Review of Politics of Jesus (Yoder)

Eerdmans, 1994.

While I think this book is wrong on several levels, it marked a valuable turning point in Evangelical ethical reflection. To say Jesus’s message was political is commonplace today. It wasn’t when Yoder wrote.

Thesis 1: Jesus’s ministry has a political claim that we often hide from ourselves (Yoder 2).

Yoder is against a “Creation Ethic” (8). While his primary target is natural law ethics, he also lists “situation ethics” under the same label: we discern the right be studying the realities around us (9).

Thesis 2: Because of Jesus’s “humanness,” there is the possibility of a distinctively normative, Christian ethic (10).

Yoder is against any kind of “natural law ethic,” and for him natural law = creation = nature = reason = reality. While I suspect Yoder paints with a rather broad brush, one can’t help but note a few points he scores: these models are usually “ascribed a priori a higher or deeper authority than the ‘particular’ Jewish or Christian sources of moral vision” (19).

His exegesis on “Kingdom” anticipates many of the gains found in NT Wright’s own work. Yoder’s argument concerning “Jubilee” is quite interesting, though not without difficulty. He sees Jesus in Luke 4 as inaugurating the New Jubilee. In fact, he can call the “Lord’s Prayer” a “Jubilee” prayer, since debts are wiped away (64). Bottom line: Those in the Kingdom must practice Jubilee. Corollary: to practice the Sabbath without practicing deliverance and Jubilee is not to practice the Sabbath.

(3) The point of OT violence was not violence, but that God acts to save his people without their needing to act (76-77).

(4) Jesus’s kingdom is not simply “internal” but is outward and social.

(5) The universe was made in an ordered form and is called “good” (141).

Be that as it may, Yoder insists “we have no access to the good creation of God” (141). Strong stuff. He does expand upon this language, drawing upon Paul’s words in Acts 17:22-28.

(5a) These power-structures were created by God and today provide a network for our existence (142).
(5b) They rebelled and fell.
(5c) God uses them for good.

My only problem at this point is (5b) seems to think that the powers = angels of one sort or another. That could work but the evidence is slim.

Romans 13

This is the most controversial chapter in the book. I’ll begin by noting some positives. Yoder is correct that Paul is not arguing for a positivist reading: i.e., whatever the state says is just/right by definition (this is the official position of the United States Supreme Court regarding its own rulings). Most controversially, he asserts that the sword, the machaira, is not a weapon as such but a symbol of authority. Therefore, this can’t mean that the state is just in war or taking a life.

By way of response:
>He says God did not create the powers that be, but only orders them (201). Assuming that these powers are not self-existing, then yes, God did create them.

>He says Rom. 13 cannot be used as a proof-text for police/military functions (203). But what of the soldiers who came to John the Baptist? What of the centurion whom Jesus commended so highly? In neither case were they told to quit their unjust professions.

>His claim that the machaira can’t be used for death simply won’t hold. The state is said not to wield it in vain. But if it is merely symbolic and can’t restrain my actions, then the state is wielding it in vain. Jesus reaffirms the death penalty in Matt. 15.


*Yoder does a fine job demonstrating that Jesus didn’t come to offer a Kantian kingdom and a Kantian, spiritual ethic.

~1. It’s hard to reconcile Yoder’s claim that the State is the embodied evil of the demonic powers with Paul’s claim that it is a minister of good.

~2. Yoder wants to posit a good creation with good structures (as he should), but given Romans 13 and the fact that God commanded wars in the Old Testament, how can one then critique Just War Theory and the use of the sword?

~3. Yoder almost always dismisses dissonant voices as “unaware of Jesus’s social dimension,” of whom he usually means “Christendom” (whatever that means).

~4. Yoder’s claims in (5a-c) need an additional premise: (5d) Creation has been restored and reaffirmed in the resurrection of Christ. To be fair, Yoder approaches this point (144-145). Yet, in this section he doesn’t mention the Resurrection. He does hint at it on p.239.

~5. While correctly rejecting the Enlightenment project, Yoder uses a lot of its rhetoric. He continually contrasts the “traditional” or “Constantinian” reading with a fresher reading.

~6. What’s the value of positing a good creation if we have no cognitive access to it (141)? In fact, and most devastatingly, how does Yoder even know creation is good if we have no cognitive access to it? In any case, the Bible doesn’t follow this reasoning, since it tells us to look to nature and creation for wisdom (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard!”).

