December 06, 2004

I haven't mentioned this, but the last two Sundays I've returned to worship at Pasadena Mennonite Church. I'm still taking classes at All Saints Beverly Hills, and will probably maintain a connection for education and ministry, but I still like PMC better. (I really seem to be following in Hugo's footsteps, though I didn't mean to!) Last Sunday after the service I had lunch with a lifelong Mennonite and grad student at Fuller, and talked with him about Yoder, among other things. At one point I remarked that although Yoder makes a good case for Mennonite theology he also unwittingly makes a pretty good case for Roman Catholicism. There are several reasons for that, but one is on display in Chapter 11, where he takes disputes Luther's theory of justification by faith alone.

Actually, Yoder doesn't so much dispute Luther's theory as he disputes Luther's reading of Paul. He doesn't think that Paul, when he wrote about faith and works, was writing about the salvation of the individual believer. Instead, he thinks Paul was explaining how and why Jewish and Gentile Christians were brought together in the church. (This is another thing that makes Yoder's viewpoint so Catholic: the individual is only significant to him as part of the collective.) Yoder believes that Paul's use of "justification" implies not a legal status before a judge (God), but "should be thought of in its root meaning, as a verbal noun, an action, 'setting things right' ... To proclaim divine righteousness is to proclaim God set things right."

Yoder also disagrees with Luther's interpretation of the role of the Jewish Law in salvation history. Luther believed the law was a paedagogus or "schoolmaster," from which we learn about the will of God while in our sinful state. (As I understand it, Calvin took this even further, which is why some Calvinist communities instituted laws based on the Mosaic code.) Yoder, however, translates Paul's term as "custodian," and sees the law as having a much less ambitious role. It "ordered God's people until the coming of the Messiah," and that's about it.

This is where, to my mind, Yoder makes the case for Catholicism in the negative: this kind of word-parsing really shows the limits of sola scriptura. Telford told me a while ago about the rabbinic saying "hanging a mountain by a thread," i.e. building a huge theory based on some small aspect of the Torah, and this whole chapter has that feel to it. Granted, Yoder refers to other works that offer more detailed arguments for this. (He remarks at the start of the book that he's collating other scholarship as much as creating an original work.) But the whole book kind of leaves me wondering: if, as Anabaptists believe, the church lost its way after Constantine, is it even possible to reliably reconstruct it based on the evidence we have?

My lunch companion mentioned in passing, at one point, that his sister had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. And while that's certainly a huge liturgical change from Anabaptism, I can certainly understand that crossing. Both churches are keeping to Christianity's premodern roots as much as possible; both refuse to let outside influences have much effect on their beliefs. (Although not all Mennonites reject modern technology, you can certainly see how that fits with the theological framework.) The main difference is that Mennonites use the Bible to recreate the apostolic church, whereas the Orthodox claim to be that church.

I mentioned to my new friend that reading Yoder makes me wonder what, exactly, happened to the church that made it wind up where it is now. He said that he'd been studying that, and saw it not as a sudden betrayal but an accretion of little changes that seemed like a good idea at the time. You have to give the Holy Spirit room to work, he said. You have to trust that, "if I make a mistake, others will clean up after me."

No question about it, all sources of revelation have their problems. Texts suffer from the inexactness inherent to human language (especially when they're translated). Individual conscience is never entirely individual, and the collective conscience of Tradition still suffers from human fallibility. Charismatic experience is often indistinguishable from mental illness. Studying the created order of things runs up against questions of fallenness and transformation. Even so, it's hard to resist Yoder's conclusion about what his interpretation of Paul means:

But the proclamation that God reconciles classes of people is in itself far more than a double negative. To proclaim it as Paul did in his writings, years and even decades after Pentecost is to confirm that such reconciliation is a real experience and therefore a real invitation. Paul is saying, somewhere toward the end of apostolic Christianity, what Jesus had said somewhere near the beginning. That he can still say it now is proof that, at least to some modest degree, experience had confirmed it. Paul says that it characterizes the victory of God's creation-sustaining love that insider and outsider, friend and enemy are equally blessed, in such manner that the genuineness (Jesus said, "perfection") of our love is also made real at the point of its application to the enemy, the Gentile, the sinner. There is a sense in which the ethics of marriage and the prohibition of adultery, or the ethics of work and the regulation of attitudes toward slavery, or the opening up of communication and the prohibition of falsehood are all part of the promise of a new humanity enabled and created by God, and already being received by men and women of faith. But it is par excellence with reference to enmity between peoples, the extension of neighbor love to the enemy, and the renunciation of violence even in the most righteous cause, that this promise takes flesh in the most original, the most authentic, the most frightening and scandalous, and therefore the most evangelical way. The Good News is that my enemy and I are united, through no merit or work of our own, in a new humanity that forbids henceforth my taking his or her life in my hands.

Posted by Camassia at December 06, 2004 05:53 PM | TrackBack

Thanks for this great post. You articulate what alot of us in the blogosphere are thinking. I also have been greatly moved by Yoder and I'm happy that someone else is out there blogging his book. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Vaughn Thompson on December 6, 2004 09:13 PM

When I was at PMC, I often heard Jim Brennemann speak of the Mennonite way as the real "via media" (in a very different way from Anglicanism) between the Catholics and the Protestants. I once asked someone who had been involved with PMC for years if he considered Mennonites to be Protestants and he said "Heck no! We're Anabaptists, and that is altogether different." I liked that.

Posted by: Hugo on December 7, 2004 08:05 AM

So true, Hugo. I just wish that more Mennonites knew that!

Posted by: graham on December 7, 2004 09:56 AM
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