Writers who influenced me

Sally Coleman has tagged me on Facebook in one of those meme things – in this case, listing fifteen authors who have influenced you.  As it happens I don’t do memes – there are so many of them floating around on the Internet that once I started it could very easily turn into a full time job, and I already have one of those, plus a family and a very enjoyable other life as a folk musician too! However, Sally’s post got me thinking about writers who have influenced me. I’m not sure I’ll come up with fifteen, but I’ll mention a few, and say a bit about how they’ve influenced me, too – which is always more interesting to me than a list.

My initial difficulty is to know what’s meant by ‘influence’. There are many authors I enjoy – J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham, George Eliot, Dante, Homer, Rudy Wiebe, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom – but I’m not sure if they’ve influenced me. Perhaps I’m not the best person to judge; maybe it would be more honest to ask others – people who know the authors I read and who know me – to tell me if they see the marks of a particular author’s writing in my life.

Still, here we go.

Dennis Bennett influenced me to become a committed Christian. When I was thirteen my Dad lent me Dennis’ book Nine O’Clock in the Morning; it was the first Christian book I read all the way through, and when I finished it I was hungry to know more. Dennis was one of the first Anglicans to ‘come out of the closet’ about speaking in tongues and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Before I read his book my default image of God was rather remote, but Dennis introduced me to a God who did real things in the real lives of real people. Today I would probably not go along with much of what he taught, but he definitely influenced my early years.

I know that C.S. Lewis influenced me, because a friend told me so. In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. I went on to read pretty well everything Lewis had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Adrian Plass had a huge influence on me; he helped me believe that God might actually like me. Of course I always believed (in theory) that God loved me, but in 1987 along came Adrian’s hilarious book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4, in which I discovered the life-changing phrase ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It took a few years for that phrase to work its way down from my head into my heart, but when it got there, it helped set me free.

Philip Yancey influenced me not to be afraid of difficult questions and not to be afraid to admit that I didn’t have all the answers. I first ran across him in the early 1980s when I was a subscriber to ‘Christianity Today’, in which he wrote a regular column; I then read his early books Where is God When it Hurts? and Disappointment with God. His writings about grace and discipleship (especially The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing about Grace?) had a pretty formative effect on my worldview. In one of his books he talks about certain authors being, in a sense, his ‘pastors’; I know just what he means, and would include him in that category in my own life.

Grace and discipleship also figured highly in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Tolstoy in his high ideals of what Christianity was all about, Dostoevsky because of his strong sense of human failure and God’s forgiveness. Their big stories – The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, and especially Anna Karenina – were hugely influential to me and remain some of my all-time favourite books.

Jane Austen influenced me because, as well as being such a fine and entertaining writer, she is (as C.S. Lewis once observed) ‘a sound moralist’. She has a common-sense, down to earth attitude toward duty and the good life; she understands sentiment but she is not in the least sentimental, and she’s merciless toward spoiled, self-indulgent, self-pitying types. I particularly like Sense and Sensibility, where I resonate far more with the sense than the sensibility!

Speaking of literature, I hated Shakespeare in school but loved him once I started watching him on stage, and now never a summer passes in our house that we don’t go to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton. I love Shakespeare’s characters, so human and so up front about it, and I love his use of the English language and his love of invention (how many words and figures of speech did he coin?).

Thomas Cranmer has had a huge influence on my devotional life and my approach to theology. Funnily enough I didn’t grow up on The Book of Common Prayer (my Dad was an early promoter of modern liturgies), but in later years I grew to appreciate it, with its balanced approach (Word/Sacrament, Catholic/Protestant, Grace/Faith) and elegant language. I like Cranmer’s books on the Eucharist, too; even today, his theology of Holy Communion still makes more sense to me than anyone else’s, ancient or modern.

The two writers who have influenced my pastoral style the most are definitely Eugene Peterson and David Hansen. Peterson’s books on pastoral work (especially The Unnecessary Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant) have helped me focus on the big issues in pastoral ministry and given me a healthy skepticism about fads. He emphasises prayer, Scripture, relationships – and also patience; Peterson has not given up on the institutional church although he is well aware of its flawed nature. I don’t care for his translation of the Bible, though – The Message – I find it far too interpretive, to the point that at times I can’t really see how it’s related to the original text at all!

David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring is without doubt the best book about pastoral ministry I have ever read, but once again it’s not rocket science – it’s about prayer, holiness, love, and all those other difficult things that we like to escape from into the latest gimmick.

Two authors made me a much better preacher – John Stott and Donald Coggan. I read Stott’s I Believe in Preaching in the 1980s and it definitely changed my practice and made me much more disciplined in my biblical exegesis and sermon preparation. Not long afterwards I read Coggan’s little 1958 book Stewards of Grace, which I still say is the best book on preaching I’ve ever read (and only about 120 pages too!). Among many other things, Coggan prompted me to start writing my sermons out in full (for clarity of thought) and then reducing them to short notes which I place in my preaching Bible for the actual delivery of the sermon.

N.T. Wright definitely changed the way I read the Bible and especially the gospels (particularly in The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God), but I think he didn’t start the process. The one who got the whole process started for me was A.E. Harvey and his book Jesus and the Constraints of History, which was where I first encountered the idea that in the religious culture of his day there were certain categories that were available to Jesus in his self-understanding, and we ought to see him in the light of those categories before turning to ones imported by later theologies.

John Howard Yoder has been a huge influence on me; he has helped form the whole Anabaptist side of my Christian life (especially in The Politics of Jesus and The Royal Priesthood). The revolutionary idea that we are actually supposed to do the things Jesus said (including loving our enemies, which means not killing them) is of course never far from the surface in Yoder’s writings; also other ideas, such as the first responsibility of the Church being, not to manage the world, but to truly be the Church (the city on the hill, a distinct community with its own characteristic lifestyle shaped by the teaching of Jesus), and the idea that Christian ethics are meant to be ethics for Christians, not a lowest-common-denominator system that you can reasonably expect of the nominal and the unbeliever. Through Yoder, the 16th century Anabaptists have entered my life (I think his teaching is really a 20th century application of the thought of Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck).

My approach to writing has definitely been influenced by Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing. Funnily enough, I don’t actually care for a lot of what King has written (I’m not a big fan of the horror genre) although I did enjoy The Stand and The Green Mile. But I liked his common sense approach to writing (things like ‘second draft equals first draft minus ten percent’, or the insight that if you think you’re a writer and you’re constantly saying that you just can’t describe or explain something, you might just be in the wrong job!).

I’m a lover of history and have particularly enjoyed Alison Weir’s fine books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty. Robert Massie’s Dreadnought shaped my understanding of the period 1870-1914 more than any other book. I’ve enjoyed Thomas Cahill’s books (especially The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages). The historical novel is probably my favourite form of fiction and in that regard I especially enjoy Patrick O’Brien, Mary Renault, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom, and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have had a huge influence on me).

Finally, I haven’t been influenced by a lot of poets (except possibly Robert Frost and Wendell Berry) but I have been deeply influenced by the vast body of work produced by that incredibly prolific songwriter, ‘Anonymous’! His (or her) songs have been the mainstay of my music for the past few years and have definitely shaped my own songwriting and performing in more ways than I can fathom.

