Symposium Introduction

Anthony Siegrist


Our Bark, Barely Afloat

SOMEONE, I THINK IT may have been a marketing guru, observed that one difference between Americans and Europeans is that the former put their cheese in the fridge while the latter leave it out on the counter. The rationale is that in America cheese is thought to be a lifeless, sterile thing. In Europe, by contrast, cheese is considered a living organism, something that should not be stored like a dead body. Paul Martens is a Canadian, which positions him, culturally if not geographically, somewhere in between. This combined with his migration to Texas means that I have no idea how he stores Gouda, but Martens’ treatment of Yoder leads me to doubt he would refrigerate it. In Martens’ construal, more than any other commentator I’ve read, Yoder is a living, fallible intellectual whose thought develops and ages. At the moment a great deal of attention is being given to the seedy elements of Yoder’s biography, but that isn’t what motivates Martens. The Heterodox Yoder exists because he worries that his subject’s contribution to contemporary theology is itself not as savory as many have assumed.1

The Heterodox Yoder explores a potential fault line by challenging the “regulative framework” that dominates Yoder scholarship. The key assumptions of the standard view are (1) the belief that the Politics of Jesus is the definitive text in the Yoder canon; (2) the assumption that Yoder’s mind never changed, and the related idea that he was unwaveringly systematic; (3) that he only wrote on topics assigned; and (4) that the Anabaptist milieu represents his most important historical context.2 The conclusion of Martens’ re-reading is that Yoder is not quite orthodox. What Martens means is that Yoder fails to affirm the “uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God.”3

The precipitating factors, Martens believes, are Yoder’s “idiosyncratic resolution of the tension between theology and ethics” and his reduction of Christian discipleship to ethics.4 The second of these, Martens argues, shows up in Yoder’s early work and remains normative. This initially allowed for a fresh, innovative perspective with which Yoder was able to critique various forms of “established” Christianity. However, as Yoder’s thought ripened and specific ethical codes were centralized it developed into what Martens describes as a “problematic account of Christian particularity.”5 The driving force was Yoder’s attempt to resolve the fundamental problematic of the relationship of the church and world.6

This re-reading of Yoder’s work allows Martens to do several helpful things: First, and most obviously, he offers an intensely diachronic reading of Yoder’s theology. This might seem obvious, but because Yoder wrote small treatises and revised and republished essay after essay, quite a bit of engagement with Yoder’s work says little if anything about this sort of development. For this reason alone Martens’ book will have a lasting impact. On this front, it is unfortunate that Martens and subsequently a long review by Branson Parlor use the metaphor of a forest to describe the Yoder corpus.7 The static use of this metaphor draws attention away from the strength of Martens’ research and the substance of the debate.

The challenge Martens brings against the assumption that Yoder was consistent is also valuable. Martens observes that a number of Yoder’s readers have responded to perceived inconsistency by claiming Yoder always or mostly wrote on assignment. Yet Martens points out that Yoder still had significant control over the topics he addressed.8 This is displayed in The Heterodox Yoder through analysis of Yoder’s applications for research funding. The very existence of this material challenges the idea that Yoder was somehow intellectually beholding to those who assigned projects to him. Here Martens implicitly turns a standard trick of Yoder exegesis on its head: Yoder’s readers often defend his orthodoxy by claiming he spoke in this or that way because of the limitations of his audience. There is certainly some truth to these types of arguments but the realty is they cut both ways. Just as Yoder can sound “secular” when speaking to a non-Christian audience, so he can sound more “Christian” when speaking in-house.

One particular example of this is Yoder’s work on Jewish-Christian relations, which Martens explores at length. Here Martens’ book is particularly informative on account of the way he treats Yoder’s protracted exchange with Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild. Martens believes that the “shared language” between Schwarzschild and Yoder is key to understanding the development of the latter’s theology.9 He observers that both Yoder and Schwarzschild interpret their authoritative texts through an ethical meta-criterion and both think “an antiestablishment nonviolent stance is the highest value in their respective accounts of Judaism.”10 Martens traces this development in Yoder’s thought through several lectures and research proposals. In this context Yoder elevates the Jeremianic account of messianic community and thereby discounts the surprising nature of the politics of Jesus—prompting Martens to deploy the heterodox label.

The Anthropological Attitude Demands Humility

One of the limitations of The Heterodox Yoder is its rather short concluding chapter, which makes it difficult for Martens to synthesize the lines of development he traces in the heart of his book. He could have expanded the observations noted above by comparing the way Yoder attempts to remove the fences between Christianity and Judaism but mends them—or creates them—between his version of Anabaptism and other more ‘established’ Christian traditions, e.g. his rhetoric relating to Medieval Catholicism. To borrow a phrase from Ephriam Radner, Yoder rejects “Epiphanian logic” with respect to Judaism but fails to do so with respect to Medieval Catholicism. This displays the fact that while Yoder’s discourse community in The Politics of Jesus shifts away from the Radical Reformation, a point made by Martens, he uses his construal of the radix to launch similarly sweeping polemics. Yoder identifies his anti-establishment nonviolent stance with pre-Christian Judaism in an effort to ground its normativity and to establish a point of contact beyond the apocalypse of Christ. The latter represents the most provocative aspect of Martens’ analysis.

An illustration of the challenges Yoder’s later thought faces is precisely the link he establishes between the Anabaptists and the ethic of Jeremiah/Jesus. Yoder links them through their rejection of both established religious forms and the “security” of violence. However, another historiographical approach might just as well acknowledge the dependence of both the Anabaptists and Jeremiah/Jesus on established religious institutions: Jesus participates in the established tradition of Torah-commentary and Schleitheim is rooted in the Benedictine tradition. That is to say, there is no Anabaptism without the larger Christian community. This is part of what pushes Martens’ criticism of Yoder’s heterodoxity and part of what frustrated Jim Reimer about Yoder’s disinterest in classical orthodoxy.

The upshot in my view is that while Anabaptist theology can reject specific aspects of culturally established religion (including war), it cannot coherently separate itself from “normative” pre-Reformation Catholicism or, as some of Yoder’s readers would have it, from “mainstream Christianity.” To reject either is akin to denying the existence of our family or, as a certain Yoder-reader has described liberalism, making our story the myth that we have no story. Yoder tries to establish a normative ethic by centralizing the Jeremianic community and the virtue of “not being in charge” while marginalizing mainstream Protestantism and medieval Christianity. Other scholars would contest both of these moves on historical grounds.11 This is not to say that Yoder fails to invoke classical formulations. He does reference Nicaea and Chalcedon to defend his ethics. Beyond this rhetorical use these classic statements are examples of missionary translation. Yoder is similar to Kwame Bediako in this way, though where Bediako is driven by missiological concerns—he hopes for a renewal of non-Western Christianity in Africa—Yoder is propelled by a Biblicism associated with his radical Anabaptist roots. Through Martens’ portrayal we see Yoder as more “radical” than many of the early Anabaptists themselves. Classic theological statements, to say nothing of Patristic theology, are less of a resource in his work than in theirs; Menno himself wrote a substantial essay on the Trinity and the Martyrs Mirror begins by assuming the importance of the Apostle’s Creed.

Another way of getting at the issue, and here I’m departing further from Martens book, is to notice how much leverage Yoder gains through his use of the phrase “biblical realism.” Yoder borrows his approach from Hendrik Kraemer, a Dutch missiologist and autodidact. The basic idea is to “think the way the Bible thinks.”12 For Yoder the point is to find the radix and use it to leverage a social ethic. Of course this is rather optimistic about the unity and accessibility of the Bible’s thinking. The immense output of biblical studies hasn’t yet shown promise in producing a unified Christian ethic. The idea is a bit tenuous as well because the Bible doesn’t think—people do. If we are to get into the world of the Bible we do so through the community whose worship and life led to the formation of the canon itself. After reading Martens’ book I’m more convinced than ever that “biblical realism,” used in the methodologically foundational way Yoder sometimes does, cannot provide the normative payoff he desires. That is to say, this hyper-Protestant approach to Scripture undercuts the more Catholic elements of Yoder’s ecclesiology. What would be preferable would be a more modest, Protestant notion that the church is constituted in part by its listening to Scripture, and that to be the church requires openness to disruption through this process. What this doesn’t do, what it cannot do, is harden the polemical teeth of an anti-establishment Anabaptism. Similarly it cannot produce a universalism that stretches beyond the proclamation and life of the concrete church.

A key example of all this is Yoder’s short book Body Politics. Martens doesn’t write a lot about this text; he engages its previous incarnation “Sacrament as Social Process” more substantially. In Body Politics Yoder suggests that God is acting when humans engage in ecclesial practices such as breaking bread or baptism. He wants to show that “breaking bread together is as economic act” and “baptism is the formation of a new people.”13 Yoder’s view is sacramental to the extent that these practices themselves bring about an effect in the community. He writes, “it is further the case that doing them is what makes a group what it is. To study them is the domain not of semantics, aesthetics, or dogmatics, but of sociology. All three practices are pubic, accessible beyond the faith community. One can extrapolate each of them into a secular or a pluralistic frame of reference.”14

Several pages later Yoder says that the three practices have “a social meaning at the outset” and “without any complex argumentative bridge being needed either to explain or to justify, these practices can be prototypes for what others can do in the wider world.”15 It is extensions like these that Martens believes show Yoder’s ongoing worry about the problem of sectarianism.

In one way this is Yoder at his most helpful, allowing Protestants to see that peoplehood and politics are part of the gospel. That is to say, Yoder gives the church a concrete, Israel-like role in the redemptive work of God. Yoder even says that the church’s practices themselves “can be called ‘good news.’”16 The problem in my view is that while Yoder affirms the sacraments are “effective” it is unclear if they remain “signs.” Yoder believes God works in the human practice, but it is unclear if God’s work in any way extends beyond the practice itself, if the practice participates in anything larger, if there is any denotatum. Yoder’s rejection of dogmatics and unqualified privileging of sociology is a shortcoming to which The Heterodox Yoder rightly draws our attention.

