John Howard Yoder and Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Ted Grimsrud – June 2011

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21st century?

John Howard Yoder did not consider himself a systematic theologian, and as far as I know would not have called himself a constructive theologian. However, his work certainly directly related to the task many Mennonites, and others who would also think of themselves as spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists see as vital for the viability of Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities—namely, self-conscious work at articulating their theological convictions in ways that might provide sustenance to their tradition.

Yoder’s model I will call “practice-oriented” theology. To help understand Yoder’s approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engagement in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a quite different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship.

Finger helps us a great deal in understanding the central characteristics of Anabaptist theology.  However, I will suggest that in his decision to frame his theological proposal within the general approach of mainstream Christian theology (which has not, as a rule, placed ethical faithfulness to the way of Jesus at the center of theological reflection), he risks minimizing the theological convictions that may be the most important contribution Anabaptists have to make the Christian existence in twenty-first century North America.

Finger joins with others who have sought to construct Anabaptist theology in ways that stress commonalities with mainstream Christian theology and place major importance on drawing on the post-biblical (and, maybe even more so, the post-fourth century) dogmatic theological tradition and on centering more on the internal rituals of Christian communities.  These emphases may threaten to diminish Anabaptist distinctions and the potential of theology in the Anabaptist tradition to recover the core ethos of the biblical portrayal of the life of faith.

Finger’s most thorough treatment of these themes, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive,[1] examines Anabaptist theology in great detail, both in the 16th century and in our contemporary North American setting. Finger read thoroughly in 16th-century Anabaptist sources, and probably no one has read as widely in 20th– and 21st-century Anabaptist/Mennonite theology.

The book begins with a brief summary of key aspects of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement based on up-to-date scholarship, followed by a summary of currents in recent historiography.  Next comes a groundbreaking description of what Finger calls “Contemporary Approaches to Theology in Anabaptist Perspective.”

In considering “approaches to theology,” Finger’s “contemporary Anabaptist” category is pretty much synonymous with “Mennonite,” though he does include Baptist theologian James McClendon and Nancey Murphy from the Church of the Brethren.

In sketching the present scene, Finger’s concerns are theological.  He states, “since I am mainly concerned with comprehensive theologizing, I will chiefly consider authors who have completed at least one work of this kind or who often addressed this task otherwise.”[2]  As becomes clear in the course of the book, what Finger has in mind with “contemporary theologizing” is a pretty traditional view of theology.”  He focuses on formal doctrines, understandings of personal salvation, and church rituals.  He defines theology on page 95: “The discovery, understanding, and transformation of the basic convictions of religious communities, and relating these convictions coherently to each other and to whatever else exists.”

The heart of the book contains in-depth discussions of six themes that presumably constitute what Finger sees as Christianity’s core convictions.  These are: (1) the personal dimension (personal salvation and justification theology), (2) the communal dimension (the community of faith especially focused on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and economic sharing), (3) the missional dimension (evangelism and responses to the world), (4) Jesus and divine reality (doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Trinity), (5) human nature (theological anthropology), and (6) the last things (eschatology).

Finger follows the same outline for each theme.  He begins by summarizing 16th-century Anabaptist views, then he describes and critiques contemporary Anabaptist discussions of his themes.  He concludes each chapter by articulating his own constructive proposal. Though Finger’s concern is with theology (as defined above), he seeks to view theology in an ethically oriented way.  He understands one of the central elements of Anabaptist theologizing to be a concern with integrating belief and practice, not simply focusing on disembodied ideas.  Finger expresses this concern by suggesting at that since Anabaptist theology emerged among people on the margins of their societies, it might have special relevance today for reflecting theologically about present-day situations of marginalization.

Finger provides access to 16th-century materials rarely presented in an overtly theological context – reflecting an up-to-date awareness of historical scholarship and, most importantly, an eye to the present-day theological relevance of these materials.  Side-by-side with this effort of historical retrieval, Finger gives us a fascinating portrayal of theological ferment among current Anabaptist theologians.  He helps us to see the wide diversity in our dynamic community of scholars.  Finger also helps us to see how those within this diverse community of thinkers are nonetheless united in their deep concerns for peace and for the integration of belief and practice.