Now that I think about it, this is why Oliver O’Donovan spent so much


A valuable and welcome read. His exegesis of Luke is outstanding and he doesn’t opt for easy answers, even when I think he is wrong.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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4 Responses to Review of Politics of Jesus (Yoder)

  1. cal says:

    Having had a deep interest in Yoder years back, here are some considerations for your critiques (take them worth a grain of salt):

    1) Yoder, while an Anabaptist, does not believe the State as demonic (fallen) is in opposition to Paul’s statement that it is a minister of justice. However, Yoder argues as well (elsewhere) that Paul’s recognition of the Powers-That-Be must be read in light of Romans 12, a subversive element. In addition, Yoder also qualifies that the Powers-That-Be are not necessarily “legitimate” Nation-States. If one lived in a cartel town in Mexico, that would be the Power in charge. Paul’s ethics still applied and must be thought of in that light.

    2) For Yoder, Just War Theory functions from a set of Natural ideals articulated in the Augustinian-Thomist tradition. The Anabaptist tradition, in its conservative elements, does not condemn the OT wars as much as relegate them to a different dispensation, where God actively judged. For Yoder, who seemed to step away from that somewhat, it’s not an absolute condemnation in the way some of his disciples would argue. But, again, he is more hesitant than his Mennonite brethren.

    3) I think his critique is fair, but this might be a difference of judgment. Magisterial Protestantism, in the main, is a failure and produced some vicious evils.

    4) For Yoder, the emphasis is the tension. There is a grain of the universe, that Christ enters in to restore. The resurrection has restored it, but not everything is under Christ’s feet. So I’m not sure what your critique is getting at, unless you deny there is still a void existing.

    5) I don’t have issue with Enlightenment language, and, considering, some of the earliest Enlightenment critics of “Constantinianism” took it from Protestant and Anabaptist sects.

    6) I don’t think you have Yoder right on this. Perhaps this is the impression of the Politics of Jesus, but elsewhere (namely the essay “Look at Jesus”) he gives Jesus as the hermeneutic to read “the grain of the universe”. Thus the redemptive-historical revelation is how we understand the creation and how to properly understand our cognitive functions.

    Comment on the “sword”: Yoder is not against the State as exercising judgment, rather he believes its rightful place is in policing matters. He makes a historical argument, mostly weak, that the function of centurions was primarily that. The function of an invasive, standing argument is abuse of this. Some of Yoder’s followers have criticized at his naive support of police.

    Comment on use of Luke: Some critics miss the fact that Yoder picked Luke intentionally: Luke was considered most favorable to Roman authorities of all the Gospels. Yoder seeks to refute that, and I think he does so magnificently. His chapter on the magnificat and the revolutionary vision of Mary is great.



    • JB Aitken says:

      Thanks for your observations.

      ~2. Maybe. Thomism is quite distinct (and I would say very different) from Augustinianism, so any legitimate criticism of Thomism would not necessarily transfer to Augustinianism. I suspect this is partly why Yoder wants to cut off any recourse to “creational reasoning.” If we are allowed to go beyond the Bible (or even beyond Yoder’s texts), then Just War theory makes sense.

      ~4 and ~6) My criticism is that if Christ has reaffirmed the created order in the Resurrection, then we can say we have cognitive access to it.


      • cal says:

        2) They are distinct, but it’s a joint legacy, filtered through Thomas, that Yoder critiques. It’s been commented on that Yoder, due to his Mennonite prejudices, misunderstands Augustine and subsequently misses great areas of overlap. I read a dissertation from Duke (can’t remember author) who argues that Yoder and Augustine have a lot in common and Yoder is a solid Augustinian. It’s not that we can’t reason “creationally”, but it’s Christ conditioned. Therefore the “Politics of Jesus” reveal the natural-order. It’s not that we can’t go beyond the Bible, but a principle of sola-scriptura in the redemptive-history for ethics. Thus Yoder, despite his own words, affirms a kind of “City of God” politics.

        4/6) Yet Yoder is affirming the radical critique (and one can see how Barth has influenced, vis. certain Reformed dogmatics) of the noetic effects of sin. The question is not if we have cognitive access, but how. As I commented above, Yoder and DB Hart are almost 1:1 in how Christ as particular is the only access to a universal, and that the Enlightenment project was glorified (and deified) cultural bigotry and racism (which is, in many cases, a stunningly true critique).



  2. cal says:

    And to say what might needs saying: I have been deeply influenced by Yoder, though I do not consider myself an Anabaptist. Though, despite some serious theological errors, I’d rather associate with the radical wings of the Reformation than with the Magisterial dimensions solidified by Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer, and Melanchton et al. Some of the major good in the Enlightenment (and the subsequent Romantic movement) were siphoned from age-old radical critiques.


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