Nearly all of John Howard Yoder's books have political titles; a fact, it seems to me, that is not noted often enough nor understood clearly enough by some of his admiring or detracting readers. The title of the first of the two volumes under review here is a notable exception, but one should also note that while he gave the collection of materials that is now this book its present title, its author never prepared it for formal publication. Preface to Theology was transcribed from audio lecture tapes in 1968, and made available for sale as mimeographed lectures since 1973, in which form it was circulated for many years. My copy of those notes, which contains the 1981 revisions and additions, dates back to the mid-1980s. That original consists of 316 closely-typed pages. The small format, ninety-nine page Body Politics, on the other hand, is also based on a lecture–given at Duke University Divinity School. If the editors of Preface to Theology are correct to call Yoder "a revolutionary pamphleteer" (p. 9), then Body Politics is surely a fine example of what such a writer produces in that capacity.
Preface to Theology originated in an introductory course in theology that Yoder taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for nearly two decades until 1981. The course was intended as part of the training for students at AMBS who were preparing for church ministry. It was at first called "Preface to Theology," and the book's subtitle is the later title of that same course. The material included in the book "brings together the bulk of the instructional content" of the course (p. 31). These unique origins and purposes mean, however, that the book must be read with several things clearly in mind. First, its original audience: (Mennonite) students preparing for ministry. Second, its purpose: an introductory study of the field of theology from a specific, consciously stated point of view. Third, its datedness: insofar as it is an introduction to the field of theology, it takes account of the "state of scholarly opinion [up to] 1960" (p. 32), no further. Even though the bibliographies in various places throughout the book contain works published up to the late 1970s, there is no implied claim that this added material is complete. In their sensitive and sensible introduction, the editors argue that the several problems that emerge for early twenty-first century readers from this datedness do not undercut Yoder's "primary narrative or argument," nor, for that matter, the pedagogical aims of the book. Their claim seems entirely defensible.
Reviewing this book, I belong to two of the three audiences for whom Yoder thought (in 1981) these course materials could still be of use: a theological amateur who necessarily must work on the topic "independently," and a reader who will (in future) want to "dip" into the book "occasionally, with attention to one theme or another, to broaden one's general background without extensive study" (p. 31). Such a reader, incidentally, may well make of this book something quite different from what a professional theologian might conclude about it. These materials, Yoder tells us, are introductory, and none of them are intended to "substitute for a full-length treatment" of the areas of theological study that they summarize. They are not a complete survey of the field of systematic theology nor of any of its subfields (p. 32), but their summary quality does have "its own purpose, namely to observe inductively how theology operates by watching it work," or to portray inductively "how theological discourse proceeds within the life of the church." (pp. 32, 33). If we recall the institutional, social, and intellectual location of much of the contemporary activity known as "professional" theology, then we might consider that, for many of us, these two purposes are not of necessity synonymous.
The book is divided into three sections, containing between four and six chapters each: "New Testament Themes;" "Post-Apostolic Theology;" "Systematic Treatment of Christological Themes." The book concludes with a chapter ("The Rest of the Field") that is an "encyclopedic outline," the primary function of which is "to indicate to the student the scope of issues to which attention has not been given, which would be dealt with in a more traditional study of dogmatics or systematic theology" (pp. 406, 407). The first chapter contains a brief section on "alternative ways of labeling and understanding the field of study" and "alternative ways of organizing the study" (pp. 33-36). Thus, consistent with his general way of proceeding in other studies, Yoder is clear that there are alternatives to his method, and that much more needs to be said than a "Preface" such as this can allow. What, then, of Yoder's "primary narrative?" What value this introductory text?