Though Finger is obviously concerned with ethics, and with how theology translates into practice, as a rule this concern is evinced mostly in statements that he has this concern more than in the clear content of the theological analysis.  That is, Finger in practice still seems to treat theology more as ideas and disembodied beliefs than as always-embodied convictions that reflect political and socio-cultural interests and cannot truly be understood apart from those interests.  For Finger, ethics seems more like an add-on to pure theology than something that is inextricably a part of all theological reflection.

Finger is by far the strongest on description.  He carefully and cautiously describes, then proposes.  This descriptive element of his work greatly overshadows the sharper prophetic critique and ethical exhortation that seems to have been at the center of 16th-century Anabaptist faith.  The irenic tone of A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology will insure that it will not alienate and drive away readers from other traditions.

At the same time, this means that Finger does not share the conflictual dynamics characteristic of his Anabaptist forebears that followed from their directly challenging status quo religion.  Given that probably the most universal characteristic shared across the diversities of 16th century Anabaptism was how their convictions and practices got them into serious trouble, one wonders whether there might be somewhat of a tension with latter-day theologies that want to call themselves Anabaptist and yet end up being quite safe and comfortable.

Seeking to be irenic, while laudatory in many respects, may also run the risk of muting key Anabaptist distinctives. An overly irenic approach may lead to allowing the mainstream traditions to set the agenda in a way that privileges their (non-pacifist!) concerns and leaves crucial Anabaptist concerns (especially related to Anabaptist pacifist convictions) unmentioned or relegated to footnotes or appendices to the discussion that “truly matters.”

What Should Contemporary Anabaptist Theology be Like?

More than ever before, North American Anabaptists are challenged to become self-conscious about articulating our theological convictions.  This tradition has been sustained for many generations more by the strength of family and cultural ties than by clearly, overtly stated common convictions.  However, in North America’s ever-more transient culture, into which Anabaptists are increasingly being acculturated, those old ties are weakening.  The future viability of the Anabaptist tradition cannot be taken for granted. Consequently, the importance within the tradition of self-conscious constructive theology has grown significantly.

I read Finger as making an important contribution in uncovering and helping to make more coherent important theological resources from the 16th century and familiarizing his readers with contemporary options.  Certainly his constructive proposals are well-considered, and useful for contemporary Anabaptists (and all other Christians for that matter).

However, my take on what questions contemporary Anabaptists ought to be asking is different.  I am not convinced that theologizing as Finger has done, focusing mostly on doctrinal formulations, the internal debates of theological discourse, and the sacramental practices within the church – theologizing that will likely not get him into trouble with anyone – is the best reflection of the spirit of 16th-century Anabaptist theology or the best kind of contribution pacifist Christians might make to theology seeking to engage our present historical context.

As Finger shows us, we in the Anabaptist tradition need continually to be reflecting on what our theology is and should be.  For one reason, as pacifist Christians, we have a call to witness to Jesus’ way in the face of whatever forces in our present world are hurting, violating, oppressing, and dominating the human beings God loves.

I support Finger’s use of “Anabaptist” as a rubric for the kind of theology we need to be producing.  This rubric both anchors us in a particular tradition, the spiritual descendants of the Radical Reformers, and allows us to be open in engaging the entire Christian tradition and to seek to be relevant in the catholic Christian community.[3] I mean here to affirm Yoder’s sentiment at the beginning of his book, The Priestly Kingdom: “The vision of discipleship projected in this collection is founded in Scripture and catholic tradition, and is pertinent today as a call for all Christian believers.” However, in many ways Yoder’s approach contrasts sharply with Finger’s.