Another way to see Yoder’s limitation here is through the lens of Nicholas Healy’s Church, World and the Christian Life. Like Yoder, Healy is interested in social analysis. Unlike Yoder, Healy realizes that such social analysis requires constant theological inflection. Healy assumes that the church in via is constituted by the agency of its members and by the Spirit. The issue is not that theology and the social sciences address totally different spheres, Yoder is right to remind us that they do not. Both are descriptive discourses presenting models of reality. Similarly, the issue is not that theological explanations need to trump sociological explanations. The theologian does not need to interrupt the anthropologist’s description of some cultural development linked to the presence of the church, by saying, “No, it isn’t social pressure, it’s the Holy Spirit.” Augustine, Aquinas, and others have taught us that causation need not be understood in such a flat univocal sense. The problem is that in Yoder’s rejection of dogmatics, his rejection of theological language generally for understanding the church’s practices, he gives the impression that there is some wider, more universal discourse. The same move shows up in the essays in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited when Yoder argues from “simple sociology,” separate from ethical or theological particulars.17

  1. M. Luhrmann, near the end of her preface toWhen God Talks Back, makes a general point about the descriptive reach of the social sciences:

the anthropological attitude demands humility, and there are questions I cannot answer. In Michelangelo’s Genesis,man reaches out for God, and God for man, and their fingers do not quite touch. An anthropologist can describe only the human side of that relationship, the way humans reach for God. I can describe the way a church can teach congregants to pay attention and learn to use their minds to help them make their experience of God real and concrete; I can describe the practices they develop, and the way they learn those practices and teach them to each other. . . . But my methods cannot distinguish between sensory deception and the moments when God may be reaching back to communicate through an ordinary human mind.18

Yoder actually makes a similar point in his essay “But We Do See Jesus.” Addressing the challenge of relativism he writes, “One adolescent’s breath of fresh air is another’s ghetto. Any given wider world is still just one more place, even if what is slightly wider or slightly more prestigious circle of interpreters talk about is a better access to ‘universality.’”19 Later in the same essay Yoder writes, “What we are looking for . . . is not a way to keep dry above the waves of relativity, but a way to stay within our bark, barely afloat and sometimes awash amidst those waves.”20 The issue, which could put in several ways, is that Yoder’s appeal to sociology at the expense of dogmatics, elevates our frail bark above the waves. These reductionist elements of Yoder’s later work reduce effective signs to the mechanics of social effectiveness.

Evolution, Tension, and Disagreement . . .

Paul Martens rightly describes the development of a facet of Yoder’s thought in the context of politics, Jewish-Christian relations, and ecumenism. The change he explains is often ignored by more optimistic readers. Yet I’m not entirely convinced that Martens shows us all of Yoder. There is far too much serious theological wrangling in the material published as Preface to Theology or, to pick just one more example, Yoder’s 1995 essay “A Theological Critique of Violence,” to think that everything the man wrote fits the line of development described in The Heterodox Yoder.21 Furthermore, it would seem from Martens’ analysis that Yoder’s later work would lack consequential eschatological reference, or whatever of these elements are present would be as overly realized as the stereotypes of Anabaptist thought would have it. But this is not the case.22 It seems there are two Yoders, one heterodox as Martens suggests, and one more orthodox. Though the two exist more closely in Yoder’s early years, they do not ultimately find resolution. In fact, what Martens’ book demonstrates is that they grow further apart. This is why I’m particularly appreciative of the fact that Martens challenges the idea that Yoder was consistent. That Yoder’s thought is not as settled as some make it out to be is not a fault, it is simply the mark of his limitation. And whatever we may or may not like about Yoder’s life or his work, limitation is something we all share.

That isn’t the end though: Martens is fundamentally right, if not in the precise details of his thesis, then certainly in the point of his book. I take that to be the assertion that it is wrong to think there is only one temptation in modernity. It strikes me that Martens’ fundamental concern is not ultimately one related to the exegesis of Yoder’s corpus, but one related to Christian faithfulness. He writes, “As I see it, the temptation to turn faith into just another idea has a dialectical opposite that is equally as problematic, namely, the powerful temptation to turn faith into just another form of ethics or series of practices. From my own autobiographical experience within the Anabaptist tradition, I have seen how this latter temptation can cripple and corrupt Christianity in very troubling ways.”23 Martens’ ultimate concern extends beyond Yoder to the ongoing maturation of the living Christian community.


  1. Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012) 6–7.

  2. Ibid., 6–16.

  3. Ibid., 2.

  4. Ibid., 4, 24.

  5. Ibid., 25.

  6. Ibid., 11.

  7. See Branson Parlor’s text available in pdf format, “The Forest and the Trees” found online at (accessed, February 2014).

  8. Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 15.

  9. Ibid., 115.

  10. Ibid., 112.

  11. I’m thinking here of scholars like Peter Ochs and Brad Gregory. Martens notes the former on page 98 fn 44. Gregory gives ample evidence in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012) of the multi-voiced character of pre-Reformation Catholicism.

  12. John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003) 390.

  13. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992) 33.

  14. Ibid., 44.

  15. Ibid., 46.

  16. Ibid., 75.

  17. For example: John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 81.

  18. T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Knopf, 2012) xxiv–xxv.

  19. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) 49.

  20. Ibid., 58.

  21. Preface to Theology represents a course Yoder taught “from the early 1960s through the spring of 1981” (see page 31).

  22. Again, see John Howard Yoder, “A Theological Critique of Violence,” in The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking, edited by Glen Harold Stassen et al. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009) 27–41.

  23. Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 147.

  • Paul Martens

    Paul Martens


    A Reply to Anthony Siegrist

    Anthony, first, let me say thanks for the thoughtful and generous assessment—much appreciated. Second, it may be helpful to note that a substantive synthetic engagement of the three brief review essays will appear in turn next week, so further comment will follow in due time.

    In the meantime, however, I want to affirm two of your insights that highlight elements of my argument that are not developed to a significant degree in the book: (1) you rightly emphasize what is assumed in my treatment of Yoder, namely, that there are plenty of elements of his thought that are good and useful, especially his account of peoplehood and politics as part of the redemptive work of God (and I do indicate that others have done a rather thorough job in this respect); and (2) you circle back to the unresolved question that naturally follows my critical rendering of Yoder’s employment of sociology vis-a-vis theology, namely, the demand for a careful articulation of a theological framework in which to narrate sociological insights without giving them independent authority or validity. In recent decades, there has been much good work done in this regard (and I’m thinking of John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory as a good starting point). That said, I am not entirely satisfied with any of the options I am familiar with at this point . . . though I am also completely unready to provide a full-bodied alternative. But that is another question that takes us beyond Yoder . . . So, again, many thanks for taking the time to read the book carefully and to remind us of the good work that has been done and the work that still needs to be done.

    • Anthony Siegrist

      Anthony Siegrist


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      Thanks Paul. David Cramer (one of your doctoral students I think) posted a comment on Syndicate’s Facebook page suggesting that if “one concedes an element of heterodoxy, that would preclude considering one orthodox.” I suppose one could look at it that way, especially if one is convinced that Yoder’s mind was that integrated. I suppose the point Cramer makes would be more pronounced if the argument was that Yoder was heretical.

      Your book, however, has convinced me that Yoder’s thought is less settled than his confident, assertive (should we even say ‘patronizing’) tone often implies. It seems to me that those who want to challenge your book wholesale will need to show that there is a consistent Yoder behind the shifting points of emphases you demonstrate. Yet I think your argument demands the same sort of explanation, though in a more synchronic sense. My suggestion, based on the evidence presented in “The Heterodox Yoder,” is that there are essentially two Yoders—each brought into being by a different community of discourse.

      It should not be surprising that Yoder’s thinking manifests this way. After all in “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood” Yoder writes, “I am as embarrassed as anyone about the limits of my particularity. I too had a post-Enlightenment education. I can confess my culpability, personal and collective as male, as American, as Mennonite, as university employee, as property owner, as local church member, etc. Yet none of this embarrassment can be covered for by imagining a less particular Jesus than the one in the story, or a less particular path today than to be one specific community rather than another (PK, 44).” I’m not sure what an acknowledgement of particularity aggravated by an embarrassment of that very thing could produce other than two minds.

    • Anthony Siegrist

      Anthony Siegrist


      A Reply to David Cramer

      Thanks David,

      I take your point. Your Venn diagram analogy is helpful in one way, but I’m not sure it describes the two different logics that seem to be at work in Yoder’s thought. The Venn diagram seems to me to imply a sort of unified body of work that just sits a bit off-center of orthodoxy. I’m not sure that’s the best way to put it. I’m increasingly convinced that there are two different logics at work in Yoder’s corpus (one presenting in a emphasis on the particularity of Jesus and another in the universality of social practices) and that the disparity of these is increasingly apparent later in Yoder’s life.

      I wish I had something witty to say about Canadians being hard to understand, I don’t though—but maybe that’s because of the cold or too much Arcade Fire or flannel shirts.

    • Paul Martens

      Paul Martens


      A Reply to Anthony Siegrst


      Thanks—that’s a helpful clarification. I hear what you are saying about the two logics, and I think if one wants Yoder to be orthodox (even in part) one has to suggest a bifurcation here. I’m very willing to grant that Yoder is not univocal about these things throughout his corpus, but I think this is where we fundamentally disagree.

