Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Boiling Down the Differences Between Yoder and Jenson

As I make my way through the corpus of John Howard Yoder, not simply as a reader but with an eye toward my thesis, it is startling how much similar ground and how many shared convictions exist between he and Robert Jenson. From the 1960s to the late 1990s (and up to the present day for Jenson), they did work in similar areas and came to similar conclusions on a number of issues:
  • The essential Jewishness of Jesus.
  • The priority of peoplehood.
  • The inescapable and explicit politics of believing and obeying the gospel.
  • The tragic mistake of supersessionism.
  • The message of the resurrection as the heart of the primal apostolic proclamation.
  • The temporal (and not timeless) character of the God narrated by Scripture.
  • The overarching genre of Scripture as narrative.
  • The necessity of the 16th century reformations in response to contemporary ecclesial abuses (through Luther's legacy and Zwingli's radical followers, respectively).
  • The radical project and rehabilitating influence of Karl Barth in 20th century theology.
  • The necessity of attending to concrete history, particularly to that of the church.
  • The importance of reclaiming Scripture as the abiding word of God to the church without succumbing to uncritical biblicism or theories that distort faithful hearing and reading.
  • The core centrality of eschatology for any understanding of Jesus, the church, or Christian hope.
  • Christology as the center of all theological work.
  • The hope of the church not as immaterial or ethereal but as the full and final coming of the kingdom, of new creation, of God's redeeming and timeful materiality come at last.
  • The presence and power of the Holy Spirit as the agent of hope, transformation, obedience, empowerment, and Christ's speech to the church.
  • The work of Stanley Hauerwas as laudable and pertinent, if rambunctious and at times over-reaching.
So what is there to disagree about? I am having trouble pinning it down, and it may be more than one thing; but it does seem as if there is simply an irreconcilable barrier that determines abiding differences between the two. Here is my short list:
  • Ecclesiology.
  • Mission.
  • The relationship between truth, power, and faithfulness.
  • Augustine.
In a sense, the fourth determines the first three. To Augustine's work and project, Yoder offers a decisive "No" and Jenson a hardy "Yes." That is one way of parsing their differences.

Another is the matter of the church: What is it? What is its mission? What is its role in the world? The church and its mission definitively relate to the interrelationship of the latter three concepts of truth, power, and faithfulness -- so in a sense they are all bound up together.

Yoder sees the church as a minority people in exilic sojourn among the nations, a servant community sent on behalf of others and therefore unwilling to exercise coercion for any reason, but just so socially responsible insofar as cruciform servanthood is the grain of the cosmos and the only truly transformative power in human community. In other words, the life of the church is defined by Spirit-enabled apocalyptic discipleship to the concrete sociopolitical life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen.

Jenson sees the church...differently. Somewhere he says that the entire mission of the church is "the saying of the gospel." Elsewhere he claims that the community of the church over time is literally the body of the risen Christ on the earth. He also states that, when Constantine asked the bishops to help run the empire, they had nothing else to say but "yes." He believes with Augustine that the only truly just society is one that worships the true God, and that just war is possible in a legitimately Christian society. Finally, he is able to articulate and is energized by the vision and history of a (high) Christian culture, and speaks to American governance in the hopes that a Christian politics -- namely, the right ordering of heterosexual marriage and the consequent protection of the unborn -- might both win the day and lead to the formation of a more coherent society.

Moreover, of course, the church catholic for Yoder is the free church: dogma, creed, papal bull, ecumenical council -- none of it is binding or revelatory for God's people. And for Jenson, dogma is either always and everywhere true and binding for the church, or the church is not the same community as that of Peter and Paul. And to be sure, in a church divided, God may act for unity tomorrow -- in the restoration of communion with Rome. Not so much for Yoder.

Are there and other differences, then, ultimately about ecclesiology? Missiology? Truth and power? An understanding of the gospel? The authority of the tradition? Politics? Something else? Why do such similarly minded men of such similar experiences, training, and conviction come to such profoundly dissimilar conclusions?

