Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder's Trinitarian Theology of Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder's Trinitarian Theology of Culture

Article excerpt

Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder's Trinitarian Theology of Culture

Branson Parler

Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2012 (264 pages)

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is best remembered as the author of The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), an effort to set forth a distinctive christological ethic predicated on the assumption that Jesus' life is normative for our social and political life. Although Yoder's efforts have been criticized over the decades by, especially, Reformed theologians, Branson L. Parler, a theologian at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has written an engaging and sympathetic analysis of Yoder's thought that is well worth reading and reflecting on.

Parler's principal aim in this volume is to dispel what he views as misconceptions Reformed Christians have concerning Yoder. In so doing he gives almost a Kuyperian reading of Yoder, showing how seriously the latter takes creation and its redemption in Jesus Christ. In Yoder, creation and redemption are continuous, such that "what God desires of humanity's cultural life in creation does not contradict what God desires of humanity's cultural life in redemption and reconciliation" (25). Parler is at pains to emphasize this because Yoder's critics, perhaps reading him through his better-known protege Stanley Hauerwas, have often accused him of focusing too much on the church at the expense of the larger society.

After setting out his thesis in the introductory chapter, Parler surprisingly departs from the principal subject of his study and devotes his second chapter to an analysis of Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr on Christ, creation, and culture. Admitting that his readers might well skip to chapter 3 to pick up the main line of his argument, Parler takes up a topic that might better have been dealt with in a separate volume. Nevertheless, this chapter is valuable in that it shows rather convincingly that the Niebuhr brothers, often compared favorably to Yoder, are less orthodox than is commonly assumed. In this respect, the Niebuhrs, despite their vaunted Augustinianism, in reality conflate creation and sin, thereby leaving us lacking "any criteria by which to judge faithfulness or unfaithfulness to [our] Lord" (68).

In chapter 3, Parler responds to critics who charge Yoder with discounting creedal orthodoxy. Given Yoder's well-known criticism of Constantinianism, and given the Emperor Constantine's role in the Council of Nicaea, Yoder would seem to be a dissident from the creeds. Not so, says Parler. Although Yoder did find the early ecumenical councils procedurally flawed due to emperors' inappropriate influence, Yoder was far from despising the creeds: "Nicea and Chalcedon want to be faithful to Scripture; so does Yoder. Yoder takes the divinity of Jesus seriously; so does Nicea. Yoder takes the humanity of Jesus seriously; so does Chalcedon" (99).

In chapter 4, we see Yoder emphasizing the continuities between the Old and New Testaments rather than the discontinuities that critics associate with the Anabaptist tradition. For Yoder, the move from Old to New takes us, not from law to grace, but "from grace to grace" (105). Accordingly, there is no dualism between the respective ethics of old and new covenants. God is concerned with the whole life of his people in both, including politics, economics, and society. Here Parler raises a major issue on which Yoder most differs from the Reformed tradition, namely, his conviction that Jesus' humanity is normative for our humanity. This troubles Reformed Christians for two principal reasons.

First and foremost, Jesus' work in salvation was singular and cannot be repeated by his followers. Yes, Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, but the deaths of the martyrs are not redemptive in the same way as Jesus' death because Jesus is the unique Son of God. Without sufficient clarity on this point, one might be tempted to embrace a moral example view of the atonement, an error accepted by so many theologians in the past. …

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