fellowship and co-operation” (195) have come to dominate the modern ecumenical movement in terms of both its original impetus and its ongoing purpose.  Yoder then goes on to provide a three-fold account of the emergence of the modern ecumenical movement by rooting this concern for interdenominational fellowship in a three-fold way.  The modern ecumenical movement emerges out of (1.) the student volunteer and mission movement that arose from the nondemoninational revivalism of the 19th-century as represented by D.L. Moody; (2.) the witness of the Christian peace movement of the early 20th-century as it arose concomitantly with the heightening of international concern to “promote international friendship through the churches; and (3.) the distinctly American concern to “minimize differences,” as well as “the importance of doctrinal fidelity” for the sake of a unity rooted in purely liberal socio-ethical concerns.  In the next section, Yoder moves on to discuss the various ways in which the modern ecumenical movement took form across North America and Europe in the 20th-century as determined by this three-fold rootedness.

Throughout this discussion, Yoder betrays a preoccupation with the kinds of conversation that mark the ecumenical situation.  For the most part, the modern ecumenical movement as Yoder sees it have engaged in the kinds of conversation that seek either in a puerile way to occlude disagreement from happening or in a facile way to accept disagreement as the norm and to seek unity by way of reduction to some kind of pluralist mode of being church in which all disagreement as such is rendered adiaphora.  The result is various modes of conversation in which unity is achieved either through a dialectical process of excommunication from and merger with the dominant ecclesial body, on the one hand, or in which, on the other hand, unity is achieved as paradoxically allowing the freedom of all Christians to “continue going each his own way” (204).

In turning to the “witness of the New Testament” with regards to the question of ecclesial unity, Yoder articulates the fundamental flaw which both these approaches share, viz., they presuppose that Christian unity as a task and a goal to be achieved through our own inter-denominational conversational efforts.  Instead, Yoder insists, the witness of the New Testament is clear:  “Christian unity is not to be created, but to be obeyed” (206).  And what is demanded to be obeyed is faithfulness to the Word of God as revealed and embodied in the event of Jesus Christ.  Thus, Yoder says, Christian unity is a theological imperative of faith, which we are not to create through our own efforts, so much as to discover (or perhaps better to receive, as gift), through our shared faithfulness to the Gospel. Here we might read Yoder as suggesting that true Christian unity happens, as he indeed says elsewhere, in the conversation that occurs between those with whom we disagree as we together seek obedience in faithfulness to the one Christ we confess as Lord. And precisely as such, we might add, Christian unity is a matter of an altogether different kind of conversation and unity:  it is a conversation conceived as dia-logue, and a unity that occurs through the Word (dia-logos) as the gift of the one Christ who calls forth faithfulness to that one Word that he is.   The unity that is demanded of us is thus not a set of doctrinal principles, or of a least-common-demoninator social program, or the mere mutual recognition of denominational pluralism.  It is instead “unity in disciplined discipleship,” understood in terms of obedience to the one Word of God we confess in Christ (216).

In the course of this argument, Yoder thus makes the subtle but forceful argument that in the course of Christian history it is the Mennonite and free church tradition which has uniquely approached this kind unity in conversation and faithfulness.  Whereas much of the concern for Christian unity throughout history has been with the actual or possible realization of the Corpus Christianum, a solidified Christendom, the Anabaptists and the churches of the Radical Reformation have located the concern for unity within an understanding of the church as a “separated, disciplined, missionary fellowship” (215) – as witnessed historically, for example, in the kind of reconciliatory koinonia presupposed by the authors of the Schleitheim Confession.  Yoder thus concludes his essay with three concrete proposals for Mennonite participation in the contemporary ecumenical movement.  First of all, Mennonite participation in the ecumenical movement is needed for sustaining the inseparability of genuine ecumenicity from the peace movement and the witness of the historic peace churches.  Secondly, the Mennonite emphasis upon a distinctively congregational mode of Christian conversation and koinonia is needed if the meta-church tendencies and pitfalls of the dominant interdenominational bodies is to be resisted.  And thirdly, he proposes a careful and discerning mode of Mennonite “contact” with the World Council of Churches, for the sake of struggling with the World Council of Churches in resistance to the temptation to give up on its distinctive peace witness and to return to a Constantinian “state-church past” (220).  In the end, it becomes clear that the burden of this essay for Yoder is rooted not simply in a concern for the Mennonite church to “join” the ecumenical movement as it is, but rather in the conviction and in the hope that the unique kind of Scriptural faithfulness and obedient conversation to which the Mennonite church bears witness might instead open the ecumenical movement to a mode of reconciliatory koinonia and conversation that it might not otherwise have imagined as possible, the realization of which the Anabaptist tradition uniquely bears witness in history, in the face of an ever-increasing temptation and concern to restore Christendom – a solidified Corpus Christianum that can only disobediently and unfaithfully be achieved, against the will and Word of God that calls and gives us to faithful obedience.

