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Was Jesus' behavior normative?

Article Table of Contents

I want to discuss the central claims of a book I’ve read, as it relates to some other threads that I need to weave together.

The book: The Politics of Jesus by John Yoder.

Yoder opens the book with a bold claim and criticism. Yoder argues that:

Mainstream biblical ethicists explicitly state: “Jesus is not relevant in any immediate sense to the questions of social ethics.”

Yoder spends the rest of the book arguing against this characterization of Jesus. He would argue:

  1. What Jesus said and did is relevant
  2. Therefore, Jesus is normative to the believer living in 2020.

This word, normative is important. It means, in short, Jesus words and actions set the standard by which believers should live today.

This page is a draft. So far, the precipitating cause for all of this is the section of text I’ve copied for you to read below

Does mainstream biblical thought really argue that Jesus is irrelevant? #

Mainstream biblical thought defends the above claim in a three-part proposition:

  1. Jesus is irrelevant to modern ethics
  2. Therefore, there must be some kind of alternative bridge into another mode of thought when we begin to think about ethics
  3. Because we have to build an ethic independent of Jesus, we’ll can rely on nothing but “common sense” and natural theology

The above statements would strike many as unfathomable.

It certainly tickeled my brain when I read it. But as I read the author’s support for the first claim, I felt more and more lightbulbs going off.

I have heard all of these messages in sermons my entire life.

Proposition Part 1: “Jesus is irrelevant to modern ethics because…” #

Not every preacher or church actively preaches messages of Jesus’ irrelevance, but most of them do. Yoder gives six examples of how modern biblical scholarship makes a subtle case that Jesus is irrelevant:

Jesus’s irrelevance is proclaimed in six ways. How many of these have you heard from a pulpit in the last few years? The pastors (and authors) never come out and explicitly say “Jesus is irrelevant!” but I’ve heard versions of all of these:

1. Jesus’ ethic was for an “interim period” which Jesus thought would be very brief #

It’s possible Jesus was concerned about social structures, because he thought the world would be passing away soon. He didn’t think about how societies need to survive, and for big institutions required for social order.

His attitudes about rejections of violence, of self-defense, and of accumulating wealth for the sake of security, and the footlooseness of the prophet of the kingdom are not permanent and generalizable attitudes towards social values.

2. Jesus was a quaint, simple rural figure #

Jesus talked about sparrows and lilies to fishermen and peasants, prostitutes lepers, and outcasts. His radical personalizations of all ethical problems is only possible in quaint, ancient times, when the only way people could talk was face-to-face.

Therefor, Jesus’ ethic had nothing meaningful to say on complex organizations, on institutions and offices, cliques and power and crowds.

3. Jesus lived in a world here he (and his followers) were low-status, and couldn’t do any better #

Since Jesus and his followers were outcasts, they couldn’t even conceive of exercising social responsibility in any other way than simply being a faithful witnessing minority.

Christians have made BIG progress since them, basically all of Western culture is based on Christian principles, and that’s such a huge jump in complexity. Christians together must accept responsibilities that were inconceivable in Jesus’ situation.

4. The nature of Jesus’ message was ahistorical by definition #

Jesus dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the intellectual and not the concrete.

He didn’t proclaim social change and obedience, he proclaimed self-understanding and atonement.

Whatever he said and did of a social and ethical character must be understood not for its own sake but as the symbolic or the mythical clothing of his spiritual message.

If the Gospel texts were not sufficiently clear on this point, at least we are brought to a definitive clarity by the later apostolic writings.

Especially Paul moves us away from the last trace of the danger of a social misunderstanding of Jesus and towards the inwardness of faith.

5. Jesus was a radical monotheist #

He pointed people away from the their specific lives and brought their attention to the sovereignty of the only One worthy of being worshiped.

Because God is so BIG and we are so SMALL, all human values become relative. God’s will cannot be identified with any single ethical answer, or given any value, because all of these things are finite and He is infinite.

6. Jesus came to save mankind from its sin #

The work of atonement, the gift of justification, whereby God enables sinners to be restored to his fellowship is a gracious gift. This act of justification correlates to one’s self-understanding in response to the proclaimed Word, but it’s not correlated with ethics.