I'm still sorting it out, but it's certainly a fascinating question.


  1. This was a helpful post. thanks!

  2. Brad,

    This is a helpful post and summarizes things nicely. Thanks.

    I think perhaps the core area where Jenson and Yoder differ is that of "history." Jenson's thought is determined by what I take to be the essentially Hegelian style of thinking in which the "truth" or "meaning" of history is played out on history's "surface," so to speak. That which APPEARS, that is, that which is available for sight, touch, and conscious appropriation is the truth of history. This leads to Jenson's insistence that the concrete visibility of the church in its sacramental life bears the meaning of history. For Jenson, the church itself is the self-positing, self-determining Ego of idealism whose establishment "grounds" history.

    For Yoder also, the church in some some bears the meaning of history, but it does so by "unhanding" history to the "more" of history that God has set in motion in Jesus (see Nate Kerr's work on Yoder here). The meaning of history is not on its "surface," is not that which "appears" but is hidden by virtue of Jesus' "out of control" life. Jesus, for Yoder, breaks open history to a transcendent act of God that cannot be re-presented or appropriated as a "ground."

    In short, the church, for Jenson, grounds history, while the church, for Yoder, is the site of history's ungrounding.

  3. Brad, this is an excellent post. I think you are right on the mark on all of these points. I think Peter's comments on Jenson's understanding of history helps us to think through their differences with regard to 'mission' and 'ecclesiology.'

    I think Peter is exactly right when he says that "the church, for Jenson, grounds history, while the church, for Yoder, is the site of history's ungrounding." This may oversimplify Jenson a bit, but I think this really hints at some of the more problematic aspects of Jenson's thought.

  4. Thanks all for the kind and helpful comments. Peter has clearly named this in historical and apocalyptic terms (now I'm curious what Kerr makes of Jenson!).

    Now I wonder: given the grounding/ungrounding dynamic between church and history that seems to be a or the essential difference between Yoder and Jenson -- can we answer why each believes what he does? I feel stronger in the claim that I have a sense of where Yoder gets his convictions, and in the claim that his is "more" biblical (in that he argues directly out of the texts). But where does Jenson arrive at his position? It seems to be one especially early, pronounced and vocal stream of the catholic tradition, combined with a kind of philosophical logic.

    Am I on the mark here? What else might be determining each of their views, especially Jenson's?

  5. Peter, I second Ry's comment. Your analysis of the difference between Yoder and Jenson on history is spot on. Thanks for that.

  6. Ry, when Jenson claims in both volumes of his ST that "the church is in God's intention antecedent to the gospel," he is coming about as close as you can to saying that the church grounds history. Think of it like this: whereas Barth replaced the absolute decree with the person of Jesus Christ, Jenson replaces it with the church, meaning that the church is that for which creation exists. I would describe Jenson as something of an ecclesial supralapsarian.

    As to Brad's question of what is motivating Jenson: In a recent Christian Century, Jenson contributed to the "How my Mind Has Changed" column. It is illuminating. There is a longer theological autobiography in the spring 2007 issue of Dialog (46, #1). Definitely check those out.

    It seems that Jenson increasingly came to experience the historic church with its liturgies and sacraments as what he calls "a theological fact." The sheer "thereness" of the church is, for Jenson, the inescapable fact that God has revealed himself in our midst. And unless we hold on to the "thereness" of the church, we will be set on a quest for the "real" part of revelation "behind" its historical concretion in the church. Such a quest, for Jenson, can only end in idolatry, because without the "thereness" of the church all we have to conduct the quest are our idolatrous longings and projections. Jesus becomes, in Jenson's words, "a spook." Christian faith, therefore, has to live on the gamble that the historic church simply is the actuality of God in our midst. Without the church, there is no other ground for speaking of God, or making sense of history.

