Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

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

Page 6: Paul Martens Responds…

Parler claims that I take the words of Yoder cited above and apply them to the sacraments as a whole (28). He is right to the extent that I believe this is the logical conclusion of Yoder’s development of the sacraments, acknowledging that his thought evolves to this point through a variety of halting steps taken over the course of many years. And, contra Parler’s insinuation that this is an anomaly in Yoder’s corpus that I have taken out of context, there are plenty of examples of the same sort. Aside from my full argument in The Heterodox Yoder concerning the sacraments, allow me to introduce a parallel example directly addressing the work of Jesus and social processes that brings us back to the relationship between Jesus, apocalyptic, and the grain of the universe:

When six years ago I was one of four colleagues assigned by peace church bureaucrats to formulate an historically rooted but ecumenically accessible statement of the pacifist stance, it worked out that the only way we could find to say that was to review the fourfold work of Jesus Christ, into which believers are summoned to participate: as servant king, as wise, as priest and as prophet. Those perspectives do not identify an odd bias; they describe the way things really are in the course of history.

I could list another handful of aphorisms about wholesome social process and about the stupidness of war, but for now it must suffice to have restated those four strands of confession

– Servant/King: divine condescension;

– Sage: truthtelling

– Priest: suffering for reconciliation

– Prophet: proclaiming direction;

noting that each is a fully human activity, which makes sense in nonreligious terms to activists, and therefore should make no less sense to historians. Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow![26]

How do the activists, the historians, and the rest of the wider world come to understand the revolutionary gospel community that lives with the grain of the universe? As I argue in The Heterodox Yoder, the wider world comes to follow Jesus through the paradigmatic politics of the church. This “mediation” is “not a mental or verbal operation of translation or conceptual bridging, but rather the concrete historical presence, among their neighbors, of believers who for Jesus’ sake do ordinary social things differently.” They do not make judgments according to ethnic identity; they share their bread; they forgive. These are visible activities that can be observed, imitated, and extrapolated.[27] According to Yoder’s argument, there has been a historical distinction between the faithful church and the world on these social matters. But, I believe Yoder’s historicism is undervalued by Parler. I am convinced that precisely the depreciation of the need for “mental or verbal” communication in the pursuit of paradigmatic visible practices (or, to use to language of The Heterodox Yoder, the rejection of middle axioms) calls into question the continued need for a normative distinction between the church and world in the pursuit of living with the grain of the universe. Once we grasp the “fully human activities” through which we participate in the work of Jesus, what is to stop Jesus from becoming a vanishing point? After all, these particular practices are “actions of God,” in and with, through and under what we humans do,[28] whether one is aware of it or not. In lieu of an account of how I reach the conclusion Parler rejects, this is a brief summary why I think Yoder’s logic ultimately opens the door to eliding so many of the differences between the faithful church and the socially reformed world that lives according to the grain of the universe.[29]

C. Conclusion.

I must confess, writing this response has been a grim task. I have no desire to criticize Yoder for the sake of felling a theological giant or for making room for my own project. Self-consciously, I have no constructive agenda in The Heterodox Yoder for exactly this reason. Likewise, I take no joy in critically commenting on Parler’s sustained engagement with my work. That said, I believe the issues at stake are important enough that they warrant straightforward and serious engagement. I willingly acknowledge that Yoder considered himself a Christian throughout his life, that he wrote from a certain strand of the Christian tradition, that he was deeply formed by his reading of Scripture, that he talked about Jesus a whole lot, etc. Although I applaud all of these, the concern of The Heterodox Yoder is, ultimately, with none of these; my concern is with the mode of reasoning in which he engaged all of the above. And, it is precisely the development or refining of this mode of practical reasoning that constitutes the forest of Yoder’s corpus. I have attempted to intimate what this means above in ways that align with and further illuminate the much fuller argument in The Heterodox Yoder (and I have presumed a minimal familiarity with that text in my comments here). I hope it is understandable, therefore, that I find Parler’s introduction of three individual elements of Yoder’s corpus—all of which I address in some detail in The Heterodox Yoder—without either (a) a serious engagement with my argument or (b) a synthetic account of how these elements contribute to or fit within the larger logic of Yoder’s corpus to be unconvincing.

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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.]