Yoder, John Howard (1927-1997)
|John Howard Yoder. Photo by Carolyn Prieb. Used by permission.|
John Howard Yoder: theologian and Christian ethicist, was born 29 December 1927, just outside of Smithville, northern Ohio, the son of Howard C. Yoder (7 October 1897-29 October 1983) and Ethel (Good) Yoder (5 April 1903-20 June 1992). He was raised with one sibling, a younger sister, Ellen (a younger brother died in infancy). He grew up as part of the Oak Grove Mennonite Church and from the age of seven lived in the nearby town of Wooster. Yoder stood in a line of several generations of influential leaders within the Mennonite Church from both sides of his family. It was obvious from an early age that John also had extraordinary gifts, especially intellectual gifts. By the time of his death, 30 December 1997, Yoder was arguably the most influential Mennonite theologian ever; he was also one of the most influential Christian ethicists in the 20th century.
Yoder attended Goshen College, a Mennonite college (Indiana) in 1945. He graduated with a B.A. in two years in 1947. Two of his teachers were especially important. Only one year earlier Guy Hershberger’s book, War, Peace, and Nonresistance was published and, perhaps even more importantly, Harold Bender’s presidential address to the American Society of Church History, "The Anabaptist Vision," had been published. For centuries the 16th-century Anabaptist movement had been defined negatively by church historians. Bender’s essay—an exciting re-interpretation—served to inspire a commitment to discipleship, Christian community, nonviolence, and service among a generation of Mennonites. For those academically inclined, it also served as a call for further research by Mennonites into the Anabaptist origins of their denomination. Conveniently, Bender had, in 1927, founded The Mennonite Quarterly Review, an academic journal which provided a forum for serious research on 16th-century Anabaptism and contemporary Mennonite life and theology.
John Yoder was among those who were inspired to give service to his church and through it to the world. In April 1949 Yoder began an assignment with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in France. His initial assignment was to do youth work and to help the French Mennonites re-capture their commitment to pacifism. Soon Yoder’s daily work was overseeing first one and then two children’s homes, providing food and shelter and homes for children made orphans by the war. Additionally, Yoder also worked at healing divisions within French Mennonite churches. A history of French Mennonites says of Yoder that "few men will have exercised such a profound influence in [the churches’] transformation in this post-war period." Yoder was also, almost from the time he arrived, involved in ecumenical discussions about peace throughout Western Europe.
While continuing to work with MCC, in the autumn of 1950 Yoder became a part-time student at the University of Basel, full-time beginning in 1954. Yoder studied with many of the luminaries there, including Walter Eichrodt and Walter Baumgartner in Old Testament, Oscar Cullmann in New Testament, Karl Jaspers in philosophy, and Karl Barth in dogmatics. Yoder took five structured courses and five colloquiums with Barth, although Barth was not his doctoral supervisor. Yoder wrote his doctoral thesis (and a subsequent volume) under the supervision of Ernst Staehelin on the disputations between the magisterial Reformers and the Anabaptists in early 16th-century Switzerland.
Yoder's lectures and essays written while in Europe set the stage for much of his life's work. He wrote about Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, the Christian witness to the state, ecumenical relations, and "the politics of the Messiah." On 12 July 1952 Yoder married French Mennonite Anne Marie Guth. Between 1953 and 1969 they had seven children, six of whom survived infancy. In 1957 Yoder and his family moved to the United States. (After his doctoral thesis was published, in 1962, Yoder received his Dr. Theol., in 1964, insigne cum laude). For the first year they were in the USA Yoder worked in one of the family owned greenhouses. During 1958-1959 school year Yoder served as a sabbatical replacement at Goshen College. Beginning in the autumn of 1959 Yoder worked full-time as an administrative assistant for overseas missions at the Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) in Elkhart, Indiana. From the beginning of his tenure at the mission board he initiated contacts with evangelical leaders, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Council of Churches. Over a period of more than 20 years, beginning in 1961, Yoder worked in various capacities with the World Council of Churches. From 1965 to 1970 Yoder was an associate consultant with MBM.
From 1960 to 1965 Yoder was a part-time instructor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart. Beginning in 1965 he became a full-time professor at the seminaries, remaining so until 1977. From 1970 to 1973 he was also president of Goshen Biblical Seminary (one of the two "associated" Mennonite seminaries) and was acting dean of the same school during the school year 1972-1973. Yoder taught an occasional course at the University of Notre Dame beginning in 1967. In the autumn of 1977 Yoder became a full-time professor at the University of Notre Dame, with Goshen Biblical Seminary buying a portion of his time from Notre Dame until the spring of 1984. From the autumn of 1984 until his death at the end of 1997 Yoder taught only at Notre Dame. During the 1970s Yoder taught for a year in Argentina (1970-71) and France (1974-75), and spent a year at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Jerusalem (1975-76). Yoder also presented lectures in more than 20 countries and taught intensive, short courses in three schools in as many countries. His fluency in French, German, and Spanish helped in some of these situations.
