John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions
Mark Thiessen Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. 211 pages.
“The Politics of Jesus could prove to be one of the most significant studies published among evangelicals in quite some time,” noted Christianity Today in its December 21, 1973, review of John Howard Yoder’s classic book. Over thirty years later, it remains in print and continues to impact a wide variety of Christians, many with little or no knowledge of the Anabaptist tradition that inspired Yoder. Further, in the near decade since his untimely 1997 death, a virtual Yoder cult has flourished, inspired in part by Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas. This flowering of Yoder studies has been further accelerated by the increased access to Yoder’s writings that were often available only in mimeograph form or in obscure Mennonite publications and academic journals. Given these developments, Mark Thiessen Nation’s thoroughly researched and thoughtful introduction to Yoder and his thought is most welcome.
Nation, professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, has been on the Yoder trail for over a quarter of a century. He knows the complex and vast Yoder corpus with rare intimacy, given the ease with which Yoder crossed the frontiers separating the academic disciplines of history, biblical studies, and ethics. In five carefully crafted chapters, Nation tells the story of Yoder’s roots in the Oak Grove (Ohio) Mennonite Church, and his education at Goshen College, the College of Wooster, and the University of Basil. He tells the story of Yoder’s relation to the emerging Neo-Anabaptist movement among Mennonites and his rich and diverse ecumenical engagements. He reviews Yoder’s most famous work, the above-mentioned Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2d ed. 1994) and deals with the often repeated charge that Yoder urged political noninvolvement and celebrated Christian social irresponsibility. Finally he concludes with a brief critique of Yoder’s work.
Nation’s work is most helpful on three fronts. First it clearly explains the key role played by Yoder’s family and home congregation in his development, and the subsequent role played by Harold Bender in the growing maturity of his thought. Also emphasized is the way his experiences as a relief worker and church leader in Europe during the 1950s led to his growing ecumenical commitments. Second, Nation’s emphasis on Yoder’s important 1984 book, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press), as a work which moves beyond the exegetical foundations developed in the Politics of Jesus, greatly enriches our understanding of Yoder’s maturing thought. Third, Nation answers a charge, made as early as the 1950s (by Gordon Kaufman) and repeated later, that Yoder’s formulation encouraged social withdrawal and that Yoder himself engaged in little direct social action.
Given the complexity and diversity of Yoder’s thought, Nation has certainly given us an excellent introduction to his thought. One question this reviewer would have liked to have Nation explore is the relationship of the thought of Yoder to that of Stanley Hauerwas. As Yoder himself suggested in his 1997 work, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Eerdmans), certain emphases of Hauerwas tended to play on sectarian themes in Yoder’s work in ways that he believed distorted his own emphasis. Second, Nation suggests that Yoder’s polemics against “high church views” of the eucharist seem reductionistic. In fact, as I see it, Yoder is simply insisting that the Radical Reformation understanding of ecclesiology is more consistent with the Jesus tradition than those of medieval Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation. In this regard, I believe Hauerwas’s reading of Yoder undermines its Anabaptist character. While anyone interested in Yoder’s thought needs to read Yoder himself, this book remains an important and very helpful introduction to his thought.