Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The John Howard Yoder Legacy: Whither the Second Generation?

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The John Howard Yoder Legacy: Whither the Second Generation?

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay examines issues in the application or extension of John Howard Yoder's theological legacy by scholars in the generations after Yoder. The essay deals with contested issues in Christology, ecclesiology and the concept of middle axioms, which appeared in one of Yoder's early works. For each area, the essay explores these contested areas, showing how in some cases the second generation may be transforming Yoder's impulse back into the very views he critiqued, or more preferably, how the second generation can extend Yoder's views into new territory for the believers church.


For me and no doubt for many other Mennonites who passed through the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries during Yoder's years there, Yoder both established a foundation for and opened the door to an exciting new world of theology. The foundation was the knowledge that Mennonite peace church theology had a solid, intellectually defensible foundation and could hold its own in conversation with any other theology. That was a reassuring thought for one who grew up in a church setting where I was led to believe that rather than having solid arguments for our views, we took the church's teachings "on faith."

Eventually I came to see that much more was going on in Yoder's work than merely an intellectually sound argument for nonviolence and believers church ecclesiology. His insistence on the narrative of Jesus as the presumed beginning point for Christians upset the traditional foundations and opened the door to new ways of thinking that were still profoundly linked to Jesus. If the narrative of Jesus is the beginning point, then every other theological statement is contingent, and every theological and ethical discussion presented an opportunity to consider the meaning of Jesus afresh in a particular context or for a particular question. This recognition of the contingency or the particularity of all theology opened the door to new theological reflection that would have seemed impossible in an earlier age.

On the other hand, this seemingly open door also unsettled some scholars. A number of writers, many but not all of them younger than I, have argued that the door was not really open, or they understood that the door was opening to a different area than I had envisioned. What constitutes appropriate second-generation theological constructions true to the line or to the vision of Yoder has been contested, sometimes vigorously. This essay's discussions on Christology, ecclesiology and middle axioms illustrate this second-generation debate, which asks whether to limit or to extend further--some might say "radicalize'--the theological vision of John Howard Yoder.


One of the most important new theological vistas opened by Yoder was in Christology. Although his Preface to Theology lectures existed only in an informally published format until 2002, (1) Yoder's analysis of Nicea and Chalcedon is an important part of his theology. Significant quantities of ink have been expended in debating whether his discussion of Nicea and Chalcedon defended these time-honored, presumed orthodox formulas as a foundation, which would validate Yoder's thought as orthodox; or rather Yoder showed how one might bypass the creeds, which would indicate that he was not specifically orthodox. (2) This question has a right answer, I believe, which I will show via a circuitous route through another of Yoder's writings.

In 1980 Bluffton College organized a Believers Church conference on Christology. The question for the conference was whether there was or ought to be a Christology for the believers church that was different from or distinguishable from the standard Christology inherited from Christendom. Yoder was invited to give the keynote address for that conference, which he delivered under the title "That Household We Are." A substantially revised version was subsequently published in Priestly Kingdom as "But We Do See Jesus. …

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