Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: RADICAL ECUMENICITY – John Nugent, editor. [Vol. 3, #17]

“The Active and Persistent Pursuit
of Ecumenical Reconciliation

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

John Nugent, Editor.

Reviewed by Michael J. Bowling, Chase Roden and Stephen Lawson.

[ 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 will review the first half of the book this week and the second in next Friday’s issue.  We welcome your feedback on these new experiments with format. ]

John Howard Yoder’s work has been engaged from many angles in recent years, and Radical Ecumenicity collects essays from scholars connected to the Stone-Campbell tradition of churches (Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ) who are engaging Yoder’s work, as well as three key Yoder scholars from outside this tradition (Mark Thiessen Nation, Gayle Gerber Koontz and Craig Carter). Most of these papers were initially presented at the 2009 conference “John Howard Yoder and the Stone-Campbell Churches” held here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis and attended by academics, pastors, students and laity from the Stone-Campbell Churches.  Several other relevant papers that were not presented at the conference have been added in this volume, including two relevant, but previously-obscure essays by Yoder.  We have asked our reviewers, all engaged readers who are familiar with Yoder’s work, to engage the work in this volume chapter-by-chapter.

How appropriate that John Nugent, the architect of the conference to consider the works of John Howard Yoder by those of the Stone-Campbell Movement would introduce a collection of essays centered on the same endeavor. Nugent not only sets the stage for such work, he provides the playbill for the essays which follow. In addition to the excellent and challenging essays, the reader is teased with the promise of an encore from Yoder himself…two previously published essays that have been increasingly difficult to track down.

Nugent observes that although the essays in the book were not written with a particular theme in mind, “they nevertheless address two prominent themes in the Stone-Campbell tradition, unity and continuity, albeit in a Yoderian key” (12). Twice, he points to Yoder’s emphasis on “robust and patient” dialogue as a way to pursue unity “across particular traditions”. The editor clearly identifies the important work, the work which Yoder did so skillfully and faithfully throughout his life, which is not so much to resolve the “ecumenical conundrum” but to move “estranged parties closer together” and to provide “practical resources for more fruitful dialogue.” This was Yoder’s gift to the whole Church, but it would seem to be of particular value to a tradition like the Stone-Campbell churches which have their origins in an appeal for Christian unity.

The book’s first chapter, “Restoration and Unity in the Work of John Howard Yoder,” is an essay written by Church of Christ scholar Lee Camp, author of the very popular book, Mere Discipleship.  From the outset, Camp’s essay demonstrates his familiarity with Yoder by relating stories from his time as one of Yoder’s students. He offers a very concise history of the early days of the Stone-Campbell churches and the failed attempt of a patterned approach to restoration (which he identifies as particular patterns of worship and church polity). Following this excellently crafted and candid synopsis of his own tradition and his personal pathway which led to Yoder’s tutelage, Camp defines Yoderian restoration “not as patternistic emulation of the New Testament, but as a return to the gospel of reconciliation” (27). He follows this re-framing of restoration with the recognition found in both the writings of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, as well as the work of Yoder, which asserts a unity already given in Christ. However, it is a unity which can only be realized in a return to the gospel of reconciliation.

Camp stays true to the essential nature of an embodied gospel by supporting his analysis of Yoder’s words with examples of Yoder’s work as a Mennonite theologian on a Roman Catholic campus (Notre Dame University). The stories which are offered throughout the essay leave a lasting impression of peaceable nature which Yoder lived faithfully.

The last section of the chapter points the Churches of Christ forward with a renewed identity shaped by a new sense of “restoration.”  Crediting Yoder for assistance in seeing the Church’s true calling,” to be about the business of participating in the peaceable kingdom of God, the rule of God that has come in human history over all human rebellion,” Camp expresses hope for escape from the Enlightenment rationalism which has been a problem from the tradition’s beginning and in recognizing other disciples in other traditions, reconciliation may allow restoration and unity to hold together.   (Michael J. Bowling)

In his essay, “The Politics of Yoder Regarding The Politics of Jesus: Recovering the Implicit in Yoder’s Holistic Theology for Pacifism,” (Chapter 2) Mark Thiessen Nation sets out to (re-)establish Yoder’s theology in The Politics of Jesus as corrective of contemporary theological trends that would “spiritualize” the message of Jesus and strip the gospel of any “social-political-ethical” meaning. In order to make this claim, Nation outlines the major points of Yoder’s theology at large, describing a robust theology that is radically pacifistic and Christ-centered.