      My position is that, increasingly, Yoder’s understanding of the particularity of Jesus is located in the particular posture vis-a-vis the world displayed in the social processes. Or, to put it another way, there is nothing particular that matters about Jesus except that he displays/performs/encourages these particular processes (hence Yoder’s identification of Jesus with the will and action—in opposition to substance—of God). In this way, the particular is universalizable in that anyone can conform to the social processes of the church. This is the “original revolution;” this is “conversion.” And, increasingly, the social processes transcend the church (which is to say that there is no substantive difference between their performance in the church and in the world). And, this is how the church is the world on the way.

Paul Doerksen


Yoder’s Foundational, Functional, and Reductionist Jesus

PUBLICATIONS FROM OR ABOUT John Howard Yoder continue to appear apace these days, either in the form of edited collections of posthumous writings (previously unpublished lectures series, “spiritual” writings, and so on) or secondary treatments of Yoder’s work, which too often take either the form of encyclopedic expositions of impassioned apologetics for all things Yoderian. Of course Yoder’s oeuvre also has its critics, and very often these critics then face enthusiastic engagement and criticism in turn—perhaps the most prominent recent example being Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine, which prompted the collection and publication of a book of essays entitled Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate. Within this kind of context, Paul Martens’s contribution1 is rare, as he is involved in editing and publishing several posthumous collections of Yoder’s writings, and now has also published a book that is neither encyclopedic exposition nor apologetic, and yet not unrelentingly critical either, despite the provocative (and perhaps distorting) title, which describes Yoder as heterodox. Martens has produced here a critically constructive contribution to contemporary theology by showing us that while Yoder’s work warns us about some of the dangers of modernity and even provides sources for faithful resistance to those temptations, further critical engagement with that body of work will help us to resist other temptations of modernity to which Yoder’s work seems to be blind.

Martens’s thesis argues that Yoder offers a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ; namely, that “Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a form of secular sociology (at worst).”2 Put slightly differently, “Yoder seems to leave us with a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm that opens the door for a supersessive secular ethic.”3 This charge of heterodoxy is narrated in large part as reductionism—the reduction of soteriology to discipleship, theology to ethics, theology to sociology, obedience to pattern recognition, sacrament to social process; ultimately Jesus is reduced to his messianic politics, which Martens suspects as probably nothing more than a functional claim.4

Martens pursues his thesis from a number of angles, and in so doing contributes to the field of Yoder scholarship in a number of positive ways, in my view. For example, Martens describes and then seeks to destabilize what he refers to as the informal but powerful “regulative framework” that (perhaps subconsciously) shapes so much current Yoder scholarship—a four-fold framework that includes the following widely-held assumptions: 1) The Politics of Jesus is Yoder’s defining text; 2) Yoder never changed his mind or, expressed with more nuance, Yoder is a very logical and systematic thinker; 3) Yoder only wrote on topics he was assigned; and 4) to understand Yoder you must place his thought in its “proper historical context,” which is Anabaptism. Martens asserts that this regulative framework, intuitively held and used by many interpreters, truncates interpretive possibilities. Therefore, a successful challenge to that regulative framework ought to open up new interpretive possibilities, exemplified in Martens’s project in a number of ways, of which I will just mention two. By relativizing the regulative framework as he sees it, Martens convincingly develops the notion there is in fact significant development within Yoder’s body of work, a development that is supported by Martens’s careful use of unpublished archival sources, which are now available to Yoder scholars. Rather than identifying unpublished archival sources as further evidence for Yoder’s unchanging views, Martens shows, for example, that Yoder’s early assertion of middle axioms as crucial for navigating the relationship of church and world gives way to what Yoder terms a “true politics,” a robust (but, according to Martens, a distorted) understanding of the paradigmatic role of the church, especially when understood as a particular set of social practices. This kind of evolution within Yoder’s thought is something about which Yoder himself was hardly forthcoming. One need only to read the chapter appendices in the second edition of The Politics of Jesus, published some twenty-plus years after the first, to witness Yoder’s contention that not much has changed in those ensuing years. Martens’s work here performs the service of prying loose the “conventional reader” of Yoder from the unexamined presupposition that Yoder’s mind never changed in significant ways.

Further, Martens’s concerns regarding Yoder’s reductionism, while certainly not novel, are nonetheless important, as they take up and extend a line of critique that has dogged Yoder’s work for decades. For example, as Martens himself acknowledges, A. James Reimer has put forward a sustained and consistent criticism of Yoder along these same lines. In a series of articles collected in Mennonites and Classical Theology,Reimer applauds Yoder’s retrieval of the normativeness of Jesus for social ethics, but worries that Yoder’s politicization of Jesus is accomplished at the expense of metaphysical and ontological dimensions, rendering Yoder’s project at heart a modern project based on historicist assumptions. While acknowledging that there are places where Yoder shows sympathy towards Trinitarian and christological creedal formulations, Reimer refuses to concede that Yoder ever overcomes the reductionistic reinterpretation of many Biblical passages and the creeds primarily on ethical and moral bases. Martens acknowledges this line of criticism in Reimer, gives a multi-faceted account of it, and extends it further than Reimer (and others) have done. Martens is especially strong in his assessment of Yoder’s reduction of sacraments to social practices. For Martens, Yoder understands the sacraments no longer as marks of the church, “but ‘sample civil imperatives’: baptism has become egalitarianism; the Eucharist has become socialism; binding and loosing has become forgiveness; dialogical liberty has become the open meeting; and universal charisma has become the universality of giftedness. In short, Yoder’s initial description of the real sacraments . . . have become further translated into secular terms.”5 Here Martens echoes a concern also raised by Bernd Wannenwetsch, who argues that Yoder’s confidence that church practices can be translated into non-religious terms puts him in danger of slipping into the “common tendency of functionalizing religious practice as the source for political vision and action,” a concern that Yoder wants more than he can get from church practices as models for secular society. Such practices, when stripped of their Christian specificity, become less than they were meant to be, and therefore if a too-direct line is drawn between civil imperatives and church practices, then a danger is being courted, which “buys too readily into the idea of translatability from one language to another without loss.”6 All this to say that Martens offers us perhaps the most well-developed account to date of the dangers of reductionism within Yoder’s work.

Martens also offers a perceptive take on a propensity within certain dimensions of Yoder’s early work that is seldom acknowledged—that of Yoder’s alleged openness and vulnerability in dialogue, which Martens assesses as open only as long as whatever engagement—ecumenical, for example—occurs according to Yoder’s own criteria, or in agreement with his construal of Anabaptist thought. Put another way, Martens characterizes Yoder’s early ecumenism as “relatively self-referential and monolingual (i.e., it operates solely according to its own in-group language).”7 This tendency of Yoder’s is also evident in his engagement with the Just War tradition, an engagement that is often touted as evidence for his openness and vulnerability, and of course it must be said that the range and extent of that work is remarkable, ranging as it did from involvement on the University of Notre Dame campus with Catholic interlocuters amidst the military officer training program there to an extensive number of essays that directly engage Just War thinking. And yet, a reading of Yoder’s dialogue with the Just War tradition reveals a distinct reservation of positive judgments for those occasions when the tradition acts like pacifism. Put another way, Yoder is willing to approve of the Just War tradition when that tradition leads, in its own terms, to conclusions that coincide with pacifism.8

I now want to turn to several concerns regarding Martens’s project. I begin by calling into question the foundationalist methodology that Martens attributes to Yoder. Martens uses this kind of language throughout his book, in fact chapter 2 is entitled “Foundational Theological Commitments.” If foundationalism is the way of understanding Yoder’s methodology, then of course it is the case that certain features of Yoder’s work will and can be identified as foundational, and then Martens’s case for identifying “foundational commitments” of Yoder’s thought would be a compelling enough argument. However, if Martens is wrong about this, as I think he is, then those features of Yoder’s project identified as foundational, while undeniably important for Yoder, cannot be understood to function in the same way. Indeed, Martens isn’t entirely consistent in his characterization of Yoder’s methodology, or even in describing his own approach. That is, while foundationalist language is most prominent, and needs to be for Martens’s line of critique to be successful, he also suggests that he will bring to view the “topographical” features as he provides a “rough map” of Yoder’s work9; he also uses language of forest and trees,10 identification of central,11 or primary ideas.12 My intention here is not to be churlish by scolding Martens for using a variety of descriptive terms throughout the book; rather, my interpretive point is that setting up a critique of Yoder based on understanding him as working in a foundationalist way gives certain ideas within Yoder’s work a kind of role that they don’t play in the way Martens has it. Conceptually speaking, identifying something as foundational is substantially different than identifying an orienting feature on a map. In my view, the analogy of a map as a way to understanding Yoder’s “complicated coherence”13 is less distorting than a foundationalist interpretation. My reason for addressing this concern is that if Yoder is actually foundationalist, and if Martens is right about the dimensions of Yoder’s thought that are constitutive of his foundations, then Martens’s criticisms and charge of heterodoxy would have more purchase. However, if Yoder’s methodology simply isn’t foundationalist, then much of the weight of the charges dissipates. That is, even if it is accurate to say that the dimensions of Yoder’s thought described by Martens in chapter 2 (discipleship and church community) are clearly identifiable as orienting themes, the question still remains as to the reasons why those emphases play the role they do in Yoder’s work. If they are not truly foundational, then it may well be the case that the occasional nature of Yoder’s writing, even seen in the qualified way Martens alerts us to, is important to acknowledge.