In the midst of his argument in “The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church,” Yoder suggests that the uniqueness of Anabaptists in relation to the search for Christian unity in history is that it locates its understanding of unity in a conversation that is genuinely ecclesial insofar as it is “essentially missionary.”  And it is this point that Yoder puts into helpful relief in the second essay, “Is There Historical Development of Theological Thought?”  Here Yoder tackles the question of tradition in a uniquely Mennonite way, yet one that is ecumenically oriented.  After a brief review of the Johannine biblical literature, in which Yoder demonstrates that it is not a question of whether Christianity is to undergo “continuity and change,” but rather how that “continuity and changed” is conceived, Yoder takes the opportunity to treat of the question of Christian “history” and “tradition” as it bears upon the so-called “ecumenical question” (225).  Yoder sketches out three predominant positions with respect to this question in the history of the Christian church.  The first, and historically most dominant, is the idea that there is “one particular inspired correct tradition” (dominated by a magisterial claim to “orthodox” belief to the exclusion of “hersesy”) to which all Christians and Christian churches must adhere as a precondition for spiritual and visible unity.  The second, more modern-liberalist position, is that which sees tradition as irreducibly “pluralistic,” which considers all matters of doctrine and belief adiaphora, and therefore by default renders inconsequential the whole question of heresy and apostasy to the development of Christianity in history.  The third position is the “spiritualist” position, which dismisses the question of the external shape of the church as one that is theologically and ecumenically inconsequential.

Yoder’s argument is that these three dominant positions betray a common failure:  viz., they falsely locate the question of “tradition” within the church; that is, these positions construe the question of tradition too ecclesiocentrically (to put it perhaps too simply but nevertheless rightly, I think).  For Yoder, we must return to the free church and congregationalist conviction that the nucleus of “tradition is Scripture and the nucleus of Scripture is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ” (234).  Christian tradition, in other words, is first of all a christological question, a matter of the tradere Christum – and so of the church’s location in Christ.  The question of tradition – and so of continuity and change in Christian history – can only be addressed insofar as we realize that Christian “history” has to do fundamentally with concrete where and when of God’s handing over of the Son to world by the power of the Spirit.  The oikoumene of which we speak is therefore as wide as the world itself just to the extent that it is exclusively limited in its sacramental visibility to the “reality of the believing, forgiving congregation” (235).  For the church – and the faithful obedience by which ecclesial unity happens – is just that concrete occurrence where “in each age and in each place men gather around the Bible and confess that Jesus is Lord” (235).

Thus, the question of history and tradition forces us to think of the nature of the unity we seek as not only a unity in conversation and discipline, but also as a unity which takes a congregationally missionary shape.  The church “is” in obedient faithfulness to its one Lord precisely insofar as it is gathered in order to be sent.  And so, Yoder says, the ecumenical question issues forth in a renewed conception of apostolocity, one defined by the missionary imperative to go into all the world and to proclaim the Gospel – the good news of the fact of the matter that it is in over that world, irreducibly and remainder, that Jesus Christ reigns as Lord.  Thus, we might conclude by suggesting that the upshot of this second essay is that the ecumenical question is inseparable from the missionary question for Yoder, such that the question of the nature of the unity we seek is inseparable from that of the “congregational” nature and structure of the mission to which we are called.

In the end, then, it is Christian mission – Jesus Christ as the “sent one” – that is alone constitutive of the unity of the church in history, and so of the ecumenical imperative itself.  And if such is the case, then perhaps we might say that it is the recognition of this point alone that will point the way forward to a renewed understanding of the oikoumene as indeed “the world” to which we are called to witness and to love, and not simply “the church” as a Corpus Christianum whose solidity and identity we are concerned to established and secure.  The nature of the unity we seek is missionary, which is nothing less than a matter of lived faithfulness to the one Lord whom we are called to confess and to proclaim throughout “the whole world.”  Only in response to this call, and so in missionary relation to this world does the church happen at all.  And so only as such might this church be considered as rightly concerned with the oikoumene – the world – which God shall “inhabit” as the new creation that is God’s coming Kingdom (Nate Kerr).

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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