Conversations, Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Heterodox Yoder ? [Concluding our Conversation]

The Heterodox YoderEarlier this year we posted Branson Parler’s critical review of Paul Martens’ The Heterodox Yoder.

Martens’ was kind enough to respond to our review.

Today we conclude the conversation with a reply by Branson Parler.

The book:

The Heterodox Yoder

Paul Martens.

Paperback: Cacade Books, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reply to Paul Martens’ “More Apotropaic Arboreal Adventures: A Response to Parler.”

By Branson Parler

I am thankful for Paul Martens’ substantial and serious response to my lengthy engagement with his recent book, The Heterodox Yoder, and to The Englewood Review of Books for inviting a brief reply to Martens. Many issues could be addressed, but I will briefly highlight five that stand out.


Martens and I seem to have moved closer together on the issue of whether or how Yoder is reductionistic (or not) in relation to the sacraments. If I understand him correctly, Martens acknowledges that Yoder does see multiple layers of meaning in, for example, the Eucharist. In that respect, Yoder is not reductionistic, reducing all other possible meanings into the economic aspect. Rather, Yoder is arguing that other meanings build on top of the socio-economic meaning of the Lord’s Supper. From there, the question remains: who gets to decide which layer is most basic? And on what basis? (I would assume Scripture). Furthermore, if the socio-economic layer gets eradicated, have we lost something that is crucial, according to Scripture?

The scholarly consensus seems quite clear that, as Jesus and the early church celebrated meals, including the Lord’s Supper, this act was not reducible to what modern people would on the one hand call “religion” or, on the other, “ethics,” “hospitality,” or “economics.” Rather, table fellowship serves as a complex social event, functioning (a) as ceremony, (b) as mirrors of social systems, (c) in terms of body symbolism, (d) in terms of reciprocity, and (e) in terms of social relations.[i] In 1 Cor. 11, the socio-economic element (which is of course also a profoundly theological element) is being ignored, with some (presumably more wealthy) Christians arriving and eating their fill while other Christians would arrive later only to find that they were so devalued that they were left to go hungry. Given Paul’s instructions regarding this abuse and the severe judgment meted out on the church in Corinth, this would seem to suggest that the socio-economic element is essential in grasping the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, not an accidental add-on that we can take or leave. This is not to say that Paul is concerned with “social” or “economic” matters over against “theological” ones; it is to recognize that the social, economic, and theological are always bound together or, better, to recognize that economics is inherently theological and vice versa.[ii]

To be clear, this does not mean that the socio-economic meaning exhausts what is going on in the meal so that there are no other layers of meaning but, as Yoder argues, this foundational layer cannot be dismissed without missing the full-orbed meaning of the Lord’s Supper. It seems to me that it is not the priority of practical reason but biblical texts such as 1 Cor. 11 that drive Yoder to this conclusion. To sum up, Martens, Yoder, and I all seem to agree that there are numerous layers of meaning. Where we may still disagree is how to articulate the relationship between these layers of meaning. Perhaps the metaphor of “foundational” layer is unhelpful, and we should instead talk about a nexus of meanings (since Yoder lists at least 11), and affirm that losing any of these biblical aspects is clearly a problem. On that I think we could certainly agree.

The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Is the Old Testament to be considered Christian Scripture? In my previous response, I cited several examples from the Old Testament, especially revolving around Jews in Babylon. In Babylon, I noted, Jews affirmed the universal truth of their particular faith, sought the shalom of Babylon, bore verbal witness to YHWH and his acts in history, and affirmed that there is no God but the Lord. Martens argues that my (and Yoder’s) use of examples from the Old Testament has no bearing on Christian particularity, in part because Old Testament Jews are not Christians and in part because Christian particularity cannot be defended by appeals to the Old Testament. It could be, however, that Yoder’s appeals to the Old Testament are not merely sociological but Christological.[iii] If Jesus and the early church were the continuation and fulfillment of what God had been doing in and through Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel, then we would expect continuity between Old and New Testaments, such that it is perfectly normal to cite Old Testament examples to prove a point regarding the shape of the Christian faith and practice.[iv] Inasmuch as the examples of Jews in Babylon, including Daniel and friends, are all from the Christian Scriptures, which includes the Old Testament and which centers on Jesus, these are specifically Christian examples. As Martens rightly points out, notions such as “a particularity that absorbs external attempts at universality,” “the sociological shape of God’s people,” “the ‘monotheistic message’ of shalom,” and the claim that “there is no other God,” are not particularly Christian if devoid of context. In the context of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—and of Yoder’s thought, however, to say that these are not specifically Christian misses an important contextual piece of the puzzle, namely, Jesus Christ, who gives content and specificity to what we mean by “particularity,” “the sociological shape of God’s people,” “shalom,” and “monotheism.”

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