Okay – I think I’d better stop there!

Kim Fabricius explains: ‘Why I Am a Shalomite’

My readers (all six of them) may have noticed that I’m not feeling particularly motivated about blogging lately. However, I did appreciate Kim Fabricius’ fine sermon ‘Why I Am a Shalomite’. Here are a couple of excerpts:

I want to explain something to you this morning, something that is important, something that is very important. As far as I am concerned, because — as I hope to explain — as far as I can tell, it goes to the very heart of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus. All my sermons have titles. I thought of calling this one “Why I Am a Pacifist”. But the term is too loaded to be of any theological use. So the title is, instead, “Why I Am a Shalomite”. It’s a term I made up. “Shalom”, as you know, is the Hebrew word for peace, and includes the notions of human well-being and creation perfected — so it means — well, that’s exactly what I want to explain!

Of course a shalomite is, in fact, a certain kind of pacifist, but this certain kind is, crucially, a different kind of pacifist. Let’s looks at some other kinds…

And again:

To come to the point. As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it – because he puts it so much better than I could: ‘Non-violence is not one among other behavioural implications that can be drawn from the gospel but is integral to the shape of Christian convictions.’ And further — and to the point of the point: ‘Nonviolence is not just one implication among others that can be drawn from our Christian beliefs; it is the very heart of our understanding of God.’ You see I am a Shalomite — and I believe that at least all Christians and, in principle, all people should be Shalomites — not because of anything I know about the world or human beings, or through a calculus of war and peace, ‘but because of something I know about Jesus’ (William Willimon) and because of something Jesus knows about God: namely, that God is a God of Shalom, that (to adapt what St. John says about God and light and darkness [I John 1:5]) God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all. And what is Christian ethics, what is the very heart of following the way of Jesus, if not learning to be like the God of Jesus? And how do we learn to be like the God of Jesus if not by obeying the teaching of Jesus? And what is the teaching of Jesus if not ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48)?

Read the rest here.

By the way, Kim addresses the obvious objection – what do you do about all those Old Testament wars? – in the comments.

In recent years I have become a pacifist myself but haven’t felt confident enough in my own ability to argue the case to attempt any sort of sustained and reasoned defence of my position on this blog. Also, the best defence is probably the complete works of John Howard Yoder, and that bar is rather high! Still, I’m grateful for Kim’s short statement and am glad to endorse it here (not that he needs my endorsement!).

John Howard Yoder: Preface to Theology


John Howard Yoder: Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2002).

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.

Sabbatical Report #22: Book Report


John Howard Yoder The Fulness of Christ

In this controversial book John Howard Yoder weighs in on what he calls ‘the model of the professional religionist’: the one professional minister who is identified as ‘clergy’ and in distinction to whom others are identified as ‘lay’, who has a special function which only he or she can perform – that function around which that special action happens which people think of as ‘church’. This office is almost universal in world religions, but is entirely absent in the New Testament. As Yoder says, ‘If we ask whether any of the New Testament literature makes the assumptions listed above: Is there one particular office, in which there should be only one or a few individuals (for whom it provides a livelihood), unique in character due to a ritual of ordination, central to the definition of the church ad the key to her functioning? Then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation’.

Yoder examines the New Testament material with respect to the various ministries to which Christians are called.

  • He finds there a considerable number of distinguishable ministries, and a great diversity in the number, naming, and interrelation of these offices.
  • There is no hierarchy of value and no hint of a ‘ladder’ whereby a person might progress upward to a more important office (this is the whole point of 1 Corinthians 12).
  • There seems to be a clustering of three terms used for the same office: ‘elder’ (from synagogue usage), ‘overseer’ (often translated ‘bishop’) and ‘shepherd’ (often translated ‘pastor’). These people constituted the collegial leadership of a self-governing local congregation, and there were several of them in any given congregation.
  • There is a slight linkage between the elder/overseer and the teacher; some elders are teachers.
  • There is no general pattern as to economic support.
  • None of these offices is priestly, either in function or vocabulary.
  • The office of deacon is conspicuous by its absence; most often the word ‘diakonos’ simply means ‘one who serves’ with no clear implication of specific office.
  • There is no concept of laity in the negatively defined sense, as ‘those with no ministry’. ‘The people (laos) includes all the ministries. The bishop is a member of the laity just like anyone else. The use of the word ‘lay’ to mean ‘non-minister’ is heretical, and arises only generations later’.

Is there a theological meaning to this pattern? Indeed there is! The distinct ministries are diverse, the ministries are plural (that is, several people seem to share any given ministry in a local congregation), and ‘everyone has a gift’. In Ephesians 4 Paul relates all this to the work of Jesus in salvation: ‘The multiplicity of gifts, assigned to all by the one Lord who fills all, is thus itself an aspect of Christ’s saving work and of his rule from on high. And in Hebrews 2:3 the author identifies four reasons for taking the message of salvation seriously: that it was declare by the Lord, that it as attested by the apostles, that it was witnessed to by signs and miracles, and that God bore witness by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. The giving of gifts is part of Christ’s saving work, the certification of his victory. In Ephesians 4:13-16 this universal giftedness and interrelatedness of ministries is called ‘The Fulness of Christ’.

Furthermore, the work of Christ is described in Hebrews as the abolition of the priesthood! Jesus is the perfect high priest who has done away with the need for any further priesthood and sacrifice, except the priesthood that applies to every member of the new covenant community. Parallel to this liberation from priesthood is the relative indifference of the New Testament to ceremonial issues.

‘The conclusion is inescapable that the multiplicity of ministries is not a mere adiophoron, a happenstance of only superficial significance, but a specific work of grace and a standard for the church. This follows from (a) the persistence of the various dimensions of multiplicity amidst considerable change in detail; (b) the specific disappearance of the priesthood from Judaism, whereas the other ‘offices’ of the Jewish order are maintained, (c) the specific attribution of this multiplicity, by the apostolic writers, to the work of Christ and the Spirit, and (d) the effective suspension for at least a generation of the universal anthropological drive toward the professional religionist’.

Yoder goes on, in the rest of this book, to explore how the church lost this apostolic order and reverted to the clergy/laity distinction, to the exaltation of one office of priesthood above all others, and how the tasks of ministry were concentrated in this individual, who became the paid professional minister or priest in a congregation. He looks at ways in which churches and traditions in recent years have tried to move toward a more every-member-ministry concept, but finds that in most cases they are still unwilling to concede that the clergy/laity distinction itself is unbiblical and wrong. He argues for flexibility; he is not specifically against the concept of a paid pastor but wants it to be seen as one office among many and wants churches to be free to explore other models as well.

I found this an exciting and inspiring book, but a frustrating one as well. Although I have been an Anglican minister for many years, I have never been able to make myself accept the common Anglican belief that ordination makes me an ontologically different kind of Christian. I cannot find any justification for it in the New Testament. Neither can I find any ground for the use of special titles like ‘reverend’, the wearing of special clothes like clerical collars and ceremonial robes, or the distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. To me Yoder has made his case conclusively: all Christians are gifted, all Christians are a priesthood, all Christians are God ‘laos’ (people). Preaching and teaching is a ministry, serving others is a ministry, administration is a ministry, listening is a ministry, etc.

