The JUSTIFICATION of Yoder

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.

CROSS-examining Yoder

[This post is intended to be a reflective interaction with the quoted material in the previous post. It is not necessary—though I recommend it—that you should read all of that material before reading this post.]

When I consider the biblical notion of cross-bearing, so vividly stirred up by Yoder, it seems that a three-fold division emerges of what different Christians take to be the essence of cross-bearing discipleship. Each is discussed in the material I quoted from Yoder. Again, these would be three ways of understanding what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples:

1. Cross-bearing as ENDURING LIFE PAIN
This would mean that, as we encounter various difficulties in life such as illness, accidents, setbacks, relational problems, and emotional pain, we are able to see this as taking up our cross and following the Lord Jesus. Perhaps we or a loved one has cancer. Maybe we find ourselves in the dark cavern of depression. Maybe it’s divorce. For a great many of us nowadays, there is the terrible weight of ongoing joblessness. If we go through these things and heroically remain faithful, trusting the Lord, are we carrying our cross?
(See Yoder excerpt #s 8 and 10.)

2. Cross-bearing as PERSONAL SANCTIFICATION
Here we would think of the pains of mortifying our flesh, dying to self and living to God as the work of bearing our cross.
(See Yoder excerpt #s 8 and 11.)

3. Cross-bearing as ENDURING the WORLD’S HOSTILITY
This is the great emphasis found in all the quoted material from Yoder and one of the major ideas reflected throughout the whole section of The Politics of Jesus from which I have drawn those excerpts. (Note that the page numbers I have listed range from 37 to 130; this spans from chapter 2 to chapter 7.)

Where Yoder is RIGHT
As far as I’m concerned, Yoder’s affirmative point is utterly established as clear, biblical teaching. When the Scriptures call on us to carry our own cross and follow the Lord Jesus—i.e. to be His disciples—it means we are to “share in that style of life of which the cross is the culmination” (#2) and to be “willing for the sake of [our] calling to take upon [ourselves] the hostility of… society” (#1).
In Luke 14:27, our Lord says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” And Yoder is totally right in saying that the Lord intends this as a statement of political and social-ethical significance. This is the Lord’s “call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life” (#6).

Where Yoder is WRONG
The problem comes when Yoder makes the claim that ONLY the third category properly qualifies as cross-bearing.
What of the first one? Does the Scripture call on us to endure the pains of life in a way that looks to our Lord in faith? Of course! But is that fact sufficient to justify calling that endurance a way of bearing our cross? In the final analysis, I believe it is. The cross (together with the empty tomb) is the center point of our faith. It is also the center point of our Lord’s earthly mission. He came to redeem what had been lost and broken in the Fall. I am convinced that Genesis 3 teaches us that the Messiah will not only defeat the serpent but also reverse the curse such that the other aspects of our sad state are also addressed by His work as Savior. Man’s toil for food, the strife between men and women—all of it is to dealt with by the One who goes to the cross for us. Insofar as we still suffer the consequences of the Fall, we are afforded the opportunity to walk the road to Calvary with our Lord.
Consider the specific example of illness (see excerpt #s 8 and 10). It is the Lord Himself who teaches us to see a connection between His cross and our infirmities, both spiritual and physical. At Capernaum, as He is healing all who are ill, we are told that this is in fulfillment of the prophecy that “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases” (Matt. 8:16-17). This comes long before His crucifixion, but is linked, by way of the context of the passage in Isaiah to the Lord’s work at the cross.

And the second category? How is the cross related to our personal sanctification?
Yoder claims that the believer’s cross is not “an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with the self and sin” (see #8). And in a denial very closely related to this one, he says that it is not correct to use “cross” language in reference to “subjective brokenness, the renunciation of pride and self-will.” Conceding the great benefits of confession, he avers “that ‘cross’ is not the word for that in the New Testament” (see #11).
And yet, according to the apostle Paul, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified (read: cross-ified) the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The noun translated as “cross” throughout the NT is stauros, and the verb “to crucify” is stauroō. Actually, Dr. Yoder, “cross” IS the word for that in the New Testament.
Moreover, it is not necessary that the word “cross” be explicitly mentioned for us to connect the believer’s cross to the work of sanctification. What does Paul mean when he tells us that the key to our growth in Christ is to remember that we have died with Christ (e.g. Rom. 6; Col. 3:3,5)?
To see that the Lord’s cross—and consequently ours—as a political phenomenon which sets us in such relation to the world as to draw its hostility is to see a great biblical truth. To miss the fact that the Lord’s cross—and consequently, ours—is about salvation from sin and the putting off of the old man is to miss the forest for the seeing certain trees.

