Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

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

Page 3: Paul Martens Responds…

2. Christian Ethics and Particularity. In this second element of Yoder’s corpus, Parler begins his defense of Yoder by stating that I argue “that Yoder exchanges the particularity of Jesus and the church for a generic, neo-Kantian emphasis on ethics” (11). This claim is close to the truth but is, ultimately, misleading. What I actually argue is that Yoder’s attempt to emphasize and hold on to the particularity of Jesus leads him to understand Christianity as a mode of existence governed by practical reasoning that functions much like neo-Kantianism. These statements may look the same but they differ in two important respects: (a) the first indicates that Yoder’s development entails a transaction in which the particularity of Jesus is exchanged for something else while the second indicates that it is precisely Yoder’s attempt to hold on to Jesus in a particular way that facilitates his mode of moral reasoning; and (b) the first suggests that ethics is an “emphasis” while the second claims that moral reasoning is not merely an emphasis but the fundamental determinative element in Yoder’s Christianity.

Parler is right to cite portions of Yoder’s corpus that argue for a specifically Christian understanding and experience of reality, and Yoder’s early critiques of the Niebuhrs sought to make just this case. Yet, as Parler introduces apocalyptic literature (particularly Revelation 5) in order to “underscore that Christian ethics are sustained by a transcendent source” (13), he slowly undermines his own argument. His argument works as follows: (a) the “beyond” (divine command, divine agency, and divine will, to use Parler’s language) came first; (b) an ethic of torah, halakah, or discipleship is, therefore, rooted in the nature of things because (c) there is one true God who is the central actor in history (13). The difficulty Parler runs into at this point is precisely the difficulty Yoder runs into, namely, if there is “one true God as the central actor” and if torah, halakah, and discipleship all indirectly reflect the nature of things created by this God, why is Jesus necessary? Because torah and halakah also reflect the nature of reality, Jesus’ role cannot be limited to the man born in Bethlehem. Rather, Jesus must be cast as the logos of creation, the logic of the grain of the universe that is made flesh in Jesus…and there is good biblical precedent for this identification (John 1, for example). It is not that Jesus is linked to the grain of the universe that is problematic (as the link is obviously biblical and has a long history in the history of Christian theology). How Yoder develops this relationship, especially in his later writings, is what troubles me.

Rather than holding to some of his earlier claims that sharpen the differences between the understanding and practices of Christians and non-Christians, the moral order of the grain of the universe becomes so defining in Yoder’s corpus that it becomes the criteria for the politics of Jesus regardless of knowledge or awareness of the man Jesus. Yoder states it as follows in relation to Gandhi and Havel: “Gandhi did not call himself Christian, nor does Havel; that makes no difference for the truth of the doxological affirmation that the LOGOS which became flesh in Jesus…enlightens everyone.”[14] For this reason, Yoder can claim that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe” (13), regardless of whether they bear them on behalf of Jesus of not…because those who bear crosses, according to the definition of the logic of the universe, bear them on behalf of Jesus. The same goes for the claim that “suffering is powerful and weakness wins” (14).

It is precisely this strong identification of suffering, weakness, and bearing crosses with the logos that, in the end, leads Yoder to lose the particularity of the man named Jesus born in Bethlehem. Yes, Yoder maintains a particular politics but, in the spiritual and providential laws of the single universe (to use the language of The Politics of Jesus),[15] the man Jesus becomes what Kierkegaard would call a “vanishing point.” In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard articulates what I take to be the problem with Yoder’s logic and I would simply paraphrase Kierkegaard’s critique, with reference to Yoder’s own statement above, as follows:

The truth in the thought of Gandhi and Havel is true by its being traced back to Jesus, but in this truth they enter into a relation not to Jesus but to the logic of the universe. If in this connection I then say that it is the logos that enlightens everyone, I am actually pronouncing only a tautology, inasmuch as “the logos” in a totally abstract sense is here understood as the divine—that is, the providential laws of the single universe, that is, the politics of Jesus. Jesus comes to be an invisible vanishing point; his power is only in the ethical, which fills all of existence. Insofar as someone might wish to love Jesus in another way, that person would be unfaithful.[16]

Therefore, in a certain sense, Parler is right that “nothing can make sense or be understood apart from Jesus, in whom all things hold together,” (16) but only in a problematic sense. What I argue is that the way in which Jesus holds all things together ends up defining the grain of the universe according to 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.[17]

The above comments delineate the heart of my disagreement with Yoder (and therefore Parler); the above comments most succinctly summarize what I take to be the eventual shape of the “forest” of Yoder’s corpus. And, if one really wants to understand my critique of Yoder’s mature theology, this is it.