Just as guilt is not a matter of having committed particular sinful acts, so justification is not a matter of proper behavior.

How the death of Jesus works out justification is a divine miracle and mystery; how he died, or the kind of life he lived which led to the kind of death he died, is therefore ethically immaterial.

To recap - these are six dangerous ideas. But I hear echos of these ideas all the time, today, in 2020!

So much for the six ways modern Biblical thought actively claims that Jesus is irrelevant.

After claiming that Jesus is irrelevant, and not useful for making meaningful decisions about right and wrong, modern biblical thought casts about to create a viable connection between the Bible and the modern world.

Once we see how biblical ethics argues for Jesus’ irrelevance, there’s two more steps they take to get to the modern world:

Proposition Part 2: There must be some kind of alternative bridge into another mode of thought when we begin to think about ethics #

After dismissing Jesus as irrelevant, biblical ethicists are in a bind. How do “we” reconstitute a meaningful ethic in the modern world independent of Jesus?

Because Jesus is irrelevant (they say) we need some “bridge” from Jesus life to today. We need not just a bridge from then to now, but from theology to ethics, from right thinking to right actions. From the Bible to 21st century politics.

Proposition Part 3: Because we have to build an ethic independent of Jesus, we’ll use common sense and natural theology #

Recognizing the need to “bridge” from Jesus to the 20th/21st century, Biblical ethicists rebuild an ethical standard entirely independent of Jesus Himself, and instead appeal to reason and nature and the “rightness of things”.

We’ll measure what is “fitting” and “adequate”, what is “relevant” and “effective”. We’ll be “realistic” and “responsible”.

The nature of things is held to be adequately perceived in their bare givenness. “Rightness” and morality is that which respects or tends toward the realization of the essentially given.

It is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern what is right.

Yoder mic drop #

After reading the first half of Chapter 1, I could imagine Yoder, sitting at his typewriter, considering how he just dunked on western civilization:


This first half of the chapter, and it’s condemnation of modern biblical ethicists, is fire.

This all reads intuitively true. I shared these thoughts with some friends. Here’s some of what they said:

The most shocking thing I read was Yoder’s comment that:

If (for general reasons of systematic and philosophical theology such as have been widely dominant in theological ethics for a long time) Jesus, whoever he was, is no model for ethics, it then becomes immaterial just who he was and what he did.

I don’t know how one can reconcile that Yoder’s statement with the belief central to Christianity – that Christ was God and the Savior of the world. To regard him as merely an ethical figure that lacked an extrinsic divine value cannot be reconciled with the orthodox texts’ representations of him (except perhaps through a reading of ‘short Mark’ alone)

Yet there’s something that rings true about Yoder’s criticism that modern Christianity has disconnected Christ from modern ethics. Was it always that way? If not, how did we get there?

emphasis mine

This chapter was like a pebble in my shoe. I just couldn’t quite ignore it. It kept demanding my thought and attention.

The real clicher comes in the 2nd half of the chapter, which I’ve reproduced in its entirety below.

The below quote, and all of the text that I summarized above, is opaque, highly technical, and precise. My language is intentionally a little looser.

To recap, Yoder is arguing that most Christian thinkers today would actually think that Jesus is not directly relevant to social ethics, and that his life and ministry bears no relevance to their lives! He’s arguing that they have errors in their perception of Jesus’ story that prevents them from drawing correct conclusions.

He argues this thesis persuasively.

I was raised in the church (Baptists/non-denominational), went to a reformed Presbyterian church in college, and have attended Presbyterian churches ever since.

I have somewhat bonafied credentials when it comes to an intellectual engagement with the church. Right thinking/right action, and all that.

In high school, I attended a church pastored by Joshua Harris. He was a big name at the time. He wrote a well-known book on dating called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he has now recognized as an extremely harmful book, and he regrets ever writing it. He also no longer considers himself a Christian.

He has undergone a massive shift in his regard to his faith in Jesus. He used the term “deconstruction”1, or “falling away from the faith”.

