John Howard Yoder – Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions

by Mark Thiessen Nation (Eerdmans, 2006) reviewed by Andrew Francis

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

John Howard Yoder was a gifted communicator and foremost Mennonite theologian of the late twentieth century. His writings include studies of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, biblical studies, critiques of major twentieth-century theologians (like Barth and Niebuhr), peace studies, social ethics and radical church practices. Years spent in France, Argentina and Jerusalem honed both linguistic and teaching skills whilst transforming Yoder’s perspectives on post-war Europe, Latin American liberation theology and the Jewish struggle. Together these supported a theology for communities declaring renewed and radical identity.

This short, erudite yet comfortable-to-read book shows how all this comes together. This is all the more remarkable as Yoder himself made little formal attempt to do this, never choosing to publish a systematic meisterwerk. Nation wisely organises this book into five almost thematic chapters – sustained by his knowledge of all 400 of Yoder’s articles, books, essays and other works.

The first chapter offers a biographical sketch of Yoder’s conservative origins, demonstrating his journey of thought, faith and discipleship. Nation 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 global ecumenism and the emergence of the Mennonite Church on the world stage.

Nation shows how much of Yoder’s work was rooted in both his early studies of Anabaptism and his life experience in 1950s Europe. He reveals how Yoder became one of the leading voices in the vanguard of Anabaptist expression when others across the Christian Church were seeking to rediscover the values of ‘radical reform’.

Yoder’s rich contribution to ecumenical dialogue is revealed in his 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.

Yoder’s pacifist views are so well explained that it easy to understand why West Point graduates debated ‘just war’ with him and 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 The Politics of Jesus (the revised 1994 edition is less staccato than the 1972 original), Nation provides an accessible introduction, leading into another of Yoder’s better-known books, When War is Unjust.

Yoder’s vision of discipleship and its outworking in daily life as well as in Christian community is well explored. Nation illustrates the tension in personal and social ethics as individuals enter the dialogue, which Yoder advocates, with more mainstream Christianity and others. He gives his readers a salutary reminder that not all will want to share Yoder’s radical views on Christian commitment and its demands.

Finally, Nation offers a very 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.

This book may be criticised as blatant advocacy for Yoder but it is not hagiographic. Some might argue that it is simplistic in its sampling of Yoder but the power of its contribution is in the book’s brevity and sharpness of choice of quotation. All of us who have attempted to write about John Howard Yoder’s thought may find our favourite quotations or minor emphases omitted, but this is a rich book deserving a wide readership.

Those of us who know Mark Thiessen Nation’s passion for Yoder’s writings can recognise an appropriately objective reflection here of Yoder and his faults, as well as his breadth and his contributions. Those who have begun to read Yoder himself will find this book whetting 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.

Books reviewed in the Anabaptist newsletter – and many others on related themes – can be obtained from www.metanoiabooks.org.uk.