John Howard Yoder's "Alternative Perspective" on Christian-Jewish Relations

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Abstract: The late John Howard Yoder's posthumously published essays on Jewish-Christian relations display the breadth and depth of his scholarship. In them Yoder integrated biblical, historical and theological scholarship into multiple, provocative theses about how Christians should conceive their relationship with the people first called Israel. This essay outlines Yoder's main contentions, critically examines the main critiques leveled against his claims and proposes areas for further theological discernment on the part of churches in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that would engage in the broader Christian conversation as to how Christians and Jews are to be the people of God together.


Perhaps no other matters engender more controversy or are of as much theological import to the church's identity and her witness than the questions of the proper Christian understanding of Judaism and of the church's relationship to the Jewish people. The past half-century has witnessed a flurry of theological exploration and re-visioning on these contested issues, from academic treatises to ecclesial declarations. The Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have undertaken major study projects over the past decades, tackling such questions as: Do Jesus and Paul set aside "Judaism"? Does the church replace the synagogue? Should Christians proselytize Jews? How to atone for the evils of the Holocaust (Shoah)? How to relate theologically to the State of Israel? (1) While these reexaminations of the church's theology of and approach to Judaism emerged in large part out of a desire to repent for the church's history of anti-Jewish actions, culminating in the genocide of millions of European Jews during the Second World War, at their most profound level these new theological currents have been products of the recognition that the church, if it is to be the people of God with any integrity, must grapple theologically and reconcile with the people who were first called "Israel." Anglican theologian Oliver O'Donovan poignantly asks: "How can the church be clothed with Israel's name and vocation if the possessor of that vocation is remote from it?" (2)

Mennonite involvement and engagement with these efforts to rethink the Christian relationship with Judaism have been limited, even as Mennonite missionaries have been active supporters of Messianic Jewish communities in Israel and as Mennonite relief and development workers have walked alongside the Palestinian victims of the Jewish state. (3) Some of the limited Mennonite reflection on Judaism has reproduced the "supersessionist" assumptions of traditional Christian thought, whereby the election of the Jewish people is set aside and the church replaces the Jewish people as the rightful and exclusive bearer of the name Israel. In the early years of his ministry in Israel, for example, Roy Kreider, a longtime Mennonite missionary, expressed the traditional view when he wrote that "Jews are no longer covenant people except as individuals make covenant with God through Jesus Christ." (4)

The posthumous publication of essays on Jewish-Christian relations by the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder represents an opportunity for the churches in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition to join the broader Christian conversation about the proper theological understanding of Judaism. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Yoder delivered a series of lectures at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, and Earlham College in Indiana, assessing Jewish history and Christianity's relationship to Judaism from a "free church" perspective. Michael Cartwright, a Methodist theologian and careful student of Yoder's work, and Peter Ochs, a leading Jewish thinker, have provided an invaluable service in faithfully bringing these essays, previously available only as a "desktop packet" that Yoder had assembled, to print under the title The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Eerdmans, 2003). …


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