Yoder gets to the good stuff

So I’m up to chapter 6 of John Howard John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and it’s starting to get good. The start of this chapter is sort of a summary, where Yoder draws together some of what he has said so far –that the sayings and life of Jesus had very strong ethical and political themes, and that the teachings of the later church echo these themes.

Next, Yoder shifts the foundation of this argument, and becomes focused on the dual nature of Christ. He argues that many problems around taking Jesus seriously in ethics comes from underplaying either his humanity or his divinity. Scholars who underplay Jesus’ divinity treat him as a good teacher, but are happy to take or leave the bits that they like. To those people, Yoder reminds them that God is in Jesus in a unique and authoritative way, and that his ethical model overrides all others. He gives a valuable (if partial) description of the incarnation: “God broke through the borders of our standard definition of what is human, and gave it a new, formative definition in Jesus” (p99). Jesus, by nature of his divinity, unalterably redefines what it means to be human, ethical and political. On the other hand, scholars who underplay Jesus’ humanity see him as a unique event that is completely unable to be replicated – there is no reason to imitate Jesus because he came to do a one-off job as God-on-earth. Reinforcing Jesus’ humanity shows that Jesus’ new definition of what it means to be a person applies to us – as fellow humans.

Yoder then proposes a number of false dichotomies in Christian ethical thought, which are (mostly) absolute gold:

1)      Jesus of History vs. Jesus of Dogma – You cannot simply jump from Jesus’ birth to his death to Romans, and ignore his life and teaching. Nor can you marginalise the Jesus of history by saying he is not the Christ of Faith (this is the incarnation issue restated) (p103).

2)      Prophet vs. Institution – I didn’t understand this one L (p104).

3)      The reign of God as External and Catastrophic vs. Internal and Subjective – The Kingdom is not just “the end of the world” and it is not just “living in your heart”. It is here and now lived out in the church. (Yoder here goes a bit too far and implies that it is ONLY in the social entity of the church, not the other two options) (p104-5)

4)      Political vs. Sectarian – We are not faced with a choice of either being politically effective by “playing the game” or withdrawing into our enclaves. The alternative social group that is the church has political influence simply by being an alternative social group. Nonviolent / non-forceful activism can be politically effective (just not comfy) (p105-7).

5)      Individual vs. Social – Jesus ethics were not just how you live as an individual, they have social implications at the same time. (p108-9)

6)      Love vs. Effectiveness – You don’t have to be violent / forceful / unloving to be effective.

Sadly, again, in his desire to affirm a truth (that Jesus is political and ethical), Yoder denies another truth (that he is cosmic and spiritual). This is particularly obvious in reference to the temptation and the cross. Firstly, he argues that the ONLY temptation that Jesus faced was to use force to achieve his aims (p96), or to believe that “the exercise of responsibility through the use of self-evidently necessary means is a moral duty” (p98). Secondly, he describes the cross primarily (if not entirely) as the result of Jesus’ non-violent ethic meeting the force of the authorities. Any “spiritual” interpretation of the cross, such as propitiation or atonement, is only ever referred to negatively, such as in this quote:

His disavowal of Peter’s well-intentioned effort to defend him cannot be taken out of the realm of ethics by the explanation that he had to get himself immolated in order to satisfy the requirements of some metaphysically motivated doctrine of the atonement; it was because God’s will for God’s servant in this world is that he should renounce legitimate defence (p98).

Yoder also argues against Niebuhr’s desire to include the doctrines of the Father (created order) and the Spirit (the historical teaching of the church) as “modifications” of a Jesus-only ethic. This argument, which is very brief, implies that Yoder rejects including any concept of created order in his ethical framework.

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