Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method

By Dintaman, Stephen F. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method


Dintaman, Stephen F., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. By John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press. 2002. Pp. 431. $34.99.

That Brazos Press has published John H. Yoder's Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method is a mark of the boldness of their commitment to publishing substantive theological works. Originally written as the content for a course Yoder taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries from 1960 to 1981, Preface saw limited circulation outside the classroom in a paperback edition marketed by the seminary bookstore. This edition is given a lengthy and helpful introduction by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider. They do a masterful job of explaining the significance of these lectures for an understanding of Yoder, and also helpfully explain aspects of the book that are somewhat dated by the fact that they represent Yoder's thought and the state of scholarship circa 1960. They are right on target in suggesting that the reader whose primary knowledge of Yoder is the exegetical and ethical work The Politics of Jesus will get a much fuller picture of his thought by reading this work, which is a sustained, patient engagement with the history of doctrine. The editors have also done valuable work in adding footnotes that clarify some obscure points or references in the text.

In an "Introduction" written for A.M.B.S. bookstore publication in 1981, Yoder makes it clear that he is serious about theology and does not accept the modern subjectivization of theological judgments. Instead, he writes, "... it is our duty to come to terms with the existence of a solid and sizable body of tradition: a host of terms whose precise definition makes a difference, a wealth of experience with ideas whose validity is not strictly correlated with whether they happen to turn me on or not, and a story of both intellectual combat and consensus that challenges our capacity for insight and empathy in the most creative cross-cultural research." (43) No one is a more capable practitioner of this kind of research.

Preface is a workbook, and is most profitably read as such. Most chapters begin with a "preparation guide," which may consist of questions about assigned scriptures, or questions about the "supplementary readings" in systematic theology textbooks that his students were required to read alongside Preface. Part 1 of the book is a sketch of the development of Christology in the New Testament. Part 2 is a study of the post-apostolic development of canon, forms of ecclesial authority and creeds. In Part 3 Yoder deals with eschatology, atonement and revelation, using the conventional format developed by the Reformed tradition of addressing the work of Christ under the headings of King, Priest and Prophet.

It is noteworthy that Yoder's treatment of the New Testament begins with a study of Acts and the apostolic kerygma. This should lay to rest the misunderstanding that Yoder really operates on the basis of a "historical Jesus" hermeneutic. His Jesus who calls and teaches disciples is the Jesus who is proclaimed as risen Lord. Particularly brilliant and worthy of close study are chapters 4 and 5, where he traces how the writers of Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews and John contextualize the particularity of Jesus within their respective cosmologies. (1)

One of the unifying themes that Yoder traces through various strands of the New Testament is what he often calls "the logic of solidarity"; that is, the literature always assumes the unity of the disciple-believer with Christ. (2) What he is pointing to is obviously correct, but one wonders whether the semantics of the phrase "logic of solidarity" doesn't skew his reading of this reality and not do justice to some aspects of the faith union between Christ and believers. What if instead one were to use the phrase "new life through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit"? Certainly Yoder would be quite capable of giving this phrase definite historical Christological rootage, concrete ethical content and communal character, and protecting it from subjectivistic and individualist misreadings. …

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