But how can this ever be put into practice in our Anglican situation? We see Episcopal ordination as essential to church order and disallow those who have not received it from exercising certain ministries. We isolate the sacramental and teaching ministries from the others, reserving them for a professionally trained and (usually) full time person who we call the ‘rector’ (which means ‘ruler’, as opposed to the biblical concept of ‘servant’). And we ask one person to be responsible for tasks which demand skills which are often incompatible with on another. How can a good listener and pastor also be a fearless prophet and a good administrator? How can a good visitor of the elderly also be an innovative youth worker?

This book raises more questions than answers for me. And yet I love these questions, and I am sure that as Anglicans we will have t wrestle with them if we as congregations are going to grow into the fullness of Christ.

Sabbatical Report #21: Book Report


John Howard Yoder: He Came Preaching Peace

This small (143 pages) book is a collection of twelve addresses (the author refers to them as ‘Bible lectures’ rather than sermons) on the subject of Christian pacifism, delivered in various settings by John Howard Yoder between 1968 and 1983.

In ‘The Way of Peace in a World at War’ Yoder uses the suffering servant texts as an example for Christians to follow (as Peter does in 1 Peter 2:20-22). Our cross as Christians is not any old suffering we may go through, but is specifically the price of our obedience to God’s love for all people in a world ruled by hate. We are a people called by God out of every nation, and so our primary nationality is ‘Christian’ and our loyalty to our brothers and sisters in all nations comes before our loyalty to any nation/state. Our primary loyalty is to the purposes of God who is calling together his own people through the witness of the Gospel.

‘I Have Called you Friends’ (John 15:15)’. Jesus was crucified by ‘the world’, the evil world system, more than by particularly evil individuals. Our response is not to hate people. God does not hate them. God sent his Son to save them; the God of the Gospel is a reconciler. This is the plan; we know that plan, and so Jesus says we are his friends, because we know our master’s business.

‘The Wisdom and the Power’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) takes the categories Paul outlines (‘Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom’) and applies them to the way the world looks at the weakness of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is not a powerful sign because Jesus did not win; how can Jesus be Lord if he is defeated? Nor is it universal wisdom as in Greek philosophy; how can you ask everyone to love their enemies like that? But if it is true that the Cross is indeed power and wisdom then we need to learn to read history differently.

‘What Are you Doing More Than They?’ (Matthew 5:46-48)’ asks the question ‘How is the gospel more than just ordinary living?’ By grace, through faith, peacemakers are the children of God, and that is a joyful message because it is part of the kingdom coming. Evangelism, good news, is proclaiming the otherness, the moreness, the nonconformity of the church as a visible city set on a hill.

‘The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood’ (Genesis 4:2-16) starts with the story of Cain and his act of murder, and goes on to show that God has chosen to work with the model of Abel (who is the first of the faithful martyrs recorded in Hebrews 11, a line that leads to Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-3). 1 John 3:11-16 tells us that, rather than being like Cain, ‘we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters’. Like Abel, we can only be sure that this is the right thing to do ‘by faith’.

‘Glory in a Tent’ (1 John 1:1-18) looks at the points of view the writer was trying to correct – the continuing disciples of John the Baptist who saw Jesus’ kingdom mission as a failure because of the cross, the Establishment who preferred to stick with the law that came through Moses rather than moving on with the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ, and those who denied that God’s Word actually became flesh in the human Jesus. Against all of this Jesus is God’s Word, which means that God has not revealed any different purpose or character through creation than what we now encounter through Jesus, who came among us in weakness, in suffering and in apparent defeat. So we now know what it means to become children of God, because we have seen one.

‘The Form of a Servant?’ (Philippians 2:5-11). Unlike Adam, Jesus did not grasp at equality with God but accepted it as a gift. He reveals to us that the nature of God the creator of the universe is that he takes the form of a servant. So we also ought to get along better with each other rather than grasping for sovereignty and pre-eminence.

‘The Hilltop City’ looks at various Old Testament texts in which God’s people are described as being a city set on a hill to which all the nations will stream. This is a teaching process in which the nations come voluntarily to learn the law of the Lord. The result is that weapons of war are concerted into farm implements, war is renounced as way of settling conflicts (although conflicts themselves are not said to disappear), everyone lives in economic security, and people decide no longer to live in fear. In Jesus the Messianic age has begun, and we need to discover how the renewal of God’s people can call the nations into God’s program of peace.

‘The Broken Wall’ (Ephesians 3:2-9). The ‘mystery’ revealed to Paul is that through his death Jesus has removed the barrier between the ‘in’ people and the ‘out’ people. The structures that enslave us have a stake in keeping us apart, but as Christians we celebrate and live out the reality that Jesus has made us one.

In ‘The Gift of Reconciliation’ (Matthew 18:15-18) Yoder revisits his familiar theme of the process of confrontation, listening, and reconciliation described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20. The purpose of the process if forgiveness and reconciliation. It involves going alone to my brother (not going in gossip to others). If I’m not heard, I take two or three witnesses with me, and then tell it to the church. The passage assumes that our communion has limits and that it is possible for those who will not listen to exclude themselves from it. The whole process is validated by the fact that Jesus promises that he is present in it; ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’.

‘Your Hope is Too Small’ focuses on the Suffering Servant text in Isaiah 42. The Servant appears to have failed in his mission, but God tells him that in fact he has an even broader mission for him: it is not enough for him to aim at restoring Israel, but ‘I will make you a light to the nations so that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth’. The Servant’s apparent defeat becomes God’s instrument to reach out to the whole world. The test of the Servant’s readiness to be a participant in God’s victory is his acceptance of his own brokenness. In that missionary miracle whereby God makes the nations to see his light and come to Jerusalem to learn the law, the servant will be used after all. And in the miracle which might follow if Christians in our day were found in the stance of the Servant, we might also find ourselves, unexpectedly, by grace through faith, usable.

‘Turn, Turn’ (Malachi 3-4) examines the text about God’s messenger turning the hearts of the fathers to children and children to fathers. The fathers in Israel wanted to be faithful to their heritage in the midst of the nations in the postexilic age; the children were tempted by the culture of the nations around them. If the forces of conservation and innovation cannot be reconciled, a civilization will be torn in two, each fragment reacting defensively and fearfully to the other with no room for trust or creativity, no new way out, unless there be some ‘turning’ of the ways. Jesus has shown us the way. He is more critical of the system than mere youthful revolt can ever be, and yet he also recalls God’s people to the true meaning of their heritage. You cannot get to Abraham and Moses by going back, because they were called to go forward!

Sabbatical Report #20: Book Review


Like many of John Yoder’s larger books, this one is difficult to summarise as a unit because it is a collection of addresses, given at different times and in different situations, and now rewritten as essays and grouped around a common theme. In this case, the common theme may be broadly stated as the church’s missional relationship with the world. Here, in no particular order, are some of the more important emphases.