Because Parler continues, however, I will honor his argument to its conclusion. To bring his comments on Christian ethics and particularity to a close, Parler himself seems inadvertently to support my argument. First, after roundly condemning my attempt to link Yoder to Kant (15), Parler returns to their relationship, stating:

What Martens ignores is the rather obvious fact that there could have been a source other than Kant for Yoder’s emphasis on things such as ethics, a messianic age, the relation of means to ends, the priority of action over explanation, and nonviolence: namely, Yoder’s reading of Scripture, including the Old Testament. In other words, Yoder emphasizes ethics, or halakah, because that is what Torah does….If Nietzsche is right [concerning Kant’s dependence on the Bible and Christianity] (and I think he is), then the reason why Schwarzschild’s neo-Kantian methodology leads him to basically the same position as Yoder is not because they share Kant, but because they…share Scripture. (16-17)

To be entirely clear, I am not claiming that Kant is the source of Yoder’s emphasis on ethics. And, Parler’s argument is rather naïve if he believes “sharing Scripture” is enough to justify Schwarzschild and Yoder ending in “basically the same position,” if for no other reason than the fact that all kinds of people “share Scripture” and end up with wildly different kinds of positions (not to mention the fact that Schwarzschild and Yoder have different Scriptures). Rather, I argue that what leads Schwarzschild and Yoder to the same position is their shared mode of reasoning which determines the manner in which they share Scripture, that is, they read Scripture through a principled matrix that is predetermined to distill and prioritize ethical principles—what I refer to as the priority of practical reason in The Heterodox Yoder. Parler himself seems to have bought into this mode of reading Scripture, at least to some extent, given his apparently self-evident claim that the Torah emphasizes ethics.[18] And, because the Old Testament and New Testament are unified according to the priority of ethical principles in Yoder’s thought, I find Parler’s claim that Yoder provides a “holistic interpretation of the Old and New Testament” (17) deeply misguided.

Finally (and pressing this issue just a little further), while Parler’s turn to apocalyptic in order to link Jesus with creation is true to Yoder’s thought, he does not seem to notice that Yoder’s use of the Lamb in Revelation 5 well illustrates his practically principled mode of reading Scripture. For all the emphasis placed on the Lamb in the fifth chapter of Revelation in support of the claim that suffering is powerful and weakness wins (12-15), Parler ignores the reality that the Lamb has a much larger role to play in John’s letter than merely its celebrated appearance. It is the Lamb which opens the seals of the scrolls, thereby enabling the use of divine power in ways that are difficult to narrate as weakness and suffering (Revelation 6ff); it is also the Lamb that is surrounded and praised by the “firstfruits” of redeemed humanity, except that in this context the “firstfruits” are truth-telling, blameless, male virgins “who did not defile themselves with women” and who are singing before the throne on Mount Zion (Rev 14:1-5). I doubt this is the picture that Yoder is thinking of when he affirms the apocalyptic nature of ethics (14). My point is not necessarily to discount Yoder’s claim that weakness wins; my point is simply to begin to illustrate that Yoder’s reading of Scripture is practically principled in a particular way that determines even his appeal to apocalyptic. For this reason, it appears to me that Parler’s appeal to Yoder’s apocalyptic vision simply cannot do the defensive work that he hopes.

Admittedly, I have not yet directly addressed Parler’s appeal to what he takes to be my confusion between what is specifically (or specifiably) Christian and what is distinctively Christian. I will leave that discussion to my final set of comments since Yoder’s account of the sacraments is an excellent context for displaying what is at stake in that distinction.

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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.]