This book has been sitting on my bookshelf unread since I returned from sabbatical leave last summer. My regular readers will know that I have become rather well-acquainted with Yoder, and I must confess to having been afraid to start this book. Yoder can be brilliant, incisive, and clear, but he can also be complex and incomprehensible, and I was afraid this book would be of the complex and incomprehensible variety. I was wrong. This is one of the clearest and most easily-read Yoder books I have ever come across.
First, a word about the nature of the book. It was published posthumously (Yoder died in 1997), being prepared by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider from a mimeographed set of lectures which Yoder gave at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary over a period roughly from the mid-1960s to 1981. As a result, some of the observations in the book are dated (the editors point out a few of these in the preface), but the bulk of it is still remarkably relevant. The mimeographed lectures have been available for purchase since the mid-1980s, but the book in its present form has only been available since 2002.
The lectures which form the basis of this book were the substance of an introductory course to theology which Yoder gave on a yearly basis. There is something characteristically Anabaptist and Mennonite about the fact that Yoder chose to introduce the discipline of theology to his students by working in the field of Christology. Many systematic theology texts begin with the philosophical question of knowledge – how can we know, and how can we know that we know? – and then move on from there to a doctrine of scripture. Yoder believed that Jesus is the key to knowing God, and so he began with the person and work of Jesus.
The work falls into three parts: (1) New Testament Themes, (2) Post-Apostolic Theology, and (3) Systematic Treatment of Christological Themes. The first section, New Testament Themes, is a brilliant historical approach to the development of Christology in the New Testament. In this section Yoder begins with the question ‘What do the apostles proclaim about Jesus?’ – i.e. in the Book of Acts. He then goes on to explore what he calls the ‘primitive’ or ‘uncritical’ NT writings, examining Jesus’ own self-understanding, that of the gospel writers, and the writings of Peter, James, and Jude. From these writings he discusses some of the titles of Jesus (eg. ‘Son of Man’, ‘Servant’, ‘Prophet’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Lord’) and what they meant in their original context. He then goes on to look at the tradition Paul received (i.e. the early material embedded in some of Paul’s letters) before examining what he calls ‘The Theologians’ – John, the author of Hebrews, and Paul. There is definitely a development in Christology between the earlier and later writers, but this is understandable as they were moving out into new territory and dealing with questions the earlier writers had not faced.
A new thought to me, in this section, is Yoder’s observation that the writings of the NT ‘theologians’ (Paul, John, and Hebrews) would not have been as influential in the early church as the enormous amount of space they take up in the NT would lead us to believe. Most early congregations would not have possessed copies of these writings. They would have had the apostolic testimony to Jesus, the various hymns and prayers and creedal statements embedded in the NT (and perhaps others), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, a way of understanding the OT story, and the concrete ethical instruction which is so strong a part of the primitive authors such as Peter and James. The way of thinking embodied in these sources would have been far more influential in the apostolic church than the writings of the ‘theologians’. Yoder does not mean to disparage the theologians in saying this; he simply states it to correct what he sees as an imbalance.
The second section is entitled ‘Post-Apostolic Theology’ and deals with the apostolic Fathers, the Christology of the Apostles’ Creed and the formation of the Canon of the New Testament, the Trinitarian discussions that led to the Council of Nicea, and the Christological controversies leading up to and including the Council of Chalcedon. This is probably the most brilliant section of the book. In this period the church continues to deal with questions arising out of her history. Two of the early questions are to do with the nature of the new life (i.e. ethics) and the problem of immortality – not exactly central issues in Paul’s thought, but obviously important in the world the apostolic Fathers were moving in. In discussing the controversy about whether sins after baptism can be forgiven, Yoder points out the assumption behind this debate: that Christians would not normally need to be forgiven, that this would in fact be an extraordinary thing. In other words, ethical transformation by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit was a normal expectation of the early Christians.
Yoder then discusses the formation of the Apostles’ Creed and compares it to the early preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts. Obvious differences include the fact that there is no Old Testament story in the Creed (the ‘fulness of time’ theme has vanished) and also that forgiveness of sins is not proclaimed in the context of repentance. Context is important here; the Christendom culture assumes that everyone is now Christian, the distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’ is fading, so the necessity to leave something behind in order to become a Christian is not as strong. There follows a very illuminating discussion of the question of the Virgin Birth. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the process of the formation of the NT canon. He accepts the historical fact that this is a fuzzy thing (there is no revealed list of the revealed books), but also takes issue with the Catholic assumption that the Church’s decision as to the books to be included in the canon means that the Church has authority over scripture. Rather, as he says, ‘The church recognizes the limitation on her authority by saying, “Those are the writings that stand above us. Those are the writings to which we cannot add. This is the body of literature under which we stand and from which we take orders”’ (p.175).
