A Concise Introduction to John Howard Yoder

by Andrew Francis

John Howard Yoder – Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions
Mark Thiessen Nation
Eerdmans, Cambridge, 2006 (202 pages)

In this book’s Forward, Stanley Hauerwas wrote ‘This book will clearly make Mark Nation the scholar of record about matters Yoder’. He is right. This book is the best introduction to reading Yoder on the market – apart from reading Yoder himself.

John Howard Yoder was a remarkably gifted communicator, who became the foremost Mennonite theologian of the late 20th century. For virtually 20 years, he taught in a Catholic University. His writings grew from studies of 16th century Anabaptists, through biblical studies and critique of major 20th century theologians (like Barth and Niebuhr), into peace studies, social ethics and radical church practices. The years spent in France, Argentina and Jerusalem honed both linguistic and teaching skills whilst transforming Yoder’s world perspectives of post-war Europe, Latin liberation theology and the Jewish struggle; together these synthesized and supported a theology for communities declaring renewed and radical identity.

This short, erudite yet comfortable-to-read book shows how all this thought comes together. This is all the more remarkable as Yoder himself made little formal attempt to do this, consciously never choosing to publish a systematic meisterwerk. This volume stands in front of the previous attempts of others to put Yoder’s thought in context. Mark Thiessen Nation wisely organises this book into five almost thematic chapters, rather than documenting a chronological process – evidentially sustained by his knowledge of all 400 of Yoder’s published articles, books, essays and other works.

Firstly, a biographical sketch of Yoder’s conservative origins demonstrates the journey of thought, faith and discipleship – witnessed by the book’s title. Nation rightly credits Yoder with being–in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time as his rise to prominence, via the publication of well-researched articles and his doctoral thesis on Sattler’s place within early Anabaptism, coincided with new global ecumenical dimensions and the emergence of the Mennonite Church onto the world stage. Subsequent chapters weave Yoder’s past and more recent thought together demonstrating a lifetime’s coherence of approach.

Secondly, the author shows how much of Yoder’s work was rooted in both his early studies of classic Anabaptism and life-experience in 1950’s Europe. Nation coherently reveals how Yoder became one of the leading voices in the vanguard of Anabaptist expression when others across the Christian Church were seeking to re-discover the values of ‘radical reform’. First reading made me consider this chapter unsatisfying but reflection means that Nation’s view may be stronger by not pushing Yoder’s thought further than Yoder intended, thus denying Nation the opportunity for more emphatic conclusion.

Thirdly, Yoder’s rich contribution to ecumenical dialogue is revealed by encouragement to ‘know your principles’ but act with grace and respect in shaping the life of wider Christian conversation. Anabaptists and other contemporary radicals may read this chapter with the question “so ?’, knowing their own rootedness in Jesus teaching in Matthew 18. But this very fact strengthens the argument both for Yoder’s importance and why his arguments in this regard need to be so clearly heard, adopted and accepted by those within a mainstream or Christendom culture.

Fourthly, Yoder’s pacifist credentials are so well explained that it easy to understand why West Point graduates debated the ‘just war’ with him or why commentators like Sojourners’ Jim Wallis said ‘Yoder inspired a whole generation of Christians into the way of peace-making and social action’. For those who have struggled with Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’ [the revised 1994 edition is less staccato than the 1972 original], this chapter provides an accessible introduction whilst leading into another of Yoder’s more widely-known books, ‘When War is Unjust’

Fifthly, Yoder’s vision of discipleship and its outworking in daily life as well as Christian community/congregation is well-explored. Nation skillfully illustrates the tension created within personal and social ethics as individuals enter the dialogue, which Yoder advocates, with more mainstream Christianity and others. Nation gives his readers a salutary reminder that not everyone will want to share Yoder’s radical views upon Christian commitment and its demands. Yoder assumes the individual disciple ‘buys into’ wholesale change of that which corrupts in either Christian or more secular practice, rather than compromising with a few piecemeal tinkerings.

Finally, Nation offers a helpful survey, and conclusive evidence, of Yoder’s enduring reach across the work of several theologians as well as the life of the church. This book should invite others to come into that sphere of influence. Criticism may be afforded that this book is Yoderian advocacy but it is not hagiographic, or that it offers a simplistic view in its sampling of Yoder but the power of its critique remains in the volume’s brevity and sharpness of choice of quotation. All of us who have tried to write about Yoder’s thought may find our favourite quotations or minor emphases omitted but this a rich book deserving a wide readership.

Those of us who know Mark Thiessen Nation’s passion for Yoder can recognise an appropriately objective reflection here of Yoder and his faults as well as his breadth and contribution. Those who have begun to read Yoder himself will find this book will whet their appetite to read a lot more. Serious Yoder scholars need to engage with this book. One of Yoder’s own editors, Michael G. Cartwright reckons: ‘this book will be the standard against which to measure any future explorations of Yoder’s ecumenical vision for the faithful church’. If that’s your agenda, order this book today.