Yoder’s Theology of Mission

I just finished writing a review of John Howard Yoder’s Theology of Mission. The book is a transcription of the course he taught Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries for over two decades. The text itself comes from recordings in the mid-70s. As can be expected, Yoder offers insightful readings of scripture and applies his anti-constantianism to the history and theology of mission. I thought I would post an excerpt of the review in case anyone is interested in further conversation.

Working towards a sort of climax Yoder draws closer to the basic questions of Christianity in relation to other religions. Until this point Yoder outlined an image of the church in mission that needed to repent of and reject past complicity with colonial projects. However, it remains an open question as to whether Yoder actually addresses the underlying logic that led to the destructive elements of the church’s mission. Yoder makes two claims in these final chapters that will need to be acknowledged and engaged by future theologians in this field. First, Yoder addresses the designation of ‘religion’ as an interpretive category and asserts that “what Christians must talk about is Jesus Christ not Christianity as religion or culture” (397). This position comes into tension with the second claim Yoder makes regarding other religions and ‘post-Christian’ movements. Yoder does not advocate active proselytizing of Hindus and Buddhists but articulates how they are changed when they come into contact with Jesus. Then with respect to post-Christian movements (anything from Islam to Marxism) Yoder positions them as “derived from a Christianity that lost its way” (385). This language sounds too much like an expression that is able to retain a pure ‘kernel’ of truth that remains unassailable in the face of experiences. In Yoder’s theology of mission Jesus functions as that which cannot be wrong.

This book is an important contribution to what is at present a controversial topic. Yoder calls on the church to live out of its particular history and formation. This means confessing the wrongs that came from it and returning again (and again) to the biblical witness which points the church towards a communal and migratory understanding of mission. These are welcome correctives to many supercessionist theologies of mission. The question that remains untouched is whether Yoder actually steers the church away from a theology that will always encroach, always insulate itself from receiving good news outside of (and perhaps otherwise than) its particularity; a theology of mission that can’t help but determine the question of salvation for others. The Mennonite church is currently not of one mind on this issue but the question continues to inform and challenge any present or future theology of mission.

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2 comments on “Yoder’s Theology of Mission

  1. Marco Funk says:

    “In Yoder’s theology of mission Jesus functions as that which cannot be wrong.”

    Well… ya. He believes that Jesus is Lord, the Incarnate Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. I’m guessing that his Believer’s Church approach assumes, confesses and believes that Jesus is the Truth that cannot be wrong. Just a hunch, though. Is that a problem for Yoder? I think that its one of his finest qualities as a scholar – is that he seeks to, with as much charity & clarity as possible, to articulate the Lordship of Christ and its implications for the Church and for the world.

    • I don’t think it is a problem for Yoder, but I think it might be a problem. I think as soon as Jesus starts *functioning* in this way then there is a problem. I hope there is a way of speaking about Jesus that does not preserve him as the kernel of truth or reduces our account of him simply to being a ‘good man’. Both of those are unhelpful and I think Yoder falls into the former.
      I don’t have this all articulated for myself but the implications this has for missions (even in as much as Yoder provides helpful critiques) remains pressing.

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