Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2


“Yoder’s pièce de résistance?”

A Review of
Christian Attitudes to
War, Peace and Revolution.

by John Howard Yoder.
Edited by Ted Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker.

 Reviewed by Chris Smith


Christian Attitudes to
War, Peace and Revolution.

John Howard Yoder.
Edited by Ted Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker.

Paperback: Brazos Press, 2009.
Buy now:   [ ChristianBook.com ]


In these days, when governments promise us endless war, the people of God need serious reflection on the ethics of war and our responsibility to follow faithfully in the way of Christ Jesus.  Into this crucial era, Brazos Press has just offered up an essential text on the Christian ethics of war from the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution.  This book was compiled from lectures in a seminary course of the same name, which Yoder taught year after year over the course of three decades from 1966 to his death in 1997.  Christian Attitudes spans the history of the Christian tradition from its earliest years to the present, exploring the various perspectives that churches have taken on military cooperation, with special attention to those positions characterized by their opposition to Christian participation in the military.  It is a tribute to the excellent editorial work of Ted Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker, who assembled and refined this work from Yoder’s lectures, that a work of this scope, stature and rigor can read so clearly and be packed into a little over 400 pages – (not including study guides and other end material).  Yoder’s work here should be understood as a dialogue with Roland Baintain’s heralded work of a similar name, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace, which served as a textbook for the course on which this new book is based.  From the outset, Yoder emphasizes that this text is a work of historical theology, the intent of which is to understand the variety of Christian attitudes toward war and peace in their contexts, as sympathetically and objectively as possible.  Furthermore, what Yoder offers here is a history of ideas and not of events.  Yoder proceeds to offer a typology of perspectives on the Church and war:

  1. The “Blank Check” – War is legitimized by the word of a ruler, who is accountable to no one
  2. Pacifism – “There can never be a warrant to destroy human life”.
  3. Holy War – War is warranted by revelation
  4. Justifiable War – The decision to support a war is based on a system of criteria


This typology is based upon that of Bainton, but Yoder adds the “blank check” type, in order to “make the typology more rigorous and thorough” (27).  Having laid the groundwork about the sort of approach he will be taking and the basic typology into which the Christian attitudes could be categorized, Yoder launches in to his overview of the Christian tradition by exploring “the pacifism of Pre-Constantinian Christianity.”  Yoder notes the various reasons that the early Christians rejected war and military service.  (Idolatry Bloodshed, Oaths), and observes that Christianity gradually became domesticated over the course of the second century, as a “creeping empire loyalty” began to emerge.  This emerging loyalty to empire would, of course, lead to the Constantinian shift – from church as marginalized people to church as official religion of the empire.  After exploring the meaning of the Constantinian shift, Yoder devotes four chapters to addressing the roots of just war theory (the book’s largest section).  Yoder explicitly notes the lengths that he went to in presenting this historical perspective sympathetically.  As he demonstrated in his earlier book, When War is Unjust, Yoder is fiercely committed to taking just war theory seriously and not as a “cover-up or a sell out.”  Chapter Six is simply an outline of the traditional criteria for determining whether a war was just in both its origins (jus ad bellum) and its execution (jus in bello).  Chapter Eight is a sidebar history of the application (or to use Yoder’s word, the career) of the just war theory.  In these chapters, however, Yoder does not address the application of just war theory in the twentieth century – a topic that he does address later in the book   As Yoder surveys the history of Christian pacifist movements, much of his material is familiar: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Liberal Protestant Pacifism, etc.  However, Yoder also addresses some tangential movements whose commitment to peace or nonviolence was culturally relevant to that of the church movements:  Medieval rabbinic Judaism, Enlightenment humanism, pacifist societies and movements of the nineteenth century, etc.  His chapter on the pacifism of the “first reformation,” and particularly his examination of Petr Chel?ický and the Czech revolution, is presented in great detail and will certainly broaden the historical horizons of most readers.  Yoder’s treatment of the twentieth century focuses extensively on the Mennonite experience, as well as Reinhold Niebuhr’s critiques of the liberal protestant pacifism of the early twentieth century.  Near the end of the book, Yoder examines the theologies of revolution and liberation that emerged during the later half of the twentieth century, and does so within the ethical framework developed over the course of the book.  Yoder shows sympathy for the spirit of these movements – standing against injustice and oppression – but ultimately laments that they have ignored the possibility of non-violent tactics and thus propagate the cycle of violence.

            Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution is by far, the most extensive and most rigorous work on the Christian ethics of war and peace.  Indeed, it has the potential to outshine The Politics of Jesus as Yoder’s pièce de résistance.  If textbooks were selected primarily on their merit, this volume should become the standard text for seminary courses on the ethics of war.  However, Yoder’s Mennonite heritage and perspective might unfortunately render him marginal enough to be ignored on this subject by professors in the mainstreams of evangelical and protestant seminaries.  Furthermore, the scope of this book’s audience should not be limited to the ivy towers of seminaries.  Having been written in clear – and mostly accessible – prose, it is a textbook that would be of great value to be read (with some instruction and diligence) in churches, particularly among Mennonites and other churches whose heritage is one of commitment to Christ’s way of peace.  In these days when war abounds and there is much confusion about the ethical identity of the Church, a careful reading in community of this fine book would undoubtedly bear much fruit and could potentially revive a movement of commitment to Christ’s way of peace and the Christian tradition that has embodied that way over the last 2000 years.

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

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. Man. I can’t find this at a single library in Calgary! Blast!