Look up deconstruction on Wikipedia. Seems to focus a lot on the relationship between text and meaning, concepts of truth and justice, and rapidly touches on other complicated topics:

  • Law
  • Anthropology
  • historiography
  • linguistics
  • sociolinguistics
  • psychoanalysis
  • LGBT studies
  • feminism
  • war and physical violence (I, Josh, added this one)

These are all things that Christians in America have pretty much punted on, and are (IMO) correctly castigated by the non-Christian community for being wrong about, out of touch, oppressive, and unethical.

Anyway, I have a somewhat weary knowledge of several very specific kinds of church and para-church organizations inside of the USA today. You, the reader, might be equally familiar with this certain breed of church organization today.

I think I have been hearing these organizations preaching, my entire life, a message that distills down to Jesus is irrelevant.

Here’s Yoder again, paraphrasing the message I’ve heard preached so many times, hundreds of times, in my life:

Since Jesus isn’t actually relevant in the modern world, we have to “bridge” from his life in the Bible to any kind of real ethical standard. Sure, he’s helpful for things like “absolute love” or “humility” or “faith”, but the stuff of right and wrong? Ethics? We’ve got to come up with that ourselves!

What if, on Sunday, the next time you’re listening to a sermon, the pastor said:

Now, open your Bible’s to Psalms 23. I’m going to talk about this portion of scripture.

Oh, by the way, I don’t think Jesus actually matters to us today, in fact, this entire book is junk, but it is rather interesting from a few different perspectives, and I’d like to talk about them today…

How would you react?

Most of you would already be horrified. Jaws on the floor. That whole record-scratch sound.

I think that this above statement is broadly true for many churches and institutions in America today.

I maintain that churches are actively proclaiming that Jesus is irrelevant and the world around them is correctly inferring the implications of this message.

This proclamation explains most concisely the precipitous “decline of the power of the church in America”, and explains most of the moral hand-wringing that the “Christians” in America engage in.

Jesus’ ethic is relevant and normative #

Here’s a long quote from pages 11 through 13 of The Politics of Jesus.

I wanted to have the entire text to share, for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve touched on above.

Here’s the text, unedited by me, except some line breaks and occasional comments.

[…] What I propose here is rather that, once we are sensitized by those questions, we might begin at the front again by seeking to read one portion of the New Testament without making the usual prior negative assumptions about its relevance.

Or let me say it more sharply: I propose to read the Gospel narrative with the constantly present question, “Is there here a social ethic?”

I shall, in other words, be testing the hypothesis that runs counter to the prevalent assumptions, and I will be exploring the possibility that the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option.

This study is then addressed to two quite discrete tasks. In substance and procedure the two will be distinct, calling for different kinds of methods and demonstration.

  1. I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such a Jesus would be of direct significance for social ethics. (This is a task of New Testament research immediately within the concerns of biblical scholarship.)

  2. I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus, when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.

Let us be fully aware that the endeavor will have any meaning at all only if both of the answers turn out to be affirmative.

If (for general reasons of systematic and philosophical theology such as have been widely dominant in theological ethics for a long time) Jesus, whoever he was, is no model for ethics, it then becomes immaterial just who he was and what he did.2

If, on the other hand, Jesus was not like everyone else a political being, or if he demonstrated no originality or no interest in responding to the questions which his sociopolitical environment put to him, it would be pointless to ask about the meaning of his stance for today.

To simplify the question and bring it within workable dimensions, I propose to concentrate largely on one document, on the canonical text of the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s story line provides us with a simple outline, and his editorial stance is often taken to have been a concern to deny that the Christian movement was any threat to Mediterranean society or Roman rule.

This centering upon Luke for our scattered soundings is not meant to slant the reading any other Gospel that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem Rome or to Washington or Saigon, was to leave the story behind.

I shall be looking more at the events than at the teachings, more at the outlines than at the substance. The next pages present soundings rather than a thorough survey.

Nor is it the intention of this book to be exegetically original.

At no point do I mean to be hazarding unheard-of textual explanations.

All that I add is the focusing effect of a consistent, persistent question: “Is there here a social ethic?”

The book is worth reading. It’s complicated, heavily footnoted, and quite academic.

Further reading #

Footnotes #

  1. Joshua Harris falling away from faith: ‘I am not a Christian’ 

  2. Said more directly: “If Jesus is no model for ethics, it is irrelevant just who he was and what he did.”