Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens [ Feature Review ]

Page 3 – The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens


Early on, Martens claims that “the difficulty with Yoder’s corpus is not that there are a few trees that are out of place. Rather, the difficulty is that Yoder’s corpus may actually be a different forest than many think they are seeing” (17). My central disagreement with Martens is that there are too many trees in Yoder’s corpus that simply do not fit into Martens’ view of the forest. Although there are numerous issues that I would be interested to explore with Martens, I will limit my critical comments to three very significant trees for which Martens’ thesis does not account. Those three trees are Yoder’s definition of politics, the particularity of Christian ethics, and the nature of the sacraments.

Tree 1: What does Yoder mean by politics?

In his third chapter, Martens argues that Yoder prioritizes political language above all else. Often, critics like Martens do not sufficiently recognize what Yoder means by “political.” Rather than use this term in a more limited way (as is the case for Weber, Troeltsch, and the Niebuhrs), Yoder employs the term in an expansive, Augustinian fashion: a polis is a community held together by what it loves, including what it loves in an ultimate way.[4] So, “political” does not mean strictly “governmental” or “immanent” (versus transcendent), any more than Augustine’s talk of the “city/polis of God” means that Augustine is reductionistic.[5] Martens’ critique would make sense if Yoder operated with a sacred/secular or religion/politics split, but he doesn’t. Yoder, like Augustine, sees politics as always already doxology and ethics as always already theology. Furthermore, numerous orthodox Bible scholars in our day (e.g., N. T. Wright, Gerhard Lohfink, Christopher J. H. Wright, et al.) agree with Yoder’s basic point, namely, that God is using the “politics” or way of life of his people as a constitutive part of his plan for the redemption and restoration of all things (Gen 12:1-3; Deut 4:5-8).[6] Jesus is not a replacement of that plan but the apex of this plan, which continues in the church.

How does Yoder respond to criticisms against prioritizing the language of politics? Anticipating such criticism, in the 1972 edition of Politics, Yoder states that he is not trying to address all things that could be said of Jesus or to imply that a broader or different focus is inherently problematic; he is trying to rectify an omission in traditional theology and ethics.[7]

In the 1994 epilogue to this chapter, in response to critics already voicing Martens’ concerns, Yoder notes that this paragraph might have been better placed in a more prominent position in the book, since many of his critics either missed it or “did not believe it,” as he puts it.[8] I am afraid that Martens does either one or both in his reading of Yoder.


Tree 2: Christian Ethics and Particularity

In addition to prioritizing language of politics, Martens argues that Yoder exchanges the particularity of Jesus and the church for a generic, neo-Kantian emphasis on ethics. Martens’ argument that Yoder is neo-Kantian largely works largely through guilt by association. Schwarzschild advocates a neo-Kantian emphasis on ethical value as the meta-criterion for reading Torah and, even though Martens himself points out that Yoder would have rejected Schwarzschild’s method, Martens still proposes that the similarities between Yoder and Schwarzschild reveals that Yoder is also neo-Kantian (110-112).

Three points should be made here. First, Yoder grounds Christian ethics in the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of the resurrection, and the regeneration of the believer.[9] Second, the mature Yoder continues this point via apocalyptic literature. In two critical essays, Yoder underscores that Christian ethics are sustained by a transcendent source—take God out of the picture and everything falls apart.[10] As Yoder reiterates elsewhere—in an essay written in 1992 and revised in 1996—Christian life and ethics can only be sustained by a Christian worldview, at the heart of which is the belief that there is one true God and that this God is the central actor in history.[11] Far from reducing theology to ethics, Yoder is pointing out that Christian ethics, properly understood, are unintelligible apart from God. Third, differing from the neo-Kantian and Jewish Schwarzschild, Yoder holds that Jesus is normative and that Jesus is Lord.

So how does Yoder view the relationship between particularity and Christianity? In the last years of his life, Yoder was aware that some were accusing him of abandoning the particularity of Christianity. He speaks to this directly and draws a contrast between “distinctiveness” and “specificity” in order to show why this criticism is misguided:

“To make ‘distinctiveness’ a value criterion is to measure the truth value of meaning system A in terms of the other systems (whether B or C or N or X) that happen to be around, from which is supposed to differ [sic]. That is a method mistake. Some of the neighboring systems may be very much like it. Some of them may be historically derived from it, which is true of most of the post-Christian value systems in the West. To ask that Christian thought be unique is nonsense. What we should ask of Christian statements is that they be specifically or specifiably Christian, i.e., true to kind, authentically representing their species. Whether a specifiably Christian statement is ‘distinctive’ depends on the other guy. That cannot be made a criterion of authenticity.”[12]

In other words, being contrarian for its own sake is not a virtue. Thus Yoder anticipated Martens’ critique and responded. If Yoder sometimes sounds similar to a neo-Kantian, it does not necessarily indicate that Yoder has compromised his position, but that certain biblical patterns of reasoning persist  in a post-Christian culture (even amongst neo-Kantians) and that human beings, despite sin and the fall, still live in a cosmos whose logos is Jesus.

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