The church is a ‘firstfruits’ of the coming kingdom of God. One of the church’s primary missional responsibilities is to embody in its own life, in a visible way, the character of God’s coming kingdom. In this way ‘the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society’.

Five practices of the New Testament church which are primary ways in which it exemplifies God’s new society are: (a) baptism as the sign of a new community in which differences of race, gender or class are totally irrelevant, (b) forgiveness and reconciliation, achieved through a specific process of confrontation and listening as described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, (c) eating together as an instrument of economic sharing, (d) the meeting of the community in which all are free to take the floor and in which the Spirit is expected to speak through the ‘sense of the meeting’, and (e) the giftedness, by the same Spirit, of every Christian, regardless of social status, in order to serve God’s purpose in the world.

Three ‘scandal factors’ by which the church – when it is being faithful to the call of Jesus, challenges the common way of life in the world at large are: (1) the practice of servanthood after the pattern of Jesus, rather than domination, (2) love of the enemy, and (3) grace and forgiveness.

The church as a community scattered in the world seeks the ‘shalom’ (peace, well-being) of the society in which it lives. The theme verse, which is extremely important in Yoder’s thought, is Jeremiah 29:7 where God tells the exiles in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’. The scattering of God’s people amongst the nations in exile is part of their vocation.

The criterion for Christian ethics is faithfulness; we measure our obedience by faithfulness to Jesus and not by a worldly standard of effectiveness or success. And so our cause continues to be valid, even if it seems as if we are not succeeding. The hope of the coming kingdom of God sustains an oppressed community even when that hope is not verifiable by immediate experience. The criterion guiding us in our struggle is not whether we win but whether we keep the faith. The vision of the Lordship of Christ over the Powers made it possible for the first Christians to see even tragic events as having positive potential (like the Cross itself). The Cross signals the conscious choice of a path of vulnerable faithfulness, despite the knowledge that it will be costly.

Christian obedience is for a minority; it was never intended to be generally applicable to non-Christian society. ‘Christian ethics is for Christians’.

The Christian community is a revolutionary community. The root meaning of the word ‘gospel’ might best be translated today as ‘revolution’: good news which impinges positively on the fate of the community. Jesus rejected four possible ways of being the messiah: (1) the way of compromise with the powers that be in order to get things done’, (2) the way of righteous revolutionary violence, (3) the way of withdrawal into a pure and faithful community, and (4) the way of living by a pure, separate and ‘proper’ religion in the midst of society. Instead Jesus chose to do what God had always done in history: he gathered a people around his word and his will. He created a voluntary community, mixed in its composition, and gave its members a new way to live. To repent and to believe the good news is to join this revolutionary community and in it to learn to think differently and therefore act differently.

The Christian community is called in the New Testament an ekklesia,which originally in Greek meant a parliament or town meeting. It is therefore ‘a decision making body, a place where prophetic discernment is tested and confirmed, the organ for updating and applying the understanding of the revealed law of God, the context for the promised further guidance of the Holy Spirit’. This ekklesia is mixed in race, class and gender. It can be a means of influencing other groups if it is faithful to the gospel vision for its life.

It is not possible to avoid political issues and be faithful to the Gospel. ‘Politics’ has to do with the ways in which people choose to live together, and in this context both activity and passivity, both speech and silence, are equally political choices. The servant songs of Isaiah show that God is concerned with bringing justice and political righteousness to the nations. Mary’s song (Luke 1:49-53) shows that the coming of the Messiah is a great reversal described in social and economic terms. But God’s kingdom is different from human kingdoms. It is characterized by forgiveness, by servanthood, by truth telling, by respect for the dignity of all people, by sharing, and by the rejection of ideology or idolatry. The church, God’s ekklesia, is meant to model this new political way.

‘We are not called to love our enemies in order to make them friends. We are called to act out love for them because at the cross it has been effectively proclaimed that from all eternity they were our brothers and sisters. We are not called to make the bread of the world available to the hungry; we are called to restore the true awareness that it was always theirs. We are not called to topple the tyrants, so that it might become true that the proud fall and the haughty are destroyed. It already is true; we are called only to let that truth govern our own choice of whether to be, in turn, tyrants claiming to be benefactors’.


God’s purposes are at work in the movements of history. However, what God is doing in the world is often not a ratification of our good intentions but a judgement on our unfaithfulness. God is at work in ordinary human existence, but the meaning of his work is not always discernable on the surface of events; it must be discerned prophetically, and that prophetic word must echo the meaning of Jesus: servanthood, the acceptance of suffering, the creation of a new community. And what God is really doing will usually be a surprise; the kingdom is like grain growing when no one is watching, or like hidden leaven silently taking over the flour bin.

Sabbatical Report Number 19

John Howard Yoder: The Royal Priesthood – ‘part the fourth’…


I have now finished the remaining essays in John Howard Yoder’s The Royal Priesthood. I don’t intend to summarise all of them as some are repetitive (almost inevitable in a collection of essays originating in different situations but approaching the same general themes) and some of them are more relevant to the situation in inter-church dialogues in the 1970s and 1980s than to the situation today. But here are some of the highlights:

‘Christ, the Hope of the World’. In this essay Yoder analyses not only classic Constantinianism but also the various ‘neo-Constantinianisms’ which have followed it – all variations on the theme of an alliance between the church and the world, or a part of the world. ‘Each says that it is right to identify God’s cause with a human power structure… They differ only in that (in their view) the generation before made the wrong choice of which authority to bless’. Yoder goes on to discuss the church’s call to be a sign to the world of the lordship of Christ, who is the ultimate hope for the world.

‘The Nature of the Unity We Seek: A Historic Free Church View’. This essay dates back to 1957 and is one of Yoder’s earliest contributions and critiques of the ecumenical movement. He spells out a historic free church view of Christian unity, centred on the confession of faith in Christ arising out of the local gathering of Christians (in contrast to mainline ecumenical discussions which often focus on statements of faith made by national bodies). He also emphasizes the importance of an international orientation in ecumenical relations, as opposed to the kind of dialogues which are carried out between national churches (which do not give adequate testimony to the trans-national character of the church).

‘The Free Church Ecumenical Style’ dates from 1968. In it Yoder once again argues against the mainstream concept of ecumenical dialogue and critiques the approach to Christian unity which sees mergers between Christian denominations as the way forward. The problem, he says, is that these mergers usually do not deal with the real divisions in the churches ‘between rich and poor, between liberal and conservative, between races, between east and west. These divisions go down the middle of existing denominations and are the separations that would really demand reconciling initiative’. But he also critiques the ‘spiritualist’ view (i.e. the one that says ‘structures don’t matter because we’re already all united in Christ at a spiritual level’). True ecumenical conversation, in Yoder’s view, is primarily local; those who are most likely to meet together on an ongoing basis are the ones who should be entering into dialogue with each other.

