Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Missionary Christology: John Howard Yoder and the Creeds

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Missionary Christology: John Howard Yoder and the Creeds

Article excerpt

Abstract: The late John Howard Yoder was a pivotal figure in believers' church conversations concerning the relevance of the creeds for contemporary theological reflection. Critics of the creeds appeal to Yoder for support, while defenders of the creeds use Yoder's work as a foil against which to construct their own positions. Yoder, I argue, developed a more nuanced approach to the creeds than has been previously recognized, an approach characterized by a two-pronged strategy of appealing to the creeds in ecumenical conversation while simultaneously relativizing their centrality for theological work.

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The on-going debate among believers' church theologians concerning the relevance and appropriateness of the orthodox creeds for contemporary theological identity involves several issues: the gap in the creeds between Jesus' birth and death, which, some argue, facilitates the denial of Jesus' normativity for ethics; the relationship of the Constantinian shift to the shaping of the creeds; the ecumenical desirability of affirming creeds which almost all Christian groups confess; the appropriateness of Greek ontological categories for describing the relationship between Jesus and God. (1) Within these debates the figure of the late John Howard Yoder, arguably the pre-eminent Mennonite theologian of the twentieth century and one of the leading theological ethicists in North America at the time of his death, plays a pivotal role, as some theologians use Yoder's work as a springboard for their own critiques of the creeds, while others treat his work as a foil against which to define their own defense of the creeds. J. Denny Weaver, for example, claims to extend Yoder's heritage as he relativizes the importance of orthodox creedal formulations for contemporary theological reflection. (2) A. James Reimer, in contrast, finds Yoder's theological oeuvre lacking, arguing that Yoder slighted metaphysical and sacramental dimensions of christology in favor of the ethical and the political. (3)

Yoder, I believe, developed a more nuanced approach to the creeds than has been previously recognized, one which has not yet been fully explicated thanks to the ad hoc character of much of Yoder's writings. That Yoder never gathered his christological reflections into a systematic whole can be attributed in part to his penchant for publishing in obscure journals and his habit of committing some of his more incisive insights to mimeographed memoranda to his colleagues. More fundamentally, Yoder's refusal to systematize his discussions of Christ's work and person reflects his desire to avoid any form of "methodologism" that would displace obedience to God's call in Jesus in favor of system-building endeavors. (4) Yoder's extensive writings therefore read more like anthologies than treatises of systematic theology. Paging through the anthology of the Yoderian corpus, however, one can begin to reconstruct a consistent theological stance, one with a distinctive approach to the ecumenical creeds. (5) Mapping this distinctive stance will not only serve to save Yoder's position from superficial misrepresentations but, I hope, will also spur the church to a nuanced appreciation and critique of the creeds.

Yoder's approach to Nicea and Chaleedon followed a two-pronged strategy of appealing to the creeds while simultaneously relativizing their centrality. If he did not assume the a priori bindingness of the creeds, Yoder did freely appeal to the creeds in the context of ecumenical conversations over pacifism and Jesus' normativity for ethics. At the same time, he relativized the significance of the creeds by highlighting their cultural specificity and by arguing that a missionary theology might appropriately reformulate christologieal definitions as the faith entered new cultural contexts. (6) Yet even as Yoder relativized the centrality of the orthodox creeds he also insisted that any believers' church christology--i. …

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