Ted Grimsrud

John Howard Yoder’s Christology

Ted Grimsrud—Fall 1982

[During the 1980-1 school year, as a theological novice with strong interests in peace theology, I attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Mostly, I went to AMBS in order to study with John Howard Yoder. One of the classes I took with Yoder was "Christology and Theological Method." For this class, Yoder distributed "printed lectures." After Yoder's death, these lectures were published by Brazos Press. Sometime not long after I finished my year at AMBS, I wrote the following summary of Yoder's christology as I had learned it from his class. I recently discovered this essay in my files. It's purely descriptive, and it reflects the immediate impressions I had of Yoder's thought after first encountering him.]

Introduction

I write this essay based especially on my reading of the writings of John Yoder, in particular Christology and Theological Method and The Politics of Jesus.  I also benefitted from taking classes from him at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries during the 1980-1 school year, the most germane to this subject being the course “Preface to Theology,” which focused on Christology.

Yoder’s understanding of Christianity and Christian living centers around his understanding of Jesus Christ.  For him, social concern and pacifism merely follow from Christology, from how we interpret and apply what we know about Jesus.  This point will be elaborated in what follows, but I want to start by stated it explicitly.

Though Yoder is known primarily as a brilliant apologist for Christian pacifism, his pacifism results from his attempt to follow Jesus.  For Yoder, pacifism is not an assumption we begin with and then look at Jesus.  The priority for Yoder is not defending pacifism, rather it is understanding and following Jesus.

What I want to do in this essay in considering Yoder’s view of Jesus Christ is first and primarily looking at what Yoder sees the New Testament saying.  He insists strongly that the New Testament is the basic source for his perspective.  Then I will briefly discuss how Yoder sees one theological construct regarding Christology articulated by the early church—the doctrine of the Trinity.  Finally, I will show, as an example of some of the implications of Yoder’s perspective, how he deals with the doctrine of the Work of Christ (the atonement), the reason why Jesus died and the meaning of this death.

The New Testament

I mentioned that the New Testament is Yoder’s basic source for his Christology.  Hence, he is, in some sense at least, a small “r” restorationist, if by that you mean that he places the New Testament as the prime authority and is suspicious—as a methodological principle—of what has happened since.

However, this point has to be nuanced a little.  For Yoder, it is not that we believe in Jesus because the authoritative New Testament talks about him.  It is more that we believe the New Testament because it witnesses to Jesus, the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The ongoing reality of Jesus’ life—experienced in the community of Jesus’ people who are empowered and enlightened in the power of the Spirit—is what is authoritative.  This ongoing reality is not separate from Scripture.  It is witnessed to in a unique way by scripture, but God’s revelation is on-going.

“If there is movement from the Old Testament to the New, it will also be natural that we expect to find smaller movements of the same kind within each of the Testgaments and between the New Testament and the present.  The way we test our conformity to Scripture is, therefore, not by asking whether we keep saying all the same things without any change but rather the more difficult question of whether the way we keep moving is in conformity with the way God’s people were led to move in formative times.”

So, our relationship to the New Testament is not that we attempt to return to its times but rather that we appropriate it now for our times.  But it is this task of appropriation which is essential and is the “burden,” as it were, of The Politics of Jesus and really all of Yoder’s scholarship.

The first step in this appropriation is to try to understand the New Testament on its own terms.  What that means with regard to Jesus is to read the New Testament without using the tinted lenses of later doctrinal formulations which emphasize his divinity and de-emphasize his humanity.  Focusing on these formulations undercuts the possibility of seeing anything normative about his life as a human being.

Yoder sees development of Christology in the New Testament.  Initially, in the earliest preaching in Acts, there is little theologizing.  The apostles say, simply, “you killed him, God raised him” without reflecting a lot beyond that about who “he” is/was.

The next stage can be seen in Philippians two, which apparently is a confession going back to the earliest Christians which Paul repeats.  Here a statement is made about Jesus emptying himself and becoming and living as a servant.  It is also said that God has exalted him.  So there is fleshing out both in terms of his pre-crucifixion ministry and post-resurrection destiny.  The idea of pre-existence is developed more in the next stage by John.

The “Word” which became flesh was with God from the beginning.  The early community also saw fit to produce the Gospels as a testimony regarding Jesus’ earthly career.  This was a very significant theological statement emphasizing the crucial place which the humanity of Jesus played in their understanding.

Yoder sees it as being “important to observe that it was after the formulations in the writings of Paul, and very possibly also after the first expression of the [‘high Christology’ found] in Hebrews one and John one, that it was found indispenable by the early Christian communities to ‘reach back’ and to reaffirm the earthliness of the man Jesus, the story of his doings, and the memories of his own words.  The gospels were not written to give us a Christology less ambitious than that of the Epistles:  they were rather written to clarify and hold fast the concrete human content of the faith in Jesus of whom the most exalted things were already being said.”