‘The Disavowal of Constantine: An Alternative Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue’ dates from 1976. In it Yoder spells out what he sees as a ‘free church’ perspective on how interfaith dialogue should proceed. He asks what difference it would make if, instead of seeing each religion as represented by its most powerful ‘establishment’ branch, a specifically Christian witness in interfaith dialogue included the disavowal of the whole concept of ‘establishment’ (i.e. the Christendom situation where the church operated from a position of state-sanctioned power). What if ‘Christians were given the grace to say, “We were wrong. The picture you have been given of Jesus by the Empire, by the Crusades, by struggles over the holy sites, and by wars in the name of the ‘Christian West’ is not only something to forget but something to forgive. We are not merely outgrowing it, as if it had been acceptable at the time: we disavow it and repent of it. It was wrong even when it seemed to us to be going well. We want our repentance to be not mere remorse but a new mind issuing in a new way – metanoia”’.

Not that Yoder wants to back of from evangelism. “Mission and dialogue are not alternatives: each is valid only within the other, properly understood”. Indeed, he says that true dialogue must always involve the possibility that the other might persuade me to accept their point of view. But his vision of mission and dialogue starts from a position of repentance for Christian imperialism. “There is no alternative but painstakingly, feebly, repentantly, patiently, locally, to disentangle that Jesus from the Christ of Byzantium and of Torquemada. The disavowal of Constantine is then not a distraction but the condition of the historical seriousness of the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord”.
I found this one of the most exciting essays in the book. So often when I am talking with non-church people about Jesus and about church, I realize that the pictures those words conjure up in their minds are very different from the pictures I am seeing. My ‘Jesus’ is the radical Jesus who lived, died and rose again to change the world and bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace; my ‘church’ is a community of radical disciples who have decided to follow Jesus in a counter-cultural way, no matter what the cost. But the heritage of Christendom means that other people have very different images of Jesus and his church, images involving wealth and power and abuse and imperialism. Repentance and open disavowal of this heritage, it seems to me, is absolutely vital for real Christian mission.
I suspect that from a practical point of view ‘Binding and Loosing’ may be the most important essay in this book. It is a study outline designed to explore the practice of church discipline as described by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 – a passage which is almost completely ignored in most mainline Protestant churches, and in most Roman Catholic churches is effectively reserved as the prerogative of the priest.

After giving his own translation of Matthew 18:15-20 Yoder then explains the twofold meaning of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’; the words refer, in the first place, to forgiveness, and in the second place, to moral discernment. To ‘bind’ can mean not to forgive, and also to ‘enjoin’, to ‘make obligatory’; to ‘loose’ can mean to ‘forgive’ and also ‘to allow, to leave free’. The authority to bind and loose has been given by Christ to his church (by which Yoder means not an official church hierarchy but the gathered community of local believers in a given place), and the Holy Spirit is given to the church to help in this task. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and this governs the way in which it is carried out. Everyone in the church, and not just an ordained minister, shares responsibility for the reconciling approach.
I cannot go into sufficient detail to do justice to the superb way in which Yoder brings out the meaning of this text. All I want to say here is that I have gain been struck by how my own church, the Anglican church, has ignored this passage, and I have colluded with this act of denominational disobedience. Jesus says in this passage that if I see a brother or sister sinning, I should go and speak to them about it. If they do not listen, I should go back with two or three others, and if they still do not listen I should take the matter to the whole congregation gathered in the presence of Jesus to resolve the issue. This is done not in a judgmental way but because real love is not mere sentiment but genuine concern for the well-being of my sisters and brothers. If I see them going astray and say nothing, how is this a demonstration of concern for their spiritual well-being?
In historic Anabaptism this was accepted as a part of the meaning of believers’ baptism. Candidates for baptism understood that they were committing themselves not only to Christ but also to his church, and this commitment involved both the giving of this sort of admonition and a willingness to receive it. But in the Anglican church today (despite the fact that officially we are against individualism) we seem to have enshrined the right of the individual member to live their life as seems best to them, out of respect for the individual conscience. Knowing how easy it is for me to persuade my conscience to go along with the urges of my own greed and lust, I must confess myself doubtful of the wisdom of this approach! And yet I know that if I attempted to introduce a practice such as that commanded by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, some people would be seriously offended at the church’s (and my) presuming the right to interfere in their personal lives.
So the word of Jesus (as interpreted here by Yoder) is a challenge to me. I do not think that it is a challenge that I can go on avoiding.

‘Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture’. In this essay (which he later expanded into his excellent book Body Politics) Yoder describes five practices of the New Testament church and concentrates not on what later generations might (in some cases, did) call their ‘sacramental’ meaning, but rather on their sociological meaning for the body of believers. Fraternal admonition is the practice described in the previous essay and in Matthew 18:15-20; Yoder points out that on one level it is a merely human process, but the text says that God is working in it throughout: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’. The universality of charisma refers to the giftedness and the ministry of every member of the believing community, so that ministry is not hierarchical but is the activity of all.The Spirit’s freedom in the meeting refers to 1 Corinthians 14 and Acts 15 and describes the process in which an issue is raised in the church, every member has the right to speak, consensus emerges and ‘it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ that such and such a solution is the right one. Breaking bread refers to the Eucharist, but this is understood primarily by Yoder not in its later sacramentalist meanings but in the primary sense of economic sharing: ‘Do this in remembrance of me when you have your common meal’. Christ is present among us as we share our goods freely with one another. Induction into the new humanity sees baptism as an egalitarian act that does away with distinctions of race, class or gender – ‘neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female’.

Yoder goes on to point out that these are all human actions which in the gospel also become acts of God. They constitute the believing community as a social body. They could be a paradigm for ways in which other social groups might operate. They are not originally ‘ritual’ activities. They are enabled and illuminated by Jesus the Messiah, the Lord, and they root the process of change in the community, not in the autonomous individual.
I note once gain that in the Anglican church we have accepted a part but not all of this picture. We practice the Eucharist and baptism, but certainly do not emphasise the economic sharing dimension of the ‘breaking of bread’ and have often in our history allowed class distinctions in church to continue, despite what baptism says about this. ‘Fraternal admonition’ is almost nonexistent among us, and our meetings tend to run by Roberts’ Rules of Order and not by the process described as ‘the Spirit’s freedom in the meeting’. As for the universality of charisma – well, we may be moving in that direction, but we still often operate as if ordination makes someone an ontologically different type of Christian, someone ‘in holy orders’ as distinct from the rest of the body who presumably are in ‘unholy orders’! I find Yoder’s vision here exciting and challenging, and I know we have a long way to go before we reach the fullness of Christ as he describes it here.

Sabbatical Report #18: More Essay Reports

Yoderian Essays Part 3

Here are my summaries of two more of the essays in John Howard Yoder’s book The Royal Priesthood, along with a personal reflection on one issue at the end.

‘Let the Church be the Church’.

In this essay Yoder continues to emphasise his familiar themes of the difference between the church and the world, and the distinctive calling of the church. The basic distinction in society is between those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and those who do not. For those who do, their confession commits them to a relative independence of other loyalties.

Some Anglican theology has seen part of the significance of the incarnation in the idea that God’s coming among us as a human being has sanctified every aspect of our ordinary human life. But in fact God did not come among us to sanctify our society and our vocations as they are, but rather to show what we must do and what we must leave behind. God’s pattern in incarnation was that of Abraham, the nomad who left behind his home civilization, not of Constantine, who sought God’s blessing on his society as it was.