    Philosophically, Jenson has what I would call an "antiphonal metaphysics." Language is the house of being, for him. God is a conversation, and to be a creature means simply to be mentioned in the triune discourse; to be redeemed means to participate in the triune discourse, doubling the Son's part. So, for Jenson, one cannot "get behind" or "beyond" language to something more real. Being is word event. Which means that ultimate reality and truth are preeminately speakable. And so, when the Gospel has been and continues to be spoken in the church, there is nothing more. The word event that is the church is the irreducible core of reality. This is why Jenson's theology has so little on mission as act or as embodied service. Because, for him, "act" or "service" is not as ontologically weighty as "language."

    The "thereness" of the church, for Jenson, is above all its language. And so the task of theology is not to witness to an act of God beyond it or in excess of the church's historical existence, it is above all interpretation, that is, preserving a particular language.

  7. Your short list, with all due respect, has much value, Brad. Previously, I have expressed to Ray my admiration and respect for your writing and insights. Yes, I am out of my league, here, but I share this in love as a brother in Christ.

    I am inclined to agree with your list with one point of clarification: I do so not because of Augustine or Constantine, but because I can stand confidently on the authority of scripture for my support. As per your summary of Yoder and Jensen I would say I feel strongly, _ both ways? I mean no disrespect for these men, to presume any familiarity with their work or to trivialize their work. My comments are guided (and I accept responsibility for my errors of interpretation) as concerns your words on their work.

    I concur with you that the concepts of truth, power and faithfulness definitively relate to the mission of the church. I see a cohesiveness been Yoder and Jensen under your short list. Yoder sees the individual ("Spirit-enabled"), crucified, disciple. Jensen sees the forest, not the trees, that is, his focus is on the church body automaton at-large ready to march into (justified) war if need be at her shepherds' call, notwithstanding his emphasis of his premium on the "saying of the gospel" as being the mission of the church. (I know. I skating on thin ice here. You did say he said it "Somewhere.")

    Yet, this is the common element between Yoder and Jensen despite the different wording of their convictions: The gospel, which takes me back to the definitive relatedness of your short list to the mission of the church. The gospel as the message of truth is that which makes men free. It was Pontius Pilate who proved an unwitting agent of clarification (if not a clue) for the disciples when he asked (I always think it was his moment of angst maybe as he pulled wildly at his hair), "What is truth?" Jesus hedged on the answer to the question before Pilate asked it when he stated the purpose of his coming into the world, "For this reason I have been born"

    John's gospel more than any other account quotes Jesus reiterating 1) where he came from (origin, the Father), 2) why he was here (purpose, to do the will of the Father), and 3) where he was going (destination, return to the Father, heaven). It is this testimony from John which sums up succintly for the church, for all saints; truth is a perspective. It is when a man and woman realizes 1) where they came from (God), 2) why they are here (to serve God), and 3) where they are bound (heaven) which empowers them excitedly to live in and for the Son in the fulness of their newfound freedom. If perspective is the relationship of parts to one another than similarly truth marks the disciples blessedness that he is able to relate to his past, present and future. A perspective which enables the individual to view his past, good and bad, under the full confidence of his acceptance of the saving grace and love of God. Similarly, he is at peace in the present and anticipates joyfully and confidently the future.

    In a world where many clamor to take power to themselves or to feign the possession of power as a self-preservation tactic it is the gospel which is the power of God alone which call break the bondage of the fear of death for those who have not yet discovered the reality of the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.