Nation would reclaim The Politics of Jesus from those whom he believes have misunderstood the book as representing in itself a fully fleshed-out theology of redemption via Christian social (political, ethical) activity. This is a misunderstanding, Nation argues, because Yoder never intends within The Politics of Jesus to offer anything but a substantive “corrective” to decades of theology that would insist that Jesus’s message is primarily or exclusively concerned with eternal salvation. Nation pieces together a more comprehensive theology from a variety of Yoder’s works, focusing especially on Yoder’s theology of pacifism, which Nation sees as the cornerstone of Yoder’s overall theological foundation. Specifically, Nation explicates Yoder’s theology under the headings of “The Person of Jesus,” “The Work of Jesus,” “The Messianic Community,” “The Relationship between Church and World,” and “The Church as Polis, a Polis for the Sake of the World.”

To establish his case, Nation uses Yoder’s articulation of his own theology of pacifism from Nevertheless, Yoder’s 1971 book that outlines 28 varieties of pacifism. Nation notes the degree to which Yoder insists that his brand of pacifism is uniquely dependent upon the person and work of Jesus as Messiah. According to Nation, the particularity of Jesus is not just vital to Yoder; Yoder’s entire theological system is dependent upon an understanding of the New Testament as primarily a teaching on Jesus’s creation of a new community that fully rejects violence “of any kind.” Having established the importance of Jesus’s person, Nation moves on to the work of Jesus, briefly sketching Yoder’s concept of salvation, and the necessity of salvific grace for the believer to embrace the way (or join the community) of Christ. This leads Nation into the areas of theology for which Yoder is better known, but Nation’s emphasis is on the relationship of the foundational role of Christ and pacifism in Yoder’s writings on the church and state relationship.

Essentially, Nation wants to make it clear that Yoder is not a traditional liberal theologian or a “Rauschenbusch-type social gospeler.” It would be hard for anybody who has read Yoder with more than a superficial level of understanding to miss this aspect of his writing, but Nation provides trenchant (and sometimes extensive) quotes and references to drive the point home. The theology that Nation outlines is in no way a fully comprehensive or systematic theology, because (as Nation notes) Yoder never intends to create a complete system of his own. In order to understand the underlying theology more deeply, however, Nation points the reader to N.T. Wright and Michael J. Gorman. One wonders whether there were not Mennonite or other Anabaptist theologians whose systematic theology could have been employed to make the case, but Nation finds a special affinity between the writings of Wright and the implicit theology of Yoder.

Although Nation never names those whom he would be arguing against, his claims are undeniably clear and strong.  In formulating his argument, Nation has created a useful, concise resource to understanding Yoder’s general theological assumptions, drawn from Yoder’s writings throughout his career. This essay is therefore not just a highly useful companion for reading The Politics of Jesus in its proper context, but a good introduction to the theological thought of Yoder.

In her essay, “Unity with Integrity: John H. Yoder’s Ecumenical Theology and Practice,” the third chapter of Radical Ecumenicity, Gayle Gerber Koontz uses a variety of resources to create an outline of the theology guiding Yoder’s work in ecumenical dialogue. Koontz – who is a professor of theology and ethics at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary – begins her essay by detailing some of the extensive ecumenical work Yoder was involved in throughout his life.

Using Yoder’s major writings, his personal correspondence preserved in the Mennonite Archives at Goshen, pamphlets and essays (including some reprinted in the larger work being reviewed here), Koontz’s own personal conversations and encounters with Yoder, as well as email correspondence with Mennonite missiologist Wilbert Shenk, Koontz makes it clear that Yoder was not just theoretically interested in ecumenical reconciliation, but actively and persistently pursued it.  Koontz considers Yoder’s work not just between denominations, but within the Mennonite church as well, attempting to bring together factions with divergent theological emphases.

Among the most memorable and remarkable ecumenical endeavors Koontz mentions is a series of “off-record” meetings Yoder helped facilitate from 1961-1969 between missionary and ecumenical factions involved in the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals. Political events in international Christian organizations had led to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust between the two groups– an atmosphere marked by “less than Christian” behavior, with representatives from both sides effectively slandering the other. The meetings were off-record by necessity; some NAE members invited to participate knew that their constituents would not appreciate the idea of them even meeting with the NCC.  According to Koontz, the dialogues were highly successful and served to ease the tension between the factions.

This first section of Koontz’s essay is adoring in tone, and reads at times like hagiography. However, it establishes Yoder’s commitment and expertise in interchurch dialogue, leading to the meatier second half of the essay, which describes the theological framework Yoder used in his ecumenical work.

