Died: in his office at N. Dame – 1997 after suffering an aortic aneurysm
Studied: Goshen College, BA; PhD. Univ. of Basel in Switzerland, 1962
Married: Anne Marie Guth in 1951 while in Europe
Taught: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, in Elkhart, IN 1960-1970; President of Goshen biblical Seminary 1970 – 1973; Notre Dame 1977 – 1997
The bulk of Yoder’s argument is rooted in his reading of the gospel of Luke. Its basic assertion is that Jesus’ actions were overtly political and everyone knew it. Jesus meant to signal that he intended insurrection (the temple is the obvious place), and Jew and Romans alike knew it. But, he intended non-violent insurrection which he knew would end in his own death. Thus the death of Jesus was not simply limited as a “ritually prescribed instrument of propitiation, but as the political alternative to both insurrection and quietism.”
Yoder points out that Jesus inaugurated his ministry with the Jubilee passage in Luke, but that many people miss the obvious reality that Jesus meant this literally – he wanted to reorder the political structure and encourage the people of God to stop taking advantage of the poor. Interestingly, Yoder walks through the translation of the Lord’s Prayer and specifically the word aphiemi which is literally translated “debts” and signifies monetary debts. This is obvious Jubilee language in his opinion, and the translation as sin or trespasses confuses this allusion. Jesus is recommending not a symbolic Jubilee, but the real thing.
Yoder turns his attention to the non violence of Jesus and the common notion that the Old Testament advocates violence. He argues that what was essentially retained in the memory of the people was not their victory in battle, but that their victories were won by YHWH alone. Whereas we might look at the Old Testament and see a recommendation of violence, the Jewish people would see that God alone can conquer. Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries knew this to be true. In light of his Jubilee agenda, they wanted nothing of his teachings. “Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom was unacceptable to most of his listeners not because they thought it could not happen but because they feared it might, and that it would bring down judgment on them.”
Again, Yoder wonders whether this non-violent insurrection was a possibility or not. Chapter five shows that the idea of non-violent resistance existed as a category of thought or practice in Jesus’ culture. Josephus actually records a powerful historically verified act of non-violence among the Jews concerning Pilate in Caesarea a few years after Jesus’ death. This was an option they would have known about, and a possiblity which is highly realistic.
Next Yoder asks the question: if everything up through chapter five is true, then does it make its way from the gospels (from Luke especially) to the rest of the New Testament? Obviously Yoder thinks it does exist in Paul and the other writers. He focuses on Paul and John as well as the disciples to examine the ethics of the early church. He’s looking for imitation or following after Christ as a discipleship response from the 12 and others. He’s asking the question, “if we are to imitate Jesus, how might this need to happen?” He flies through a multitude of verses with a mind toward eliciting the descending/ascending pattern which he believes is normative for Christian ethics. This pattern is the pattern of the cross. He calls the cross the “political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Thus this cruciform life, characterized by the suffering servant, should be normative for Christian life.
In chapter eight Yoder explores the concept of “The Powers” in the New Testament. He is asking how Jesus and his contemporaries would have viewed this idea of powers and principalities. He asserts that powers are not some sort of esoteric force or demonic presence that possesses people, though he doesn’t just dismiss that. He just says that the powers which Jesus and Paul are dealing with are more like systems which God set up to order the universe but that are twisted by the fall and attempt to usurp the sovereignty of God. This chapter constitutes a sharp critique of the sort of nationalism found in most American protestant churches.
In chapter nine, Yoder delves deeply into the concept of Haustafeln. The Haustafeln are a group of New Testament ethical instructions which are found in: Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. Haustafeln is a German word meaning literally “house tables” or “household tablets” but is generally rendered “household precepts.” I took it to mean something akin to “house rules.” Some scholars have believed that these were a kind of makeshift substitute ethic which was created by the early church out of necessity because of the failure of Jesus to present a clear ethic and the failure of the kingdom to come right away. Yoder obviously rejects that notion. His view is that the pattern of mutual submission subverts the powers and reorders creation the way it was supposed to be. In other words, subordination or subjugation is actually the only proper use of power in the life of a human being.
Yoder goes on to explore the verse from Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul seems to encourage everyone to be subordinate to the state which is instituted by God. Yoder says that Romans 13 is not the only place we are taught how to deal with the state and that it is not really even the norm. Drawing from the context of that passage, Yoder contends that the entire passage is really a call to be subject to God’s ordering of the powers. It does not mean Christians should serve in the military. He thinks verse 7 is the key to the interpretation: give “respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
Yoder he rejects the reformation view of Paul on justification. He rejects the idea that justification can be thought of as an abstraction from the social realm. Paul wasn’t racked with guilt and seeking a gracious God in a Lutheran way. He didn’t conceive of faith as a movement from self-trust to god-trust. Paul viewed justification as setting things right. This included Jews and Gentiles, and all areas of life. But the old reading of Paul has really thwarted Christian ethics. It held that only transformed individuals will behave differently, so preaching the gospel to individuals was the only way to change society. This, we know, hasn’t happened.
The final chapter is truly an amazing chapter. Yoder stops footnoting and citing sources and just writes from the heart. It’s quite poetic and moving in parts. He draws John’s Revelation into the conversation and really makes an argument for Christian pacifism. He says that regular pacifism really just tries to obtain everything it wants but just through non-violent means. But Christian pacifism is first a renunciation of the compulsiveness of purpose which leads the strong to violate the dignity of others…taking what you want because you can. Violence is just a part of that. We must renounce anything desire which cannot be attained by legitimate means. This is how we suffer with Christ.
It’s difficult to attempt to write some sort of response to my reading of this book. I read it for the first time this summer and it has become my major preoccupation since then. The nature of my faith seems to be undergoing a cleansing, Yoder being one of the primary agents of that change. I find his argument completely compelling and challenging on may levels. The primary challenge is to the individualism, nationalism (or militarism) and materialism which plagues our culture and my life. Not only that, Yoder conceives of the ethical response of the Christian in such a way as to mandate resistance. One isn’t allowed to silently resist, but the rejection must be active and resolute. If it is not, it calls into question the very faith of the person. Christianity truly was much easier before I read this book. For the first 31 years since I became a Christian, my primary angst was the struggle against sin and the struggle to walk with God consciously and consistently. The fight was to keep my relationship with God in the forefront of my mind. Since reading this book I’ve become haunted by the reality of the presence of God and the importance of every single action I take. I will be forever indebted to John Howard Yoder for what I believe to be a seminal book in my theological studies. Yoder, 36.
 Ibid. 85.
 Ibid. 90.
 Ibid. 129.