The approach is consciously and determinedly Christological. Why? Because Christology is what the early Christian "thought about the most," and "watching the theological activity of the early Christian church" is a good place to begin if we want to know how to do theology in the present (p. 39). Putting Jesus at the center of ethical reasoning was a hallmark of Yoder's work from beginning to end. In this book, we see how such a "centering" could be accomplished in systematic theology. Yoder's use of historical theology–returning to the origins of Christian theology and examining the shape and contents of the activity at its wellspring–is not a mere exercise in nostalgia or worse yet, naive restorationism, nor is it "simple narration." It is conducted with a view to the "systematic agenda" (p. 34) of the present day without giving the task of theology over to that agenda. If theology is an activity in the service of the community of (Christian) believers, where better to turn for an indication of what such an activity might look like than to a time when such service was still closely integrated with such a believing community and before it came to serve various other ends? Plato, who likely coined the term "theology," also understood this activity of theological inquiry to be in the service of a community, albeit not the one envisioned in subsequent Christian practice. If present-day Christian theological practice has its origins in the theological activities of the first Christian communities, why not turn there first? After all, "we may very well decide that the way it was done in the past is not the right way for us to do it; but anyone drawing that conclusion should become acquainted with the experience of the church in the matter."
This over-all approach is particularly accessible to the lay person, because its deliberate return to the experiences of the early Christians is less likely to be immediately overshadowed by prior philosophical and denominational commitments on the part of the modern (Christian) reader or writer. Out of that narration of "how theology actually functioned in the history of the church" (p. 377), Yoder intends for his readers inductively to draw generalizations concerning the shape, content, and problems of theological inquiry. This method avoids the problem of providing what is in some instances of systematic theology a massive prolegomena to the enterprise.
On the other hand, when confronted with the modern penchant toward such defensive methodological postures, Yoder's procedure may seem indefensibly naive. Such a judgment, however, rests on a prior judgment concerning the nature and possibilities of narrative itself. The work of theologians and philosophers like Stanley Hauerwas, Hans Kellner, Nicholas Lash, John Milbank, Lesslie Newbigin, Paul Ricoeur, Ronald Thiemann, Hayden White, and others have shown that narrative is not a primitive form of communication from which the theologian can gather select fragments or raw material to use as fuel in his or her analytical furnace, but rather, that narrative is a primary, not primitive, form of disclosure. Narrative is the primary means of rendering intelligible the phenomena that present themselves to us. Indeed, it may be the case that the phenomena can only be present to us in a narrative mode and that it is only through narrative presentation that we can make them intelligible to others. Accordingly, Yoder begins not with historical "issues" in systematic theology, but with the observation of "the process of theology growing in the experience of the early Christians" (p. 33). The "issues" of systematic theology will come into view from watching the activity develop over time. The topical bibliographies scattered throughout the book accomplish the task of moving us from "primitivism" to direct engagement with contemporary problems under the aegis of the traditional categories of systematic theology. With the Christological themes located from and centered in the thinking of the early church and then up to Chalcedon, the third section of Preface moves to "the classical or systematic treatment of themes in Christology" (p. 228) as they are exemplified in modern theological discourse. The four chapter titles are: "The Structure of the Discipline;" "Christ as King: Last Things;" "Christ as Priest: Atonement;" "Christ as Prophet: Revelation." Yoder seeks to capture Christologically some of the main themes of later systematic theology. The survey includes discussions of medieval and Reformation developments, as well as Anabaptist accounts of these themes.
Yoder understands theology as an activity of the church. In Body Politics, we see what such activity looks like as Yoder shows how, through five "practices" of the Christian community–"binding and loosing," breaking bread together (Eucharist), baptism, the sharing of "charismata" amongst all members of the believing community in mutual ministry, and congregational councils (open meetings of all believers to make community decisions)–"the gospel impinges on the rest of our world" (p. 74). As in Preface, so in Body Politics, Yoder's version of "biblical realism" insists that there is no "real world" "out there" separate and apart from a Gospel account of that world. Echoing an argument more thoroughly articulated by Lesslie Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society), Yoder proposes that the community of Christian believers "recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme of analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias." In this case, the "modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around" (p. 74), and that world vision is articulated in part through what the church actually does. The "will of God for human socialness," in other words, "is prefigured by the shape to which the Body of Christ is called" (p. ix). It is only within such an understanding of the order of claims and discourses between church and world that either the method of systematic, christologically-centered theology Yoder proposes or the corporate practices of the Christian believers he examines can be understood as something more than "sectarian" curiosities or personalistic decorations attached to a life otherwise constituted by the apparent realities of some secular realm. Yoder's claim is that the church is a foretaste of the new world to come. His task in both books is to show us how this is true and how we can be participants in that truth.
Thomas W. Heilke
Associate professor of political science
University of Kansas, Lawrence