Do You Have To Be a Good Person To Be a Good Theologian?

Do You Have To Be a Good Person To Be a Good Theologian? October 12, 2013
Theologian John Howard Yoder, author of The Politics of Jesus

That’s what Mark Oppenheimer asks as he reports on the troubled legacy of John Howard Yoder:

“Physically he died, but his work and his theological writings live on,” said Linda Gehman Peachey, a freelance writer in Lancaster, Pa., who is also part of the six-member group. “For those who have known this other side — his behavior, particularly toward women — that is really painful.”

Mr. Yoder’s memory also presents a theological quandary. Mennonites tend to consider behavior more important than belief. For them, to study a man’s writings while ignoring his life is especially un-Mennonite.

Professor Koontz regularly tells his students reading Mr. Yoder that “his behavior is one thing we ought to take into account when we read his work.” Ms. Peachey noted that Mr. Yoder wrote a good deal about suffering as a Christian virtue, but “if you know this part of the story” — how he made women suffer — “you tend to read it with a different eye.”

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  • John Howard Yoder was a “good person” (and, certainly, also a “good theologian”). It’s just that, like most good people, he was capable of doing bad things (this is the argument that Mark Thiessen Nation makes, at least). Glen Stassen suggests that part of the dynamic with Yoder may have been undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.

    • Sarah Morice Brubaker

      Here’s what one of his victims told the Elkhart Truth:

      “After I had put the kids to bed, I came down to the living room. John was
      sitting on the couch. He moved closer to me as we were sitting on the
      couch. He kept coming closer and closer to me and eventually pushed me
      over and lay down on top of me. I was very afraid. I began to push him
      away. He began to shake violently…When I pushed him away and confronted him, he denied there was anything sexual about it.”

      I wonder what it would be like for that woman to read the words, “John Howard Yoder was a good person…. It’s just that, like most good people, he was capable of doing bad things.” I wonder what it feels like to have that done to you, and then read those words from a prominent Mennonite. I could imagine it being very hurtful, even if the intentions are good (as I genuinely assume they are here, because I know you’ve written other thoughtful, searching things about Yoder.)

      I don’t know exactly what should be done. I think his victims are the experts on that. I firmly believe that justice requires that they, not Yoder’s legacy, be centered. If it comes down to a choice between helping to tend their wounds and writing an easy redemption story for a theologian that some people regard as a hero, well, too bad for the easy redemption story.

      I’m also not sure why Christians’ opinions of a serial sex abuser should be altered simply because he wrote some theology that a lot of people like. Why does being a serial sexual predator who’s also a theologian spur so many Christian defenders to action? I’ve not seen such impassioned defenses of serial sexual predators who were plumbers or optometrists. Why is that?

      I also wonder if people would refer to someone as a “pacifist theologian” if he wrote his books while fighting in a war. I sort of think they might not. Yoder wrote his books while committing sexual violence against dozens of women. Should he still be referred to, uncritically, as a “pacifist theologian”?

      Finally: In Tim Nafziger’s piece he points out that at least one woman was warned against studying with Yoder because (as her advisers told her) her personal safety was at risk. In light of that, how should one contend with the fact that most Yoder scholars — and therefore the people with the biggest platform for controlling his legacy — are men? It seems not at all innocent, not at all happenstance. Not that male Yoder scholars need to be walking around hanging their heads in shame; but I hope they would attend to the fact that they have power to shape the narrative because they were (as far as we know) safe from Yoder’s sexual predation. That confers on them some responsibility to question their own experiences of him and what a great guy he seemed like to them, and let those experiences be corrected/deepened/thickened by the testimony of his victims.

      • Craig

        I wonder what it would be like for that woman to read the words, “John Howard Yoder was a good person…. It’s just that, like most good people, he was capable of doing bad things.”

        I wonder too, but my reaction to such statements (“Yoder was a good person…”) is similar. They are bound to strike Yoder’s victims as inappropriately dismissive. Largely because of this, I want to say that such statements are inappropriately dismissive: out of respect for the victims such statements should not be made. By withholding such statements, would any injustice be thereby done to Yoder? Tempting answer: he’s in no position to complain about that; any such harms to his legacy are self-inflicted. Is the world the worse off (because fewer people may now respect Yoder’s ideas)? Likely so, and this is a further reason why Yoder shouldn’t have behaved as he did.

        (Let me add, I’m simply responding with my thoughts to what I’ve read here. I’m otherwise unfamiliar with the circumstances.)

  • davehuth

    As a Menno I can attest this is especially painful for us. I think this may be one reason why Mennonite theology has such a strong historical component. A widely used contemporary Anabaptist theological text begins with chapter after chapter of setting context though detailed historical acts and events, drilling down to the individual decisions of movement leadership (some of it ludicrously destructive). I think this may also be the impulse behind other Mennonite scholarship such as new claims about the life of Bonhoeffer

    It’s true that, very often, for us theology is action — so to get theology right (or rather to make it meaningful) the truth must be told about what happens.