Like Finger has been, Yoder was an ecumenist, deeply concerned with respectful interaction with other Christians, and a regular official Mennonite representative in various ecumenical settings around the world. However, whereas Finger focuses a great deal of energy in finding common ground with the mainstream tradition, Yoder emphasized the need to focus on the differences—in part as a way to keep the core convictions of the minority group from being absorbed by an emphasis on the similarities.

I affirm Yoder’s approach. One important ramification for Anabaptists is their responsibility assertively to articulate their core convictions that may well be at variance with mainstream assumptions. Early in his academic career, Yoder made this point in his theological analysis of the dialogues of the earliest Swiss Anabaptists with their Reformed adversaries. He argued that those Anabaptists modeled “a truly fraternal polemic” that remains worth emulating. “Both the past and the present will be better served if the oppositions are revealed and not silenced in the interests of an alleged ecumenicity. The tragic part of the Reformation history, and especially the relationships of the Reformation to the Anabaptists, is not that there were differing opinions at that time, but rather that they did not find the Christian way to deal with their differences of opinion; that is, that their differences were not resolved theologically, but rather by police action.”[4]

One way to understand Yoder’s subsequent work is to see it as an effort to embody what he understood to be the heart of the Anabaptist way of theologizing—a quest for ecumenical dialogue that combines respect and genuine listening with honest voicing of differences and seeking to hold all theology accountable to the message of Jesus.

He returned to this theme of ecumenical conversation in the final essay he wrote before his death in December 1997: “The foundational mandate to be reconciled, the one that matters, is the one that applies where we differ. That we can work together when we agree is not yet the gospel. That is the sociological works-religion, something we can do for ourselves, in our own strength. The word of reconciliation, on the other hand, directs us to talk together when we disagree. The gospel is that despite ourselves, by grace, we have been made one with people with whom we were not one.”[5]

In between these two writings, in his most famous book, The Politics of Jesus, Yoder emphasized that one of the New Testament’s main teachings was the call to reconciliation among formerly alienated Jews and Gentiles, called together to witness to the world of God’s healing power that breaks down walls of enmity that divide disparate people. The point here, too, is not a muting of differences but unity amidst the differences.

The lesson is not that we should place our highest priority on commonality in a way that mutes differences (and inevitably silences minorities and blocks the conversation group as a whole from the minorities’ insights). Rather, according to Yoder, the New Testament doctrine of justification emphasizes the social nature of salvation—and the community that justified people form is a place for conversation, mutual learning, and communal discernment that is only possible when differences are aired and various points of view are allowed to find expression.

Anabaptists should learn most of all from the distinctive elements of their tradition and not be defensive or apologetic about those in conversations with other Christians. Their theology should be first of all Anabaptist theology, then they build on the common ground they find with others—rather than letting the agendas of other traditions mute our own central convictions as Anabaptists.

What are the key Anabaptist convictions? Contemporary Anabaptist theology should read Anabaptist history (16th century and the years since) similarly to how we read the Bible.  We today are part of the same, on-going story as the biblical people, especially Jesus, and as the Anabaptists of the 16th century and since.  We do not critically distance ourselves from the story, but we also recognize that we need to read the story truthfully, to allow it to challenge us and not simply say what we want it to say.

We consider the entire story, trying to listen to it on its own terms.  However, we use a reading strategy that privileges themes in the broader story that (1) accurately support Jesus’ own summary of the Law and Prophets (that is, his Commandment to love God and neighbor) and that (2) most helpfully support our calling today to apply Jesus’ Commandment to our context.

Reading the Bible and the Anabaptist stories in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching underscores that both stories at their cores integrate belief and practice.  The stuff of biblical theology and the stuff of Anabaptist theology are made up primarily of real life, concrete moral practices, the effort to live faithfully.  This kind of theology does not place abstract doctrines or what other theologians have said about theology at the center – either in theory or in practice.

The 16th-century Anabaptists wrote little formal theology.  Most early leaders had little formal education and the few more highly educated ones ended up dying early (e.g., the one leader with a doctorate in theology, Balthasar Hubmaier, was executed by the Viennese government in 1528, three years after the movement began).  Few of their spiritual descendants have written formal theology either; until recently this relative silence has led to debates about how much we should assume they share with the mainstream of orthodox Christian theology.

