Yoder’s Ethics – Powers, Problems and the Gospel

I do not want to take away from the brilliant and challenging observations that Yoder made about how Jesus and the Church are supposed to impact on the social and political structures of our day. If you haven’t read the previous post, read it now. Yoder’s observations are brilliant. However, there are two big problems with Yoder’s argument that, while not undercutting his major insights, might alter how we integrate them in our ethics.

The first problem is the usual issues we find in Yoder’s thought – overstating a single definition. In this case, he defines the “Powers” in New Testament thought as almost exclusively political and social structures. Yoder doesn’t give a detailed argument for this. Rather, he moves from considering the wide, even ambiguous, semantic scope of power language, and concludes with the widest possible definition of power as the “capacity to make things happen” (p138). He then associates this capability with “the reign of order among creatures” (p141), and from that point on “Powers” and “structures” are used interchangeably. Even though Yoder quotes Ephesians 3:11, which refers to the Powers as “heavenly”, there is almost no mention of the possibility of Spiritual powers. He does recognise that other scholars (including Hendrikus Berkhof, whom he quotes heavily) think that Paul had a very specific meaning for “Powers”, but he never engages with the argument. Only at the very end of this chapter he recognises that people believe that there is a Spiritual aspect to the powers, but again he does not engage the argument. Instead, he maintains that “the ‘exousiology’ of the apostle, that is, his doctrine of the Powers, reveals itself to be a very refined analysis of the problems of society and history” (p143-4).

This is a continuation of Yoder’s non-Supernatural reading of the Bible. He has so far avoided Jesus’ miracles, and any reference to the Resurrection, and he down-plays Spiritual or Atonement models of the Cross. In this case, he avoids thinking about how the existence of actual spiritual and demonic Powers might affect the New Testament passages about the Powers. My hunch is that it doesn’t. In the limited scope of thinking about how Christians are to interact with social and political structures, Yoder is right in observing that Jesus has declared them defeated by asserting his Lordship over the whole world. He also broke their power to coerce us, not only with a death that refused to compromise, but with a death that forgave sin so that our death holds no fear for us, and a resurrection that defeated death and promises us an eternity with God.

The second problem is bigger. Yoder has effectively outlined a Gospel that focuses on temporal, social liberty, rather than sin and our relationship with God. “In this view of things, the condition of the creature, our fallen state the continual providential care of God which preserves us as human, the saving work of Christ, and the specific position of the Christian community in the midst of history are all described in terms of social structure and their inherent dynamics” (149-50 ). This is, essentially, a Liberation theology Gospel. The problem is that humanity is enslaved by fallen social structures. Jesus death, by refusing to participate or fight those structures, defeats them and shows that they have no authority. Our salvation comes from liberation from these structures and into the freedom to live God’s way. If this is the only Gospel that Yoder proclaims (and it is the only one that he commends in his book – see my posts on Yoder’s Gospel 1 2 3) then what he is proclaiming is essentially not Christian. Every New Testament book states that dies for our sins. They give various models such as penal substitutionary atonement, propitiation, expiation and redemption from slavery to sin. But all of them focus on sin, and our eternal relationship with God. To reduce salvation to redemption from slavery by social structures is to empty the Gospel of its most important meaning.

This does not negate the fact that our salvation does result in salvation from social structures in the way that Yoder describes. But it is by no means the central or most important effect.


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