This book is an appreciative presentation and analysis of the life and writings of John Howard Yoder by an "insider", a fellow Mennonite theologian, Mark Nation, who has over a long period of time collected and read all of Yoder’s theological writings, both published and unpublished.
The narrative includes an introduction and conclusion and five full chapters. In chapter one, the author presents a biographical sketch of Yoder’s life, showing how his family background and his membership in the Mennonite Church shaped Yoder’s life-long commitment to and articulation of a unique and progressive Mennonite theology. In chapter two, he continues the story, focusing on the influence on Yoder of two leading Mennonite theologian-teachers—Harold Bender and Gary Heshberger—during Yoder’s undergraduate days at Goshen Collelge, which in turn led Yoder to volunteer service in Europe with the Mennonite Central Committee and to a doctoral dissertation on the origins of Swiss Anabaptism.
Yoder’s grounding in the history of Anabaptism provided not only a wealth of material for his early theological writings but solidified his commitment to ecumenism and pacifism. Chapter 3 details his ecumenical convictions—based on biblical imperative—of the need for Christians to maintain unity with all other Christians and of the spirit of humility and openness to change with which this must be done. Central to Yoder’s ecumenical vision is the need for all Christians to live out their convictions concretely in ethical behavior modeled on Jesus’ own example. It is this fidelity to Jesus’ way of living which for him is the criterion for "faithful ecumenism."
Chapter four discusses Yoder’s politics, with reference to his highly influential book, The Politics of Jesus, first published in 1972. Widely read in evangelical circles and by Christian social ethicists and translated into ten languages, the book continues to be hailed as "a school of training in pacifism" (Stanley Hauerwas) and a major influence in bringing "the Peace Church witness against non-violence into the mainstream of theological discussion" (Walter Wink). In some detail, Nation shows how Yoder, though himself not a biblical exegete, was able to utilize the biblical scholarship of the 1970’s and his own creative insights to build a solid and still largely valid case for the pacifism of Jesus, in many ways anticipating later developments in biblical scholarship. And in his constructive work of linking ethics and biblical exegesis, Yoder was somewhat unique in his day.
In chapter five, the author seeks to establish Yoder’s commitment to social engagement and so refute interpretations of his thought to the contrary. Central to a correct reading, Nation stresses, is a correct understanding of the "church-world duality" which runs through Yoder’s thought.
Finally in the conclusion, the author presents a brief summary of Yoder’s theological achievements, noting his remarkable consistency and the rich interpenetration of categories of thought in his writings. And in lieu of a critique, per se, Nation offers some gently formulated reflections on additional areas of research which might have enriched Yoder’s theology even further. These include: more attention to the role of worship and ritual (to correct the charge that Yoder "reduced the church to ethics"; a more in-depth linking of violence to other moral issues; a greater interaction with other authors pursuing the relationship of bible and ethics; more in-depth reading in philosophy; and some exploration of how Christian communities concretely help to shape Christian moral behavior.
But as Nation reiterates, Yoder’s achievements are quite remarkable and they remain valuable for the present day in reflecting on important questions of church, discipleship, responses to violence, ecumenism and much more. This very readable and accessible book, therefore, would be a useful addition to upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses especially in church history (because of its positive presentation of the often-neglected or misrepresented free church tradition), as well as to classes in biblical and social ethics, and to all courses which explore the topics of non-violence and peacemaking.