Do their mostly positive allusions to commonly held Christian doctrines (trinitarianism, creedal formulations, et al) imply that they are best seen as theologically orthodox Christians who added on some distinctive ethical practices such as pacifism?  Or does their basic lack of interest in formal dogmatic theology imply an alternative orientation to Christian faith that privileges right practice over right belief in ways that actually, if spelled out, would lead to an entirely different type of theology, root and branch?

I lean towards the latter inclination in relation to Anabaptist theology.[6]  I believe that theology done after the Anabaptists (meaning, following their path even while going beyond what they directly said) should be a distinctive kind of theology.  Anabaptists have resisted the systematizing and formalizing of theology into doctrinal formulations and insider language games.  Their approach to faith has been more concrete and practical.

If we in North American Anabaptist communities are in a new era, where the times require more self-consciously articulating our theological convictions (since we may no longer so easily depend upon family and cultural ties to sustain our tradition), is our best strategy to link more closely with traditions with a longer history of formal theology, simply adding our ethical distinctives to the already-formulated “classical” theologies?  Or is the best strategy to think through the entire theological enterprise anew in light of core Anabaptist convictions?

This latter approach, which I endorse, would, for example, emphasize that a pacifist doctrine of God might be different than doctrines of God[7] formulated by theologians in, say, Augustinian, Thomistic, Lutheran, or Calvinist traditions that have explicitly approved of Christians fighting wars.[8]

To be clear on this point we could call ours “radical pacifist Anabaptist theology.”  Since such a term, in my mind, would actually be redundant, I will not seriously propose to use it.  But in saying that “Anabaptist theology” should be seen as, by definition, meaning “radically pacifist Anabaptist theology” I assert that the core of “Anabaptist theology” is pacifism.

Of course, our definition of “pacifism” will determine what this core has to do with. By pacifism, I mean the conviction that no values or commitments are as important as the value and commitment to love God and neighbor. Anabaptist theology bases this conviction on Jesus’ life and teaching. Hence, the core of “Anabaptist theology” as pacifist theology is the message of Jesus. Yoder has made this profoundly clear in the basic argument of The Politics of Jesus: That the Jesus of the New Testament (and the Jesus of history) at the heart of his message emphasized love and servanthood in imitation of Israel’s God, and that this Jesus, appropriately confessed by Christians as Son of God, provides the norm for all subsequent Christian belief and practice.

Theology drawing on the Anabaptist stream of Christianity sees the root or foundational theological conviction being Jesus’ love command.  Hence, it is “radical pacifist theology,” “radical” in that sense that at its root pacifism affirms love as the core truth.  By “pacifist” I mean understanding the loving God and each human being as the core conviction that exceeds all others.  For pacifism, no other value, truth, conviction, or commitment can be important enough to take priority over the love command – that is, no value is worth committing violence for.

It is important for Anabaptists today to emphasize (in a way not clearly seen in our tradition until quite recently) that the “peace” Jesus embodied was the “peace” described in the Old Testament with a cluster of socially oriented terms such as shalom (“peace”), mishpat and sedeqah (“justice”) and chesed (“mercy”).  This is a broad, positive, active, life-affirming, world-transforming, and injustice-resisting concept.  “Peace” as presented by Jesus includes direct involvement in resisting evil (nonviolently), in seeking to bring healing to the world’s brokenness through fostering genuine social justice.[9]

Reading the Anabaptist convictions that matter most as “radical pacifist convictions” captures the authentic core of tradition as read through the lens of Jesus’ message.  This is not to say that Anabaptists have always embodied this message so much as to say that insofar as they have done so, at that point what matters most about the tradition is at the forefront.

