Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens [ Feature Review ]

Page 4 – The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens

Tree 3: The Sacraments—Reality in the Church and Reflection in the World

How does Yoder view the sacraments? I treat this question in more detail in my forthcoming Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture.[13] Here I simply note four related points:

  1. The sacraments as practiced in the church and the social processes undertaken outside the church are not simple equivalents. One cannot translate the sacrament into non-Christian terminology without remainder.[14]
  2. The Christian sacraments are foundational and irreplaceable paradigms for any other social order that hopes to go with the grain of the universe.
  3. As the church pioneers culture (in part through the sacraments), the wider world has “spin-offs” and “reflections” of the Christian community’s practices.[15] The church has no reason to deny that these better ways of life are, in fact, relatively better. They are better because they more closely approximate God’s intentions and telos for human life, which the church knows by means of Scripture.
  4. The first calling of the Christian is to participate in the life of the church, and the best way the church contributes to the world is through its particular Jesus-centered gospel message and life together. Yet the church also has no reason to avoid non-Christian linguistic frameworks that may call non-Christians to more closely approximate God’s intentions for human life.

Far from sacrificing the particularity of Jesus or the church, Yoder continues to emphasize the slogan, “Let the church be the church.” Do you care about the world’s shalom as well as that of the church? If so, Yoder tells you (in 1996, a year before he died) that your first step should not be the neo-Constantinianism of Jim Wallis or Jim Dobson, but a focus on the life of the church: “‘Seek first the righteousness of the kingdom, and the rest will be thrown in’, is a recipe not for poverty but for plenty. It may be similar when we ask how the value-laden sub-community goes about caring about justice in the wider society. It may be the case not only by happenstance but by a deep inner logic, if God is God, that the sub-community’s fidelity to its own vocation will ‘contribute to state policy’ more strongly—and certainly more authentically—than if they worried about just how and why to go about compromising their principles in order to be effective.”[16]

Does this encourage Christians to abandon the church for involvement in more generic attempts at social justice? By no means. At the end of Body Politics, a text in which Yoder has supposedly elided the difference between church and world, Yoder closes by noting the sharp contrast between church and world: “A church that is not ‘against the world’ in fundamental ways has nothing worth saying to and for the world.”[17] That is why the subtitle of Body Politics is not “generic ways that any human can behave” but “practices of the Christian community before the watching world.” The way that Christians truly contribute to the world is not by living on the world’s terms, but by going “about the business of being Christian, proclaiming the Gospel, modeling an exemplary community life, and praying for all people,”[18] knowing that there is nothing more real or more foundational to reality than the good news that Christ died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father.[19] What proclamation could be more public, evangelical, or orthodox than that?


At the end of the day, what has The Heterodox Yoder added to conversation? Martens can certainly be commended for his broader efforts to edit and publish collections of Yoder’s work, including Nonviolence: A Brief History and Revolutionary Christianity. This book may also be commended for highlighting previously unpublished works on Christology and foregrounding Yoder’s correspondence with Schwarzschild. Although Martens only hints at this on the last page of his book, I suspect that his own experience of Anabaptism may be shaping his intense desire to avoid reductionism, a desire that I wholeheartedly affirm. In that sense, I think Martens and I are on the same page (and I think Yoder is with us, although Martens does not). Yet, I am afraid that he is laying either too much blame or too much credit—depending on your point of view—at Yoder’s feet. As I noted earlier, however, I frequently encounter non-Mennonites (scholars and otherwise) who have simplistic and confused ideas about what Yoder thought, and I am afraid that Martens’ book only confuses rather than clarifies things, in part, because Martens does not account for the “whole forest” of Yoder’s corpus. Martens’ thesis simply does not do justice to the nuanced position of Yoder’s texts.

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