Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens [ Feature Review ]

Page 5 – The Heterodox Yoder – Paul Martens

So I simply appeal to the reader to return to Yoder’s texts and read them more closely than ever. Does he make the sacraments of the church and the social processes of the world equivalent to each other, or does he see the social processes of the world as reflections and spin-offs of the life-giving practices of the public body that is the church? Does Yoder abandon the uniqueness of Jesus as a historical person and the definitive revelation of God, or does he affirm that Jesus being Word and Lord is the only viable explanation for anything good, whether in the church or the world? Is Yoder driven by the neo-Kantian impulse to reduce theology to ethics, or does Yoder assume that ethics and theology, politics and doxology are always already connected? Does Yoder think you can just translate away the particularity of biblical faith? Yoder himself poses and answers this question, and I will give him the last word: “Is there anything nonnegotiable in the dispersed minority’s witness? Anything untranslatable? Of course there is; it is that there is no other God. The rejection not only of pagan cult but also of every way of putting their own YHWH/Lord in the same frame of reference with pagan deities, not even speaking the divine NAME as others would, was tied for the Jews in Babylon with the proclamation of his sovereignty over creation and history. There is no setting into which that deconstructing, disenchanting proclamation cannot be translated, none which can encompass it. That anti-idolatry message is not bad but good news.”[20]


Branson Parler is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College.  He received his PhD from Calvin Theological Seminary.

[1] See Martens, “The Problematic Development of the Sacraments in the Thought of John Howard Yoder,” Conrad Grebel Review 24, no. 3 (2006): 65-77; and Martens, “Universal History and a Not-Particularly Christian Particularity: Jeremiah and John Howard Yoder’s Social Gospel,” in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, ed. Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009), 131-146.

[2] For example, see the collections in Radical Ecumenicity and The New Yoder and the work of figures such as Daniel Boyarin, Craig Carter, Romand Coles, Richard Hays, Chris K. Heubner, John C. Nugent, and Peter Ochs.

[3] For my full engagement with Martens’ earlier work, see Branson Parler, “Spinning the Liturgical Turn: Why 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), 173-192.

[4] Yoder, Body Politics (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992. Reprint, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), viii. Cf. Gerald Schlabach, “The Christian Witness in the Earthly City: John H. Yoder as Augustinian Interlocutor,” in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House/Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004), 231.

[5] Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, trans. Timothy J. Geddert (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 57.

[6] I owe this insight to John Nugent.

[7] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 226.

[8] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 227. Mark Thiessen Nation echoes Yoder’s own sentiment, noting that the charge of reductionism cannot be maintained: “I can only imagine that various theologians, apparently with their own agendas, believe that Yoder is here being disingenuous. That is to say, perhaps they believe he only says this to keep orthodox Christians with him in his argument. However, this cynical view is difficult to sustain if someone knows and is honest about a broad range of Yoder’s writings” (“Mending Fences and Finding Grace: Regarding Christology and Divine Agency in Yoder’s Thought,” a paper presented at the conference “Inheriting John Howard Yoder,” Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, May 25-26, 2007, http://www.emu.edu/seminary/resources/ christologymtn.html,accessed December 29, 2009).

[9] Yoder, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism (Washington, D.C.: The Church Peace Mission, 1966), 21-22.

[10] See Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 1 (1988): 43-61; and Yoder, “Ethics and Eschatology,” Ex Auditu 6 (1990): 119-128, esp. 126.

[11] Yoder, “On Not Being in Charge,” in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright & Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 174.

[12] Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy 9, no. 3 (1992): 294. This same point is made in “On Not Being in Charge,” in Jewish-Christian Schism, 177, n. 15.

[13] Forthcoming from Herald Press, fall 2012.

[14] See, for example, Yoder, “Firstfruits: The Paradigmatic and Public Role of God’s People,” in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 30, and Body Politics, 13, 22, and 49.

[15] Yoder, Body Politics, 58.

[16] Yoder, “On Not Being in Charge,” 175.

[17] Yoder, Body Politics, 78.

[18] Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, 44.

[19] See Yoder, Body Politics, 74.

[20] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 76-77.


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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

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