For “Radical pacifist Anabaptist theology” (from now on, simply “Anabaptist theology”), the stuff of theology is the message of love, its embodiment in actual life, its need in our broken world, and theological reflection in light of this message, embodiment, and need.  The doctrines, formal traditions, creeds, technical theological language, only have value for Anabaptist theology insofar as they illumine the message of love; they are not valued as ends in themselves.

Practice-Oriented Theology

Contemporary Anabaptist theology may thus be conceptualized as directly connected to social life and concrete ethics.  It seeks to follow the biblical mode of focusing on people’s actual lives and applying theological convictions directly to practices that sustain a people’s faithfulness to their vocation as agents of God’s shalom.  It sees as its model Jesus’ style of communicating his convictions concerning God and truth – life-oriented, practical, accessible, embodied in life, directly in service of the love command.

This practice-oriented theology sees its central concern as theological reflection on the stuff of actual life.  It may be contrasted with other types of theology that focus their reflection more overtly on doctrines and creeds, past and current theological formulations, and insider rituals as the stuff of theology.  This more doctrine- and ritual-oriented theology primarily refers to theology, its own internal set of concerns.

Yoder addressed philosophical ethics in an essay called “Work and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism,” but some of his points could also be applied to doctrine-oriented theology. He warns of the dangers of “word-spinners” substituting preoccupations with definitions and deductions drawn from the definitions for the “ordinary language” of actual life. “Language is never self-contained unless it be, like algebra, the product of a mind abstracting from moral community.”[10]

Contemporary Anabaptist theology as practice-oriented theology will tend to be theological reflection that directly applies the biblical story to life in the world such as the problems of violence and poverty, the quest for meaning in a consumerist society that dominates the world economically and militarily, and the future of life in face of environmental degradation.  This focus contrasts with theological reflection that focuses first of all on theological formulations in various forms and only turns to life in the world as a second level concern.

Anabaptist theology will see the life and teaching of Jesus as the most fundamental contribution the Bible makes to present-day theology.  Rather than focusing energy on the formulation of doctrines of scripture’s authority, it will focus on drawing on the story of Jesus for interpretive clues for engaging with the crucial issues of present-day life.

Earl Zimmerman has helped us see how directly Yoder’s recovery of the “politics of Jesus” stemmed from his immersion in post-World War II Europe’s recovery from the devastation of the immense violence that lasted from 1914-1945.[11] Yoder believed that one of the roots of that period of total war may be found in the failure of the European churches to be clear about the message of Jesus. He believed that what was needed was not a witness from the margins from a small sect but a message taken to the mainstream about the actual message of the Jesus all Christians claim as Lord and Savior. However, his take on Jesus surely stemmed from his own Anabaptist convictions. His was an Anabaptist theology—but one aimed to speak to all Christians based on those core Anabaptist convictions that the other traditions had avoided.

These are some of the questions contemporary Anabaptist theology might engage:

•Why does so much theology support violence?  Why are American Christians more likely to support capital punishment and the War in Iraq than non-Christians?  How might we think theologically in ways that overcome this problem? How do we challenge what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence” so widespread in American society?

•How does Christian theology respond to its rival, the “faith” of capitalism that currently is transforming our world into a “planet of slums”?

•What are the religious beliefs that underwrite the commodification and accompanying destructive exploitation of our natural environment?

•How do we reflect theologically on the ways many Christians have lifted the alleged sins of gay and lesbian Christians as bases for unprecedented levels of intra-church conflict all out of proportion with the weight these “sins” are given in the Bible?

We may contrast these questions with other types of questions and concerns expressed in doctrine-oriented theology, both from the evangelical side and from the mainstream side.

The kinds of concerns focused on by evangelical theology may be illustrated by issues raised by Roger Olson in the final section, entitled “Issues in Evangelical Theology,” in his recent handbook on evangelical theology.[12]

•How do we understand the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit?  Do we think in terms of a “second blessing” or second definite work of grace that lifts the Christian to a new level of faith-experience or more in terms of one completed baptism of the Spirit at the point of conversion?