For example, while it is true that Yoder emphasizes discipleship, obedience, the Bible, moral freedom, ethical existence, and so on, all in relation to Jesus Christ, his reasons for doing so do not in fact reflect a desire to establish indubitable foundations on which to build other assertions and emphases. Rather, if I understand Yoder correctly, it seems to me that these emphases (and others) surface as frequently and robustly as they do precisely because of the theological and ecclesiological contexts in which Yoder found himself. To argue that Yoder’s Christology is reductionistic is to miss this important dynamic of Yoder’s way of working. Here I am constantly reminded of Yoder’s own attempt to defend against such charges. His work in Preface to Theology, for example, is an attempt to discern faithful Christology over against unfaithful Christology, and not a reduction of things to the historical process itself, but an acknowledgement that the way to become (and remain) orthodox is to take history seriously. Therefore, it is possible to see Yoder’s work on Jesus Christ as itself an attempt to correct that which has been ignored. He claims as much in The Politics of Jesus, when he admits that the writing of that book did not originally give enough emphasis to that very dynamic. Yoder is worth quoting at some length here:

My presentation, in order to correct the one-sided social ethic which has been dominant in the past, emphasizes what was denied before: Jesus as teacher and example, not only as sacrifice; God as shaker of the foundations, not only as the guarantor of the orders of creation; faith as discipleship, not only as subjectivity. The element of debate in the presentation may make it seem that the “other” or “traditional” element each case—Jesus as sacrifice, God as creator, faith as subjectivity—is being rejected. It should therefore be restated that—as perusal of the structure of our presentation will confirm—no such disjunction is intended. I am rather defending the New Testament against the exclusion of the “messianic” element. The disjunction must be laid to the account of the traditional view, not of mine. It is those other views that say that because Jesus is seen as sacrifice that he may not be seen as sovereign, or that because he is seen as Word made flesh that he cannot be seen as normative person.14

In the brief epilogue included in the second edition of The Politics of Jesus,Yoder remarks that the above paragraph should have been given a more prominent place in the book, given that some readers missed its significance, and therefore interpreted the book as “reductionistic or materialistic,”15 which might well serve as a response to Martens’s concern, which does not acknowledge adequately Yoder’s selective restitution of often neglected dimensions of Christology.16

Yoder’s approach to these issues surrounding Christology, that of seeking to respond to developments in particular contexts, also sees him take on the role of what he considers to be the defender of orthodoxy. For example, in that famous essay responding to the reasoning of H. Richard Niebuhr’s influential book, Christ and Culture, Yoder finds himself in the position of pointing out just where Niebuhr’s characterization of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit regarding our understanding of the ethical task falls short of “orthodoxy.” If I understand Yoder correctly here, he is at pains to show not only how but why Jesus Christ is important for Christian ethics. The overall point I wish to make here is that for Yoder, the particularity of Jesus in the incarnation is basic to understanding what things mean, what is to be spoken, things that must be tested at the bar not so much of relevance as resonance with the person of Jesus, and Yoder seems willing to risk the kinds of accusations regarding reductionism that have dogged his work in order to mark exactly this point, to the extent that he even uses the language of “Jesuology” instead of the more conventional “Christology.” Any ethical paradigm, pattern for discipleship, and so on, simply has no real basis except insofar as these patterns are vindicated by the resurrection and the awaited eschatological consummation; any claims for Christ as preexistent, as creator or cosmic victor, in other words, the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ cannot be disengaged from the man Jesus and the cross.

Overall, then, Martens’s book is important, and useful, not least because it serves to break or at least challenge the spell under which some Yoder interpreters work. His book helps to create some critical distance, alerts us to lacunae in Yoder’s work, to those issues of modernity that didn’t come under Yoder’s theological/ethical purview. However, in convincing me of Yoder’s foundationalist, functionalist, and reductionistic Jesus Christ, the book falls short of its goal.


  1. Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).

  2. Ibid., 4.

  3. Ibid., 142.

  4. Ibid., 144.

  5. Ibid., 137.

  6. Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Liturgy,” in William T. Cavanaugh and Peter Scott, eds., Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004) 88.

  7. Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, 120.

  8. I have developed this material in greater depth in my book, Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan (Bletchley, UK: Paternoster, 2009)197–200.

  9. Martens, The Heterodox Yoder, x.

  10. Ibid., 17.

  11. Ibid., 21.

  12. Ibid., 25.

  13. Ibid., x.

  14. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 226.

  15. Ibid., 227.

  16. Again, I have dealt with this topic more fully, in Beyond Suspicion, 89–94.

  • Paul Martens

    Paul Martens


    A Reply to Paul Doerksen

    Hey, my apologies for the delayed response . And, many thanks for the thoughtful comments! As you know, a fuller synthetic engagement will follow in turn.

    That said, I do have a couple of questions about your comments that pertain to your suggested counter-reading. In terms of Yoder’s reading of H. R. Niebuhr, what understanding of “orthodoxy” do you see Yoder critically employing? And, relatedly, do you understand Yoder to be criticizing H. R. Niebuhr on the basis of his internal inconsistency or to be criticizing him vis-a-vis the broader Christian tradition?

    • Paul Doerksen

      Paul Doerksen


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      Hello Paul,

      Thanks for the response, and for the follow-up questions. It seems to me that Yoder is trying to hold Niebuhr to account on several different levels at once. That is, he is resisting Niebuhr’s claim to be orthodox in some Nicene fashion, showing that even on that basis, he falls short. Further, Yoder takes aim at internal inconsistencies within “Christ and Culture,” which is of course what Yoder tried to do with virtually all of his interlocutors. What I find really interesting in Yoder’s essay is that he offers ‘remedial steps’ that would remodel or fix the problems articulated by Niebuhr. Yoder wants to figure out how the Bible deals with these issues – not understood in some fundamentalist or obscurantist way. This turn to the Bible allows him to resist any notion of Christ or culture as monolithic, and provides a way forward that is discerning (his term) both procedurally and substantively. I wonder if this is Yoder trying to be orthodox without having that orthodoxy unnecessarily truncated via commitments only to, say, Nicene orthodoxy.

Travis Kroeker


Overcoming Historicism

Weak Messianic Apocalypticism

JOHN HOWARD YODER IS famous for his pacifist construal of the politics of Jesus. It is hard to disagree with Martens’ claim that the proper interpretation of Yoder on the question of nonviolence requires a thoroughgoing theological contextualization. This requirement entails for Martens raising the question of Yoder’s “orthodoxy”—does the “complicated coherence” of Yoder’s written work conform to “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God”?1 This is Martens’ criterion for orthodoxy and his claim is that, so measured, Yoder’s theology is heterodox. This is an ecclesiastical term of art, and it identifies those opinions or beliefs (doxoi) that are not in conformity with official church teachings, and yet are not strictly “heretical” (that which puts one outside the community of faith). Protestants (such as Martens seems to be) typically take their criteria from Scripture, or claim to do so, requiring that biblical interpretation settle these matters. Yet, Martens states in his acknowledgements that he is indebted for his title to one of his Catholic mentors at Notre Dame. Throughout the book the derivation of Martens’ criterion of orthodoxy remains ambiguous, but I note there is not much engagement with scriptural interpretation (something Yoder often complained about in his interlocutors).

Let me begin my critical engagement with Martens’ controversial reading with a question. Doesn’t his criterion—with its self-conscious historicization and careful use of the article “a” rather than, for example, “the definitive” for “revelation of God”—sound more like something H. Richard Niebuhr might have said than Yoder? Indeed one could argue that Martens’ tersely stated criterion of orthodoxy shares more with Niebuhr’s (Meaning of Revelation) Schleiermachian-Troeltschian Barth than with Yoder’s Blumhardtian Barth. Now there’s a tempting thesis for this review—Martens’ Yoder is heterodox when measured by a liberal Niebuhrian criterion! I want, however, to state this more positively, in the form of another governing question: what difference would it make if the criterion were itself taken from Yoder himself; namely, is Jesus of Nazareth the messianic revelation of divine, cosmic sovereignty in the human world?

So stated, this governing question is not out of keeping with Martens’ project. My purpose in this short review is not to defend Yoder’s “orthodoxy” when tested by this apocalyptic criterion—whether of his published corpus or his intended theological ethical program. My argument is that orthodoxy is itself an unhelpful, “all-too-human” measure by which to test the criteriological messianic claim. Why? Because it asks for a transparent gnoseological measure of that which cannot be rendered fully transparent in human speech, nor rendered fully embodied in human community, of any kind.2 And, parenthetically, let us be clear that Jesus of Nazareth was himself indisputably an egregious heterodox, who indeed died the ignominious death of a (political and religious) heretic. Framing my argument this way puts me at odds with Martens (in ways that I hope to elaborate), but also in agreement with Martens, who thinks Yoder too straightforwardly or directly translates theological symbolism and sacramentality into a readily accessible socio-political ethics. This means, I suggest, that Yoder himself perhaps thought too much in terms of orthodoxy/orthopraxy. But I think we need a more figural or parabolic theological interpretation of the apocalyptic messianic measure to which Yoder himself appeals, one that might better understand the problem in his work not as “heterodoxy” (i.e., the translation of Christian “orthodoxy” into secular political “orthopraxy”) but rather as the possession of yet another gnoseological measure—theological, ethical, or political, it makes no difference in understanding and addressing the problem. Or rather, it is part of the problem.

I observe first of all that according to this alternative criterion, and contra Martens, there would be no devaluation of Jesus’ particularity or uniqueness to suggest that there might be any number of “non-Christian” or secular analogues to Jesus’ life and teaching—whether in thought (“theology” let us say) or in deed (“ethics” let us call it). What Yoder suggests by arguing that the “low road” of embodied discipleship (“quotidian” or “ordinary” obedience) to the human Jesus might lead to “general validity” or “generalizability” is that cosmic sovereignty (even when particularly embodied or expressed) is not incompatible with generalizability. Whatever else one might say about Jesus’ historical particularity and unique claims, it would seem strange to consider this point about generalizability to be a “de-valuing” of his particularity. Indeed, might not the opposite be true?

