"Preface to Theology: Christology and Theology Method" by John Howard Yoder

David VanDrunen
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jul/Aug 2003

This book is a posthumous publication of one of America's foremost theologians of the later twentieth century, John Howard Yoder. Yoder, who died in 1997, was a Mennonite who taught both at Goshen Seminary and the University of Notre Dame. Yoder's association with these two institutions itself indicates something of the fascinating nature of Yoder and his work. Though committed to the Anabaptist, Mennonite tradition of the "left wing" of the Reformation, Yoder attempted to do his work as a catholic theologian interacting with the broader streams of the Christian tradition. Though his Anabaptist heritage shines through unashamedly throughout this work, Yoder does display an impressive grasp of the history of theology and often maintains a critical posture toward his own heritage. An introduction to this work, by editors Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider, is helpful in placing Yoder within his theological and ecclesiastical context.

As the title of this work indicates, Yoder presents an introduction to the study of theology, following largely the material from a seminary course that he taught. The arrangement of the book, however, is different from what one would ordinarily expect to find in such an introductory work. Rather than dealing systematically with individual topics such as the nature of theology and the doctrine of revelation, Yoder by and large pursues a historical outline. He begins with the New Testament material, first dealing with the apostolic preaching and then moving to the Gospels and the later theologians, namely, Paul, the author of Hebrews, and John. Then he travels beyond the New Testament to examine the development of theology in the very early post-apostolic church up to the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. In traversing these fields, Yoder focuses primarily on the church's teaching about Christ. His goal is to learn and teach theology by watching it happen in the early centuries of Christianity and reflecting upon it critically. The final section of the book explores the theology of the three offices of Christ (prophet, priest, and king), which allows Yoder to move beyond the early church to the medieval and Reformation eras, and into the contemporary scene.

Many substantive issues raised in this book are worth mentioning, but space permits only three in particular. The first concerns the significance of the church's creeds. In his historical work, Yoder naturally spends considerable time addressing the development of creedal statements in the development of Christology. Though Yoder works out of a tradition that is often indifferent to, if not hostile toward, creeds, he expresses a great deal of appreciation for the usefulness and even inevitability of creeds in the church's life, even while distancing himself from any sort of absolute commitment to them. A second matter is closely related to the first, since it too concerns the ecclesiastical nature of theological reflection. Yoder makes a rather passionate case that theology ought to be developed by teachers of the church, who are in the church and working for the church, not by those who are simply professional theologians. While one might be surprised to find such sentiments being expressed by one coming out of a "low" church tradition, it is in many ways an effective challenge to both theologians and laity in traditions that view themselves as having much higher views of the church.

A third substantive issue that is worth brief mention is the Atonement. Yoder surveys various theories of the Atonement and looks upon them as relatively far removed-at least temporally speaking-from the biblical witness. Though Yoder views the theory of a substitutionary atonement as the strongest of the principal options, he also offers a number of criticisms of it and suggests a better alternative. Yoder's argument is driven in significant part by his distinctively Anabaptist/Mennonite pacifism. It is at this point, perhaps, that Yoder's theology is most likely to commend itself or be exposed as wanting. Yoder expresses the concern several times through the book that doctrine and ethics not be separated. In considering the Atonement, Yoder penetrates to the heart of both doctrine and ethics, and their intimate relationship is indeed revealed. Yet, his uncompromising opposition to all violence and identification of agape as nonresistance-as applied to God as well as to human beings-compels a view of Christ's saving work that is quite removed from the idea that Christ bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners.

A few other points are worth brief mention. First, readers of Modern Reformation may be pleased to discover that Yoder has read, assigned to his students, and done serious reflection on the work of important Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Lutherans will find interaction not only with Luther himself, but also with Franz Pieper, whereas Reformed readers will note the appearance of names such as Hodge, Machen, Berkhof, and Van Til. Second, and on a somewhat negative note, the text could have been edited significantly better. Third, readers should be warned that the material here was completed several decades ago and does not interact with theological work produced since the 1960s. On several fronts, therefore, the book is somewhat dated and must be read in that light. All told, this work is undoubtedly an important addition to theological literature and can serve as a very helpful introduction to the thought of Yoder particularly and to contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonite thought more generally.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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