Yoder wrote hundreds of articles in five languages, as well as more than 17 books. (The number of posthumous books has swelled.) The heart of John Yoder’s thought is captured in six of his books: For the Nations, The Royal Priesthood, The Priestly Kingdom, Nevertheless, The Christian Witness to the State, and The Politics of Jesus. The Politics of Jesus has been translated into 12 languages, sold more than 100,000 copies, and influenced many Christians, both academic and otherwise. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine wrote: "John Yoder inspired a whole generation of Christians to follow the way of Jesus into social action and peacemaking." J. Philip Wogaman, in his book, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, named John H. Yoder as one of a handful of the "formative Christian moral thinkers" of the 20th-century.
In 1991, eight women brought formal complaints of sexual misconduct against Yoder. As a result, Yoder’s home congregation (Prairie Street Mennonite Church) appointed a task force to investigate the allegations. After a year of work, the task force concluded that "the charges brought by the women are accurate, and John has violated sexual boundaries." Moreover, said the official press release, Yoder "has acknowledged the truth of the charges and has expressed deep regret for the hurt his actions have caused for the women." On 27 June 1992 the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church began a process of formally disciplining Yoder. Yoder submitted to this process, which would last a little over four years. As a part of the process, Yoder acted to cut off any ongoing relationships that were deemed inappropriate and agreed not to pursue any new ones. He also agreed to undergo therapy "to work thoroughly with the issues involved." In the summer of 1996 the discipline process concluded successfully, with the Church Life Commission and the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference saying that they encouraged "Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching." The semester before he died he once again taught a course at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Yoder died on 30 December 1997. However, his influence (in 2011) was greater than it has ever been. His essays previously published and unpublished continued to find their way into newly published books. And more and more essays, books of essays and monographs continued to be published engaging Yoder’s thought, as well as master’s and doctoral theses. His influence in 2011 spanned the globe.
In 1993 Stanley Hauerwas said that "when Christians look back on this century of theology in America The Politics of Jesus will be seen as a new beginning." In a foreword to a recent collection of writings by Yoder, Michael Gorman, a significant New Testament scholar, claims that Yoder "reconfigured the landscape of two theological disciplines"—theological ethics and biblical studies. The heart of Yoder’s project—captured in the phrase "the politics of Jesus"—is simple to name but profound in its implications. It is the claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that salvation through Christ, is "political" or social from its inception. That it is salvation is a reminder that this is about God’s redemptive action in the world through the person of Jesus the Messiah. That it is social is centrally realized through the body of Christ, the people made new in Christ, called to witness to the coming reign of God. That it is witness means that we name the source of our salvation as we seek to embody faithfulness to our Lord within our life together and by concretely and practically loving our neighbors and even our enemies. One of the ways Yoder named this is to say that "the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church."
Bergen, Jeremy M. and Anthony G. Siegrist, eds. Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009.
Bourne, Richard. Seek the Peace of the City: Christian Political Criticism as Public, Realist, and Transformative. Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, 2009.
Carter, Craig A. The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001.
"Conference Suspends Theologian’s Credentials." Gospel Herald (14 July 1992): 11.
Dula, Peter and Chris K. Huebner, eds. The New Yoder. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
Hauerwas, Stanley. "The Nonresistant Church: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder." In Vision and Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
Hauerwas, Stanley, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner, and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds. The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. (Reprinted, Wipf & Stock, 2005)
Hess, Cynthia. Sites of Violence, Sites of Grace: Christian Nonviolence and the Traumatized Self. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.
Nation, Mark Thiessen. "A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of John Howard Yoder." Mennonite Quarterly Review 71 (January 1997): 93-145.
Nation, Mark Thiessen. John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.
Nugent, John, ed. Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010.
Ollenberger, Ben C. and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds. A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004.
Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State. North Newton, KS: Faith & Life Press, 1962/1977 (Reprinted: Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002)
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994.
Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. (Reprinted, with a new foreword by S. Hauerwas, 2001)
Zimmerman, Earl. Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2007.
This article is based on the original English essay that was written for the http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=art:yoder_john_howardand has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at
John Howard Yoder Reading Room (Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, Ontario)
Video of John Howard Yoder speaking on the Limitations of Democracy (YouTube) (10:44)
Peace Theology: John Howard Yoder (writings on Yoder's theology by Ted Grimsrud, Eastern Mennonite University; also includes 1992 Elkhart Truth news articles about the sexual misconduct charges.)
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MLA style: Nation, Mark Thiessen. "Yoder, John Howard (1927-1997)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. September 2011. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/yoder_john_howard_1927_1997.
APA style: Nation, Mark Thiessen. (September 2011). Yoder, John Howard (1927-1997). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/yoder_john_howard_1927_1997.