Yoder sees one of the central theological ideas in the New Testament regarding Jesus Christ to be that of the “logic of solidarity.”  By that, he means that Christ is so linked with humanity that you cannot say something about humanity that does not apply to him or vice versa.  What Christ does takes us with him.  If he rises, we shall rise.  If he conquers death, we shall conquer death.

This notion of solidarity is seen in Paul in Galatians 6: 11ff.  The death of Christ is the model for something that has happened to me.  In the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  It is a new kind of solidarity.  Not simply that we can talk about the resurrection of Christ as somehow drawing us along in a promised (future) resurrection.  But here the death of Christ makes me in some sense already dead because I share in it.  The cross is now.  It is not just an event in the past, but it is the model for the stance of the Christian in the world.

The Christian is someone who in some sense is dead with Christ, and in some sense is living again with Christ.  So the solidarity of Christ with humanity is a pattern for our total understanding of what it means to be a person as a Christian.  Jesus died.  Jesus rose.  And we share in both of these.  This is what it means to be in Christ.  This concept of solidarity provides the entire pattern of Paul’s thought about the way in which Christ is relevant to us.

In John’s thought, solidarity is seen in the teaching of Jesus, “You abide in me and I will abide in you.”  The same thing is said in 1 John in the language of sonship.  Not only is Jesus the Son, but in his epistles John says that we too are children.

In Hebrews, Yoder sees another key idea.  The true vicitory of Christ in the language of Hebrews seems to be at the point of his obedience.  He is crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  Death is the victory.  It is not merely the pre-requisite for victory.  It is in the suffering, in the facing temptation, in the being human, that he did what it is that saves us.  Jesus’ sinlessness is a matter of actually facing the temptations and the sufferings of his fate among people and continuing to be obedient.

There is much more in the Christology of the New Testament, but these two ideas are near the center according to Yoder—(1)  the logic of solidarity, the close connection between Jesus and the believer and (2) the place of Jesus’ obedient life.  His lordship comes because he we obedient, because he was faithful, because he overcame genuine temptations.

Due to the logic of solidarity, Jesus’ obedience becomes more than something which characterizes only him.  He is the Pioneer, the trail-blazer.  Because he was obedient we can be obedient.  This is how Christology necessarily includes ethics.

The Creeds

As I have said, Yoder seeks to be a biblical theologian.  Therefore, he does not see the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicean Creed to be divinely-sanctioned authority.

“It would seem that the only claim of the Nicean Creed is that it provided the best answer to an intellectual problem.  [This problem is the normativeness of Jesus as it relates to the uniqueness of God.]  What is authoritative is not the doctrine, but the claims of Jesus who creates the problem.  The doctrine is not supernatural truth, supernaturally communicated for its informational value.”

The value of the creeds is that they provided fences with regard to Christian theology.  They tried to safeguard what a Christian has to say to be faithful to Jesus.  It was a strength that they spoke in the language and to the issues of the day.  They are still valuable as fences.

However, the creeds are not meant to be a positive statement of our faith.  The content from that comes from Scripture.  Unfortunately, in Yoder’s eyes, Christians have tended to formulate their Christology more based on the creeds than on the New Testament.  So we have Christologies which answer fourth and fifth century intellectual questions but are missing the ethical thrust of New Testament Christology, as seen in the ideas of solidarity and obedience, among others.

The Work of Christ

One area which highlights how the ethical aspects of Christology are negated is the doctrine of the atonement, the way we answer the question of why Christ died and what his death accomplished.

The first thing that the doctrine of the atonement must do is answer the question, “why did he have to die?”  The second thing that it must do is somehow do justice to all of the biblical language.

The doctrine that most of us have been taught answers the first requirement.  It explains why Christ had to die.  God’s holiness is offended by humankind’s sin, and demands satisfaction —that is, punishment, in the form of death.  since the penalty as such is what God demands, it could conceivably be paid by someone else.  Since, however, every person is guilty of sin, each person’s death only pays that person’s own penalty, and there can be no salvation hoped for without divine intervention.  The only solution would be for a sinless person to die.  That person’s death could then, since it was not earned, be applied to other people’s debts.  God became human in order to live a blameless life so that there could be an unmerited death to reckon to other people’s credits.  Christ literally dies in our stead, and God’s holiness is satisfied by that death.  This satisfaction is valid for whoever believes.

Yoder lists twelve or so reasons for objecting to this view.  I will just mention a few of the most significant.

(1)  According to this view, guilt of sin (past sin) is the actual problem of atonement.  But the New testament has two other centers of interest which define the lost condition.  These are separation from God and incapability to do the good.  Thus salvation is not primarily the remission of guilt or the cancellation of punishment.  It is reconciliation (re-establishment of communion) and obedience, i.e., discipleship.

“Redemption” in New Testament usage is not purchase out of hock or out of jail as if we had been legally pronounced guilty, but out of slavery, slavery to sin.  From being servants of sin we become servants of God.  Redemption is a change of masters, and the New Testament use of this term is one of the strongest statements of the truth that the concern of God in atonement is our obedience, not our guilt.