  • Joel Kuhlin

    What about other theologians with questionable pasts? (I´m thinking about Karl Barth & Paul Tillich….)

  • Andrew Dowling

    Are MLK’s speeches less relevant because he repeatedly cheated on his wife?

    • tanyam

      Just a preliminary thought here. Maybe it depends on what they wrote about, and what they did. If there writing was about the use of power, and they misused power, you wonder what the blind spot in their understanding of power lies. But if their sin seems unrelated–it seems less interesting beyond the level of gossip. I’m not aware that anyone has yet to write a biography of King which makes any interesting connection between these failures, and his thought. .

  • Ex opere operato

  • Though, depends on what we mean by “theologian”. Could he have truly known God if he treated other poorly?

  • Thursday1

    Notwithstanding the admiration of some people who are pretty good theologians, Yoder wasn’t all that great as a theologian either. Many of his readings of the Biblical text in The Politics of Jesus are insulting to the intelligence. Others are possible, but hardly so indisputable as he needed them to be.

    • Thursday1

      BTW I don’t think Christian pacificism needs Yoder. And, for the reasons above, is probably better off without him.

  • Larry Barber

    The link to the article appears to be broken. Maybe the article has been removed or moved? I would very much like to read it.

  • Ric Shewell

    This quote by Eugene Peterson: ‘The Christian life is not romantic. And it certainly doesn’t assume the best in everyone – particularly preachers. In some ways we assume the worst, but without despair, for it is because of this “worst” that we are in the salvation business, not out selling religious cosmetics.’

    Peterson was talking about Tillich. I think there is something to mourn when great Christian teachers do not live up to their teaching, but perhaps we need to be shaken from an idolatrous hope that a person will fully embody right-living, right-thinking, and right-worship. We do theology because we know that we can’t live up to what we hope is right. Lord have mercy.

  • NateW

    I guess it depends on the final end that the work of a theologian is expected to be.

    A musculoskeletal expert may well employ their genius to teach a model or politician to smile convincingly for hours, but much more than technical explanations would be necessary to help them out of depression.

    I guess I would say that anyone blessed with the requisite insight and eloquence could be a great theologian, but that that this title will amount to very little in the end.

    • NateW

      Oh, I recently read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which, by and large, deals with this very question. It’s an absolutely incredible read.

      p.s. If you’re a fan of audiobooks (as am I) I would heartily recommend Kenneth Branagh’s reading. Best audiobook narration I’ve ever heard.

  • Ben

    Does this question mirror the heresy of Donatism? I don’t mean to use “Donatism” or “heresy” as a slur, but to point out some historical parallels: here is a case of some people judging the validity of a theology based on the behavior of the theologian, whereas the Donatists of the past judged the effectiveness of a sacrament based on the behavior of the celebrant.

  • tanyam

    I have wondered about this, not so much in the abstract, but about this man (and to some extent Hauerwas as well.) There is something –for lack of a better word, — self righteous in their writing and speaking. The easy dismissal of Niebuhr’s views, for example. Pacifism might well be the absolute right idea, but I could never understand the easy dismissal of people who are troubled at great injustice, who don’t want to pick up a weapon and stop some brutality or another. Almost always, Yoder dismisses that instinct as self-justifying nonsense. How could he fail to appreciate that impulse?.
    And both men seem strangely, paradoxically, angry. Hauerwas has his famous cussing storms. What I want to know is whether there is a connection between their lives and their thought that is illuminating.

  • Dustin Hite

    One does begin to wonder what the correlation might be between moral goodness and theological acumen, especially considering a survey of the 20th century alone yields such a bountiful list of prominent theologians/pastors who specifically had trouble negotiating sexual boundarings (e.g., King, Tillich, Yoder, etc). This doesn’t even take into account the issue of pride and hubris often seen in folks like Hauerwas, etc.

    Maybe it’s that these folks, who are almost all men, allowed their genius to get the best of them, as they may have begun to think of themselves as above (or maybe beyond) the very precepts they espoused.

  • Tony Simoncini

    Tough topic, but worthy of our heartfelt consideration. Truth is truth, no matter who’s mouth or pen it comes from. But, there is something of an honoring those theologians who particularly invite Christ into their lives for the work of transformation rather than information download alone. Seems Jesus had some harsh things to say about the Pharisee’s saying correct things but not letting those things transform their heart for God and people… Matt 23:2-4… “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

    Like many things this appears to be a fine line that we can’t know in detail, which seems like a cop out, but I suspect if we know all of our most trusted and love theologians intimate details of their hearts and lives, we wouldn’t have any trusted and loved theologians. So I say how we live our lives matter… they matter to the world around us and they should matter to the people who learn from us. It’s not to be a life of perfection, but one of repentance and reliance on community to become more like The Son.