Monday, July 13, 2009

The Politics of Jesus Chapter One: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

The thesis of Yoder's entire book:
This study makes the claim…not only that Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action, but that this issue is now generally visible throughout New Testament studies, even though the biblical scholars have not stated it in such a way that the ethicists across the way have had to notice it” (Pg. 12).
Yoder is very insistent that his perspective considers Jesus' own ethics to be normative for all Christians. For Yoder, two questions deserve our attention:

1. What is the authority of these hermeneutic assumptions, which say that Jesus’ ethic is only to be seen as normative for Jesus? “What then has come of the concept of revelation at all? Is there a such thing as a Christian ethic at all?” (21-22).

2. “What becomes of the meaning of the incarnation if Jesus is not normative man? If he is a man but not normative, is this not the ancient ebionitic heresy? If he be somehow authoritative but not in his humanness, is this not a new gnosticism?” (22).

From this point in the book, Yoder says that he proposes “to read the Gospel narrative with the constant present question, ‘Is there here a social ethic?’” (22).

Yoder will address this study with two “quite discrete tasks”:
1. “I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such a Jesus would be of direct significance for social ethics.”
2. “I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic” (23).

In this book, Yoder says he will concentrate mostly on the Gospel of Luke, because “Luke’s story line provides us with a simple outline, and his editorial stance is often taken to have been a concern to deny that the Christian movement was any threat to Mediterranean society or Roman rule” (23).
"The case I am seeking to make has to do not narrowly with the New Testament text but with the modern ethicists who have assumed that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem to Rome or to Washington or Saigon, was to leave the story behind. I shall be looking more at the events than at the teachings, more at the outlines than at the substance. The next pages present soundings rather than a thorough survey" (25).

My own thoughts regarding what Yoder is doing here is that I am friendly towards the idea that Jesus' ethics ought to be normative for all Christians. The question which I suppose deserves to be asked is, shouldn't there be some nuance to this idea? A reasonable person might ask, for example, "Aren't there things that Jesus did that weren't the direct result of his ethical system, but rather were the result of direct or special commands from the Father? It would seem that even while Jesus' ethics are normative, his acts - in and of themselves - are not.

John 10:18 seems to be an example of this. Here, Jesus is talking about how he is the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep. He does not do this because it is a part of Christian ethics to be self-sacrificial; rather, he says in verse 18 that "this charge I have received from my Father." Jesus is operating under special command from no less than his Father. There is, in my opinion, some significance here, though like I said, Yoder is not entirely off-base, in my opinion.

I suppose the question which we must all ask ourselves is the question: if Jesus is the perfect man who lived in perfect obedience, and if the life is normative for all Christians, does this then, necessarily lead one to adopt a lifestyle of non-violence, such as Yoder seems to be suggesting?


  1. I see what you mean: not one of our deaths, for example, can be mediatorial, substitutionary, reconciliatory, or, for that matter, the conquering of Sin and Death.

    But far be it from me to suggest that, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount is not normative (only now understood as gospel, not law, and for all disciples, not just the few). I'm following Bonhoeffer's lead here, but really taking my cues from Ferguson's little booklet The Sermon on the Mount, where he writes that "it is not a sermon about an ideal life in an ideal world, but about the kingdom life in a fallen world."

    And "kingdom life" in this fallen world may just look like a non-violent lifestyle. Care to define what Yoder means by such a thing? For example, when I speak of pacifism, I mean specifically "opposition to war or violence as a means of solving disputes." Does Yoder conceive of it more narrowly or more broadly?

  2. Interestingly, as I peruse my copy of TPOJ I can't find a definition of non-violence. Part of the reason this hasn't come up yet is that Yoder is still building his case for Jesus as a thoroughly political figure. But since the reader asks himself as he reads the book how this relates to pacifism, it's still a fair question. After a google search, I came up with the following which might be helpful to us:

    In The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, Yoder defined “pacifism” as: “The renunciation of the sword to which Jesus called his disciples” (9).