Due to Yoder’s extensive interchurch work, his theology has the ability to be gloriously specific with regard to the human elements involved, and Koontz does an excellent job of bringing together her sources to create an outline of Yoder’s primary theological and practical teachings on the topic.  Because of this specificity, however, Koontz herself can’t work in pure generalities, and is forced to summarize details– the end effect being that the essay becomes almost an annotated bibliography of Yoder on the topic of dialogue. However, Koontz’s summaries of Yoder are tantalizing for those interested in “digging deeper” and should be highly useful as a guiding resource to that end.

Among the topics covered, Koontz describes Yoder’s thoughtful writing on theological and ethical diversity, detailing categories of divergence in dialogue that he considers appropriate, insignificant, or inappropriate. Koontz also describes Yoder’s use of scripture as a tool for ecumenical dialog, his hermeneutic for testing ethical practices against scripture, Yoder’s emphasis of ethics over doctrine, and enumerates thirteen varieties of “patience” described by Yoder as being especially suited to or required for interchurch dialog. Among the most interesting topics is Yoder’s insistence that dialogue not be built around the “lowest common denominator” for the groups involved, but that each party must embrace and represent its vital distinctives — and be willing to accept the possibility of change.

Despite the necessary “grab-bag” style of the essay, Koontz does an excellent job of summarizing the major theological and ethical contours of Yoder’s writings on ecumenical dialogue. She can’t get into a fully satisfying level of detail, but she does offer what should be an excellent resource for anyone looking to follow– and build on– Yoder’s example in ecumenical reconciliation. ( Chase Roden)

Chapter four, “The Liberal Reading of Yoder: The Problem of Yoder Reception and the Need for a Comprehensive Christian Witness,” by veteran Yoder commentator Craig Carter, attempts to offer a corrective to the appropriations of Yoder by certain scholars. Carter, a Baptist theologian, posits that there are numerous readings of Yoder from Hauerwas’ classic postliberal interpretation to Kerr’s recent Barthian apocalyptic reading. Rather than offering his own positive reading of Yoder or nuancing another’s reading of Yoder, Carter seeks to offer a negative reading of Yoder. That is, Carter is concerned by recent appropriations of Yoder and seeks to short-circuit these readings by presenting a Yoder that would not be able to be “hijacked” by these scholars.

The readings that concern Carter are those offered by J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent Atonement) and Philip E. Stoltzfus (see his recent essay in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder). These readings, argues Carter, are both guilty of accepting a kind of natural theology. For Weaver, nonviolence, as defined by his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, becomes the litmus test of Christian theology. Therefore, we should construct atonement theologies in light of the ethics Jesus and not vice versa. Whereas, for Stoltzfus, nonviolence need not flow from revelation, but should rather become the ‘principle of principles‘ to which our constructions of God are subject.

Carter sees these two readings as a radical departure from Yoder and Christian orthodoxy. So to prevent readings like this from occurring, he suggests several strategies that will save Yoder from the liberals. These strategies begin simply enough (e.g., emphasizing Yoder’s high view of Scripture or distinguishing between Yoder’s christocentric nonviolence and a nonviolence that flows from natural theology) and get increasingly convoluted. Carter is under the impression that simply articulating what Yoder actually believed is not a strong enough stance to prevent the liberal hijacking of Yoder by Weaver and Stoltzfus. So, with the suggestion that a simple defense of Yoder’s thought will be insufficient, Carter posits that, to save Yoder from the liberals, we should “go beyond interpreting Yoder to correcting his position” (103). This is clearly stated in his sixth strategy he gives to rescue Yoder: “Accept Yoder’s case for pacifism as a convincing case for the proper place of pacifist groups within the Christian church…while also accepting that the involvement of other Christians in just war constitutes a necessary witness” (100). This is obviously a radical departure from Yoder and from the ethics of Jesus. The fact that this strategy is even suggested with a straight-face makes one wonder whether Carter is more interested in fending off the liberals than he is in taking Yoder seriously.

Carter is concerned that Yoder scholarship will soon split into two streams, “one that declares his orthodoxy inconsistent with his pacifism and therefore seeks to revise his theology  in a liberal direction [i.e. Weaver and Stoltzfus], and another that comes to believe that his high view of Scripture, his acceptance of the legitimacy of divine judgment, and his high Christology simply do not justify an absolute pacifism” (104). One has to question, if Yoder was able to hold both his pacifism and his orthodoxy together in tension, why that dialectical option is not available to the future of Yoder scholarship. In the end, Carter seems to simply say that there is a liberal reading and a conservative reading of Yoder, both of which supplement Yoder with their own ideologies. Carter just opts for the conservative one.

