John Howard Yoder vigorously believes that Jesus’ teaching was very practical and very this-worldly. The spiritual, metaphysical, theological, religious meaning of his life and teaching – in Jesus’ mind and in the thinking of his disciples and apostles – had direct and major implications for how humans should live their day-to-day lives in real societies in this real world.
And those issues always are connected to who has power in any given situation, and how they use that power.
I suggest that what have traditionally been thought of as “dogmatic questions” are more foreign to the import of the original texts in many cases than is the problem of power.
(This reminds me of Amartya Sen, Harvard economist, arguing that there is really no effective difference between economics and ethics. Economics is ethics. That parallels, to my thinking, the idea that the teaching of Jesus is much more ethical than metaphysical or “dogmatic.” Jesus’ teaching is ethics [with some implied and some explicit metaphysics].)
“Dogmatic questions” could include things like
- • How sure are we that Jesus was born of a virgin? How could Jesus be born of a virgin – physically? How could that happen – spiritually?
- • What are the proper definitions of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit? What exactly is their relationship? Is there really a Trinity?
- • How was, is, or should the church or churches be organized and managed?
- • Who should be baptized, how, when, and by whom?
- • What exactly is the extent of freedom of the will – if there is any such thing?
- • How should weekly worship be managed? By whom? Should we be meeting on Saturdays?
- • Who can be ordained? To what purposes? By whom?
- • Just exactly how “infallible” are the Scriptures? Which Scriptures?
- • What is the process you must go through – or the criteria you must meet – to join a church or to remain in good standing therein?
- • Will the second coming occur in the next ten years?
BUT, says Yoder, we do know what Jesus thought about some very practical and persistent issues.
We have the record of Jesus’ dealing explicitly with whether he should be king or whether we should love our enemies, and with what we should do with wealth;
Of course many of us who are active in church have at least tentative answers to some of those “dogmatic” questions. But we need to recognize that we are deriving those answers from some other source, not from the teachings of Jesus himself.
As to things churches really like to bring up, either against “unbelievers” or against each other, Yoder gives this example:
only very indirectly can we get from his teachings any help on the metaphysics of incarnation.
Very interesting. And it becomes a question of emphasis. What kinds of things, then – I wonder – should we be focusing our attention and our efforts on?
Or, as Jesus himself put it, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?”
The quotes are from John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Eerdmans, 1972, 1994. Chapter 8 “Christ and Power” footnote 1.
For my short, nine-“chapter” article discussing the moral concerns Jesus emhpasized, click here.