Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens [ Feature Review ]

Page 2 – The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens

Martens begins his argument by pointing out the centrality of discipleship and obedience in Yoder’s early work. For Yoder, the Christian life centers on ethics. By focusing on ethics in this way, Martens argues, Yoder lays the foundation for his later slide away from Christian particularity. Yoder’s free church ecclesiology, at least initially, provides the context for understanding both his theology and his ethics. But Yoder’s ecclesiology, and thus his theology and ethics, is increasingly framed in terms of politics. All terms—Jesus, conversion, salvation, the church, the eschaton—are defined under the rubric of the “political” (85). This prioritization of politics is “a sort of absurd, inverse enslavement to the logic of Troeltsch and the Niebuhrs” that does not adequately capture the richness and depth of how the Bible teaches us to think and speak about who God is and who we are (86). This prioritization of politics also affects how Yoder conceives of the relationship between the church and world.

In Yoder’s earlier work, according to Martens, such as Christian Witness to the State, middle axioms served as the bridge between the politics of the church and the wider world’s politics. Such axioms are language that is not specifically Christian that Yoder uses in a pragmatic way to move the world closer to the only norm for human life: God’s kingdom. In Yoder’s later work, however, Martens notes that this language of middle axioms drops away and the social processes or sacraments of the church become the mode of mediation between the church and world. A key factor driving this change, Martens continues, culminates in Yoder’s Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. To provide context for this work, Martens examines the correspondence between Yoder and Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild. He points out that these two have much in common: ethical value is the meta-criterion for reading sacred texts; ethics culminates in the messianic age; ethical means are determined by ends; action is valued over explanation; and Judaism is properly understood as nonviolent and antiestablishment (112). Why are these common points problematic? They signal that Jesus is dispensable to Yoder’s thought. Indeed, Martens seems to suggest that the common denominator between Yoder and Schwarzschild is not “God with us” in Jesus, but Immanuel Kant. Practical reason wins out and Yoder does not need Jesus after all because he is just one instance of what may be discerned by other means. Intentionally or not, Yoder begins to move away from the particularity of Jesus and the church.

This movement away from the particularity of the church is further seen, Martens argues, in Yoder’s view of the sacraments. Martens continues to develop a view, which I have criticized elsewhere, that Yoder flattens the sacraments into “sample civil imperatives” that can be heeded inside or outside the church.[3] Martens contends that Yoder’s drive to escape the haunting charge of sectarianism leads him, ultimately, to compromise the unique identity of the church and the transcendent dimensions of the sacraments by reducing them to mere social processes (140). Although Yoder does much work to underscore how important the practices and politics of the church really are, his thought is so over-determined by what he is reacting against that he unwittingly reduces Christian faith to just another form of ethics or series of practices.

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