Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

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

Page 7: Paul Martens Responds…

But, it must be acknowledged that at the end of the day my worries about Yoder are not limited to Yoder’s thought alone. Beginning with Yoder is no small task, and I have concentrated on Yoder in my work for a variety of reasons, including my commitment to the free church and the extensive appropriation of Yoder in contemporary Christian ethics. Yet, as my perceptive colleague Jonathan Tran has noted, my worries about Yoder’s prioritization of practical reason indirectly reverberate into the larger Christian ethics discourse, particularly into certain conversations concerning liturgy and ethics and those concerning the contest between epistemology and metaphysics. These debates are significantly more complicated than Yoder’s corpus and it is my hope that future critical debate begins to move fruitfully in that direction as well.

[1] See Branson Parler, The Forest and the Trees: Engaging Paul Martens’ The Heterodox Yoder (Englewood Review of Books, 2012) https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/BParler-Forest.pdf, and Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).

[2] In this way, Parler’s review extends his earlier critique of my position that appeared as “Spinning the Liturgical Turn: Why John Howard Yoder Is Not an Ethicist,” in Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010), pp. 173-91. Because I take The Forest and the Trees to be Parler’s more developed critique, I will focus my comments on the latter in this context.

[3] All page numbers that appear within the text refer to Parler’s The Forest and the Trees; page numbers to all other references are provided in the footnotes.

[4] Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 24. See John Howard Yoder, “The Anabaptist Dissent,” in The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal, 1952-1957, ed. Virgil Vogt (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 32.

[5] Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 30. See John Howard Yoder, “A Study in the Doctrine of the Work of Christ” (unpublished paper presented at the Domburg Seminar, April 27, 1954), 9

[6] Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 52. See John Howard Yoder, The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church, Focal Pamphlet Series 3 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1958), 29.

[7] Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 70. See John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), 18.

[8] Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 86. See John Howard Yoder, “The Christian Case for Democracy,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 163.

[9] That is not to say that authorial intention is overruled automatically. It is, however, to recognize that one’s actions or statements can lead to certain consequences even if expressly unintended, a reality I have discovered most poignantly through my own experience as a parent.

[10] John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), ix.

[11] See Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 24.

[12] John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 31-32.

[13] He is more accurate later when he refers to “the church’s message and life together” (36) as a singular thing, which is exactly what I argue.

[14] John Howard Yoder, “The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism,” in Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace, eds. Louise Hawkley and James C. Junke (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), 35.

[15] See Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 139-142.

[16] See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. and eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 68.

[17] For this reason, the various couplings that Yoder uses to describe Jesus—crucified and resurrected, Word and Lord, etc—are, in essence, ways of codifying the person of Jesus within the grain of the universe.

[18] This assertion, too, seems to sit uncomfortably with Parler’s larger argument that Yoder does not hold to a sharp differentiation between ethics and theology.

[19] See Parler, “Spinning the Liturgical Turn.”

[20] Incidentally, these pages are not even in the chapter devoted to developing Yoder’s account of ecumenism in which the sacraments find their appropriate context.

[21] Because Parler depends heavily on Yoder’s Body Politics in this section of his book, I will also utilize that particular text more than I do in The Heterodox Yoder in order to clarify my own position.

[22] See Parler’s “Spinning the Liturgical Turn,” 182-83.

[23] Yoder, Body Politics, 20-21.

[24] Yoder, Body Politics, 22.

[25] And to reinforce this priority, Yoder places no trust in an individual’s changed “insights” (intellect?) or “insides” (emotions?) to change the world. See Yoder, Body Politics, 76.

[26] Yoder, “Burden and Discipline,” 37.

[27] Yoder, Body Politics, 75.

[28] Yoder, Body Politics, 72.

[29] With this claim, however, I am also inferring that the world (like the church) can be divided according to two groups: those that live according to the grain of the universe and those that do not.


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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

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.]