The church in the past has often been represented by the ‘chaplain’ who is called on to bless an existing power structure. Some chaplains, strong people who serve well-intentioned ‘princes’ or ‘generals’, can use the power of their position to impose on all of society the vision of morality prescribed by religion; this is the ‘puritan’ pattern of chaplaincy, and tends to produce the two types of people seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Other chaplains limit themselves to calling down sacramentally the blessing of God on society, sanctifying anything that society (or its prince) needs to do to keep society (or rather the prince’s place in it) afloat. This is the ‘court priest’ pattern of chaplaincy.

Both these patterns of chaplaincy are looking for a course of human behaviour that is possible for all women and men. But Christian ethics calls for behaviour that is impossible except by the miracles of the Holy Spirit! It also recognizes the minority status of the church, and rejoices in it because it helps us to renounce the idea that we must provide an ethic that is workable for people who have no faith in Jesus Christ.


The Christian community is the only community whose social hope is that we need not rule because Jesus Christ is Lord. And because it is from the cross that he reigns, we can be set free from the idea that our success is the thing that will bring about the triumph of God in human history. It is this sort of ‘disestablishment’ – ‘not of buildings and bishoprics but of the soul of the church’ – that we need more than anything.

‘Christ, the Light of the World’

This essay (like the previous one) was originally presented as an address to the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship in 1964 and deals more directly with the implications of discipleship for Christian pacifism; it takes its title from a recent theme slogan of a meeting of the World Council of Churches, and as its starting point a book by one of the WCC leaders, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ. This title, Yoder says, is a resounding truth claim within Christendom.

In much of the Christian world there is an assumption that there is another self-evident body of truth, given to all humanity, which gives us reasonable guidance different from that which we might learn from Jesus. This body of reasonable truth is often appealed to by defenders of the just war tradition, and its effect is to marginalize Jesus – not just his words, but the significance of his life.

Jesus must be seen not just as a teacher or as an actor on the social scene but in the unity of his person and his teaching. ‘His life is a life according to the Sermon on the Mount; the cross is the meaning of his moral teaching’. The concept of incarnation is not discussed in an abstract metaphysical way in the New Testament; rather, it concerns Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of the Father and thus his revelation of the nature of the Father. Jesus takes the side of the poor; Jesus takes a whip of cords and a cross, instead of a crown and a sword. The Gospel is that this is what God does for his enemies, and this is a revealed moral imperative for those who would belong to and obey God. There is also a sober realism about it – Jesus does not claim that the end result will always be happy. It is possible to live this way, if you are also prepared to die this way (‘take up your cross…’).

I quote one paragraph in full:

‘In the personal case of Jesus it is made clear that he rejects not only unjust violence but also the use of violence in the most righteous cause. It is no longer possible to misinterpret his teaching as simply a call to vigilance or to sensitivity in excluding the improper use of violence; what Jesus was really tempted by was the proper use of violence. It was concerning the use of the sword in legitimate defense that Jesus said that they who take it will die by it’.

Increasingly, sober criticism of pacifism accepts the idea of a nonresistant Jesus, but then relativises him by insisting that we must appeal to some other ethical standard in our consideration of war – some ‘other light’. One such light is the doctrine of the ‘just war’, which deserves respect because it does admit that ethical judgements can be pronounced against the use of certain kinds of violence in wartime – in practice, in wartime, most Christians will not grant this (I am reminded of the outrage that greeted Bishop George Bell when he criticized the carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two on the grounds of the just war theory!). Other ‘lights’ include appeal to the ‘orders of creation’ (‘God created a world in which there is authority, whose bearers justify their violence by various moral claims; therefore we must take it on God’s authority that God wants us to operate that way’), or to immediate revelations from the Holy Spirit (from Montanus in the second century to the ‘situation ethics’ of the 1960s), or to an ethic of love whose content is different from that taught us by Jesus. All of these appeals call us to place our faith in some other channel of ethical insight than Jesus, and all find in this alternative channel another substance of ethical instruction.

What we are dealing with here is nothing less than an alternative revelation claim – not just filling in the gaps, but actually contradicting what Jesus taught. On the one hand, we have the teaching of Jesus that ‘In the world kings lord it over their subjects, and those in authority are called their nation’s benefactors. Not so with you’ (Luke 22:25-26); on the other hand, we have those who believe it is our calling to use power and violence to make history ‘turn out right’ (as we define ‘right’ from the place we are standing at present). This is to deny that Jesus is in fact the light of the world, and to appeal to some other source of light in his place.


********
As I continue to read and ponder Yoder’s thoughts I find much to agree with, much to challenge me, and a couple of things I find troubling. One of the latter is what seems to be his belief that Christians may not take part in the government of their countries. To him, this flows naturally from Jesus’ words (which he quotes above) about not lording it over others, and also Jesus’ question, ‘Who made me a ruler and judge over you?’ “As he is, so are we in the world” is then taken to mean that because Jesus refused the roles of ruler and judge, so should we.
I see the strength of Yoder’s argument. The church has a distinct function in the world, to witness to the gospel by its words and actions and its life together, and as such the state role can be a distraction from this. Many Christians have indeed allowed it to be a distraction, and have fallen into the mistaken assumption (which he strongly and rightly refutes) that right at the centre of God’s plan of salvation for the world is found, not the church of Jesus Christ, but the civilian government of so-called ‘Christian’ countries. Moreover, in biblical times and in the era of the early Anabaptists, taking part in civil government involved people inescapably in two functions forbidden to followers of Jesus: the use of the sword, and the taking and making of oaths. Swearing allegiance to an earthly ruler (still required of members of parliament in Canada) would also be seen as a contradiction to one’s ultimate allegiance to Christ alone.
However, there’s another side to the argument. Jesus commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves; in modern democracies, where everyone has a voice, can it not be part of our obedience to that command to persuade the people’s government to act in just and loving ways toward our neighbours near and far? Was William Wilberforce wrong, for instance, to use his position as a Christian politician to work for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire? Because it seems to me that if Yoder’s logic is followed to its conclusion, Wilberforce should have resigned from Parliament and spent his energies persuading his Christian brothers and sisters to free their slaves – no doubt a commendable thing to do, but not quite the victory for freedom that was March 25th 1807.
So I find I disagree with Yoder here. I find that modern democracy puts another tool in the hand of the Christian – not coercion or force, but persuasion. Persuasion was what Wilberforce and his colleagues used to such good effect. And Wilberforce made it quite clear by the way he lived his life that his first loyalty was to Jesus Christ and not to his prime minister or even the British crown.

However, I think that modern Christian politicians will always find themselves in positions of conflict because of the state’s power to compel and, in some situations, to kill. In these situations I think the force of Yoder’s argument still stands. Compulsion and violence is contradictory to the teaching and example of Jesus. And we must also recognise that some of the most important moments of history, seen in the light of eternity, do not take place in government chambers or battlefields but in small houses and situations no one has ever heard of. As my musical friend Martin Kerr sang to a couple of his friends on their wedding day, ‘Bono can’t change the world/any more than you two can’. Amen.