    I should put my cards on the table here and say that I have always been friendly to Bonhoeffer's style of non-violence, but after much pressure by Josh Walker, I have never been able to formulate what I consider to be a cogent and biblical way of understanding Romans 13 without believing that the state may use violence, in some measure to maintain order and keep invaders out of its borders.

    On the other hand, I struggle with the question of whether Romans 13 is merely being descriptive rather than prescriptive. If it is merely being descriptive, then there is in my mind no contradiction with pacifism.

    I do not, however, believe that the state may legitimately use violence against another state. I am told that this is a form of pacifism, but I wouldn't know any better.

    My issue with Yoder is not his non-violence, but how he gets there. I do not favor his method because I believe his Jesus is a revolutionary political leader, whereas I have always believed Jesus to be primarily concerned with procuring salvation for his people. Maybe my Jesus just isn't big enough. I am very open to that possibility, in which case our journey through the remainder of Yoder's book will be very interesting indeed.

  3. Thanks for your initial summary. Like I said, I am not with my copy of TPOJ yet as I am still in Germany, so i cannot respond with quotes, but rather from the position of one informed by the Yoderian/Hauerwasian worldview.

    You have cited well Yoder's definition as "renunciation of the sword to which Jesus calls his disciples." I would add that Hauerwas was asked one day in class a similar question, and his answer was: "I am not a pacifist. I am a Christian." This answer to someone who is born in modernity is dissatisfying because we can conceive of being a Christian and not a pacifist. But precisely what his answer suggests is that to be "like Christ" is to behave in the manner in which Jesus was in the world, to participate in his way of being human. And as we do not have in the text of Scripture an account of a Jesus who uses swords or seeks their power, one must ask the modern mind how owning and using a sword could ever be called "Christian."

    In terms of your appeal to Romans 13, we asked Hauerwas the same question in class. His response was that we must remember that Romans 12 comes first. Yoder deals well with this issue somewhere, though i don't remember if it is in this book ( i will look when i get back). I do know that Jacques Ellul deals with it well in the last chapters of his book "Anarchy and Christianity" in a way that i think Yoder would be somewhat sympathetic to. You have astutely pointed out one of the main hermeneutical strategies I would employ on this passage (descriptive rather than prescriptive, as it is unlikely Paul was writing to Romans who were any way in charge of that sword).

    But I think that you have hit the nail on the head in terms of the pivotal issue for whether or one will agree with Yoder: Is Jesus normative or is he exceptional? You have rightly pointed out verses that make it seem as though the new testament witness focuses on the Exceptional Nature of the Son (i.e. his divinity). But i would encourage you to temper these with others, especially John 14:12, in which Jesus himself actually says others will do the same and even greater things than him! But lest we get into a prooftext war (which no one ever wins), we must focus on the theological nature of what is at stake.

    It all centers around how one understands the doctrine of the Incarnation. Was the incarnation accidental to Jesus mission of salvation, or was it essential? This was the primary issue in the church's early Christological controversies, and (spoiler alert) the answer is that it was essential. In order to save humanity, Jesus had to be God (because only the Creator was powerful enough to re-create the creature, but this is probably a given in this discourse) AND human. Why? Well, one must read St. Athanasius' "On the Incarnation" for the fullest orthodox understanding (which unfortunately I don't have with me either), but to paraphrase, it is because "Salvation" is not focused on getting us into some other kind of life after this one (gnosticism). Rather, it is to enable us to actually live now. Athanasius says that he had to be human as well as God because our salvation was a participation in the life of God after the manner of the Son. Eternal Life is something we start living now!

    Hence Yoder's emphasis on the in-breaking Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the life of obedience to the Father that Jesus Inaugurated for all of humanity (because only God is able to be faithful to himself), but which we would be ignorant of had Jesus not also taught us with his own body how to be faithful. Thus, faith is not something we believe in order to achieve life later; rather, it is the way of life (God's way of life, or the only way of life) lived by the Son as a human. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom and those who faithfully follow Jesus' example (and thus participate in his life) live it now.