•What beliefs are acceptable for one who wants to be identified as an “evangelical Christian”?  What are the boundary lines to acceptable belief?

•How does one know the truth status of truth claims about God?  Is true knowledge of God based only on special revelation and faith in God’s Word?  Can the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ be rationally proven?

•Which view about the End Times is most persuasive – premillennialism, amillennialism, or postmillennialism?

•Is the Bible perfect – historically accurate and internally consistent – in every detail or is it more that it is trustworthy in what it teaches concerning salvation while also reflecting human fallibility in some of its historical accounts?

We may illustrate the concerns of mainstream theology by noting a randomly chosen (June 14, 2005) issue of The Christian Century that devoted its cover article to various contemporary views of the doctrine of justification by faith.  The article examines recent writing on this doctrine, focusing on how theological ideas about justification are being debated.  As it turns out, the article concludes with some sharp questions of these writers and their neglect of the social-ethical relevance of justification.  Nonetheless, except for these questions at the end, the article focused on an internal doctrinal theme as an example worth extensive discussion illustrating what is currently seen as important in ecumenical theology.

Another example of the concerns of mainstream theology, concerns tending to be theological ideas more than actual life, may be seen with the table of contents from another randomly chosen issue (April 2005) of Modern Theology, a pre-eminent English-language journal devoted to academic theology.  These are some of the article titles: “On the Meaning and Relevance of Baader’s Theological Critique of Descartes,” “Philosophy and Salvation: The Apophatic in the Thought of Arthur Schopenhauer,” and “The Simplicity of the Living God: Aquinas, Barth, and Some Philosophers.”

My point with these contrasting tendencies is not to critique more doctrinally-oriented theology but simply to suggest that Anabaptist theology is something quite different.

Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology?

With this perspective on “practice-oriented” theology in mind, I want to return to the contrast between Finger and Yoder’s respective approaches to Anabaptist theology. I do believe Tom Finger has made a major contribution to the task of Anabaptist theology today.  Yet I remain convinced contemporary Anabaptist theology is better pursued somewhat differently.[13]

One question is whether in trying to mediate between Anabaptist and mainstream theologies, Finger tilts too far in the direction of the latter style of theology.  Two others who have also produced major theological works that could be seen as “contemporary Anabaptist theologies” (though neither uses that term for their work), James Reimer and James McClendon, reflect similar tendencies.

Reimer’s massive collection of theological essays, Mennonites and Classical Theology,[14] has the sub-title, “Dogmatic Foundations for Theological Ethics.”  In the introduction, Reimer explains that though often criticized for focusing too much on “dogmatics,” he does indeed take ethics (which he defines as “the principles guiding human behavior”) seriously.  But he is convinced that “ethics, particularly Christian ethics (including the Mennonite concern for peace, justice, and nonviolent love) needs a ground outside itself” – what he calls a “foundation.”[15]

Consequently, “there are few essays in this volume which deal specifically with ethical topics.”[16]  Indeed, beyond on occasion mentioning that he is concerned with ethics, Reimer’s theological reflection rarely touches down in concrete reality – focusing almost exclusively on thinkers, thoughts, and traditions.

In doing theology that serves as a “foundation” for ethics while rarely directly touching on real life ethics – and, for that matter, in understanding “ethics” primarily as “principles” rather than concrete, embodied practices – Reimer situates himself much closer to the doctrine-oriented than to practice-oriented theology.

McClendon completed his three volume systematic theology in 2000.  Most of his life a Southern Baptist (he joined a Church of the Brethren congregation late in life), McClendon coined the term (lower-case “b”) “baptist” to describe his theology.  However, he did write that, under the influence of John Howard Yoder, he became, “though I still have no love for the term itself – an ‘Anabaptist’ Baptist.”[17]  McClendon wrote his trilogy in an attempt to provide an alternative to the mainstream Christian traditions.  Rather than starting with the “foundations,” he started with “ethics.”  Then came his “doctrine” followed only at that point by the more foundational third volume.  And even that volume turned out to be “witness.”

