Authority is the Real Issue – On The Heterodox Yoder by Paul Martens

The following also appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review.  Thanks to Steve Nolt at MQR for permission to post it here.

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Authority is the Real Issue:  Reflections on The Heterodox Yoder by Paul Martens

by Peter C. Blum

Was John Howard Yoder a heretic?[1]  Approaching Paul Martens’ book, The Heterodox Yoder,[2] I must admit to some disappointment; Yoder is apparently not a heretic, at least not according to Martens.

Why would this be disappointing?  Because the word ‘heresy’ seems bound up with the notion of a magisterial Christianity that clearly delineates what MUST be believed and practiced by an individual to count as a Christian.  Such definition is ostensibly drawn from scripture, yet it must be spelled out in texts which carry some kind of additional authority themselves (at times, historically, backed by state violence), because reading the text of scripture may not (often does not) generate sufficient informal consensus regarding the “MUST” list.  To many, it seems that the only other options besides this magisterial “MUST” list are (a) a “fundamentalist” biblicism with naïve and untenable approaches to hermeneutics, or (b) a rejection of the Bible’s authority, whether implicit or explicit.  My inclination has often been to see Yoder as THE contemporary theorist of a stream of Anabaptist-Mennonite thought that is committed to denying the necessity of a magisterial “MUST” list, while also rejecting both of the apparent alternatives.  On that reading, Yoder would surely turn out to be a heretic from the viewpoint of any proponent of such a list, would he not?  Hence, at some level at least, I apparently nursed hope that Yoder would be recognized as such, which fueled my eagerness to see what Martens has to say.  Hence disappointment.

But wait!  This may still turn out to be consistent with Martens’s reading.  What he says is that Yoder is “heterodox,” but not “heretical.”  To my knowledge, there is no consistently established technical distinction between these two terms, though there is some precedent for seeing them as designating two different degrees to which one might depart from orthodoxy (“heterodox” being dangerous, but less egregious than “heretical”).  Martens does seem to have something like this in mind, viz., that we might suspect Yoder of being heretical, but he is really not that bad; he is merely heterodox.

How so?  It turns out that the answer to that question is complicated and potentially quite controversial.  In fact, an online reviewer (Ted Grimsrud) has already provided a great beginning toward discussing the apparent problems that arise in connection with exactly what Martens means by the term ‘heterodox.’ [available here[3]  Indeed, a lively and substantial discussion has arisen in the comments sections following Grimsrud’s blog posts.  The latter discussion also intersects explicitly with a lengthy online response to Martens’s book by Branson Parler [here],[4] to which Martens himself has given a substantial rebuttal [here].[5]  I strongly recommend perusal of this entire unfolding discussion, including The Heterodox Yoder itself.

In my remaining comments, I wish to call attention to how issues broached in this discussion are of crucial significance for broader reflection among Anabaptist-Mennonite thinkers, quite apart from the accuracy of Martens’s claims or his specific warrant for them.  I leave evaluation of the latter to those whose specializations are more central to theology, Christian ethics, and biblical studies.  Martens and his interlocutors bring to the forefront a number of issues more prominent in my own fields of study (sociology, social theory, and philosophy) that, in contemporary Anabaptist-Mennonite discussions, are usually touched upon only superficially and fleetingly (if at all).    The issues I have in mind rise to the surface here precisely because of the provocative tone that is set by the explicit foregrounding of orthodoxy and heresy/heterodoxy as evaluative categories.

A first cluster of issues, which becomes explicit early in the book, may be broadly characterized as hermeneutical, though not in the narrow sense of biblical hermeneutics.  Rather, the issues relate to how a putative hermeneutic community (e.g., Mennonites, Anabaptists, or “Yoderians”) develops quasi-traditional normative patterns for the reading of a major thinker associated with that community (e.g., Yoder).  Martens refers to such patterns as “the regulative framework” for reading the thinker in question.  It is worth emphasizing that such normative patterns for interpretation are politically saturated, and may follow fault lines in the community at widely varying depths of discursive saliency.  Martens discusses the issue primarily in terms of privileging particular texts by Yoder over others, but Martens seems fully aware that this is already a “sociology of knowledge” question; it is an issue of who has authority (legitimated power) to advance acceptable readings (i.e., those who rightly understand the canon within the canon).  Another fault line that rightly arises in the discussion is that between interpreters who knew Yoder personally and/or studied with him, and thus might constitute, however unwittingly, an elite of hermeneutical “insiders,” and those who did not.  There are others as well, including (a) Mennonite vs. non-Mennonite (though sympathetic) interpreters, (b) “old” vs. “new” interpreters, as one title suggests,[6] (c) institutionalized patriarchal biases vs. feminist critiques, especially in light of allegations of long-term abusive behavior on Yoder’s part, (d) supposedly “Hauerwasian” readers of Yoder vs. those who emphasize Yoder’s differences from Hauerwas, (e) Anabaptists putatively predisposed toward being “evangelical” or “creed-friendly” vs. those who are not, and potentially many others. To recall Peter L. Berger’s phrasing, these are “says who?” issues.[7]