On Balance
It is terribly unfortunate, in my estimation that Dr. Yoder wrote about these matters as he did. What I find troubling is that I am reading his 1994 second edition in which he discusses at length the various bits of critical response he received to the original 1972 publication, and there is no mention of anyone challenging him at these points.
The Politics of Jesus is now legendary among a certain brand of theological thinker, and deservedly so. But it might have had an even wider circle of influence—to the great benefit of the church—had Yoder been able to show a balance as regards the cross. It is clear that he is responding to a number of errors in Christians thinking; in fact, he clearly explains that that is what he is doing in practically every section. But unfortunately, on this one point, he seems to have been so focused on recovering one aspect of a truth that he has sacrificed others.
How desperately we American Christians need to recover a biblical understanding of cross-bearing discipleship as being just that sort of social-political mission that Yoder pictures! We just don’t need to do so at the expense of the other facets of being in Christ.

Yoder, Still a Hero
A reader might get the impression that I am not much of a fan of Yoder. I want to be clear that that is far from true. Here and there, I find myself in disagreement with one of his points. But by and large, I can say with great delight, John Howard Yoder is one of my heroes in the faith. I only have two of his books as yet, but I already know that his thought has become for me one of the main lines of Christian engagement with life and the world. For example, when I listen to talk radio (both Christian and not), I find myself comparing what I hear to the things I have been learning from reading Yoder.

Further Significance of the Cross as Social Controversy
There is an interesting point to make regarding the teaching of Yoder and the believer’s cross as a decision to stand up with Jesus and challenge the powers of the world. Many of the emergent or quasi-emergent church leaders seem to be big fans of Yoder and The Politics of Jesus, in particular. But they too seem to have missed the point of the scandal of the cross that is shown therein. More on this later…

Yoder on the Politics of the Lord’s Cross… and the Suffering of the Christian

[Not that anyone would necessarily notice, but in case you did… Yes, I have moved this post up to most current. I have done so in order to have it be right next to the one I am about to work on, which will interact with it. 😉 ]

What follows is a string of eleven quotations from the first half or so of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I have numbered these with bold numerals for the purpose of referring back to them in an upcoming post. I do not know when I will be able to write it, but I hope to address these ideas from Yoder with a critique that is both positive and negative.
I have not put these quotations in the gray block-quote boxes that I usually use, because those convert the whole text to italics, and I want to preserve the emphases italicized by Yoder himself.
Anyway, for now, here are the Yoder quotes:

1
It is just when “great multitudes were accompanying him” that Jesus speaks his first severe public word of warning:
“If anyone does not hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters,
Yea, and even his own life,
He cannot be my disciple.”
Modern psychologizing interpretation of Jesus has been bothered largely with whether the word hate here should be taken seriously or not. This is certainly to miss the point of the passage. The point is rather that in a society characterized by very stable, religiously undergirded family ties, Jesus is here calling into being a community of voluntary commitment, willing for the sake of its calling to take upon itself the hostility of the given society.
(p.37)

2
[A]gain the point is not the tactical question, whether Jesus wanted many disciples or a few. What matters is the quality of life to which the disciple is called. The answer is that to be a disciple is to share in that style of life of which the cross is the culmination.
(p.38)

3
There are thus about the community of the disciples those sociological traits most characteristic of those who set about to change society: a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd. This life-style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behavior from that of “normal people,” but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed. The distinctness is not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the life of the world. It thereby constitutes an unavoidable challenge to the powers that be and the beginning of a new set of social alternatives.
(p.39)

4
[Referring to the exchange of Barabbas for Jesus]
This is another of those points where spiritualistic-apologetic exegesis has always emphasized that the Jews, or the Romans, or the Zealot-minded disciples, had Jesus all wrong; he never really meant to bother the established order. Then the illegality of the proceedings and the impropriety of the accusations must be demonstrated. Even then it would need to be explained why a Jesus whose main concern is to be apolitical would be misunderstood in just this way instead of some other way, and would not protect everyone against such a radical misconception of his intent. Granted, the trials as recounted are irregular in procedure, and normal due process according to either Jewish or Roman law might have disculpated Jesus by virtue of the lack of armed insurgent actions. Still the events in the temple court and the language Jesus used were not calculated to avoid any impression of insurrectionary vision. Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat. That the threat was not one of armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to irregular procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonorable men.
(p.49)

5
“We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (24:21) is not just one more testimony to the disciples’ obtuse failure to get Jesus’ real point; it is an eyewitness report of the way Jesus had been heard. Jesus’ rebuke to the unseeing pair on the road to Emmaus was not that they had been looking for a kingdom, and should not have been. Their fault is that, just like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, they were failing to see that the suffering of the Messiah is the inauguration of the kingdom. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” “Glory” here cannot mean the ascension, which has not been recounted yet, and in fact is not clearly described in Luke’s Gospel at all, although we know from Acts that Luke knew the tradition. Might it not then mean (as with the concept of “exaltation” in John’s Gospel) that the cross itself is seen as fulfilling the kingdom promise? Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour on the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.
(p.51)