So McClendon sought to give us what could certainly be termed “a contemporary Anabaptist theology.” However, his volumes are notable for their detailed focus on other theological work more than on life itself; this is especially the case with volume two, Doctrine. McClendon himself tells us why he took this approach.  “I was determined to write every sentence in light of my new-gained radical convictions, and yet to write in such a way that standard-account people, those who shared my pre-Yoder standpoint, could make sense of it.”[18] Admirable as McClendon’s strategy may be, what he produced is more accurately described as doctrine-oriented theology seeking to address the problems of theology in that mode than as actual practice-oriented theology.

Finger follows a similar strategy – working within the mode of doctrine-oriented theology but with the intent of moving it more toward practice-oriented theology, bringing core Anabaptist convictions (e.g., peace, close attention to Jesus’ life and teaching, an integration of belief and practice) to bear on the theological enterprise in a way that “makes sense to standard-account people.”  Like with McClendon, I perceive that Finger also would hope to persuade the “standard account people” to regard Anabaptist convictions more positively.

However, is theology done in the doctrine-oriented mode, even with overt delineation of Anabaptist convictions, the best approach for contemporary Anabaptists?  This mode may relativize these convictions so much that what we end up with is not truly “radically pacifist.”

The construction of contemporary Anabaptist theology remains an always-open task.  The ideal I point toward combines serious engagement with the biblical story with careful analysis of contemporary social issues.  It remains a point of debate whether Anabaptist theology may take the form of systematic theology and remain consistently Anabaptist.  If such an articulation is possible, it must retain at its core a privileging of the biblical story understood as centered in Jesus’ life and teaching over later creedal formulations and internally-oriented rituals.  That is, an Anabaptist systematic theology must remain “radical pacifist” theology.[19]

In the past half-century’s emergent theological scholarship among Anabaptists, John Howard Yoder has approached my ideal.[20] Yoder’s most overtly doctrinal book, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method[21] aptly illustrates his practice-oriented approach even to what we could call doctrinal theology. He takes the life and teaching of Jesus as his foundation. Only after that starting point does he then trace the development of Christological doctrines. Yoder does deal seriously with the later creeds and confessions, by and large affirming their truthfulness. However, they remain supplementary to the practical, concrete, ethically-engaged life of the person Jesus of Nazareth.

This book, titled as it is, Preface to Theology, could also be seen as a preface to Yoder’s 1972 book, The Politics of Jesus. Read in light of Preface, Politics may be seen as a further development of Yoder’s account of his doctrine of Christ. This doctrine is inextricably linked with ethics. Because of Jesus’ life, he is affirmed as God Incarnate—and this life remains the concrete model for all Christians and the measuring rod for all subsequent doctrine.

Doctrine-oriented theology, which starts with the creeds and confessions (“definitions and deductions from the definitions”) simply does not approach the dogmas as supplementary to the story of Jesus told in the New Testament. We see the problem from the earliest widely-used creed, the Apostle’s Creed (probably first formulated in the late 2nd century). This creed, which served as the model for many later statements and remains central in creedal churches around the world, simply bypasses Jesus’ life and teaching altogether, jumping from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”


I propose that if we understand embodying and applying Jesus’ love command (what I call “pacifism”) as our core Anabaptist conviction, then Anabaptist theology should self-consciously focus on practical social ethics as an intrinsic part of all our theologizing rather than seeing it as a second-level concern after working on “pure theology.”  That is, our theology from the start and throughout should be practice-oriented more than doctrine-oriented.

Pacifist theology, which by definition is concerned at its core with the embodiment of Jesus’ love command, will always be practice-oriented.  Since Anabaptist theology understands itself as, above all else, based on the message of Jesus, it should always be pacifist theology.  Such a theology will find itself at odds with non-pacifist theology in relation to its articulation of the core convictions of Christian faith.