A second cluster of issues arises with regard to the relationship between belief and action, at both individual and corporate levels.  The topmost way in which these are manifest in the discussion of Martens’s book is in the relatively familiar form of the supposed danger of “reducing theology to ethics.”  In this regard, I believe that the discussion around The Heterodox Yoder is especially interesting, insofar as it straightforwardly addresses the potentially implicit operation of competing meta-ethical frameworks (especially Kantian, in this case).  But the surface that is scratched here covers substantial questions of agency, axiology, and theological anthropology with which Anabaptist-Mennonite thinkers have only begun to wrestle.  Beginnings of such wrestling are to be found, not only in the “reducing theology to ethics” discussion, but also in ongoing conversations about the alleged “spiritual poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” (Stephen Dintaman).  The clearest indication to me of the need to broaden and deepen such wrestling is a tendency in recent decades for some Mennonites to suggest an emphasis on “orthopraxy” (or the more critically sexy “orthopraxis”) over orthodoxy.  My own bias is that the discursive oppositions of ethics/theology, ethics/spirituality, and (most obviously) orthopraxy/orthodoxy all presuppose a psychology—not in a disciplinary sense, but in the root sense of a “theory of the soul”—that is based on a recognizably Cartesian bifurcation of subjectivity/belief from embodiment/action.  When that bifurcation is challenged or rejected, we must wrestle with what it means to be a believing and acting person.  What is our anthropology, where the anthropos is a disciple?  I hope to wrestle further with these issues, and I believe doing so will be unavoidable for anyone concerned about critical reflection on the shape of Christian discipleship in our contemporary context.

A third cluster of issues arises in connection with authority in the church, and this cluster really impinges upon, and perhaps engulfs, the others mentioned so far.  All of the hermeneutical and sociology of knowledge issues touched upon above, far from being merely “academic,” are increasingly urgent in relation to Anabaptist-Mennonite church life.  In most highly-assimilated (i.e., not Old Order) Anabaptist related denominations and congregations, it seems clear that there is broad and deep de facto pluralism regarding how to understand authority.  This is true, it seems to me, in connection with the authority of scripture, the authority of any extra-biblical texts (creeds, confessions of faith, other official church documents, etc.), and the authority of persons or groups of persons.  Note well, I do not just mean diversity with regard to what or who is or is not considered authoritative, but diversity with regard to what is denoted and implied by treating texts or persons as authoritative.  In this situation, it is difficult to see how the notion of orthodoxy could actually have any footing.  My own temptation, mentioned at the outset, has been to see orthodoxy as what magisterial (Constantinian) Christianity demands, and thus what Anabaptists must be willing to transgress.  But the discussion around Martens’s work shows that the issues of authority, implied by and underlying the notion of orthodoxy, are just as much Anabaptist struggles as Constantinian struggles.  If I argue that Anabaptists should not be troubled by Yoder turning out to be heterodox, does this not amount to a claim as to what Anabaptist orthodoxy should be?

I believe that it is in the spirit (Geist) of Anabaptism to resist “orthodoxy” understood as a finalized formulation of a “MUST” list.  Paul Martens is doing us a vital service by inquiring about John Howard Yoder’s orthodoxy in a way that, if my reflections here are on-target, highlights the necessity of careful and critical reflection on authority at a radical (“at the root”) level.


[1] Here I shamelessly borrow from the title of Ted Grimsrud’s review, referred to below.

[2] Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

[3] Grimsrud’s review of Martens’ book, entitled “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic?” is available in two parts on his blog, Thinking Pacifism (http://thinkingpacifism.net/2012/04/02/was-john-howard-yoder-a-heretic-part-i/).

[5] Martens’s response is posted at the Englewood Review of Books (http://erb.kingdomnow.org/paul-martens-responds-to-branson-parlers-review-of-the-heterodox-yoder/).

[6] The New Yoder, edited by Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010).

[7] See my discussion of Berger and of this understanding of sociology of knowledge in chapter 2 in Peter C. Blum, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2013).

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