Again, most helpful here would be a theological contextualization of the meaning of messianic sovereignty, a sovereignty Yoder argues must take ethical and political forms if its claims are to be taken with theological seriousness. The lordship of Christ, in other words, cannot be simply a “doctrinal” or “religious” or “otherworldly” teaching, nor indeed is it a category that only applies pietistically to the inner movements of individual hearts; it has ethical and political dimensions and implications. At this point I can elaborate upon what I have called above Yoder’s “Blumhardtian Barth” insofar as I mean to reference an apocalyptic messianism that results in a political ethic that has critical things to say about Christendom, capitalism, state violence, and nationalism. I say this because, of course, the very political Blumhardts were notoriously dismissed as pietistic, and therefore not very appetizing to academic theology, whatever personal influence they might have had on Barth and Bonhoeffer. Yoder himself makes little or no reference to them (so far as I know), not least I expect because he wanted to distance himself from pietistic American evangelicalism. (And which academic theologian who wants to be taken seriously can blame him? Which, I hasten to add, is not to excuse him, or them, or us!). It was for Yoder already a huge “liability” to be identified as a sectarian ethnic Mennonite and thus irrelevant to public or political ethics—and Yoder certainly had worldly aspirations. I think this might be part of the reason. The other is that Yoder was certainly more of a Swiss Mennonite rationalist3 than a Russian Mennonite, “passionate” thinker. Yoder’s discussion of “The ‘Cross’ in Protestant Pastoral Care”4 indicates his discomfort with “pietist”—i.e. affective or existential—theological discourse, and his statement in the second edition of The Politics of Jesus spells this out clearly: “The challenge to which the proclamation of Christ’s rule over the rebellious world speaks a word of grace is not a problem within the self but a split within the cosmos.”5 For true apocalypticists, of course, it is both.

Given Yoder’s emphasis upon voluntariety it is surely strange that he provides no real discussion of voluntas in his work, beyond the “believer’s church” insistence upon adult baptism as a fully conscious, individual “consent” to the path of messianic discipleship. Here he would have benefitted from a theological consideration not only of Augustine, but also of Paul. I want to focus most of my attention on this question, since it would seem the burden of Martens’ critique of Yoder is that the logic of his practical reasoning led him to translate all theological matters too straightforwardly into the “sociological markers” of a largely externally construed communitarian political discourse. I am sympathetic to this critique, but I think it could be more helpfully developed with reference to the apocalyptic sovereignty of the crucified Messiah, in keeping with the New Testament and Augustine (and Yoder’s own stated project), than in terms of “orthodoxy/heterodoxy” or a too-narrowly defined “political language” of “governmentality.”6 That is, Yoder emphasized the apocalyptic character of messianic rule but Yoder the cerebral professor liked “reason” maybe a little too much—perhaps like a belt around his neck7 overly demarcating the separation of his head from the rest of his body. His preferred mode of reason, as Martens says, quoting Yoder himself, was “less dogmatic than sociological” (92), that is, Yoder’s own account of the damnamus of Anabaptist orthodoxy and heterodoxy had to do with “the expressions of wrong community: apostate worship, alcoholic partying, commitments of bad faith, and violence.” We notice Yoder’s (ostentatious?) omission of porneia on this list, though it is high on the list of biblical “wrong expressions,” and would get us figurally closer to the radical intimacy of the personal, communal, and cosmic dimensions of divine sovereignty in apocalyptic political theology. That is, the embodied, intimate “desire” question touches more nearly the mysterious heart of this theological-political nexus than do sociological markers, inductively derived and “straightforwardly” translated into the “social/ethical/sacramental practices” of the church (136). Yoder’s “sacramentality” is too lacking in mysterion (the Greek word that sacramentum translates), about which Paul has much to say, precisely with reference to the crucified Christ. Augustine’s constant correlation of exemplum (outer example) and sacramentum (inner mystery) in terms of the inner-outer, visible-invisible tensions of messianic existence make it clear that the sacramental may not simply be translated or collapsed into the exemplary, and none of this is amenable to “direct” witness, whether in speech or in practice. This is a question of how the messianic measure is mediated, and how that mediation becomes “accessible.”

But now, let me back up and say that Yoder is fully consistent with messianic apocalypticism when he suggests that the embodied point of departure, the Anabaptist Nachfolge Christi, following the humble speech and life of Jesus, is the crucial starting point. For Augustine too, the messianic mediation of the cosmic criterion of true humanity comes to us in the humble gait of Scripture and of Jesus of Nazareth—and in claims that will be judged by the intellectual dialectic of those “nearest to us” in the Platonic8 wisdom to be “heterodox,” i.e., mixing in confusion what we dare not mix, the human and divine. Is it possible to believe (as doxos to be not only opined but “praised”) that the divine may be mixed with the human? Would this not be to reintroduce the sophistic measure, the all-too-human measure of the divine, i.e. the hubristic notion that I (or “we,” all who are persuaded by my narrated account) could possess the political measure by which to measure the entire world? Yoder is in keeping with apocalyptic messianists in insisting upon the particular, humble starting point that will bring us into world-historical collisions both within and beyond ourselves—collisions that will require us to build, not only better ecclesial communities in the sense of putting others’ interests and consciences ahead of our own, but also what Kierkegaard calls (in a term Augustine and Paul would approve) “inwardness.” This is the “breathing room” of the divine spirit that goes beyond the worldly war, not only of nation states or conventional political entities, but also beyond the war of virtue and vice that seduces our desire to be “good” rather than “evil,” “right” rather than “wrong.” In other words, these collisions, apocalyptically understood, take us beyond conventional ethics from the get-go. But they also take us beyond conventional dogmatics of any kind. And I think Yoder was gesturing toward this in his own way by invoking “doxology” (another, different member of the “dox” family). I don’t believe he was interested in indicating that the primary obedience of human beings should be to yet another institutional authority, understood as a sociological entity as the measure of the messianic identity. For him it was a more dynamic ordering in obedience, an imitation of the messianic sovereignty to be practiced in community no less than in individual hearts. In fact, an imitation that could only be learned (through mimetic yet disciplined, obedient “repetition”) in the collisions of diverse, agonistic communities (such as Paul’s Corinthian ekklesia). This is to be learned in a “way of life” characterized by faith, not yet another “law ethic” or “power logic.” The pattern of imitation would have to be both inner and outer, personal and political, psychological and spiritual—to what extent and for what reasons could any messianist possibly divide these?9

This brings us finally to the vexed question of the “re-Judaizing” program of Yoder’s messianic political theology. Martens states that there is a “difficulty” that pervades Yoder’s rethinking of the Jewish-Christian schism: “although he claims there is no normative Judaism and no normative Christianity in the first century, his argument rests on the assumption that his account of Jesus’ interpretation of Judaism (or, what Yoder will often refer to as messianic Judaism) is, in fact, normative for creating the critical perspective used to deconstruct both ‘normative Judaism’ and ‘normative Christianity’” (98). But why should this be a difficulty according to messianic criteria? That is, the cosmic principle of “mediation” (as Augustine put it) is now to be found in an embodied model (the “form of the servant”) that nevertheless claims to be the very spiritual principle underlying all created reality. It is an enactment that is brought into scandalous collision with all normative historical ideals—intellectual, political, religious; Jewish as well as Greek. Martens spells out his concern more clearly in his Conclusion when he says: “Yoder seems to leave us with a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm that opens the door for a supersessive secular ethic” (142).

There is of course nothing quite so supercessionist as history itself. In his theses “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin profoundly shows that this is the basic meaning of “historicism.” Indeed supercessionism is precisely the procedure with which messianic materialism has broken because of historicism’s “indolence of heart,” a spiritual condition—the desire it shares with all historical progressivists and triumphalists, the desire to win. Hence the sadness (Traurigkeit) of its inability to be moved by the pain, the dolor of an unredeemed and fallen world. Benjamin, by contrast, understood himself to be an apocalyptic (even if also secular Jewish) theologian bearing witness to a weak Messianic power whose address brushes history (and historicism) “against the grain” (VII). That power addresses us in lived time with an appeal, a claim that cannot be settled cheaply or ideologically (II). It will cost us everything we think we possess or desire, and it will do so in obedience to a sovereignty that itself claims to have overcome the world (VI). This claim is therefore highly paradoxical, since it claims an overcoming without siding with victors, and it only singles us out in moments of danger—which is to say, in all moments that are lived, truly awake to the human condition in apocalyptic time. Benjamin’s claim, then, is that this is a saving danger, indeed a redeeming danger, and it has to do with a kind of dolorous memory, a cruciform memory that does not conform to a supercessionist desire of any kind, the triumphal procession of historical winners of any kind. And yet, how can that which has overcome the world, the Messiah, be anything but a winner? And wasn’t Nietzsche right to sniff this out in the Christian triumphalism, the Christendom desire to rule the world, that Nietzsche traces back to Paul and that I am also tracing to the desire to “reJudaize” Christianity? Is the history of the Christian West, Christian civilization, not one single catastrophe which piles wreckage upon theological wreckage before the angel of history? Could “re-Judaization” possibly save us from this? 10

It might help us here to turn to Paul the apostle. Apocalyptic messianism and its understanding of history and the political is quite properly traced back to Paul, particularly on the question of messianic sovereignty to which Benjamin (and Yoder) are so attuned. The Apostle Paul stands in the messianic tradition of biblical political theology, where the central overriding claim is “Yahweh is sovereign,” a claim that subverts any merely human claim to sovereignty and political authority. This includes, as Jacob Taubes points out,11 any claims for the sovereignty of law—whether that law be the Torah mediated by Moses or the Nomos mediated by Greco-Roman philosophy, or (we might add) the Christendom tradition of secular juridical state sovereignty and its many modern liberal copies. “We preach Messiah crucified,” says Paul, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23), and to triumphalist globalizing Christians, one might add, a foolish scandal. Paul’s messianism will not accommodate conventional discourses of human mastery—which is to say, all conventional political discourses. Instead of developing a criterion of singular “historicity,” as Yoder and Martens do, I would take another cue from Benjamin’s arguably more Pauline understanding of the messianic: namely that the hiddenness of divine wisdom becomes manifest only in the figural and inner apprehension of the Jetztzeit (XVIII), the secret messianic “now-time” that is spiritually discerned. This may be more pietistic, to be sure, but it is anything but individualist or apolitical.


