Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Boiling Down the Differences Between Yoder and Jenson

As I make my way through the corpus of John Howard Yoder, not simply as a reader but with an eye toward my thesis, it is startling how much similar ground and how many shared convictions exist between he and Robert Jenson. From the 1960s to the late 1990s (and up to the present day for Jenson), they did work in similar areas and came to similar conclusions on a number of issues:
  • The essential Jewishness of Jesus.
  • The priority of peoplehood.
  • The inescapable and explicit politics of believing and obeying the gospel.
  • The tragic mistake of supersessionism.
  • The message of the resurrection as the heart of the primal apostolic proclamation.
  • The temporal (and not timeless) character of the God narrated by Scripture.
  • The overarching genre of Scripture as narrative.
  • The necessity of the 16th century reformations in response to contemporary ecclesial abuses (through Luther's legacy and Zwingli's radical followers, respectively).
  • The radical project and rehabilitating influence of Karl Barth in 20th century theology.
  • The necessity of attending to concrete history, particularly to that of the church.
  • The importance of reclaiming Scripture as the abiding word of God to the church without succumbing to uncritical biblicism or theories that distort faithful hearing and reading.
  • The core centrality of eschatology for any understanding of Jesus, the church, or Christian hope.
  • Christology as the center of all theological work.
  • The hope of the church not as immaterial or ethereal but as the full and final coming of the kingdom, of new creation, of God's redeeming and timeful materiality come at last.
  • The presence and power of the Holy Spirit as the agent of hope, transformation, obedience, empowerment, and Christ's speech to the church.
  • The work of Stanley Hauerwas as laudable and pertinent, if rambunctious and at times over-reaching.
So what is there to disagree about? I am having trouble pinning it down, and it may be more than one thing; but it does seem as if there is simply an irreconcilable barrier that determines abiding differences between the two. Here is my short list:
  • Ecclesiology.
  • Mission.
  • The relationship between truth, power, and faithfulness.
  • Augustine.
In a sense, the fourth determines the first three. To Augustine's work and project, Yoder offers a decisive "No" and Jenson a hardy "Yes." That is one way of parsing their differences.

Another is the matter of the church: What is it? What is its mission? What is its role in the world? The church and its mission definitively relate to the interrelationship of the latter three concepts of truth, power, and faithfulness -- so in a sense they are all bound up together.

Yoder sees the church as a minority people in exilic sojourn among the nations, a servant community sent on behalf of others and therefore unwilling to exercise coercion for any reason, but just so socially responsible insofar as cruciform servanthood is the grain of the cosmos and the only truly transformative power in human community. In other words, the life of the church is defined by Spirit-enabled apocalyptic discipleship to the concrete sociopolitical life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen.

Jenson sees the church...differently. Somewhere he says that the entire mission of the church is "the saying of the gospel." Elsewhere he claims that the community of the church over time is literally the body of the risen Christ on the earth. He also states that, when Constantine asked the bishops to help run the empire, they had nothing else to say but "yes." He believes with Augustine that the only truly just society is one that worships the true God, and that just war is possible in a legitimately Christian society. Finally, he is able to articulate and is energized by the vision and history of a (high) Christian culture, and speaks to American governance in the hopes that a Christian politics -- namely, the right ordering of heterosexual marriage and the consequent protection of the unborn -- might both win the day and lead to the formation of a more coherent society.

Moreover, of course, the church catholic for Yoder is the free church: dogma, creed, papal bull, ecumenical council -- none of it is binding or revelatory for God's people. And for Jenson, dogma is either always and everywhere true and binding for the church, or the church is not the same community as that of Peter and Paul. And to be sure, in a church divided, God may act for unity tomorrow -- in the restoration of communion with Rome. Not so much for Yoder.

Are there and other differences, then, ultimately about ecclesiology? Missiology? Truth and power? An understanding of the gospel? The authority of the tradition? Politics? Something else? Why do such similarly minded men of such similar experiences, training, and conviction come to such profoundly dissimilar conclusions?

I'm still sorting it out, but it's certainly a fascinating question.

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