Sabbatical Report #16: Essay Reviews

More Yoderian Essay Summaries

I have now read five of the essays in John Howard Yoder’s book The Royal Priesthood.

  • The first essay, ‘The Otherness of the Church’, I reviewed in my previous sabbatical report.

  • The second essay, ‘A People in the World’, deals with the characteristics of the church as viewed from a broadly ‘Believers’ Church’ perspective. The classic reformation definition of the church as the community in which ‘the Word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered’ is seen as inadequate, firstly because it is so subjective (who is to define ‘rightly’?), and secondly because it s all about what the clergy do and not about what the people as a wholedo. Yoder therefore expands it to include Menno Simons’ list: holy living, brotherly and sisterly love, witness, and the cross of suffering for one’s loyalty to Christ.

  • The third essay, ‘Why Ecclesiology is Social Ethics: Gospel Ethics Versus the Wider Wisdom’ deals with the role of the church as the foretaste of the age that is to come. Starting from a statement by Karl Barth, Yoder goes on once again to argue for the distinctiveness of the church and its centrality in God’s plan. Christian social ethics are the ethics that characterize a community of believers, and they are centred on Jesus and his story, not on some ‘wider wisdom’ discovered somewhere else.

  • The fourth essay, ‘To Serve our God and Rule the World’, takes as its text what I believe is the New English Bible rendering of Revelation 5:10, and sets the discipline of Christian ethics in the context of what verses 7-10 have to say about the role of the church as doxology. To affirm that the Lamb who was slain is the ruler of the universe is to affirm that history is moving toward its fulfillment in the universal acknowledgement of his reign. Not all events in history will be viewed as ‘progress’ in the light of the reign of the Lamb, but only those events which conform to the character of the one who walked the way of the Cross.

  • The fifth essay, ‘Peace without Eschatology’, returns to the theme of God’s purposes for the world and their coming fulfillment. Yoder outlines the Christian understanding of history as composed of two aeons or ‘ages’ – the old age and the age to come – which overlap at our present time. The new aeon is characterised by agape – self-giving, non-resistant love, exemplified in the cross on which God demonstrates how he deals with evil and how he wins the victory over it. Discipleship is a matter of ‘as he is, so are we in this world’ (1 John 4:17). And yet the old aeon has also been brought under the reign of Christ, as is shown by New Testament passages such as Romans 13 which see the non-Christian state as having a role in God’s purposes of restraining evil. The church, however, is not seen in the New Testament as participating in this work; it has a different mission. True peace is seen eschatologically; it will be the work of God in the fulfilment of history, something the church can and should live toward, but cannot bring about by its own efforts. Christendom, by contrast, discounts biblical eschatology and sees its role as bringing about God’s peace now, usually using the methods of the old aeon (legislation, the sword) and not the new (love and nonviolence).

This is a very brief summary of the argument of these four essays; in no way should it be a substitute for people reading the essays for themselves. Yoder is a brilliant writer and biblical exegete and his prose is a pleasure to read; in a moment I will give some quotes. First, however, let me summarise a few themes that keep emerging (in no particular order).

  • ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not just a statement about the inner psychological preferences of individual Christians. It is an objective statement about the condition of the universe. The Lamb who was slain is at the centre of the throne. He is guiding history toward its consummation in the fulfillment of the new aeon, but even the old aeon is under his lordship. This is the basic message the church is called to proclaim: we are to announce the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live in loyalty to him rather than to any earthly ruler. This loyalty is what makes us distinctive.

  • The basic Constantinian error (which was maintained throughout Christendom) was to blur the distinction between the church and the world. The whole world was understood to be part of the church by virtue of being born into a Christian society and being baptized at birth. But then the church had to deal with the fact that many of those who were in its pews had little or no real faith in Christ. Christian ethics therefore had to be toned down to what was achievable by the virtuous unbeliever, and the distinctive gospel witness was thus obscured.

  • This leads to the next common thread: Christian ethics is for Christians. The Church has a distinct call in the purposes of God, and this gives it a distinct lifestyle appropriate for what it is about. It is not biblical to evaluate this lifestyle according to whether or not it is possible for the whole world, because the New Testament never claims that it is. To ask, “What would happen if we were all pacifists?” is to miss the point; we aren’t, and probably never will be! Jesus calls his true church a ‘little flock’ and expects that it will be observably different from the world around it.

  • The Gospel is not to be understood as being simply about how individuals can alleviate their guilt and find forgiveness and peace of mind. That is to read the tortured psychological history of Martin Luther back into the New Testament. The Gospel, according to the New Testament, is about the creation of a new people for God, formed from communities (Jews and Gentiles) which historically have been at loggerheads with each other. Thus the God who loves his enemies calls into being a people who are learning to imitate him and love their enemies. According to Ephesians 3, this is the centre of God’s plan; this is the great and amazing mystery which has been revealed to Paul.

  • The Believers’ Church tradition is sometimes referred to as ‘sectarian’, with the mainstream churches described as ‘Church’, but in fact the opposite is the case. The state churches (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) have historically been coerced by the state into blessing the nationalistic and territorial ambitions of self-centred rulers, and in thus blessing their ambitions these state churches have allowed Christ’s Body to be divided between national loyalties – in other words, to split up into nationally-defined ‘sects’. It is the Believers’ Church tradition, by contrast (and particularly the Anabaptist movement) which has insisted on the international character of the Church – that Christians owe their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ and his one undivided body which exists across national boundaries and transcends tribal divisions. In this sense, it is truly the Believers’ Church which is ‘the Church’ and the mainstream national churches which are ‘sects’! (For an Anglican this one hits home; you have only to think of all those national flags in Anglican churches!)

I could go on, but I want to conclude by giving a few choice ‘Yoderisms’:

‘The work of God is the calling of a people, whether in the Old Covenant or the New. The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear the message with which it is entrusted. Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowd in the theater is the product of the reputation of the film. That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history, from which both personal conversion (whereby individuals are called into this meaning) and missionary instrumentalities are derived’. (‘A People in the World’, The Royal Priesthood p.74).

‘The moral nonconformity of Christians is an indispensable dimension of their visibility. If the church is visible in that these people keep their promises, love their enemies, enjoy their neighbours, and tell the truth, as others do not, this may communicate to the world something of the reconciling, i.e. the community-creating, love of God. If, on the other hand, those who call Christ “Lord, Lord” do whatever the situation calls for just as do their neighbours, then what is communicated about their “religion” will probably be that just like the other cultures they have preachers and Sunday gatherings and prescribed ceremonies. The visibility of the witness, and therefore what is means to hear and accept it, is then misplaced’ (‘A People in the World’ p.81).