  4. But you have rightly pointed out that even orthodox Christianity recognizes the singularity of Jesus. So how to account for both Jesus' normality in this framework and his singularity as the second person of the Trinity? The Church's answer was the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. He was fully human and fully divine. Yoder's position seeks to take seriously both natures. Jesus is God's response to a fallen humanity AND humanities response to a Holy God! The problem with Luther's two kingdoms and other merely penal substitutionary theories of the atonement are that they only attempt to take seriously one of Christ's natures, his divinity. Why did the lamb have to be human for these theories? When I ask this question to people of the more protestant persuasion, they struggle with an answer. It is obvious that he has to be God, because God alone can save. But why human? This is the pivotal question for modern Christians!

    Putting the matter differently, though sticking with your emphasis that Jesus came to save, Yoder is actually redefining salvation. Precisely because salvation for Yoder is life here and now, Jesus had to be fully human, and thus normative humanity, because we have to learn how to live faithfully. Salvation is not about "getting into heaven."

    I would add that there are lines of connection to be drawn here between Yoder and Paul. Paul was emphatic that Christ was enough (his singularity), but also that we have to now live in the manner after Christ (imitate me as I imitate Christ) if we are to be eternally united with him.erwasian worldview.

  5. So Jared, here is a question: You say Yoder is re-defining salvation. In what way is he defining it? And if Yoder is redefining salvation, is there still room in the "Christian" (I really mean "pacifist") world for a Calvinist like me who is extremely committed to his reformed soteriology?

  6. I want to make one clarification to my previous post for the sake of clarity. When Hauerwas equated pacifism and Christianity in class he was not doing so in a way that left those holding just-war theories out of the group as non-christians. So, in other words, he was defining what he understood Christianity, as "being like Christ," to mean, and not delineating who was and wasn't inside the boundaries of the Church. Just to be clear.

    But to answer your question, I would probably need my Yoder stuff. The best I can do from here I have already done, which is to say that my understanding of Yoder's definition of salvation would be something in the order of "living in the kingdom of God" though I don't know if this is more an import from Duke's reading of Yoder or the exact words he would choose. I will get back to you on that late next week.

    For now, I found a helpful summary of Hauerwas on Yoder's Project here:

    In the article you will see Yoder quotes that bolster my assertion that TPOJ is really Christological doctrine of the first order that seeks to take serious the humanity of Christ. There is also an interesting point made by Hauerwas that Yoder's book is not easily categorized and why that is the case.

    But to your question about Reformed theology's place in Yoder's view: I would have to ask you which Reformed theology?, as there are quite disparate things that fall under that nomenclature. But I ask this a little polemically, because I can assume how you would answer. And to anticipate it (double predestination?), I would say that it is important to remember that Yoder was a theological student of Barth. Reformed Theology's place in a Yoderian world is that portion of his theology radically devoted to Karl Barth. Are you familiar with Barth? He wrote a famous commentary on Calvin if memory serves me well.

    And to be clear, I should say not that Yoder is re-defining salvation. Rather, he is recovering its original, pre-modernity import.

  7. Actually, Jared, the more I read from you and from Yoder, the more convinced I become that you're right about the centrality of christology to Yoder's position. And the less and less it seems that soteriology actually affects someone's ability to agree with Yoder's conclusions.

    To answer your question of "how" reformed, I do believe in what is sometimes called double predestination. I tend to think like a supralapsarian, although I still consider Jonathan Edwards to be my supreme theological forefather.

    As far as Barth goes, I have a minimal understanding of Barth in reference to his discussion of knowledge of God, but even then this is from somewhat negative polemics. I have his commentary on the Gospel of John entitled "The Word of God & The Word of Man" but I haven't read more than a few pages.


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