Yoder’s Gospel Part 3

Yoder’s “corrective” to reformed theology is primarily stated through the lips of other scholars. Thus it is hard to say that he agrees 100% with what he presents. However, since it is put forward as a “corrective”, I think it is justified to assume that he is presenting what in his opinion is the “correct” view (however, see ?? last paragraph)

Yoder’s first scholar is Krister Stendhal (The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West). His argument is a fairly familiar one in this day and age – the assertion that Paul was not preoccupied with personal self-acceptance (p214). Rather, Luther asked the questions of guilt and righteousness, and his reading of Paul has twisted the original meaning ever since. Paul’s main concern, he argues, is presenting Jesus as the true Messiah (p216). The heresy that Paul was fighting was not legalism, but the refusal of Jewish Christians to realise that the covenant had now been opened up to include the Gentiles. It was a social, not a spiritual, problem. Paul’s conversion was from someone who resisted the Gentiles to one who gathered them in (p217). So what does the proclamation of the “righteousness of God” mean in this reading? Simply that Jew and Gentile could both be part of the believing community.

The next point is based on Ephesians. He argues that it was a latter letter of Paul’s (or the Pauline community) and therefore more developed theologically than the others (p219). Thus he uses it as a key to interpreting Paul’s use of “righteousness”. His exegesis of chapters 2 emphasises the second half of the chapter – the unity of Jew and Gentile, and the removal of the hostility (p218). Thus, he argues, the key purpose of justification is so that the two people could become one, rather than any fixing of a broken relationship with God. However, this ignores the occasional aspect of all of Paul’s letters – he writes different things to different people with different problems. One letter cannot be used to govern the rest (not even Romans!), rather the whole should help with the reading of the one.

Yoder’s second scholar is Marcus Barth (Karl’s son, I believe). He analyses Galatians 2, and concludes that justification is not primarily used as a juridical term (p220). Rather, it is about whether the Jews and Gentiles could live together. More broadly, justification is about “making peace” and “breaking down the wall” between people who were otherwise divided. As Yoder points out, this sounds quite similar to Stendhal. The third scholar is Werner Bartsch, who focuses on Romans and highlights the Jew/Gentile issues that run through the whole letter (p223).

Yoder’s conclusion is that justification is defined as “a social phenomenon” and “setting things right” (both on p223). The main point being that God is righting the social divisions of the world by bringing everyone together in the one “believing community”. Unfortunately, Yoder gives no indication that he has considered how the word was used in 1st Century Judaism, or Hellenism. The primary usage of righteousness is in some context with the legal system – being legally right, or being declared to be so. However, Yoder rejects this usage out of hand, based on a handful of passages.

So what is Yoder’s gospel? He does not deny that Jesus saves individuals (p215 n2, 219), but his major emphasis is on the present social implications of Jesus, not on eternal ones. As such, it seems to me that Yoder’s big “problem” that Jesus saves us from is social division, not sin or alienation from God. This kind of feels like some parts of the “New Perspective”, but without the subtlety.

This annoys me for three reasons: Firstly, he’s wrong. Justification is not simply a social phenomenon of setting things right – as the word implies, there is a large element of being made or declared right before God (See Piper for better arguments). Secondly, because people have argued this position much better without dropping the massive clangers that Yoder does (N.T. Wright, for example). Thirdly, because it is totally unnecessary. Yoder is undermining the legal concept of justification so that it is not used to undermine his ethic of imitating Jesus. Surely there are better ways of doing that than butchering justification.

So I’ve been a bit unfair to Yoder, and flipped straight to the back of the book to see how he handles the evangelical shibboleth of Justification by Grace through Faith. However, in my view, he definitely said “sibboleth”. I do not get the impression that “forgiveness of sin” is a major theme in his thinking. So I’m wondering what his concept of human sinfulness is, and how this affects his ethics.

I guess I’ll have to read on…


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