Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

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

Page 5: Paul Martens Responds…

(1)        Note, Yoder is not here compromising Christian particularity, but affirming the scandal of a particularity that absorbs all other claims to universality. As Yoder puts it in describing Jews in Jeremiah’s day, “Jews knew that there was no larger world than the one their Lord had made and their prophets knew the most about. Its compatibility with kinds of ‘wisdom’ that the Gentiles could understand seemed to them to validate their holy history rather than relativize it.” (21)

(2)       [J]ust as Daniel’s friends stood out in a crowd, so will Christians. In other words, though the sociologist’s radar may not pick up God, it should pick up God’s people. (22)

(3)       Christians are called to actively proclaim who God is and what God has done. When Christians explain who they are and why they do what they do, they point to the God revealed in the biblical narrative. If the message and action of God’s people serve the shalom of Babylon, this does not undermine but underscores the monotheistic message. (22)

(4)       Does Yoder think you can just translate away the particularity of biblical faith? Yoder himself poses and answers this question, and I will give him the last word: “Is there anything nonnegotiable in the dispersed minority’s witness? Anything untranslatable? Of course there is; it is that there is no other God. The rejection not only of pagan cult but also of every way of putting their own YHWH/Lord in the same frame of reference with pagan deities, not even speaking the divine NAME as others would, was tied for the Jews in Babylon with the proclamation of his sovereignty over creation and history. There is no setting into which that deconstructing, disenchanting proclamation cannot be translated, none which can encompass it. That anti-idolatry message is not bad but good news.” (38)

To me, these passages speak for themselves. I have no dispute with the claim that there is a kind of particularity that Yoder is attempting to describe and employ; my dispute with Parler here is that neither a particularity that absorbs external attempts at universality nor the sociological shape of God’s people nor “the monotheistic message” of shalom contained in the biblical narrative nor the claim that “there is no other God” are specifically Christian, even though this seems to be the very argument Parler is attempting (unless he is intending to identify all of the Jews referred to in these passages as Christians).

Second, and finally directly addressing the sacraments, Parler works very hard to demonstrate that sacramental social processes cannot be translated into other, non-Christian frameworks without remainder (22). He goes on to claim that the sacraments are grounded in Scripture and must be understood as such (23). If we take the Eucharist as a representative example, Parler is right to recognize that Yoder notes eleven layers of meaning identified in Scripture.[22] Yet, what he fails to notice is that these are, in fact, extrapolations from the foundational meaning of the Eucharist. As Yoder states in Body Politics, after providing a partial survey of the ways the Eucharist has been understood by Christians:

The level of meaning that matters first for our present purposes, the one that combines with all of the above but came before them and reaches beyond them, is more concrete. It goes deeper than what we call “ceremony,” to what we usually call “economics.” What the New Testament is talking about wherever the theme is “breaking bread” is that people actually were sharing with one another their ordinary day-to-day material sustenance.

It is not enough to say merely that in an act of “institution” or symbol-making, independent of ordinary meanings, God or the church would have said, “Let us say that ‘bread’ stands for daily sustenance.” It is not even merely that, as any historian of culture or anthropologist will tell us, in many settings eating together “stands for” values of hospitality and community-formation, said values being distinguishable from the signs that refer to them. It is that bread is daily sustenance. Bread eaten together is economic sharing…

In short, the Eucharist is an economic act. To do rightly the practice of breaking bread together is a matter of economic ethics.[23]

This is the center of the Eucharist that Parler seeks to locate elsewhere (29), namely, “that sharing one’s own bread is both specimen and symbol of responsibility.”[24] Of course, the Eucharist has many other meanings developed subsequently and Yoder does not reject all of them (although he clearly rejects what he takes to be mystical, magical, superstitious, or ritualistic forms of the Eucharist). Yet, the original and prevailing definition, and not merely an “aspect” of the Eucharist (30), is economic sharing and this definition becomes the threshold that all true practice of the Eucharist must pass. Again, the priority of practical reasoning determines the basic definition of Christianity—in this case, the Eucharist as economic sharing.[25]

But economic sharing is not particular to Christianity. To make economic sharing seem natural, it would help if one understood the biblical narrative, especially the exodus or Pentecost (which are not the same event). Yet, as in the case of Havel and Gandhi above, Yoder claims that “neither the substance nor the pertinence of the vision is dependent on a particular faith” (28). It seems to be, instead, that it is dependent on one’s understanding of the order of the universe.

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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.]