It would not take much effort to formulate a response to Carter that decries the conservative reading of Yoder as enacting violence on Yoder’s work and speaks of the need for a consistent Christian witness. However, this response would only buy into the division in Yoder scholarship that Carter sees coming. Perhaps we would all be better off ignoring the clamoring of ideologues and instead read what Yoder himself actually said.

Chapter Five, “Yoder and the Stone-Campbellites: Sorting the Grammar of Radical Orthodoxy and Radical Discipleship,” by Joe R. Jones seeks to use Yoder to correct the ‘Achilles Heel’ of the Stone-Campbell Movement (SCM). Jones posits that the greatest weakness in the SCM is the hesitation to affirm, or truly wrestle with, traditional trinitarian orthodoxy. The scorning of creeds by the movement’s founders resulted in a discipleship that was susceptible to the ebb and flow of the powers and principalities. This is an example of what Yoder would call the ‘Constantinianization’ of the church (but whereas the classic conception is exemplified in the top-down structure of a church wedded to the state, this Constantinianization is a bottom-up process influenced by the mythos of American democracy and progress).

In the refusal to clearly demarcate the standards for their beliefs and practices, the early leaders of the SCM were unable to give clear rationale for why their orthodoxy and orthopraxy were to be favored above others. They simply denied that they had an orthodoxy, arguing that they only believed what was clearly stated in the New Testament. Jones points out the flaws with this thinking by listing eleven beliefs and practices that they leaders affirmed as the de facto orthodox Christian position. Therefore, their greatest weakness was holding ill-conceived, unstated creeds while claiming anti-creedalism. “[T]he anti-creedal disposition of all three branches [of the Stone-Campbell Movement] repeatedly obscured from themselves what right beliefs and practices they did have and thereby prevented the communal identification and clarification of theological convictions that might have been beneficial to our ecclesial faithfulness” (109).

The problem that is at the root of this anti-creedalism is that, like classic liberalism, it leaves the movement open to the whims of natural theology. That is to say, the movement affirms that the New Testament alone is sufficient for identifying all beliefs and practices of the church, but the movement refuses to elucidate beyond that, leaving it open to unchecked inculturation. According to this stance, the questions that Nicaea and Chalcedon sought to answer about who God is and the relationship between Jesus and God can only serve to divide the church. Jones argues that these questions of divine identity are inevitable and, by refusing to address them, the leaders of the SCM posited that is was inappropriate for the church as a church to answer them. The answers are then left to the individuals, who can determine the identity of God for themselves (with predictably disastrous results).

This leaves the movement in dire straits. With the refusal to affirm with any specificity what it means that Jesus is divine, the SCM is left with a banal discipleship that is susceptible to the movement of the broader culture. Jones argues that the radical orthodoxy and radical discipleship envisaged by Yoder offer a better alternative. This stubborn adherence to the way of Jesus in concrete ethical expression could be corrective to the nebulous platitudes (e.g. ‘Jesus is my personal lord and savior’) that have become so common place in the SCM. By clinging to these platitudes without defining them with any specificity, the church risks promulgating an American gospel as opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“[H]ow did we Stone-Campbellites become so formed by our worldly circumstances that we—presuming to restore simple New Testament Christianity—stumbled along submitting ourselves variously to American individualism, Southern and Northern warring sentiments and animosities, trusting an inerrant Bible that reduced Jesus to every ‘jot and title’ of the text, and casually supporting racism and violence toward women for decades? How did it come about that we fell into reducing discipleship to Jesus to discipleship to American democracy or to our local idiosyncrasies or to our devotion to free market capitalism or to our willingness to go to war to defend American ‘freedom’ or to our passion for liberal politics or to a multi-culturalism that relativizes even Jesus?” (124).

It happened, argues Jones, because we held an orthodoxy that was unstated and therefore not well-defined and certainly not susceptible to critique.

Stanley Hauerwas has called Joe Jones the “best unknown theologian in America.” This well-informed essay is an example of the posture that earned him that compliment. Jones has no penchant for theological celebrityism, only the desire to clearly elucidate what is happening when people speak of God and of being the church of Jesus Christ. This desire to clearly delineate positions proves to be incredibly insightful in this essay. Jones is right to point out the problems that arise in the SCM as the result of ill-defined hidden orthodoxies.  Those of us in the Stone-Campbell tradition that find ourselves sympathetic with Yoder’s theology and ethics would do well to carefully read and learn from this essay by one of our own.   (Stephen Lawson)

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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