  1. Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012) 2. All unidentified page references in the text are to this book.

  2. The Apostle Paul’s own anti-gnoseological formulation appears famously in 1 Cor. 8:2–3: “if anyone thinks he knows something, one does not yet know as one ought to know” before changing the terms: “But if one loves God, one is known by God.”

  3. In this regard Yoder was compatible with Gordon Kaufman (133) who was no doubt trying to push Yoder further in this direction.

  4. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 129–30, which includes references to Muentzer, Christian existentialism, Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard.

  5. Ibid., 161. Stanley Hauerwas has his own version of this statement in his 2012 SCE Presidential Address, following Yoder: “For . . . people to see history doxologically is not a pious declaration about their subjectivities but rather the way a community is empowered to discern in and through time more humane ways to love.” See Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) 152.

  6.  have already tried to do this in my review article on Yoder (cited by Martens, but he doesn’t pick up the main idea), “Is a Messianic Political Ethic Possible,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33:1 (2005) 141–74. For my accounts of Paul and Augustine, see “Recent Continental Philosophers,” in The Blackwell Companion to Paul, ed. Stephen Westerholm (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011) 440–54; “Whither Messianic Ethics? Paul as Postmodern Political Theorist,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 25:2 (Fall/Winter 2005) 37–58; “Augustine’s Messianic Political Theology: An Apocalyptic Critique of Political Augustinianism,” in Augustine and Apocalyptic, ed. John Doody, Kari Kloos, Kim Paffenroth (Lanham: Lexington, 2014) 129–49.

  7. artens, The Heterodox Yoder, 19, refers to Yoder’s youthful breaking of dress conventions, wearing a necktie with a T-shirt or a necktie as a belt.

  8. Or, dare one say “Socratic,” the one with whom Kierkegaard too is in constant dialogue about all things human and divine from the perspective of the “highest human,” an important kind of humanist humility that will also be judged as “hubristic.”

  9. I note that Martens (131) credits Yoder, following Barth, with the view that the church “as an alternative community has a modeling mission” that “exemplifies sacramentality,” which would give rise to the movement in both directions: the church suggests what “the world can and should be” and that there might well, by virtue of messianic divine agency active providentially in the world, be secular analogues to this pattern. According to messianic apocalyptic criteria, this could only be considered worthy of doxological praise. But only if it were faithful to the inner and outer dimensions of what could therefore always be given a different interpretation.

  10. For my account of Benjamin’s Pauline messianism over against Nietzsche’s anti-Christian critique of Pauline messianism, see “Living ‘As If Not’: Messianic Becoming or the Practice of Nihilism?” in Paul, Philosophy and the Theopolitical Vision, ed. Douglas Harink (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010) 37–63.

  11. Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

  • Anthony Siegrist

    Anthony Siegrist


    A Reply to Travis Kroeker

    It is interesting, particularly given the context of your comments on pietism, that one of Barth’s longest discussions of the elder Blumhardt occurs as an explanation of his use of the phrase “Jesus is Victor.” It is, after all, a political enough sounding phrase. Barth borrows it from a story Blumhardt apparently told of his community’s care for two troubled sisters, Gottliebin and Katherina. The phrase was spoken by the latter, not as a declaration of control or objective confidence in divine providence, but as a “shriek” a “cry of despair” after a long struggle. Barth acknowledges that the story could be explained through the ancient mythology of demonic possession or through modern psychopathology—even both. Barth concludes his excurses this way: “Quite apart from the manner of its coming or the resultant interpretations, the really strange element is to be found in the utterance at the conclusion of this thing which is new, or which declared itself anew, and therefore in the cry which was then uttered and which came as a summons to Blumhardt, to his age, and to ourselves as its successors. The only question which is finally relevant in relation to the incident is the spiritual one whether or not we will hear this saying (CD, IV.3.1, 168-171).” The positioning of Barth’s account and his use of the phrase can open up any number of lines of thought, but it is striking given the general allergy both he and Yoder have toward pietism or personal testimony. Among other things, the story troubles any implied divorce of the social from the personal or the outer from the inner. It shows as well the ambiguous character of divine providence—perhaps a parable of history. I wonder if it is too strong to consider it a figure of the sort of weak messianic apocalypticism you wish to see in Yoder.

    • Travis Kroeker

      Travis Kroeker


      A Reply to Anthony Siegrist

      Lovely story, Anthony, many thanks for sharing it. I have 2 brief responses, one from Paul and one from Kierkegaard. Paul of course famously said “when I am weak I am strong.” He will not build a messianic identity or politics based on a glorification of mastery rooted in human appeals to wisdom and power as divine attributes, or even to human experience of the ineffable (a “possessive mysticism” we might call it). For Paul the word of the cross is the only possible power, and its scandal is that it disrupts the humanist appeals of the wise and the strong—here I (and I hope Barth too) would be wary of “explanatory” claims, whether of the psychotherapeutic kind or that of exorcists, if they are taking their stand on gnoetic expertise. I like Barth’s appeal to the “strange” overcoming brought by the messiah (for Benjamin too, the messiah comes not only as redeemer but as the overcomer of Antichrist). The other suggestive point in your comment is one related to Kierkegaard’s claim that the voice of demonic despair is closest to faith, that passion that relates the human person to the divine—an overwhelming vocation that can only be assumed “as not,” in a dispossessive “use” of the world in keeping with its true condition of passing away. In fact, in Barth’s use of the language of parable in the section of the Romerbrief called “The Problem of Ethics” does he not tie this explicitly to I Cor. 7:31, “the form of the world passes away,” and so the ethical form that bears witness can only be “offered up” sacrificially? Demonic despair can only be overcome by divine love.

Paul Martens


On Cheese, Foundationalism, and Apocalyptic Messianism

A Few Further Comments on The Heterodox Yoder

IN THE PAST YEAR, John Howard Yoder has again become the focus of much attention in theological circles because of his intimate extra-marital relations. This attention, however, has pretty much nothing to do with The Heterodox Yoder, which I assumed had already become passé and irrelevant. Therefore, it is with considerable surprise and gratitude that I welcome the generous responses offered here by Anthony Siegrist, Paul Doerksen, and Travis Kroeker. In the following, I hope to honor their engagements by offering a few clarifications and further gestures towards understanding and living with the theological legacy of John Howard Yoder.

Before getting too carried away, however, I want to note that I appreciate Siegrist’s introductory cheese illustration and I think it points in the right direction.1 To end speculation about the cheese question, I admit I have had an affinity for Bothwell SqueaK’rs and Havarti in the past, but I have also developed quite an appetite for Jalapeño Jack . . . and everything in Texas needs to be stored in the fridge if it is to remain edible—I suspect one could read into that what one wants.

On a more serious note, however, let me begin to respond with an admission, namely, I readily admit that the title of the book is ambiguous, potentially misleading, and—unfortunately—it has frequently allowed readers to over-simplify and even miss the argument I was seeking to articulate. Further, I am sure that I have not sufficiently defined the term, although I wonder whether the term can, in fact, be sufficiently defined. It is as much a provocative gesture as it is a definitive conclusion. That said, I am grateful that all three of the respondents have grasped what I was gesturing towards (and Kroeker especially provides a most sympathetic description of the line between orthodoxy and heresy I was attempting to name). Whether the orthodoxy/heterodoxy/heresy criterion is the best measure of Yoder’s thought is an open question, but perhaps a bit of background will help explain my selection (even if it does not justify the selection).

I chose the term, for the most part, in response to intra-Mennonite debates about the relationship between Anabaptists and “Constantinian” or “mainstream” Christianity that developed over the last couple of decades. The importance or even validity of the Christian creeds was one foci of this conversation, but the deeper issue seemed to be the question of whether “Constantinianism” had so qualitatively deformed “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity that Anabaptists could not claim to be its heirs. At one pole of this debate, A. James Reimer sought to illuminate Anabaptism’s deep dependence upon the larger Christian tradition;2 at the other pole, J. Denny Weaver sought to redefine Anabaptism against the larger tradition using nonviolence as the determinative criterion.3 The former sought to resist what he saw as Yoder’s reduction of Christianity to ethics; the latter simply claimed to be following Yoder’s lead. Of course, this debate was not primarily about Yoder, but the entire discourse was haunted by and perhaps even indebted to his thought. Craig Carter and Mark Thiessen Nation, in their own ways,4 also provided portraits of Yoder that were strongly opposed to versions of Weaver’s narration. In doing so, they seemed implicitly to include Yoder in the narration offered by Reimer, and their writings on Yoder have been employed to that end.

*   *   *

The Heterodox Yoder was, therefore, intended as an intervention into this deeply divided discourse, an intervention that argued Yoder cannot easily be aligned with the “Anabaptism as orthodox Christianity” agenda of Reimer or the “Anabaptism against orthodox Christianity” of Weaver. Rather, it intended to argue that Yoder’s theology is ambiguously related (yet still related!) to traditional or orthodox Christianity because of Yoder’s mode of theological reasoning. To make this case, however, required a reading of Yoder that challenged the popular interpretations offered by Nation and Carter (which has also been overtly affirmed by Stanley Hauerwas, Glen Stassen, James McClendon, and others), a reading that reflected the diversity and development within Yoder’s corpus.5 Against the grain of what I understood to be the pervasive regulative framework for reading Yoder, The Heterodox Yoder also offered a heterodox strategy for reading Yoder’s corpus that both Siegrist and Doerksen summarize well. And, in doing so, this little provocation concerning Yoder seems to have accidentally backed into a readership beyond the Anabaptist world that has challenged and enriched the discourse immensely.6

That said, let me turn to the two strongest challenges that have emerged in the responses and address them somewhat discretely. I will begin with Doerksen’s question concerning foundationalism, which then naturally leads to Kroeker’s messianic suggestions.