‘Using this particular point of entry to initiate our critique of Christendom enables us to see that the most important error of the Christendom vision is not first of all its acceptance of an ethic of power, violence, and the crusade; not first of all its transference of eschatology into the present providence with God working through Constantine and all his successors in civil government, not in its appropriation of pagan religiosity that will lead into sacerdotalism and sacramentalism, nor in its modeling church hierarchy after the Roman administration, nor any other specific vice derived from what changed about the nature of the church with the epoch of Constantine. These were all mistakes, but they were derived from the misdefinition of the place of the people of God in the world. The fundamental wrongness of the vision of Christendom is its illegitimate takeover of the world: its ascription of a Christian loyalty or duty to those who have made no confession and, thereby, its denying to the non-confessing creation the freedom of unbelief that the nonresistance of God in creation gave to a rebellious humanity’. (‘Why Eschatology is Social Ethics’, The Royal Priesthood, p.109).

‘It is clear in the New Testament that the meaning of history is not what the state will achieve in a progressively more tolerable ordering of society but what the church achieves through evangelism and through the leavening process’. (‘Peace without Eschatology?’, The Royal Priesthood p.163).


These are just a few choice ‘Yoderisms’; I could give many more! My reading of this book continues today; it’s pouring with rain in Manchester, where I am staying with my brother and his family, so there isn’t much else to do!

Sabbatical Report #15: Essay Review

John Howard Yoder: ‘The Otherness of the Church’ in The Royal Priesthood

41k8EPgcnULMy current study book is a collection of essays by John Howard Yoder on the mission and nature of the church, first published in 1994 and entitled The Royal Priesthood. However, some of the material in this book is a lot older than 1994. It is collected and edited by Michael Cartwright who also contributes a lengthy foreword about John Howard Yoder’s work entitled ‘Radical Reform, Radical Catholicity’. I have to say that I did not find this foreword helpful, mainly because of Cartwright’s tendency to write sentences like this:

As such, Macintyre’s attempted reconstruction of a teleological ethic is designed not only as an alternative to Nietzche’s genealogical approach to morality, but also as a theoretical alternative to the sociological substructure of consequentialist ethics that pervades Western culture.

Hmm. Yes – I quite agree!!!

However, the first essay by Yoder (I’ve read two so far) is a firecracker. It was originally a lecture given at Drew University at some point in the winter of 1958-59, and I find it fascinating that Yoder was speaking so clearly about the end of Christendom – and celebrating it – so long ago, when most theologians either genuinely had not noticed it or were frantically trying not to notice it. Let me summarize the argument of this essay.

Yoder begins by acknowledging that Christendom has coming to an end, but also notes that even though some theologians recognized the fact, few were actually evaluating whether or not Christendom had in fact been a good thing in the first place.

He then turns to the biblical concepts of ‘church’ and ‘world’ and defines them.

‘World…signifies in this connection not creation or nature of the universe but rather the fallen form of the same, no longer conformed to the creative intent. The state, which for present purposes may be considered as typical for the world, belongs with the other exousia (‘powers’) in this realm. Over against this “world” the church is visible; identified by baptism, discipline, morality, and martyrdom…But behind or above this visible dichotomy there is a believed unity. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the church believed that its Lord was also Lord over the world’.

(I cannot resist the temptation to give substantial quotes from this essay, as Yoder’s original wording is so clear and succinct!). Because the church believes this, it can speak a word to the state as well, in witness and prophetic challenge – demanding from it not so much Christian righteousness as simple human justice.

The clear distinction between church and world is what Constantinianism (i.e. the coming of Christendom) changes so dramatically. These two realities are fused and ‘there is no longer anything to call “world”; state, economy, art, rhetoric, superstition and war have all been baptized’. But of course thinking Christians knew that the mass of people flooding into the church had not really all been truly converted, and they therefore formulated the doctrine of the ‘invisible church’, meaning that the true church, made up of genuine believers, was known only to God. Also, the ethical requirements had to be adapted to ‘the achievement level of respectable unbelief’. For example, the statesman wants to be told that his profession is Christian, but what he does has not in fact changed. Christian norms for the exercise of his and some other professions are hard to find, hence the church adopts norms taken from pagan ‘justice’ instead. ‘The autonomy of the state and of the other realms of culture is not brought concretely under the lordship of Christ, with the total revision of form and content which that would involve; it has been baptized while retaining its former content’.

The 16th century Reformers took this a step further. The Reformation exalted the power and autonomy of the state. It surrendered the conviction that the work of the church is the centre of the meaning of history; now ‘the Prince is not only a Christian, not only a prominent Christian; he is now the bishop…the church confesses in deed and sometimes in word that not it but the state has the last word and incarnates the ultimate values in God’s work in the world’.

The Constantinian approach has shown itself to be incapable of making visible Christ’s lordship over church and world. We must now go back to the New Testament and there discover that ‘the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church’, because the meaning of history is not tied up with the defence of western culture or growth in prosperity but in the calling together “for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”, a “people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”.

We must also recover the New Testament concept of ‘the world’: not all of nature, humanity or culture, but ‘structured unbelief’. Recovery of this concept leads to two conclusions. Firstly, Christian ethics is for Christians. Since Augustine this has been denied; ‘the first criterion for an ethical ideal for the laity is its generalization’. Hence people ask Christian pacifists ‘What would happen if we were all pacifists like you?’; what is right is supposed to apply as ‘a performable possibility for a whole society’. But that is not the New Testament concept of Christian ethics.

Second, ‘there may well be certain functions in a given society which the society in its unbelief considers necessary, and which unbelief renders necessary, in which Christians will not be called to participate’. This was self-evident in the early Christian view of the state.

Constantianism was not a victory. ‘Christ’s victory over the world is to be dated not AD 311 or 312 but AD 29 or 30. That church will partake most truly of his triumph that follows him most faithfully in that warfare whose weapons are not carnal but mighty. The church will be most effective when it abandons effectiveness and intelligence for the foolish weakness of the cross in which are the wisdom and power of God. The church will be most deeply and lastingly responsible for those in the valley of the shadow if it is the city set on the hill’.

This essay has crystalised for me all the convictions that have been growing as I have continued to study Anabaptism. I have long observed in discussions with people about pacifism that the conversation quickly moves in the direction of ‘What should we have done when Hitler came to power’ – and the ‘we’ here means not ‘we, the body of Christ, the international community of Christian disciples found in England and Germany and Canada and Japan and Italy and the United States, bound in love and service to one another and determined to let nothing hinder its unity in Christ’; no, it means ‘We, England’, or ‘We, the British Empire’. But this is a use of the word ‘we’ which would never have occurred to the apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers. The first question in their minds was not ‘what should we, the Roman Empire do?’ or “What should we, the Israelite nation do?” but “What should we, God’s holy nation and royal priesthood, the people of Jesus, do? What is our special vocation in the world as an international community of love and service, bound by our first loyalty not to our own nations but to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain?”

To me this is the essence of the Anabaptist vision, which in this case is also the New Testament vision: let the church be the church, a distinct community of disciples of Jesus bound by our first loyalty to him to love our enemies, serve the poor and proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom. In this vision our first responsibility is not to be good Christian citizens but to be faithful followers of Jesus, knowing that at times this faithfulness will bring us into conflict with the demands of the state for our ultimate loyalty. In that situation, as followers of Jesus, we know what it is that we are called to do; we know to whom ultimate loyalty truly belongs, and we will pray for the strength to give it to no one else.