6
Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may chose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics. At this one point there is no difference between the Jesus of Historie and the Christ of Geschichte, or between Christ as God and Jesus as Man, or between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus (or between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of history). No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.
(pp.52-3)

7
There is in the New Testament no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy, it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus. Even when Paul explains his own predilection for self-support there is no appeal to Jesus’ years as a village artisan. Even when the apostle argues strongly the case for his teaching authority, there is no appeal to the rabbinic ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ trade as a carpenter, his association with fishermen, and his choice of illustrations from the life of the sower and the shepherd have throughout Christian history given momentum to the romantic glorification of the handcrafts and the rural life; but there is none of this in the New Testament. It testifies throughout to the life and mission of a church going intentionally into the cities in full knowledge of the conflicts which awaited believers there. That the concept of imitation is notapplied by the New Testament at some of those points where Franciscan and romantic devotion has tried most piously to apply it, is all the more powerfully a demonstration of how fundamental the thought of participation in the suffering of Christ is when the New Testament church sees it as guiding and explaining her attitude to the powers of the world. Only at one point, only on one subject—but then consistently, universally—is Jesus our example: in his cross.
(p.95)

8
The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Müntzer’s or Zinzendorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross or Ahfechtung, an inward wresting of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. The Word:
“The servant is not greater than his master.
If they persecuted me they will persecute you.” (John 15:20)
is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.
(p.96)

9
Christian thought is accustomed to conceiving of “persecution” as a ritual or “religious” matter independent of any ethical import. Christians are made to suffer because they worship the true God; what has this to do with our study’s concern with an attitude to government, to violence, war, conflict? Is not being persecuted for the faith quite independent of social ethics?
Such a dichotomy between the religious and the social must be imported into the texts; it cannot be found there. The “cross” of Jesus was a political punishment; and when Christians are made to suffer by government it is usually because of the practical import of their faith, and the doubt they cast upon the rulers’ claim to be “Benefactor.”
(p.125)

10
One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource can there be than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God’s purposes, even meritorious in that “bearing one’s cross” is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.
Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of Scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering be innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God (I Pet. 2:18-21; 3:14-18; 4:1,13-16; 5:9; James 4:10).
(p.129)

11
The other direction in which “cross” language can evolve is that of subjective brokenness, the renunciation of pride and self-will. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together speaks of “breaking through to the cross” as occurring in confession. “In confession we affirm and accept our cross.” Our sharing in Christ’s death, he continues, is the “shameful death of the sinner in confession.” A similar thrust is typical of the Keswick family of renewal movements in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. We may agree that the humility of confession may be quite desirable for mental health, for group processes, and for the creation of community; but this should not keep us from realizing that “cross” is not the word for that in the New Testament.
(p.130)

What would Jesus ___________?

Whether we are directly moved into action by it or we astutely side-step it by saying it’s the wrong question, Sheldon’s classic query, “What would Jesus do?” seems to get us thinking, doesn’t it?
In recent years, I have heard different verbs placed at the end of this sentence. For example, you may have heard the question “What would Jesus drive?” which, I guess, is meant to suggest that SUVs are particularly unholy modes of transportation.
Apparently, the prophet Charles M. Schultz once wondered what Jesus would pet.

In a more serious way, many Christians through the ages have seen the sorts of things Jesus actually did do as being especially blessed occupations and activities. Does the fact that I spent 12+ years as a carpenter make me somehow especially holy? If so, the fact seems to be lost on me—as well as those who know me best.
All this comes to mind because of a passage I read this morning from John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. It really blew me away. I thought I would share it with you:

There is in the New Testament no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy, it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus. Even when Paul explains his own predilection for self-support there is no appeal to Jesus’ years as a village artisan. Even when the apostle argues strongly the case for his teaching authority, there is no appeal to the rabbinic ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ trade as a carpenter, his association with fishermen, and his choice of illustrations from the life of the sower and the shepherd have throughout Christian history given momentum to the romantic glorification of the handcrafts and the rural life; but there is none of this in the New Testament. It testifies throughout to the life and mission of a church going intentionally into the cities in full knowledge of the conflicts which awaited believers there. That the concept of imitation is not applied by the New Testament at some of those points where Franciscan and romantic devotion has tried most piously to apply it, is all the more powerfully a demonstration of how fundamental the thought of participation in the suffering of Christ is when the New Testament church sees it as guiding and explaining her attitude to the powers of the world. Only at one point, only on one subject—but then consistently, universally—is Jesus our example: in his cross.

Yoder on the OPTION to Follow Jesus

“The real issue is not whether Jesus can make sense in a world far from Galilee, but whether — when he meets us in our world, as he does in fact — we want to follow him. We don’t have to, as they didn’t then. That we don’t have to is the profoundest proof of his condescension, and thereby of his glory.”

– John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel