Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors, #1: John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is one of my mentors and heroes. He was the most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons(1496-1561). Educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel, Yoder taught at both the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and at the University of Notre Dame. Most famous for his work, The Politics of Jesus (1972), which destroyed the popular image of Jesus as an apolitical figure, showing that Jesus was creating a new people whose nonviolence, mutual servanthood, and economic sharing, constituted a political threat to the Powers and Authorities. Although trained mainly as a historical theologian, Yoder wrote in several fields in ground-breaking ways: biblical studies; church history; theology; Christian ethics. Although “mainstream” Christians often read Yoder as representative of “the Mennonite view,” Yoder was often controversial in his own denomination, challenging it to renewal.

Yoder was influenced at Goshen College by Harold Bender, the first Mennonite to be elected president of the American Society of Church History.
Bender successfully sought to renew North American Mennonite life through both ecumenical contact and renewed attention to the 16th C. “Anabaptist Vision.” Largely due to Bender’s influence, Mennonite scholarship in church history became well-known before contributions in other fields.

After college, Yoder, like so many Mennonites of his generation, volunteered for mission, relief, and development work in post-War Europe, aiding in renewal both in European Mennonite life and beyond. (Yoder met and married the French Mennonite schoolteacher, Anne Marie Guth, through this work.) During this work in Europe, Yoder simultaneously enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Basel and engaged in the early post-War development of the ecumenical movement with the founding of the World Council of Churches, thereby presenting the Churches of the Reformation with their first sustained encounter with a representative of the Radical Reformation since the 16th C. The influence went both ways: Work for peace was placed on the WCC agenda from the beginning, and Yoder became deeply influenced by the work of both Karl Barth and, even more, by the growing “Biblical Theology Movement” of the era.

Those remained the dominant sources in Yoder’s creative synthesis: Bender and 16th C. Anabaptist sources; Karl Barth; the “Biblical Realism” of one major strand of critical biblical scholarship. Later influences included post-Vatican II Catholic thought (Yoder taught for years at the University of Notre Dame); the “Believers’ Church Conferences,” which brought representatives of many different Free Church or Believers’ Church traditions together and began a lifetime dialogue between Yoder and certain strands of Baptist thought; the nonviolent strand of the U.S. Black Freedom movement; a sustained and lengthy interaction (both approval and critique) with Latin American Liberation Theology; and post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue. A true polyglot with an incredible ear for languages, Yoder carried on these many dialogues in several different languages.

Painfully shy but with a booming voice and glowering countenance, many believed Yoder to be aloof or arrogant, but it was rather that John had few “people skills.” As many will attest, it was difficult to be his friend. Yet, both personally and through his work, Yoder touched numerous lives. He encouraged my own work as the external reader of my dissertation and in an email a few days before his unexpected death. At his funeral, I met people from around the world, including a young white man from South Africa who, influenced by The Politics of Jesus, refused to be drafted into the apartheid-era South African army and served time in jail in response.

Suffice it to say that my intellectual and personal debts to “JHY,” as he was often called, are immense. I will post a bibliography of Yoders major works later today.

August 12, 2006 - Posted by | heroes, John Howard Yoder, mentors, nonviolence, pacifism, theology


  1. I look forward to the bibliography.
    Yoder is a fascinating and important writer who I keep meaning to read much more extensively.

    Comment by Richardhttp://www.subrationedei.typepad.co.uk | August 12, 2006

  2. I actually can’t recall ever having read anything by him. What would you recommend first?

    Comment by Jim | August 12, 2006

  3. If you are new to the concept of gospel nonviolence, I’d recommend first _What Would You Do?_, then maybe _The Original Revolution_ or, if you can find it, _He Came Preaching Peace.

    _The Politics of Jesus_ is incredible (I’ve worn out 3 copies with notes, always finding things previously missed), but it assumes experience with the methods of scholarly biblical study. Even many seminary students find it tough going and I usually have to provide “reading notes” to students. This is true of many of Yoder’s more academic writings–brilliant, he tended to leave people in the dust if not reminded to slow down and spell things out. A self-professed “amateur” in most of the fields in which he wrote, Yoder’s work tended to be so good that the “professionals” in any of these fields took his “amateur” writings very seriously.

    As an internet friend named Dr. Jim West might phrase it, Yoder was never a dilletante.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 12, 2006

  4. […] up this exercise in masochism until after Easter.  Halden told me that he expected me to tackle John Howard Yoder and this is fair since Yoder has played a very large role in my theology (and life).  But I am […]

    Pingback by Theological Problem Meme « Levellers | April 17, 2007

  5. Michael –

    Thanks for this post. John Yoder was basically my introduction to theology. I was trying to put together some scattered thoughts on social justice a few years ago when my friend told me to read the politics of Jesus. This book completely turned my world upside down. I can’t imagine a book that could have more thoroughly shaken me out of my fundamentalist assumptions, precisely because strikes at the core of the biblical message of who Jesus is.

    Comment by Adam McInturf | April 26, 2007

  6. […] was a hard time.  I was helped by reading Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which gave my new pacifism a firm biblical and theological basis.  I have […]

    Pingback by How I Became a Conscientious Objector « Levellers | October 21, 2007

  7. […] not “Baptist”) was one of the last Ph.D. students of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, one of my mentors.  He took on the task of trying to present a “Yoderian” approach to […]

    Pingback by Book Review: Mere Discipleship « Levellers | June 14, 2008

  8. […] late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Mentors « Levellers | April 2, 2009

  9. […] John Howard Yoder  (1927-1997).  The most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons, it is not true that Yoder’s writings convinced me of gospel nonviolence/Christian pacifism. But his The Politics of Jesus (1972, rev. 1997) was the first theological reflection I read after becoming a pacifist and leaving the U.S. army as a conscientious objector. Yoder CEMENTED by Christian pacifism (c. 1993).  I have written deeply on his influence elsewhere.  As I predicted at John’s funeral, many secondary studies of Yoder have begun to emerge. Most have serious flaws.  I do recommend two secondary studies as showing particular insight, however:  Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder:  Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Eerdmans, 2005 (which is the long awaited publication of Mark’s Ph.D. dissertation done at Fuller Theological Seminary) and Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus:  The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics. Cascadia, 2007.  I also recommend both these Festschriften or books of celebratory essays, Stanley Hauerwas, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner, and Mark Theissen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder. Eerdmans, 1999 and Ben Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed:  Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking. Cascadia Publishing House, 2004. […]

    Pingback by ialogue Partners in the Wider Evangelical Tradition « Levellers | August 23, 2009

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