John Howard Yoder's Role in "The Lordship of Christ over Church and State" Conferences

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Abstract: The so-called "Puidoux Conferences" (1955-1962) were the first substantial theological dialogues between members of Anabaptist-related churches and mainline Protestants since the sixteenth century. They were sponsored by the European Continuation Committee of the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Friends, Brethren) and originally intended to focus and unify the peace testimony of these groups vis-a-vis the ecumenical movement. In the course of the conferences, the young Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder emerged as the leading spokesman for the peace groups. He introduced there many of the basic concepts later elaborated in his significant theological writings. Though never elaborating a truly systematic theology, Yoder remained strikingly persistent and consistent throughout his long career in developing themes first articulated in these conferences.

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Without question, the late John Howard Yoder was the dominant voice for the Historic Peace Churches (HPC) in the significant series of ecumenical conferences that became known as the "Puidoux Conferences" (1955-1962), after the name of the Swiss retreat center near Lausanne, Switzerland, where the first meeting was held in late summer of 1955. The formal title of the series was "The Lordship of Christ Over Church and State," which, however, proved too cumbersome for ready reference. (1)

Both German church leaders and Mennonite scholars have called that series of meetings the first meaningful theological exchange between Radical Reformation churches and the established churches created by the Protestant Reformation; participants in the initial colloquy understood their interchange as a veritable Kairos moment. Albert J. Meyer, who worked closely with John Howard Yoder in planning and administering the first two conferences in the series, said of them: "The Puidoux theological conferences, of the fifties and sixties[,] were the first extended theological conferences in over four hundred years between the Historic Peace Churches, who date from the Anabaptists of the early days of the Reformation, and the official churches of Central Europe." (2)

There is a certain irony in this finding, because initially the intent of the first 1955 meeting was to deepen theological understanding and agreement on peace issues among the Friends, Brethren and Mennonites--an internal focus. Leaders of these groups meeting in Europe felt such intramural dialogue was a necessary preliminary step toward later external dialogue with European church leaders. To assist in sharpening and unifying their own positions, HPC planners invited sympathetic European theologians, not necessarily of pacifist persuasion, intending that they should serve as resource persons and advisors.

Instead, in the course of the initial Puidoux meeting, these non-HPC theologians moved directly into substantial and foundational interchange. Some of the German participants, themselves veterans of the Confessing Church, reported that the seriousness and intensity of dialogue there reminded them of the days in 1933-1934 when the Barmen Confession was hammered out as the answer of the church to burgeoning National Socialism)

In this emotionally and intellectually charged context John Howard Yoder began to articulate themes that he later developed in more substantial form. The Puidoux discussions served him as a kind of apprenticeship, beginning years as a journeyman scholar and then of eventual mastery of theological discourse, later so evident in broader ecumenical circles.

THE BACKGROUND OF THE PUIDOUX CONFERENCES

The backdrop for the Puidoux meetings was the sustained attempt by HPC leaders to engage the World Council of Churches (WCC) in meaningful conversations on appropriate Christian response to the issues of war, peace and justice. The attempt grew out of the sense of fellowship and unity generated by the cooperation of Mennonites, Friends and Brethren in the U. …