Review of Politics of Jesus (Yoder)

Eerdmans, 1994.

While I think this book is wrong on several levels, it marked a valuable turning point in Evangelical ethical reflection. To say Jesus’s message was political is commonplace today. It wasn’t when Yoder wrote.

Thesis 1: Jesus’s ministry has a political claim that we often hide from ourselves (Yoder 2).

Yoder is against a “Creation Ethic” (8). While his primary target is natural law ethics, he also lists “situation ethics” under the same label: we discern the right be studying the realities around us (9).

Thesis 2: Because of Jesus’s “humanness,” there is the possibility of a distinctively normative, Christian ethic (10).

Yoder is against any kind of “natural law ethic,” and for him natural law = creation = nature = reason = reality. While I suspect Yoder paints with a rather broad brush, one can’t help but note a few points he scores: these models are usually “ascribed a priori a higher or deeper authority than the ‘particular’ Jewish or Christian sources of moral vision” (19).

His exegesis on “Kingdom” anticipates many of the gains found in NT Wright’s own work. Yoder’s argument concerning “Jubilee” is quite interesting, though not without difficulty. He sees Jesus in Luke 4 as inaugurating the New Jubilee. In fact, he can call the “Lord’s Prayer” a “Jubilee” prayer, since debts are wiped away (64). Bottom line: Those in the Kingdom must practice Jubilee. Corollary: to practice the Sabbath without practicing deliverance and Jubilee is not to practice the Sabbath.

(3) The point of OT violence was not violence, but that God acts to save his people without their needing to act (76-77).

(4) Jesus’s kingdom is not simply “internal” but is outward and social.

(5) The universe was made in an ordered form and is called “good” (141).

Be that as it may, Yoder insists “we have no access to the good creation of God” (141). Strong stuff. He does expand upon this language, drawing upon Paul’s words in Acts 17:22-28.

(5a) These power-structures were created by God and today provide a network for our existence (142).
(5b) They rebelled and fell.
(5c) God uses them for good.

My only problem at this point is (5b) seems to think that the powers = angels of one sort or another. That could work but the evidence is slim.

Romans 13

This is the most controversial chapter in the book. I’ll begin by noting some positives. Yoder is correct that Paul is not arguing for a positivist reading: i.e., whatever the state says is just/right by definition (this is the official position of the United States Supreme Court regarding its own rulings). Most controversially, he asserts that the sword, the machaira, is not a weapon as such but a symbol of authority. Therefore, this can’t mean that the state is just in war or taking a life.

By way of response:
>He says God did not create the powers that be, but only orders them (201). Assuming that these powers are not self-existing, then yes, God did create them.

>He says Rom. 13 cannot be used as a proof-text for police/military functions (203). But what of the soldiers who came to John the Baptist? What of the centurion whom Jesus commended so highly? In neither case were they told to quit their unjust professions.

>His claim that the machaira can’t be used for death simply won’t hold. The state is said not to wield it in vain. But if it is merely symbolic and can’t restrain my actions, then the state is wielding it in vain. Jesus reaffirms the death penalty in Matt. 15.

Positives

*Yoder does a fine job demonstrating that Jesus didn’t come to offer a Kantian kingdom and a Kantian, spiritual ethic.
Critique

~1. It’s hard to reconcile Yoder’s claim that the State is the embodied evil of the demonic powers with Paul’s claim that it is a minister of good.

~2. Yoder wants to posit a good creation with good structures (as he should), but given Romans 13 and the fact that God commanded wars in the Old Testament, how can one then critique Just War Theory and the use of the sword?

~3. Yoder almost always dismisses dissonant voices as “unaware of Jesus’s social dimension,” of whom he usually means “Christendom” (whatever that means).

~4. Yoder’s claims in (5a-c) need an additional premise: (5d) Creation has been restored and reaffirmed in the resurrection of Christ. To be fair, Yoder approaches this point (144-145). Yet, in this section he doesn’t mention the Resurrection. He does hint at it on p.239.

~5. While correctly rejecting the Enlightenment project, Yoder uses a lot of its rhetoric. He continually contrasts the “traditional” or “Constantinian” reading with a fresher reading.

~6. What’s the value of positing a good creation if we have no cognitive access to it (141)? In fact, and most devastatingly, how does Yoder even know creation is good if we have no cognitive access to it? In any case, the Bible doesn’t follow this reasoning, since it tells us to look to nature and creation for wisdom (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard!”).

Now that I think about it, this is why Oliver O’Donovan spent so much

Conclusion:

A valuable and welcome read. His exegesis of Luke is outstanding and he doesn’t opt for easy answers, even when I think he is wrong.

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Politics of Jesus, beginning

Yoder’s Argument

Thesis 1: Jesus’s ministry has a political claim that we often hide from ourselves (Yoder 2).  The Mainstream Ethic

Yoder attacks what he believes to be a mainstream view of Jesus’s ethics (5ff).

  1. Jesus’s ethic was meant for a short interim.
  2. Jesus was a wandering rural figure.
  3. Jesus lived in a world in which he had no control.
  4. His message was ahistorical.
  5. He was interested simply in worship.
  6. He died a substituionary death (and that’s the only point).  

Yoder is against a “Creation Ethic” (8).   While his primary target is natural law ethics, he also lists “situation ethics” under the same label: we discern the right be studying the realities around us (9).

Thesis 2:  Because of Jesus’s “humanness,” there is the possibility of a distinctively normative, Christian ethic (10).

Yoder is against any kind of “natural law ethic,” and for him natural law = creation = nature = reason = reality.  While I suspect Yoder paints with a rather broad brush, one can’t help but note a few points he scores: these models are usually “ascribed a priori a higher or deeper authority than the ‘particular’ Jewish or Christian sources of moral vision” (19).