Why I’m Reading This Book
John Howard Yoder is a name I’ve seen a lot in the past eight years as I’ve waded into theological waters from the shores of more than a few theological islands. And I’ve read a little of his work, but not his most famous book The Politics of Jesus. I’ve always appreciated the Anabaptist approach to both biblical interpretation and ethics so I guess it seems fitting to finally read the preeminent Anabaptist study on these two disciplines.
While I do not plan to agree, or for that matter understand, everything Yoder says I will approach this read through intent on learning. And, of course, I am really reading this book because it supports my preexisting biases and I hope to sharpen them. If you read my chapter reviews and wish to challenge ideas, thoughts, or beliefs please feel free to do so respectively. I plan to read through this book at whatever rate suites me so if there are long breaks between posts don’t be surprised. In the end, I am writing here hoping that the process will help me better understand this important theological work.
Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic
Yoder begins his work begging for critique as he explains that what he is trying to do is best done through an amateur approach to two disciplines: biblical exegesis and ethics. He reasons that because such a large chasm exists between these two disciplines getting bogged down in either would do a disservice to the thrust of his argument.
And the thrust of his argument is this: Jesus’ life and work has significant implications on social ethics and that when understood He is, “not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.” In other words, although Jesus came for reasons that have spiritual significance, He also came to show us what a standard Christian life should look like in regards to politics and society. So far this seems to be a book written against Protestantism’s tendency to understand Jesus’ teaching and actions as only having spiritual significance rather than concrete human significance. This, he argues, is to emphasize the divinity of Jesus while ignoring His humanity.
Yoder contends that in mainstream Christian ethics, Jesus is not the norm and gives six explanations that are used to excuse Jesus from being our ethical standard. They are as follows:
1. Jesus was not concerned with the “survival of the structures of a solid society” because he thought the world would end soon and as a result only a spiritual purpose and teaching had any pressing significance.
2. Jesus’ ethic was one that had only a rural village sociology and therefore had nothing to say about, “the problems of complex organization, of institutions and offices, cliques and power and crowds.”
3. “Jesus and his early followers lived in a world over which they had no control.” As a result, the focus was on being a faithful minority whereas Christians today face questions that were inconceivable to Jesus so his teaching has nothing to say about our complex modern context.
4. Jesus was not interested in social change but in “a new self-understanding” and all of His ethical teachings were “the symbolic or mythical clothing of his spiritual message.”
5. Jesus pointed people away from finite values towards God’s infinite and sovereign values making anything here and now of little to no importance.
6. Jesus came only to give his life for the sins of the world, so how he died, what he did, and what he said before the crucifixion is “ethically immaterial.” Only the dying for sins to bring eternal life matters.
As a result of these six reasons, says Yoder, any ethic we create is founded on common sense, responsibility, and reason. If this is true then the way in which Christ followers live in the world today is determined more by culture and by preference than by a Jesus shaped ethic, provided that a focus on the eternal/spiritual significance of the crucifixion remains. It is only the spiritual message of Jesus that matters.
Yoder explains that, in this line of reasoning, to create a social ethic one must cross a narrow bridge from Jesus’ context to our own:
“A certain very moderate amount of freight can be carried across this bridge: perhaps a concept of absolute love or humility or faith or freedom. But the substance of ethics must be reconstructed on our side of the bridge.”
In other words, we can take samples of Jesus’ ethic and apply them to our context but Jesus life and teachings are not the standard by which we form our own ethic.
This leads to a conundrum – mainly that Matthew wrote his gospel, it seems, intent on communicating a “simple kind of ethical catechism.” For Matthew, Jesus was teaching a way to live. If the line of reasoning is followed one must assume that Matthew misunderstood Jesus. But for those who seem to think that he did, Paul comes to the rescue. Paul, Yoder quips, “corrected the tendency to neo-Judaism or to early catholicism by an emphasis upon the priority of grace and the secondary significance of works, so that ethical matters could never be taken too seriously.” Jesus did not come, as Matthew seems to suggest, in order to give us a social ethic, but to teach that works, and therefor ethics, are secondary at best to God’s grace. Paul goes further by clarifying that Jesus actually has “positive respect for the institutions of society, even the subordination of woman and slavery; acceptance of the divinely sanctioned legitimacy of the Roman government…” Once Paul is understood Matthew is then read and interpreted through a Pauline lens, rather than the other way around.
Yoder admits that the above rejection of Jesus as normative for our social ethic is “hastily sketched” but contends that this the common approach to Christian ethics.
He ends with the contention that Jesus can, in fact, be normative for a social ethic meaning that he came not only to save us from our sins, to die on the cross, but to be in the world in a particular way that has significance even today.
Because of the arduous task before him Yoder, admittedly, builds some arguments from generalizations and assumptions. These might be worth identifying but that they are generalizations and assumptions probably does little to take away from his central argument.
Next, chapter two….