  1. Yoder as Foundationalist . . . and does it matter?Doerksen’s response provides a very sympathetic summary of my critique of Yoder and then states that “if Yoder is actually foundationalist, and if Martens is right about the dimensions of Yoder’s thought that are constitutive of his foundations, then Martens’s criticisms and charge of heterodoxy would have more purchase.” He then argues that Yoder is not a foundationalist and, therefore, the book falls short of its goal because “the particularity of Jesus in the Incarnation is basic to understanding what things mean.”

This last claim by Doerksen sounds almost like he too is imputing at least a weak form of foundationalism to Yoder that would find sympathies within Reformed epistemology. But, whatever the case may be, perhaps I ought to note that I neither argue that Yoder is a foundationalist nor do I think my critique is dependent upon that claim. Certainly, I refer to Yoder’s “foundational theological commitments”—namely particular definitions of discipleship and expressions of community—but I think it is pretty clear in the context of the second chapter that, whether Yoder represents a form of “foundationalism” or “coherentism,” my point is that all of his other theological claims align with and affirm the theological commitments outlined there. Therefore, I think Doerksen’s distinction is a distinction without a difference in this case.

That said, what I think Doerksen is attempting to accomplish with this distinction is to separate the claims I make about Yoder’s foundational commitments—that is, they are reducible to ethics—from what he takes to be a more basic claim, the claim that “the particularity of Jesus in the Incarnation is basic to understanding what things mean, what is to be spoken, things that must be tested at the bar not so much of relevance as resonance with the person of Jesus.”7

But, it is precisely this distinction between the incarnation of Jesus and an ethical reduction that I think is impossible for Yoder given his understanding of Jesus, the one who displays the unity between himself and the first person of the Trinity as a unity of “will and action” (29)8—an ethical unity . . . and this is precisely the point of the book. For example, Yoder claims that “repentance means ethics” and “faith means discipleship” (30) and that “the Christian life is defined most basically in ethical terms” (24). Even the claim “Jesus is Lord” is defined most basically an ethical claim, a claim that reinscribes the ethics of Christians in terms of a different understanding of history and effectiveness. In short, the logic of the claim can be described as follows: a) the will and action of the Messiah—the ethical example of Jesus—reveals the nature of God and it is the standard by which Christians must learn to see the movement of history;b) history is governed by “spiritual and providential laws which we expect to see at work in this system [which] are as solid for the believer as are the laws of dialectical materialism for the Marxist;”9 c) uniting the solid laws at work in history and the example of Jesus, the Christian’s “readiness to renounce . . . legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes . . . participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb;”10 which then leads to d) the culminating doxology of The Politics of Jesus:

A social style characterized by the creation or a new community and the rejection of violence of any kind is the theme of the New Testament proclamation from beginning to end, from right to left. The cross of Christ is the model of Christian social efficacy, the power of God for those who believe. Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow.11

Therefore, I would argue that it is impossible, even in The Politics of Jesus, to insulate the incarnation of Jesus from reduction to a social style—the social style is the proclamation of the New Testament—in which the cross is not merely turned into a model of social efficacy, the cross is the model of social efficacy. This is the basic theological commitment, which is one more way of displaying the claim that “the Christian life is defined most basically in ethical terms”. . . only, in this case, the particularity of Jesus is reduced to renouncing legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means, which “itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.” And, because of this, I am not convinced that any theological claims made by Yoder—even those dependent upon “the man Jesus and the cross” (to use Doerksen’s phrase)—can escape, by their very nature, a reduction to ethics.12

Of course, the above is merely an illustration of an element of the argument that is developed more fully in The Heterodox Yoder with reference to a much broader swath of his corpus. And further, I should also note the fact that Yoder reduces theology to ethics is, to me, only part of the difficulty with Yoder’s theological legacy. What also concerns me are a) the lack of humility evident in the assumption that the New Testament can be “captured” or “secured” by a single ethical or “social blueprint” (142);13 and b) the fact that the tools are all in place for reversing the process, for recreating theology that serves the newly discovered, single ethical or social blueprint (and this is the project that Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement openly espouses). There is another way to engage Yoder’s ethical reduction critically—that is, to ask whether the mystery of embodied, intimate desire is absent from Yoder’s “theological-political nexus,” to use the terminology of Kroeker—and I will take it up in the context of Kroeker’s appeal to messianism at this point. In this context, I will indicate the final concern I have with Yoder: (c) a personal God eventually disappears in Yoder’s theological logic.


Is Messianic Apocalypticism the Answer?In a slightly different vein, Kroeker attempts to relativize the orthodoxy/heterodoxy/heresy criterion by asking a different governing question: “is Jesus of Nazareth the messianic revelation of divine, cosmic sovereignty in the human world?” I agree with Kroeker that this is the kind of question Yoder would ask, and I am also quite sympathetic to asking the question in this way. Further, I would even be willing to go a long way with Kroeker in affirming that the generalizability of Jesus’ historical claims does not necessarily undercut their particularity. But, I think Kroeker and I part ways here: we disagree on what is meant by the claim that “following the humble speech and life of Jesus” is the crucial point of departure for Yoder’s messianic apocalypticism.

In The Heterodox Yoder, I argue that following the pattern displayed in the humble speech and life of Jesus is the crucial point of departure, but this was possible for Jeremianic Jews long before the birth of Jesus, as it was for Mahatma Gandhi and Václav Havel who had merely read about Jesus. In the mature thought of Yoder, pursuit of this “organic logic of history,”14 this grain of the universe, is articulated as God’s purpose for the world . . . and that is what it means to claim that “God is sovereign over history”15 . . . and this is functionally no different from the messianic claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Or, as Yoder intimates in relation to the original meaning of the practice of Eucharist, “it helps to have gone through an exodus or a Pentecost together, but neither the substance nor the pertinence of the vision is dependent upon a particular faith” (137). And, it is at this point I think that it becomes evident that Yoder loses the particularity of Jesus. Yes, Yoder maintains a particular politics, but, in the solid spiritual and providential laws of the single universe (to use the language of The Politics of Jesus), the man Jesus becomes what Kierkegaard would call a “vanishing point.” And, as I previously indicated in response to Branson Parler, Kierkegaard is helpful here in pointing out the final challenge of Yoder’s theology. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard articulates what I take to be the problem with Yoder’s reasoning and I will simply paraphrase Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel with reference to Yoder:

The truth of the grain of the universe is true by its being traced back to Jesus, but in this truth one does not enter into a relation with Jesus but into a relation with the grain of the universe. If in this connection one then says that it is the logos that enlightens everyone [and Yoder does claim this],16 one is actually pronouncing only a tautology, inasmuch as the logos in a totally abstract sense is here understood as the divine—that is, the providential laws of the single universe, that is, the deep logic in the nature of things, that is, the politics of Jesus. Jesus comes to be an invisible vanishing point; his power is only in the ethical, which fills all of existence. Insofar as someone might wish to love Jesus in another way, that person would be unfaithful.17

Therefore, I think Kroeker’s attempt to supplement Yoder’s apocalyptic messianism with an account of desire and mystery is going to be insufficient even if well-intended. In Yoder’s mature theology, there is no personal God to desire; there is no communication with God in prayer; there is no place for Augustinian eros; there is no mystery left, since “the mystery of Christ” “is now visible for all to see because the acting out of what was planned is itself its revelation.”18 Admittedly, one might still argue that the “crucified Messiah even now exercises real, living cosmic sovereignty,”19 and Yoder himself claims that God is active in the sacraments. I would answer, however, that Yoder’s God is, precisely in this way, bound to, limited to, and identified as human social ethics: the practice of Yoder’s sacraments—that is, “social processes”—“are actions of God, in and with, through and under what men and women do. Where they are happening, the people of God is real in the world.”20 And, in relation to this claim, I am convinced that his corpus leads to at least two corollaries, even if the corollaries are not deductively necessary entailments, namely: (1) where these social processes are not happening, the people of God is not real in the world, and that (2) where these social processes are not happening, God is not real in the world. Or, in Kierkegaard’s terms, God has become an invisible vanishing point.

Unfortunately, this is a rather stark conclusion that saddens me immensely. I think stating this conclusion is necessary, however, in order to challenge what I take to be the current tendency (at least in Anabaptist circles) to elevate social ethics as quickly as possible without counting the costs. And, in stating this conclusion, I hope my general agreement with Siegrist and my sympathies with the challenges raised by Kroeker and Doerksen are understood. That said, I think that Yoder’s reduction of theology to ethics is deeper and more infectious than either Kroeker or Doerksen, and I have attempted to respond by illustrating and punctuating what I have argued more carefully in The Heterodox Yoder. That is, of course, not to say that elements of Yoder’s thought cannot be used in service of an apocalyptic messianism, or that elements of Yoder’s thought cannot play a significant role in answering many of modernity’s theological challenges that continue to haunt us in various ways.

Siegrist, in his concluding section, perceptively notes that what I draw upon in Yoder’s thought does not represent the entire story displayed in his corpus. To say that there are “two Yoders” may be a bit strong, but to acknowledge that there are elements and even trajectories in his thought that resist this reduction is important. By this point, however, I suspect it is clear I think there is a dominant strand in Yoder’s theology, namely, the mode of theological reasoning that defines the overarching theological metanarrative and contextualizes and limits the resistance to it one finds internal to Yoder’s thought (and, for lack of a better term, I think this dominant strand is heterodox). Articulating the nuances of the relationship between the dominant and resistant strains in Yoder’s thought is not possible here and, to that end, I simply refer to my initial reflections in “On Being an Olive Branch,” which is forthcoming in The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning.21

To end on a self-referential note, even if an attempt to further conversation, is totally bad form and for that I apologize. So, let me close in gratitude by once again thanking Siegrist, Doerksen, and Kroeker for their perceptive challenges and provocations. Thank you.


