Midway through the twentieth century the Mennonite Church in North America faced a critical moment in its history. World War II--'the 'Good War''had mobilized the patriotic zeal of the entire nation, forcing Mennonites to articulate anew their understandings of service, nonresistance and the nature of civic allegiances. In the decades that followed, a generation of young Mennonites left the relative isolation of their agrarian congregations to participate in relief work, pursue degrees in higher education, and raise their families in the suburbs, where they entered into the cultural mainstream with new confidence and vigor.
The manner in which the Mennonite church negotiated this crucial passage of cultural, social and economic transformation is a fascinating and complex drama. However historians choose to tell that story, one of its leading characters will have to be John Howard Yoder. Born in 1927 into a progressive Mennonite family in Wayne County, Ohio, Yoder devoted his entire life in service to the church, first as a relief worker, missionary, and administrator, and then later in life as a teacher, writer and a world-renowned theologian and ethicist.
Yoder's theology, both resolutely particularistic and warmly missionary, defies easy summary. His restatement of Biblical nonresistance in The Politics of Jesus (1972) challenged readers--Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike--to rediscover the social relevance of the teachings of Jesus. His defense of a believers church ecclesiology found a ready audience among Christians searching for alternatives to the reigning idolatries of nationalism and consumer capitalism. Yoder held to a high view of Scripture that nonetheless resisted a retreat into fundamentalism; he balanced a deeply Christocentric approach to ethics with Trinitarian orthodoxy; and he became a leading proponent of ecumenical conversations without ever relinquishing his commitment to the believers church tradition. In the years since Yoder's untimely death in December of 1997, his writings have continued to find a broad readership and conversations about his theology'in articles and books, panels and conferences'abound.
0n March 7-9, 2002 organizers of the fourteenth Believers Church Conference hosted a gathering on the campus of Notre Dame University on the theme of "Assessing the Theological Legacy of John Howard Yoder." Nearly all of the articles that follow in this issue originated as papers presented at that conference; together they offer a glimpse into the on-going dialogue about Yoder's ideas and influence.
We begin this issue with several biographical essays. Mark Thiessen Nation, compiler of the most extensive bibliography of Yoder's voluminous writings and author of a recent interpretive study of Yoder's theology, opens with an appreciative review of Yoder's career organized around the themes of his Mennonite, evangelical and Catholic involvements. Donald Durnbaugh, a friend and colleague of Yoder for many decades, follows with an overview and analysis of Yoder's pivotal role in a series of ecumenical conferences in Europe focused on the theme of 'The Lordship of Christ Over Church and State.' The conferences created a postwar forum for serious discussion of topics related to biblical pacifism and helped to solidify the theological identity of the Historic Peace Churches. Craig Carter, author of another recent book on Yoder's social ethics, follows with an insightful summary of Yoder's critique of H. Richard Niebuhr's classic Christ and Culture. Retracing the outlines of Yoder's trenchant argument, Carter exposes the weak Christology of Christ and Culture and suggests that Niebuhr's view of the Trinity represented a departure from Nicene orthodoxy.
Long before postmodernity became an academic byword, Yoder's writings reflected a nonviolent epistemology that challenged the coercive logic of post-Enlightenment foundationalism. Ted Grimsrud, professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite University, summarizes the creative way in which Yoder affirmed Truth as a meaningful category for moral reasoning while avoiding both the Scylla of foundationalism and the Charybdis of ethical relativism.
If all this sounds overly laudatory, the three essays that follow serve as reminders that Yoder's legacy, like that of all seminal thinkers, will continue to be contested. Ray Gingerich suggests that Yoder's resolute focus on Jesus as the basis for Christian nonviolence deflected important questions about the nature of God. Gingerich's critique of Yoder's 'warrior God' continues the conversation about the character of God and the place of violence in Christian understandings of the atonement that have enlivened the pages of this journal in recent issues (e.g., January 2003). John Zimmerman suggests that Yoder's reliance on the gospel of Luke in The Politics of Jesus led to a radical view of Christian economics more characteristic of Luke's opinions than of Jesus' actual teachings. By way of contrast, J. Denny Weaver concludes this special issue with a critical essay on various ways in which contemporary scholars have (mis)appropriated Yoder's thought and blunted the radical edge of his thought.
Perhaps there is no greater tribute to
Yoder's legacy than this evidence of the ongoing scholarly debate regarding
his work. I look forward to helping that conversation continue to find
a voice in the pages of MQR in the future.