A little while ago, I finished reading the second to last chapter of The Politics of Jesus. The chapter is titled, “Justification by Grace through Faith.” In broad terms, Yoder began by tracing the political relevance of Jesus through the gospel of Luke and then turned the corner to address the issue of the so-called disjunction between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Paul. Now in this, the 11th chapter of 12, he addresses the hallmark Pauline doctrine of justification. Sadly, this chapter shows more of the unfortunate tendency to throw babies out with bathwater, a tendency which appeared somewhere along the middle of the book.
What is most disconcerting is that the baby in this case is something even more central to evangelical Christianity than was the issue of cross-bearing—if you can imagine that. This time, Dr. Yoder was challenging the essential soteriological motif of justification by faith, or least that understanding of it which all of us evangelicals have inherited for at least the last 500 years.
Borrowing heavily from the work of four NT scholars, Yoder makes a case that the theology of Paul, and the doctrine of justification in particular, is not about the relationship of the sinner to God, but about the community of reconciled Jews and Gentiles.
The final paragraph of the chapter is worth quoting at length:
Perhaps a retrospective word should extend to all of this section on the thought of Paul what was said with regard to “justification.” My presentation, in order to correct for 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 the shaker of the foundations, not only as 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 in 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 he may not be seen as sovereign, or that because he is seen as the Word made flesh he cannot be seen as a normative person. (p.226)
Yoder makes direct reference to this paragraph in the epilogue on the next page, which he wrote in the 1994 edition: “The last paragraph of the above text should perhaps have been placed at a more prominent place in the book. Some readers, who missed that paragraph or did not believe it, have described The Politics of Jesus as reductionistic or materialistic, some intending that description as praise, but more of them as blame.” (p.227)
I have to say that this seems to represent much of my own response to certain major aspects of the book. I believe Dr. Yoder meant what he said in the paragraph, but he seems to have missed the fact that so much of what he says all through much of the book belies it. I do see many of his thrusts in the book as reductionistic. He casts the idea of cross-bearing discipleship as ONLY being about social ethics and says that the more spiritual and pastoral understandings are nice, but not biblical. In this chapter on justification, he makes the Pauline doctrine of justification out to be ONLY about social reconciliation, and not really at all about individual salvation from sin. In fact, he reduces Paul’s own transparency about his own struggles with sin to a ridiculous degree. Observe: “What then is Paul’s understanding of sin? When he does speak of himself as a serious sinner at all, this is not because of his existential anguish under the righteousness of God in general, but very specifically because, not having recognized that Messiah had come in Jesus, he had persecuted the church and fought the opening of God’s covenant to the Gentiles.” (p.217)
Now, it may be that Yoder is merely faithfully expressing the view of Stendahl here, but it does not appear to be so. Rather, he seems to be expressing the view that he shares with Stendahl. In any case, it is a view so short-sighted as to be ridiculous. The deeply personal struggle with the sin in his heart which Paul shows in Romans 7—and which, incidentally, does not bear any direct connection to the issue of Gentile inclusion or any of that, but instead points to coveting as the specific example (v.7)—is obviously showing his personal, “existential” agony over his own sin and guilt.
When combined with his narrowing of the treatment of the disciple’s cross to ONLY being about following Jesus in the sense of an earthly, social, political stand, one might almost accuse Yoder of recasting the old example theory of the atonement, which also is inadequate because of its reductionism.
This bums me out mainly because it is liable to reduce the over all usefulness of Yoder’s work in the life of the church. He has such great and important things to teach us, but the reductionist problem diminishes how well he might be received by many. My guess is that this is a major cause of the fact that The Politics of Jesus, though legend among a certain kind of academics, never received much attention in the broader church. On the back of the book itself is the following blurb written by Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary: “Although most Catholics, Calvinists and Christian realists will remain skeptical of Yoder’s view of Jesus and of politics, we are always challenged by him. This new edition includes acute responses to many critics. It will keep the discussion vibrant as Christians today decide how to engage our emerging cosmopolitan, global civilization.” I find this very sad, because much of the skepticism might have been avoided, if only the presentation had been balanced better.
As for the charge of materialism, I do not know what others whom Yoder actually read meant by that term in reference to this book; but I have an idea of my own. Insofar as he makes these doctrines be ONLY about the life of the church in this world, and not about spiritual realities, he can be seen as presenting a materialistic picture of the Bible’s message. But to me, this shows through in a more important and underlying way throughout the book.
As Yoder discusses the relationship of the Jesus of the gospels to the Christ of Paul’s letters (and other such issues of connectivity through the Scriptures), he seems to be assuming a critical stance which is seen in so much biblical scholarship and which is quasi-confessional at best. That is, the role of the Holy Spirit is utterly forgotten. Yoder seems to think that to establish a connection between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Paul, he needs to make arguments from history and the literature itself—all of which is fine, of course. But there is never any acknowledgement of that fact that the same divine Spirit is at work in all these Scriptures so that we who would follow the political Jesus, whom Yoder is showing us in the gospel of Luke, can begin with the assumption that Paul is not preaching a different Jesus. It is clear enough that Yoder is not just theorizing but calling the church really to be faithful to the Lord according to the actual teaching of the Bible, but he seems to think he needs to leave the discussion at a scholarly critical level (maybe so as to be received by a wider scholarly audience). The ultimate effect of this is that the power of us his book for helping the church is greatly reduced in power.
It seems then that, like so many other things, the teaching work of John Howard Yoder must be held up as truly great and defended primarily against the unfortunate aspects inherent within it. Let me say without equivocation, though, that it is well worth the effort needed to assay the gold and strain away the dross. There are real riches to be gained.