  1. I believe the marketing guru Siegrist refers to here is Clotaire Rapaille. See http:/C:/dev/home/

  2. See, for example, A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics(Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2001).

  3. See, for example, J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

  4. See Mark Thiessen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) and Craig A. Carter, The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001).

  5. I readily recognize that Yoder provided a power articulation of nonviolence for a generation of Christians in the aftermath of the Vietnam war—there is a reason The Politics of Jesus has sold as many copies as it has. He also provided very helpful insights for Christians seeking to be freed from the dominant Niebuhrian discourse of the day. But, this is not the whole story—it is the Disney “happily-ever-after” version of the story. The Heterodox Yoder does not attempt to deny Yoder’s contributions to these ends. Rather, the book assumes this task has been done and it then seeks to acknowledge that Yoder’s theological contributions, as Doerksen notes, are blind to some of the other temptations of modernity.

  6. As I see it, more than a provocation concerning Yoder’s thought is nearly impossible at this time for several reasons, including: 1) we are still so close to Yoder that much of the interpretation is determined by selective personal interaction with Yoder (both positive and negative); and 2) there are still many thing that was do not really know or understand about Yoder’s life and thought (and his correspondence and posthumous publications are beginning to flesh this out).

  7. I also think this is the sort of distinction that Kroeker is attempting with his appeal to messianism and I will turn to that alternative in the next section.

  8. All page references in the text are references to page numbers in The Heterodox Yoder.

  9. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 242. In Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992), Yoder will also refer to this as the “deep logic in the nature of things” (p. 79).

  10. Ibid., 237.

  11. Ibid., 242.

  12. The same logic applies to Yoder’s sacraments, and Siegrist gets to the heart of the problem when he asks whether Yoder’s sacraments actually remain “signs,” whether God’s work in any way extends beyond the practice itself, if there is any denotatum. I will return to this theme at the end of my comments.

  13. Siegrist is again on the right track when he notes Yoder’s need for humility. I have attended to this theme in more detail in terms of Yoder’s engagement with Jewish-Christian relations in a forthcoming essay in The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning—“On Being an Olive Branch.”

  14. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World(Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992) 80.

  15. John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 67.

  16. See John Howard Yoder, “The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism,” in Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace, eds. Louise Hawkley and James C. Junke (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993) 35.

  17.  See

  18. John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1985) 109.

  19. P. Travis Kroeker, “Is a Messianic Political Ethic Possible? Recent Work by and about John Howard Yoder,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33:1 (2005) 144.

  20. Yoder, Body Politics, 72–73.

  21.  In that essay I also engage Yoder’s exegetical method more deeply than I have in The Heterodox Yoder, and Kroeker is right to raise Yoder’s use of Scripture as a critical component in any evaluation of Yoder’s thought.

  • Travis Kroeker

    Travis Kroeker


    A Reply to Paul Martens

    I think Martens and I have quite different aims in mind. I have no real interest in “supplementing” Yoder’s theology by “adding” on an Augustinian or Kierkegaardian erotic charge. Rather I am interested in exploring what I take it Yoder was also interested in, what might a messianic political theology look like if the incarnation of divine logos were to be taken with material-spiritual seriousness? It seems to me this is the spirit in which to engage Yoder’s work, which I think is much less abstract and less “world-historical” in its rational translation of all truth into Sittlichkeit than Hegel’s, precisely because Yoder takes seriously the humble gait of Scripture and the Jesus of the gospels. In this regard I think Yoder was also much more modest than Barth (and not only because he had reason to be!). He was above all concerned to address what he took to be a huge blind spot in mainstream (“orthodox”?) Christianity regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and its social and political implications. I certainly don’t think his contribution was theologically or ethically comprehensive, nor do I think he thought it ought to be (was he different from the more Hegelian Barth in this regard?). The last thing I would hope to be is “Yoderian” (and I think Yoder in his better moments would have applauded this), even if I seem always yet again condemned to be asked to write something about him!

    • Paul Doerksen

      Paul Doerksen


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      Hello Paul,

      I agree that Yoder’s thought can be used in service of apocalyptic messianism, and in answering some of modernity’s challenges, but to say it like that still seems to me to be a reductionistic reading of Yoder. You have identified a basic disagreement here—you see Yoder’s reduction of theology to ethics as deeper and more infectious than Travis or I do, but here I agree with the comment above, namely that Yoder was interested in addressing a huge blind spot in mainstream Christianity—I for one don’t see Yoder’s work treating God as an invisible vanishing point—for him (Yoder, just to be clear), God is patient, God calls out a people, etc., etc. I sometimes think about the question that Stanley Hauerwas has raised about his own work; that is, the question of whether or not that work would simply collapse if God was taken out of it. I think Yoder’s work would collapse if that were to be (or could be) done. Nonetheless, I want to reiterate what I hope has remained clear throughout my comments—the kind of work you’ve done here Paul, is important in resisting our proud tendencies to exert control that is not ours to control—a temptation that is afoot in Yoder’s work and legacy.

    • Paul Martens

      Paul Martens


      A Reply to Travis Kroeker


      Again, let me begin with thanks—your initial response and this further comment illustrate clearly your patience and care with these matters.

      Further, I also want to acknowledge that Paul D. is certainly right that I understand Yoder’s reduction to be deeper and more infectious than both of you do, and I think that difference plays itself out in several of our areas of disagreement. One of these differences concerns the extent to which addressing the “huge blind spot in mainstream Christianity” fundamentally shapes the way Yoder reasons theologically. Or, to restate, I have come to the conclusion that Yoder’s attempt to provide a corrective to what he sees as lacking in mainstream Christianity inadvertently yet eventually becomes the tail that wags the dog, so to speak. What I mean is that his corrective evolves and develops its own justifying comprehensive vision (and here I take the Jewish-Christian writings and his continued reflections on the sacraments to be revealing). And, this is why I’m less convinced that Yoder continues to have the patience for “the humble gait of Scripture” or humility before “the hiddenness of divine wisdom.”

      That said, I am in agreement with you in that I also don’t think Yoder’s contribution was theologically or ethically comprehensive, but for me that is a more of a value-judgment and less of a contextualizing description.

    • Travis Kroeker

      Travis Kroeker


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      Thanks, Paul, I appreciate your response. I had thought I would cut the Barth cheese (I think of it as a “Tomme”) and see what might happen. But you are (rightly) very clearly focused on Yoder. Let me put Yoder back in the fridge, then, with this comment–that I think a value-judgment is still very much a contextualization, and it is why Yoder was a theological ethicist and not a systematician.

    • Paul Martens

      Paul Martens


      A Reply to Travis Kroeker

      Ha—love it! And, I agree with your last point…and the suggestion that Barth opens up aromas that are not sufficiently present in Yoder. On that point, however, I am totally prepared to defer to others (like McKenny, for example) because they have gone much further than I down that road.


    • Anthony Siegrist

      Anthony Siegrist


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      Paul M., Yes, I think you’re right with the link to the Frontline documentary and Rapaille. That documentary is something of a classic bit of cultural commentary.

      Thanks again for your contribution to the study of Yoder’s work. As I hinted at in my initial essay, I do think your book will become an essential part of the secondary literature future Yoder scholars will need to engage. I am less convinced than some that Yoder’s work will continue it’s recent level of popularity. The limiting factor will not be his “extra-marital intimate relationships” but his hyper-protestant ecclesiology. However, for what it’s worth, I’m also not convinced that Yoder’s (apparently) immoral and manipulative intimate relationships are irrelevant to the development of his theology–perhaps not central, but surely not irrelevant. He rationalized this part of his life theologically, which does show a weakness, not just a personal weakness related to desire but a weakness in the structure of his moral theology. Maybe it is a vulnerability carried by a fixation with the ‘radical,’ and all the reactionary impulses that term lets loose. I don’t think there’s a need to pursue that conversation here, but it would seem strange to leave our treatment of it with the words “passé” and “irrelevant.”

    • Anthony Siegrist

      Anthony Siegrist


      A Reply to Paul Martens

      After reading over my comments above, I realize it may not be obvious that I describe Yoder’s ecclesiology as “hyper-protestant” knowingly. After all, it is precisely the strong, catholic character of his ecclesiology that many of us find helpful. As I alluded to in my initial essay, The Heterodox Yoder has reminded me of just how very Protestant in form certain elements of Yoder’s ecclesiology are, mainly the repetitive critique of mainstream Christianity. Such critiques too easily become imprecise ciphers in much the same way that various theologians have tried to “de-Hellenize” Christian theology. We should worry that strong uses of apocalyptic do essentially the same thing. Albert Borgmann describes something similar when he speaks of “regardless power.” He’s mostly thinking of technology and analogous deployments of cogent or efficient argumentation. But theology, and its sub disciplines like ecclesiology, are similarly susceptible.

    • Paul Martens

      Paul Martens


      A Reply to Anthony Siegrist

      Thanks Anthony—yes, I also think his extra-marital relationships are deeply intertwined with aspects of his theology (and I’ve been working on that question for a bit) . . . and I hope that is also to say that my opening remarks probably sound more glib than they were meant. But, I also think that elements of those relationships were simply sinful, the result of a profoundly disordered desire. But, that is one further reason why I am so concerned about the lack of attention to inwardness and desire in his theology (especially as this is mirrored in the broader tendency to reformulate Christian ethics as politics). And, it is this sort of crippling moral reflection (i.e. the limiting of moral reflection to power, politics, and social processes) that I take to be the concern expressed in Steve Dintaman’s “The Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,” for example . . . and in the outpouring of support that followed.