(2)  The traditional view can lead to a tri-theistic God, one with three separate personalities with separate wills and identities who have transactions with one another.  Yoder sees this as unbiblical.

(3)  Under this view, the passages in the New Testament (which are very numerous) that speak of the Christian’s sufferings as somehow parallel to Christ’s make no sense at all.  Thus the New Testament’s central teachings on the concept of discipleship are unexplainable.  The Christian’s “cross” does not placate an offended holiness.  Also, Christ’s life becomes irrelevant, and our appropriation is irrelevant.

Yoder’s alternative view sees the basic problem being that men and women—created for free communion with God and obedience in communion—have disobeyed, thus coming under the power of sin.  God, respecting that freedom, has let them go and a wall is erected.

The question is now how God can bring men and women back to communion and obedience, that is, to save them (an expression of agape) while at the same time leaving them free (also an expression of agape).

The work of Jesus is, at its center, obedience (cf. Phil. 2; etc).  Jesus was what God intended human beings to be like—living in free, obedient communion with God.  Jesus’ perfect, obedient love had to be lived in the world of sinners, repsecting their liberty to be unloving.  Thus, agape comes to mean nonresistance, bearing others’ sinfulness; bearing, literally, their sins.  If Christ had done anything in the face of humankind’s sinfulness than to be nonresistant, respecting others’ freedom to sin against him, his work would have been less than perfect agape.

Jesus’ main temptations came right here.  By laying before Jesus the possibility of shortcuts which would violate people’s freedom to reject him, the tempter hoped to lead Jesus to take back the freedom which God had given them in the first place, rather than go the whole way to save humanity within that freedom.  The temptation to use violence was one aspect of this possibility.

Jesus was obedient to death.  He accepted the full brunt of the impact of what sinful humanity, the powers of sin and death, Satan and the powers of evil could throw at him.  Only by doing so could his victory over them be decisive.

Jesus’ love won the victory, though, as his resurrection attests.  This triumph now stands before men and women as an object of faith.  The appropriation of the work of Christ is by repentance and faith.  Repentance means ethics, not sorrow for sin.  It is the turning around of the will which is the condition of obedience.  Faith is not the acceptance of the proclamation that Jesus dies because of our guilt.  It is rather the committal to the faith-union of obedience made available to us through the perfect and triumphant obedience of Christ.

Conclusion

Probably the central characteristic of Yoder’s Christology is how it impinges upon our behavior.  “Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility.  Thus are we bound by New Testament thought to ‘be like Jesus.’”

Jesus, in his serving love, obeyed God and thus effected salvation.  That is the essence of Yoder’s Christology.  The Christian experiences that salvation by faith-union with this conquering Lamb and following the same way.

  1. Dear Brother Grimsrud,

    I read your article with great interest – and this interest was for several reasons. First of all, I am preparing a PhD research proposal in which the christology of John Howard Yoder will play an explicit role, although I am assuming that his ecclesiology has been more thoroughly worked out troughout his work. As I had had some correspondacne with brother J. Denny Weaver on his book “The nonviolent atonement” and on his interpretation of the christology of John Howard Yoder, I would be cusious to know how you relate to his ideas (I have not had the opportunity to read your books that are on desk yet) – as it seems to me that the two of you could go quite a long way togehter, whereas it seems that Denny Weaver is criticized for exactly the same statement as you made: that John Howard Yoder is very critical about the authority described to the Nicean creeds in general theology.

    I think it is this critical biblical perspective that can also help us to develop a more ditinctive Mennonite ecclesiology, which according to me is really necessary in our Dutch context. And though you might put different accents, it strengthens the idea that the christology behind “The nonviolent atoment” would be in line with the christology of John Howard Yoder, irrispective of what most Yoder-interpreters say. But still, I would be curious to hear your opinion on this matter, as I only started on my journy through the landscape af recent mennonite theology.

    Greetings from Hollna,

    Fulco Y.

  2. Sorry, it should be “Greetings from Holland”

  3. Thanks, Fulco. Yes, all in all, I think my views on christology and my interpretation of Yoder’s christology are pretty close to Denny Weaver’s. We’re good friends and have discussed these issues on numerous occasions.

    The main difference I would see in relation to the atonement is that Denny is focusing mostly on the theological tradition (Anselm, et al) and trying to fit his atonement theology in the existing paradigm (hence, his “narrative Christus Victor”). My inclination is to focus more directly on the biblical story, which I tend to see as not really supporting any of the “theories.”

    I hope to post on this site the rough draft of a manuscript I’ve worked on off and on for a number of years on salvation.

    I’m very interested in learning more of your thinking as you proceed. I’m excited to see another Mennonite take this topic up, especially one who seems to affirm the foundational role Yoder plays.

    All the best,

    Ted

    P.S. I was confused by the “Hollna” and intended to look it up on Google and find our where exactly you are!

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