    The struggles facing the church currently (for example, as with the human Jesus theology) are nothing her first century brothers and sisters did not encounter and address. Therefore, and most definitively, faithfulness to constantly bring to the church's remembrance those things which she already knows as to the "saying of the gospel" ought never be mistaken for or put on par with making a more coherent society or improving the world. These are praiseworthy works which fall under the saints freedom to engage in as he or she sees and ceases the opportunity but not, per scripture, her mission in the world of the lost. Gil T

  8. Thanks so much for this Brad (and others) this post was a very helpful follow-up to a discussion of Nate Kerr's book last night, down-under

  9. Thanks Brad,I know little of Yoder, but your observations of Jenson seem to be incisive.

    Also, thanks for your helpful comments Peter. I am not so sure that when you say: "Think of it like this: whereas Barth replaced the absolute decree with the person of Jesus Christ, Jenson replaces it with the church, meaning that the church is that for which creation exists. I would describe Jenson as something of an ecclesial supralapsarian." that you represent him correctly. I cannot think of anywhere in his work where he would imply such a thing. Certainly his identification of the risen Christ with the church in the 'totus Christus' is very strong, but right from his first engagement with Barth he has agreed that the earthly history of Jesus is itself the ‘crisis’ of all other time. Where he departs is in what he sees as Barth's tendency to draw Christ off and back into a Calvinist place ‘before all time’. This of course determines his futurist orientation. If anything one might critique (as Bentley-Hart does) Jensons's attempt to place Jesus where Hegel has the world.

    One can't leave Israel out of this account either, as this is a major focus of the mature Jenson and of his account of the interval between Jesus' advents.

    Anyway, just a couple of thoughts.

  10. Hi Brad,

    I've just been thinking more about Jenson's influences. One of the things I think makes him a little hard to pin down is the manner in which he borrows from his extensive conversations - and while he is often explicit about the indebtedness, he often appropriates thought with characteristic audacity.

    Nevertheless, I am convinced that his attention to history is deeply forged in his time at Heidelberg. So in his critical engagement with Barth, he has the voices of von Rad and his mentor Peter Brunner ringing. To this conversation he also brings a healthy regard for Bultmann, who he had intended to study. Pannenberg was also just starting out there too, and he continues to be an important conversation partner.

    This young Jenson spends a lot of time teaching philosophy and I think there is considerable evidence that this is important to him - at least early on. This said, the foundations laid, I don't really thing he alters his essential positions much whilst he might change direction a bit. He mentions Searle, Austin and Gadamer. Of course Heidegger and Hegel are ever present as they were for so many of his colleagues at the time.

    I think his ecclesiology is also substantively formed by his Lutheran heritage, a high sacramentology and his ecumenical work.

    Whilst Jenson does indeed emphasize proclamation, his sacramentology is one of audible and visible word, heard and seen.

    If you haven't got to them already a couple of interesting chapters/articles are "The Church As Polity? The Lutheran Context of Robert Jenson's Ecclesiology," in Trinity, Time and Church, 201-238; "The Church As Communio," in The Catholicity of the Reformation, 1-12; the 'Christ as Culture' series (1-3)in the International Journal of Systematic Theology 2003/2004.

    Thanks for what I agree is a very stimulating conversation. For what its worth I wonder if an important aspect of Jenson's ecclesiology that can be addressed is a 'weakness' in his account of the ascension - how does he account for the Lordship of Christ over the church? As Gunton might put it - where is his notion of 'real absence'?

    All the best in your work.

  11. Sorry me again,

    Apologies to Peter: A friend has alerted me to a place where Jenson does indeed come close to saying/says the church is that for which creation exists. In his book on Jonathan Edwards, "America's Theologian," Jenson alerts us to Edwards' 'beloved spouse-mysticism.' "The church is with Christ the object in the triune love and so the purpose of creation." (42) Whilst this is Jenson's prose, is it his position or is he allowing Edwards to provoke? Whatever the case I admit it is probably fair to say he seems sympathetic. Thanks Jason and sorry Peter!

  12. You're welcome Andrew. It's a relief to know that I may actually something to teach you. And now that I've taught it, there's little left ... except perhaps about whiskey.

  13. I realise people have long since moved on from this post, but what the heck, I thought I might as well eat my words a little more while I'm at it: another place I have realised Jenson does state creation is on account of the church is ‘The Church’s Responsibility for the World’,
    in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Two Cities of God: The Church’s
    Responsibility for the Earthly City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 1–10.
    Teach me for jumping too quickly ...