Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Paul Martens Responds to Branson Parler’s Review of THE HETERODOX YODER

Page 2: Paul Martens Responds…

B. What is Misleading.

The above comments notwithstanding, if Parler handled the material he does introduce with care, his attempt to refute my position could be persuasive. Unfortunately, his claim that my thesis does not account for “Yoder’s definition of politics, the particularity of Christian ethics, and the nature of the sacraments” (6)—the three “trees” within Yoder’s corpus upon which Parler’s argument hangs—is simply misleading, at best. To demonstrate why this is the case, I will briefly address each of these elements.

1. Yoder’s definition of politics. To begin his analysis of this element of Yoder’s thought, Parler acknowledges that my third chapter is concerned with Yoder’s prioritization of political language in the early 1970s. He then states: “Often, critics like Martens do not sufficiently recognize what Yoder means by ‘political’” (7). This statement is rather ambiguous given (a) that Parler does not provide a clear description of how I understand Yoder’s politics, (b) that I provide Yoder’s initial and very simple definition of what he means by the church as polis in Christian Witness to the State—“a ‘deliberative assembly of the body politic’”[7]—and (c) that I then continue to trace Yoder’s own reflections on how he employed the language of politics (including his own admission that he would not use the language of politics with “the children of Troeltsch and Niebuhr”).[8] Parler’s insinuation concerning my problematic understanding of Yoder’s politics without argumentation is not benign; it opens the door for him to claim an Augustinian heritage of “a community held together by what it loves” that apparently also characterizes Yoder’s appropriation of politics. This constructive movement, however, also lacks sufficient argumentation if for no other reason than the language of love—especially if utilized in terms of what the polis “loves in an ultimate way” (7)—(a) is largely absent in Yoder’s own descriptions of his politics and (b) presumes Yoder and Augustine would refer to the same thing with the term “love.”

For good reason, Parler is interested in interpreting Yoder as one who emphasizes the political “facet” or “aspect” of the gospel, as one who allows a “both-and” account of politics alongside the “traditional” elements of Christianity (8-9). He cites a lengthy passage to that end from The Politics of Jesus (9-10) and then charges me with either missing or not believing Yoder’s own claims. I have neither missed this claim nor do I disbelieve Yoder’s intention in The Politics of Jesus to “not reject” the “traditional” elements of Christianity (which is, however, not the same as to embrace them). But, what Parler does not seem to understand is that my analysis is not primarily concerned with authorial intent;[9] my analysis is primarily concerned with a fundamental mode of reasoning that is borne out in Yoder’s corpus regardless of whether it was intended by Yoder or not. And, for this reason, my concern is with the logic present in Yoder’s practical reasoning that is more accurately reflected in claims like “the church’s calling to be faithful in God’s service is definable in political terms”[10] simply because there is no “except X” or “except Y” present in this sort of statement. In short, all that is necessary for faithfulness can be stated in political terms. I find this description of Christianity problematic and this is where Parler and I significantly differ.

As I read Yoder, he certainly allows nonessential additions (that function like adiaphora) to the central ethical foundation of Christianity in his early years (e.g. forgiveness, worship, and receiving a revelation);[11] as he matures, he works toward framing these additions in political language (e.g. doxology, sacraments, and the gifts of the Spirit), thereby eliding the need for a distinction between politics and the rest of the practices and language of Christianity. Eventually, whatever cannot be described in political language may be good and useful but, to borrow Yoder’s own way of framing the issue in The Original Revolution, “ALL OF THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL.”[12] For this reason, Parler’s continued inference that Jesus came to create a new polis and “not just save individual souls” (9), as if participation in the church as polis and getting saved might still be distinct events for Yoder, fails to reflect the radical nature of Yoder’s political Christianity.[13] Therefore, I hope it is understandable why I am not convinced by Parler’s attempt to discredit my understanding of Yoder’s politics or by his attempt to rehabilitate what he takes to be Yoder’s definition of politics.

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One Comment

  1. Just a quick note to the editors: The block quote beginning with “When six years ago I . . .” doesn’t actually end until  “Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow!” Without the indent on the second paragraph of the quote (including the bullet points), it is a bit confusing. [Feel free to delete this comment once change is made, by the way.]