Rather than trying to fit within the Western (non-pacifist!) theological tradition, accepting this tradition’s basic theological articulations but adding on an ethical, even nonviolent, component, contemporary Anabaptist theology has the calling to rethink theology root and branch in light of its most fundamental conviction – that no other value or commitment takes precedent over the love command.

[This is a significantly revised version of an essay published as “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” in Ted Grimsrud,Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

[1] Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[2] Finger, Contemporary, 57.

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983), 8.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogue Between Anabaptists and Reformers (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2004), 142. This book was originally written and published in German in two volumes in 1962 and 1968. The first volume was Yoder’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Basel.

[5] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way from Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9.2 (Spring 2001), 177.

[6] I have been influenced by J. Denny Weaver’s work on this point.  See especially Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000).  See also Weaver’s critique of Finger’s book: J. Denny Weaver, “Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” Direction Journal 34.2 (Fall 2005), 241-263.

[7] See the Conrad Grebel Review symposium, “Is God Nonviolent?” 21.1 (Winter 2003).

[8] Here I may be emphasizing a theme that goes beyond even what Yoder himself affirmed. See Ray C. Gingerich, “Theological Foundations for an Ethic of Nonviolence: Was Yoder’s God a Warrior?” Mennonite Quarterly Review 77 (2003), 417-35.

[9] For a description of “restorative justice” see Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses third edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004) and Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rrapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).  For a portrayal of Jesus’ vision being one of active nonviolence, see John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) and Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).  See also Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994) for an account in the evolution of Mennonite understandings of their peace position.

[10] John Howard Yoder, “Walk and Work: The Alternatives to Methodologism,” in Christian E. Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds., A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 91.

[11] Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2007).

[12] Roger E. Olson, The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 291-315.

[13] My concerns are paralleled by these comments from John Driver: “Members of radical faith movements frequently direct their lives according to the authority of scripture.  They often attempt to translate scripture into living experience.  Historically, that has contrasted with the established church’s dependence on right doctrine, as defined in ecumenical councils, and on the church’s institutional tradition, embodied in its clerical leadership and ecclesiastical polity.  Clearly there exist notably different understandings of what constitutes a history of the Christian church.  The history of established Christianity is traditionally told through church doctrines and institutions, with a focus on the influence of clerical leaders.  Considerable attention is also given to the on-going development of doctrine and tradition.  Radical movements tend to focus on the salvation story as told in the Old Testament and New Testament.  The biblical history is central to the history told by radical movements because that story underpins their own life and mission.  Radical movements generally bear a closer resemblance to the Messianic restoration movements of biblical history than do their established church counterparts.”  Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999), 328.

[14] Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2001.

[15] Reimer, Mennonites, 15.

[16] Reimer, Mennonites, 16.

[17] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The Radical Road One Baptist Took,” in John D. Roth, ed., Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 22.

[18] McClendon, “Radical Road,” 22.

[19] See Ted Grimsrud, Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009).

[20] J. Denny Weaver and C. Norman Kraus are two important Mennonite theologians who would also, in my opinion, be good examples of creative constructive Anabaptist theologians who are more practice-oriented than doctrine-oriented. See, among many writings, Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement, revised edition, and Kraus’s God Our Savior.

[21] John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002). This book originated as transcribed lectures from a course Yoder taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. He first made the written lectures available to students in 1968 and edited them for informal publication in book form in 1982. The Brazos book, which largely follows the 1982 version, was edited after Yoder’s death by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider. I was a student in this class the last time Yoder taught it at AMBS, Spring 1981.

2 thoughts on “John Howard Yoder and Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

  1. Pingback: John Howard Yoder and Contemporary Anabaptist Theology … |

  2. Clyde Carson

    What I hear you saying is that theology should be incarnational. I think this firmly plants it in the catholic tradition of the first thousand years. Embodied theology is not abstract. If we want to understand holiness then look to holy people. As an anabaptist I think you could see that as a person who practices their faith by following Jesus as their example. Jesus is God incarnate and God is love, and how Jesus conducted himself is the norm.

    Best regards to Ted- Clyde Carson


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