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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · pp. 135–36 

Book Review

The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder

Craig A. Carter. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001. 254 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph J. Kotva Jr.

The complex, situational, and essay-oriented character of John Howard Yoder’s work makes it easy to misread his social ethics. In The Politics of the Cross, Craig Carter, academic dean at Tyndale College, Toronto, Ontario, helps us become more skillful readers of Yoder, especially helping us to avoid reductionistic readings of his theological agenda. By discussing Yoder’s formative influences and major dialogue partners, surveying key theological elements in his project, and noting contemporary thinkers whose work partially parallels his, Carter helps us toward a more informed and sympathetic reading of Yoder’s enormous body of work.

The first part of the book argues that the central formative influences on Yoder’s thought are his Anabaptist heritage and Karl Barth’s theological method. As a non-Mennonite, Carter provides an accurate portrayal of Yoder’s role in the Mennonite identity debate—including Yoder’s relationship to Harold S. Bender, place in the Concern movement, response to Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of pacifism and its influence on the Mennonite church, and appropriation of sixteenth-century Anabaptism as expressing the centrality of Jesus and discipleship as the ethical meaning of Christology. Although it is now common to note Barth’s influence on Yoder, Carter provides the first extensive analysis of where Yoder’s project “is identical to, similar to, or a legitimate development of what Barth does in Church Dogmatics” (89). Carter concludes that aspects of Yoder’s thought, such as his narrative approach to Scripture and rejection of natural theology, derive from Barth’s influence. Carter similarly argues that other aspects of Yoder’s thought, such as his high Christology and emphasis on ethics as obedience, originate in Yoder’s Anabaptist heritage but are reinforced by Barth’s theology.

The remainder of The Politics of the Cross attends to Yoder’s Christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology, which Carter describes respectively as the source, context, and shape of Yoder’s social ethics. Carter rightly emphasizes that a proper understanding of Yoder’s social ethics depends on our understanding the interrelationship of his high Christology, already/not yet eschatology, and believers-church ecclesiology. These chapters provide helpful analysis and intriguing suggestions. For example, Carter gives careful attention to Yoder’s evaluation of the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. Carter argues that Yoder’s {136} position on the creeds is similar to George Lindbeck’s rule theory of doctrine and is thoroughly orthodox, although noncreedal in the sense of subordinating the creeds to the narrative authority of Scripture.

The Politics of the Cross is uneven stylistically: much of the material is accessible to a general, educated readership, but parts of the book assume familiarity with specific academic debates. Similarly, the analysis is not equally strong throughout. For instance, Carter’s reading of Yoder’s appropriation of the Old Testament is severely oversimplified. Still, there is no comparable survey of Yoder’s theological social ethics, and Carter is certainly right to argue that Yoder can help teach us how to remain faithful to Christ in our changed cultural situation.

Joseph J. Kotva Jr.
Pastor, First Mennonite Church
Allentown, Pennsylvania

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