Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Theological Mentors #1: John Howard Yoder

I’m reprinting and updating the “Mentors” series from my old blog, Levellers.

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is one of my mentors and heroes.  In fact, of people with whom I never had the pleasure of studying directly, no one has been more influential on the shape of my theology, ecclesiology, and ethics than John Howard Yoder.

 He was the most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons(1496-1561). Educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel, Yoder taught at both the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and at the University of Notre Dame. Most famous for his work, The Politics of Jesus (1972), which destroyed the popular image of Jesus as an apolitical figure, and described  Jesus’ mission as creating a new people whose nonviolence, mutual servanthood, and economic sharing, constituted a political threat to the Powers and Authorities. Although trained mainly as a historical theologian, Yoder wrote in several fields in ground-breaking ways: biblical studies; church history; theology; Christian ethics. Although “mainstream” Christians often read Yoder as representative of “the Mennonite view,” Yoder was often controversial in his own denomination, challenging it to renewal.

Yoder was influenced at Goshen College by Harold Bender, the first Mennonite to be elected president of the American Society of Church History.  Bender successfully sought to renew North American Mennonite life through both ecumenical contact and renewed attention to the 16th C. “Anabaptist Vision.” Largely due to Bender’s influence, Mennonite scholarship in church history became well-known before contributions in other fields.

After college, Yoder, like so many Mennonites of his generation, volunteered for mission, relief, and development work in post-War Europe, aiding in renewal both in European Mennonite life and beyond. (Yoder met and married the French Mennonite schoolteacher, Anne Marie Guth, through this work.) During this work in Europe, Yoder simultaneously enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Basel and engaged in the early post-War development of the ecumenical movement with the founding of the World Council of Churches, thereby presenting the Churches of the Reformation with their first sustained encounter with a representative of the Radical Reformation since the 16th C. The influence went both ways: Work for peace was placed on the WCC agenda from the beginning, and Yoder became deeply influenced by the work of both Karl Barth and, even more, by the growing “Biblical Theology Movement” of the era.

Those remained the dominant sources in Yoder’s creative synthesis: Bender and 16th C. Anabaptist sources; Karl Barth; the “Biblical Realism” of one major strand of critical biblical scholarship. Later influences included post-Vatican II Catholic thought (Yoder taught for years at the University of Notre Dame); the “Believers’ Church Conferences,” which brought representatives of many different Free Church or Believers’ Church traditions together and began a lifetime dialogue between Yoder and certain strands of Baptist thought; the nonviolent strand of the U.S. Black Freedom movement; a sustained and lengthy interaction (both approval and critique) with Latin American Liberation Theology; and post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue. A true polyglot with an incredible ear for languages, Yoder carried on these many dialogues in nine different languages.

Painfully shy but with a booming voice and glowering countenance, many believed Yoder to be aloof or arrogant, but it was rather that John had few “people skills.” As many will attest, it was difficult to be his friend. Yet, both personally and through his work, Yoder touched numerous lives. He encouraged my own work as the external reader of my dissertation and in an email a few days before his unexpected death. At his funeral, I met people from around the world, including a young white man from South Africa who, influenced by The Politics of Jesus, refused to be drafted into the apartheid-era South African army and served time in jail in response.

Suffice it to say that my intellectual and personal debts to “JHY,” as he was often called, are immense.   I first read him just after I left the U. S. Army as a conscientious objector (1983) and The Politics of Jesus gave deeper biblical grounding to my nascent pacifism. I’ve worn out 4 copies of that classic, now–3 of the first edition and one of the 1994 expanded revision. (I ordered a new copy today.)  In the last couple of years many of Yoder’s unpublished writings have been published posthumously.  New secondary studies are shedding light and giving rise to different schools of “Yoderians,” just as their are rival interpretations of Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer–and, yes, Yoder belongs in such exalted company though his humility would never let him admit that.

For those seeking an accurate basic introduction to his work (since reading Yoder takes practice!), I recommend highly Mark Thiessen Nation’s,  John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions(Eerdmans, 2005).  I’ll try to write another post giving a good basic Yoder bibliography.  I also recommend Marko Funk’s helpful reading notes at Reading Yoder.

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August 21, 2010 - Posted by | biographies, blog series, ethics, heroes, history of theology, testimony, theologians, tradition

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