Culture and sin

Culture and sin November 19, 2011

John Nugent’s The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God [Theopolitical Visions series] is an important contribution to the study of Yoder’s work, as well as a provocative survey of the political development of Israel in the Old Testament. Yoder’s take on the OT is helpful in many regards: He treats the OT as theology, reading it in the light of Christ and as progress toward Christ; he thinks the OT essential to Christian ethics and to the church’s life; he wants to show the logic of Israel’s maturation in a way that makes Jesus the natural outcome of Israel’s history. The book should put to rest the charge (which I have implicitly repeated) that Yoder’s pacifism rests on a Marcionite reading of the Bible. Nugent shows that Yoder’s intentions are just the opposite, that he challenges Marcionite readings.

This is not to say that I find Yoder’s analysis of the OT persuasive in very respect. Tracing the development of culture from the garden through the flood, Yoder summarizes by saying “Adam makes the transition from nature to culture; Cain from culture to war. Culture (whose root meaning, we remember, was agriculture), is already morally ambivalent. It is close to nature, but not natural. It scratches open the soil, wounds the breast of Mother Earth, in order to wrest sustenance from it . . . . It thus becomes the occasion for fresh sin and the multiplier of damages.” Nugent goes on to summarize:

“After being banished from the soil . . . Cain’s descendants quickly yielded the basic elements of fallen history and culture: the protective threat of revenge (the state), the city (civilization), the arts (Jubal’s music), technology (Tubal-Cain’s metallurgy), and Lamech’s escalating vengeance (war). All of these unfold from the first murder and all of them result from the estrangement with nature that began with Adam and multiplied with Cain and his descendants.”

I don’t have Yoder’s essay from which this argument is taken, but from what Nugent offers this sounds as if culture is itself a post-lapsarian phenomenon. Culture is per se “morally ambivalent”? But wasn’t Adam commanded to “subdue and rule,” that is, to engage in cultural activity? Was culture “morally ambivalent” in Eden? I don’t believe Adam was going to remain in the garden forever; even unfallen, Adam would have moved out from the garden to “scratch open the soil” and “wound the breast of Mother Earth.” Perhaps Yoder only means to say that after the fall even the most basic cultural pursuits are perverted. But that “morally ambivalent” makes it sound like a stronger claim. Nugent’s summary too supports this stronger interpretation: One can see how revenge and war “unfold from the first murder,” but music and metallurgy ? In fact, the first city was founded on a brother’s blood; but unfallen humanity would have found it advantageous to gather into cities.

A similar problem arises in Yoder’s account of the origin of the state. He argues that there would be no need for a coercive, sword-bearing state apart from sin, and with that point I agree. But then he concludes that there would be no state at all, which assumes that the “state” is inherently sword-bearing and coercive. If one wants to stipulate such a definition of state, fine. Yet, Yoder doesn’t appear to address the more basic question of whether “state” authority would have been exercised in any form in an unfallen world. Authority and violence are distinct issues. As Victor Lee Austin has recently argued ( Up With Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings ), authority is inherent in created social life, not a post-fall innovation. Even in an unfallen world, there would have been music and orchestras, and orchestras, even sinless ones, need a conductor. From his discussion of leadership in the family and of the powers, it is clear Yoder does believe that leadership and structure of some sort was necessary before the fall, but then it follows that some sort of “state” order is also necessary.

These questions are significant in themselves, but I am also interested in understanding the effects of Yoder’s account of created order for his thought as a whole.


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