A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions
ed. Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2004. 356 pages.
The sixteen essays in this book were among other papers originally delivered in March 2002 at a Believers Church conference entitled, “Assessing the Theological Legacy of John Howard Yoder.” They are grouped around several themes: Yoder’s critique of methodologism, his concept of “Constantinianism,” the difference between his thought and that of Stanley Hauerwas, and his understanding of Christian witness in relation to the state and social institutions. A final section includes essays that assess Yoder’s less easily categorized contributions to theology, ethics, and biblical studies.
A number of the essays demonstrate how fruitfully Yoder’s thought can be brought into conversation with other thinkers. Chris Huebner’s essay places Yoder’s emphasis on patience in the context of Paul Virilio’s penetrating analyses of violence in contemporary Western society—with striking results. Also focusing on Yoder’s understanding of patience, Peter Blum explores its similarities to Jacques Derrida’s central concept of diff_rance. Alain Epp Weaver compares Yoder’s “politics of exile” with that of the late Palestinian intellectual, Eduard Said. Gerald Schlabach throws an intriguing light on Yoder’s theological/ethical project by casting him in the role of St. Augustine’s interlocutor. These essays confirm that Yoder is perhaps the most adroit Mennonite theologian of the modern period.
While there is near unanimous support for Yoder’s theological “non-method” (nicely summarized in Harry Huebner’s opening essay), this collection also includes criticisms of Yoder’s work. Rachel Reesor-Taylor’s essay points out that Yoder seems to have (deliberately?) got St. Anselm wrong. Other papers identify more substantive issues. Thomas Finger considers whether Yoder did not reduce theology to ethics and why he might have thought this necessary. Duane Friesen agrees with Schlabach that Yoder was so focused on avoiding the evil of Constantinianism (the marriage of church and society) that he provided insufficient guidance on how, concretely and faithfully, the exilic church might “seek the peace of the city.” Doug Harink recognizes the genius of Yoder’s reading of Pauline texts but takes issue with his ecclesiology, which gives priority to ethics over God’s election and faithfulness. Willard Swartley faults Yoder for failing to see that the Jubilee theme in Luke’s Gospel (central to Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus) is linked not only to social and political concerns but, as well, to evangelism, healing, and to defeating the power of Satan.
But a more thorough engagement with Yoder’s theology from a conservative Evangelical perspective is unfortunately lacking in this collection. An Evangelical critique would, among other things, have to pursue Swartley’s observation further and address a tendency among some Yoderian theologians to speak of “witness,” “service,” and even “mission,” but seldom of “evangelism.” The church’s principal task, they rightly insist, is to “be the church,” but they do so in a way suggesting that evangelizing (in the “old-fashioned” sense of inviting unbelievers to faith in Christ) is not an integral part of what this phrase means. A hyperindividualistic, North American fundamentalism, which reduces faith to private assent to correct religious propositions, is probably behind this hesitancy. Certainly, the church must exemplify the peace of Christ if those outside it are to understand the message they hear. But without explicit invitation to faith, how complete is the church’s witness? The “Great Commission” is as direct a biblical imperative as “love your enemies” and equally expresses the divine hospitality that the church ought to embody. I suspect Yoder would agree, with all the reservations regarding coercive evangelistic techniques most thoughtful Evangelicals would share.
Yoder was a brilliant Mennonite theologian who worked tirelessly to recover the “wisdom of the cross” for a church tempted by calculated “effectiveness” like never before. These essays will help not only academics but pastors and theologically-literate laypeople appreciate the limitations but also the profound insights of Yoder’s patient and untamed mind.