The final two chapters in this section of the book discuss the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ in the processes around the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. Yoder discusses the various theologians and their positions, and he is also alive to the sociological context of the formation of the creeds – for instance, the rather curious fact that a pagan emperor, who claimed to be a Christian but had not submitted to baptism, presided over the Council of Nicea with the aim of a unified church which would unify his ‘Christian’ empire, and the intense rivalry between Antioch and Alexandra in the debates about the nature of Christ. In reading his section on the Trinity I was confronted again with an older thought – I incline far more toward ‘Tri-Theism’ than true Trinitarianism, and so does most popular-level theology. Yoder also points out the fact that in addressing these issues the Church had no choice but to use the language and concepts of Greek thought, but that in using these concepts and language there was a definite move away from the worldview of the New Testament. We might not have chosen to use this language and these concepts today, but ‘the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity, the normativity of Jesus as he relates to the uniqueness of God, is a problem Christians will always face if they are Christian. The doctrine of the Trinity is a test of whether your commitments to Jesus and to God are biblical enough that you have the problem the doctrine of the Trinity solves’ (p.204).
In the final section, ‘Systematic Treatment of Christological Themes’, Yoder examines the traditional titles of Christ – ‘King’, ‘Priest’, and ‘Prophet’. Under each section, he examines a related theological theme: ‘King’ leads to a treatment of eschatology, ‘Priest’ to a discussion of models of the Atonement, and ‘Prophet’ to the doctrine of revelation. For the first two themes this works very well; for the third, in my view, not so well.
Under ‘Christ as King: Last Things’, Yoder begins by discussing the meaning of kingship in the Old Testament, the Messianic expectation, and how Jesus challenged it, still claiming to fulfil it, but fundamentally changing its nature. It is as the suffering servant that he rules; he does not impose his rule on us like a Constantianian emperor. Christian ethics, which in Yoder’s view are a seamless garment with theology, would then conclude that this is normative for Christians. Yoder then goes on to examine the doctrine of the reign of Christ and the so-called ‘Last Things’; he sets out the general sequence of events as given in the New Testament, and then the way it has been interpreted throughout Christian history in such systems as dispensationalism, premillenialism, amillenialism, postmillennialism, various immanentist positions and so on. all of this is very helpful, particularly in demonstrating that texts whose meanings seem to be very clear when you read them from within a given system (premillenialism, for instance) have been read by other Christians in completely different ways.
Under ‘Christ as Priest: Atonement’ Yoder touches briefly on the function of a priest before launching into a major discussion of the various models of the atonement. This was probably the most useful part of the book for me. He sets out the major question to be asked (‘What exactly is perdition, and how does the death of Christ save us from it?’), lays out the various biblical options, and then examines the major schools of interpretation – ‘Christus Victor’, ‘ransom’, ‘incarnation’, ‘moral influence’ (Abelard), and ‘satisfaction’ (Anselm). He points out the strengths of these various theories but also analyses their weaknesses; he is particularly concerned to challenge the dominance of the satisfaction theory in modern evangelicalism. At the end, he offers a proposal of his own which aims at taking human freedom seriously, at seeing salvation as involving ethical transformation and not just a legal pardon, and in uniting the cross and the resurrection as integral to our redemption. I will not go any further at this point in describing this, as I hope to write a longer post outlining both Yoder’s assessment of other views and the proposal he makes.
The final major chapter, ‘Christ as Prophet: Revelation’ is in my view the least successful. This is because, although Yoder makes his major point in the first few pages – the phrase ‘The Word of God’ is never applied to the Bible in the Bible, but to (a) the prophetic oracles, (b) the person of Jesus, and (c) the apostolic message – he does not go on to work out the implications of this. Rather, he spends the rest of the chapter discussing biblical inspiration and authority – a brilliant and illuminating discussion, setting out clearly the presuppositions, strengths and weaknesses of the various schools of thought. He makes the (now commonplace) observation that both fundamentalism and liberalism are ‘in a sense siblings. They are both in the rationalistic family’ (p.357). He demonstrates the shortcomings of the Reformation doctrine of the clarity (‘perspicacity’) of scripture: if it’s so clear, how come there are so many different interpretations and so many different sects arguing about them? Toward the end, he discusses what ‘faithfulness’ the scripture actually means, pointing out that we see movement between Old Testament and New Testament and in the pages of the NT itself. ‘We test our conformity to Scripture therefore not by asking whether we keep saying the same thing without change, but rather by asking a more difficult question: Is the way we keep moving in conformity with the way God’s people were led to move in formative times?’ (p.373).
The reason I found this chapter disappointing – despite the brilliant discussion of the nature of inspiration and authority – is that having defined the Word of God as supremely revealed in Jesus, Yoder then goes nowhere with this concept. He does not discuss the Anabaptist convictions about a Christocentric interpretation of scripture, nor the controversies in the Church today around this issue (around the theory of the just war, for instance, and what difference it makes if you accept a Christocentric way of interpreting the relevant OT texts).
Nevertheless, this book as a whole has been a brilliant read for me, and I know I will go back to it. The discussion about the Atonement, especially, will have major ongoing ramifications for the way I understand and teach this concept.
One flaw – and it goes back to the editing process, not to Yoder – is that this book undoubtedly takes the prize for having the most typographical errors of any book I have ever read. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that it was posthumously published and was based on a rough typescript and not a finished manuscript, but nonetheless, a more careful editing process could have produced a much better book. I hope this is corrected in any future edition.