John Howard Yoder was a critical, nuanced and analytical thinker and writer, with a wide range of texts on various topics related to Christian faith. Though probably most well known for his books, articles and manuscripts on Christian pacifism as well as for his 1972 text ‘The Politics of Jesus,’ Yoder wrote on many Christian topics, such as Anabaptist history, ecumenism, theology, social-political ethics, ecclesiology, Scripture, sacramental theology, and conflict resolution. His work is cited by many contemporary theologians, and academic research on Yoder is a growing field. Nation’s text provides a good primer on Yoder: how to read him, and how to read his critics as well as various theologians carrying on or at least sympathetic with Yoder’s body of work.
Right from the start, Nation prudently clarifies how he uses the terms evangelical and catholic, or more specifically, how he understands Yoder to have meant these terms. Evangelical broadly and simply refers to “the ‘evangel,’ the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (xxi); and catholic is meant as “ecumenical, seeking to understand and to engage various Christian traditions” (xxii). Indeed, the author points out that Yoder’s writings share “important insights derived from the Anabaptist tradition that could be of benefit to all Christians” (xx), which is both good news and ecumenical.
Nation also clarifies some common misunderstandings of Yoder. While remaining Mennonite,Yoder’s work was hardly sectarian in the negative sense in which that term is so often taken. The author points out “Yoder’s ability to combine his deep commitment to his own tradition with a tenacious dedication to various ecumenical engagements” (xxiii).
Nation brings the reader on a helpful tour of Yoder’s life work. He quotes long sections of Yoder’s writings, putting them in context, expanding on and explicating their content. The book sets the stage with a brief introduction, a biographical chapter, and a rich discussion of Yoder’s Anabaptist heritage. Nation highlights key elements from Yoder’s life and background: his family, upbringing, education and key academic influences, early involvement in relief work, as well as Yoder’s own extensive teaching and writing. He carefully grounds this biography in Yoder’s extended family background, starting with his great-great grandfather, and in the 16th century roots of Anabaptist history.
After this introductory foundational material, the author focuses on three core concepts in Yoder’s writings: his involvement in ecumenical dialogue; his evangelical and catholic peace theology, founded on a socio-political ethic rooted in the Cross; and his insistence on the deep social responsibility which is fundamental to the Christian faith–the responsibility both of the Church and of individual disciples. This last chapter takes apart the simplistic reaction which some have had to Yoder; that because he was Mennonite and a pacifist, he must have counseled withdrawal, quietism and isolation from the world. Nation demonstrates, with Yoder’s own writings, how this is a false interpretation. The concluding chapter offers Nation’s summary reflections on these three core concepts, as well as reflective, critical evaluations of Yoder’s work and a consideration of his ongoing legacy.
The text is well-written and organized, with a useful index. Nation’s footnotes refer to many relevant texts, both from Yoder and from other writers. I strongly encourage the interested reader to peruse these for suggestions of further reading.
I recommend this text as a very good resource for interested academics and researchers, as well as serious non-academic readers of Yoder. I would also suggest such readers get their hands on Nation’s 60-page ‘A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of John Howard Yoder’ (available from the Mennonite Quarterly Review).