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An undefensive presence: the mission and identity of the church in Kathryn Tanner and John Howard Yoder

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2015

Brad East*
Yale University, Dept of Religious Studies, New Haven CT 06511,


This article proposes looking to Kathryn Tanner and John Howard Yoder as resources for moving beyond a stalemate in recent ecclesiology which locates competing centres of gravity in either church or world. By contrast, Tanner and Yoder locate that centre outside of both church and world: in God, who ‘was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself . . . and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Cor 5:19). Accordingly, they articulate a vision of the church in the world whose posture is wholly, and constitutively, undefensive: a community free of the violence – actual, rhetorical or otherwise – produced by anxiety about securing its place vis-à-vis the wider society. Tanner envisages the church as a graced community of argument founded and sustained by God's cosmos-wide generosity in Christ, unconcerned with itself as such and instead intent on the world's good. In Yoder's case, his christological pacifism undergirds a church whose politics are Jesus' own, and which therefore seeks, forsaking all coercion, to embody God's eschatological peace in and for the world. These accounts share three theological moves in common. First is a Barthian priority of divine transcendence, whereby neither God, nor the gospel, nor the world is put in jeopardy by the church's fallibility (human or sinful). Second is a non-foundationalist commitment to social-historical process, to the particularities of context which constantly form (and reform) the church as a creature in time and space. Third is the generative root of all: the incarnation of God the Word. Insofar as the church is christocentric, it is by grace turned out to the world in commissioned blessing. The result is an account of the church as at once eccentric (its life hid with Christ in God) and firmly rooted in the messy realities of the here and now – realities just as present within the church as outside of it. To be sure, Tanner and Yoder are different theologians with different methods and ends; where Tanner perhaps lacks a sufficient theology of peoplehood, Yoder's ecclesiology verges at times on the heroic or ideal. Nevertheless, brought together in this way they make for productive partners in non-alarmist ecclesiology, freeing the church to fulfil its calling to serve and bless the world, even as it leaves its borders unsecured, because its faith abides not in itself but in God.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2015 

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1 Tanner, Kathryn, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 107–19Google Scholar.

2 Tanner, Kathryn, Christ the Key (New York: CUP, 2010), p. viiGoogle Scholar.

3 Ibid., pp. 158–72.

4 See Tanner, Kathryn, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

5 Ibid., pp. 67–95. See also Tanner, Kathryn, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005 [1988]), pp. 81119Google Scholar.

6 See Tanner, Kathryn, Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 4785Google Scholar.

7 Tanner, Kathryn, ‘The Church and Action for the World: A Response to Amy Pauw’, Scottish Journal of Theology 57/2 (2004), pp. 228232 (228)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Ibid., p. 229.

9 Tanner, Kathryn, ‘Towards a New Theology of Confirmation’, Anglican Theological Review 88 (2006), pp. 8594 (93)Google Scholar.

10 Representatives include George Lindbeck and John Milbank (see Tanner, Theories, pp. 97–102, 141–2, 157–9). Left oddly unmentioned, but surely in mind as well, is Stanley Hauerwas; Tanner even calls Christians ‘resident aliens’ (p. 103) without referencing Hauerwas' book of the same name!

11 Ibid., p. 108.

12 Ibid., p. 114.

13 See the similar formulation by Nicholas M. Healy, a former student of Tanner's, in his Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (New York: CUP, 2000), p. 5: ‘The identity of the concrete church is not simply given; it is constructed and ever reconstructed by the grace-enabled activities of its members as they embody the church's practices, beliefs and valuations.’

14 Tanner, Theories, p. 123 (de-italicised).

15 Ibid., pp. 124–8, 151–5.

16 Tanner, Kathryn, ‘Shifts in Theology over the Last Quarter Century’, Modern Theology 26 (2010), pp. 3944 (44)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 See Tanner, ‘Response’, p. 230: ‘I . . . very deliberately blur the difference between worship and service; unity with Christ is primarily indicated by the eccentric, Godward character of one's acts, and this can and should hold for action in service of others as much as it holds, say, for one's prayer life.’

18 Tanner, Theories, pp. 101–2.

19 Ibid., p. 150.

20 Ibid., p. 138. Tanner makes a similar distinction elsewhere, concerning the truth over against one's own or one's community's understanding of the truth: ‘Christians, as believers in God, and therefore believers in a truth about proper behavior and belief beyond the relativities and contingencies of human life, are zealous for the truth. A prohibition on dogmatism based on God's transcendence simply prevents them from being zealous for their own understanding of that truth.’ See Kathryn Tanner, The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 201.

21 Ibid., pp. 148–9.

22 Ibid., p. 151.

23 Ibid., pp. 151, 150, 151.

24 Ibid., p. 102.

25 Tanner, Jesus, pp. 90–5.

26 See Tanner, Christ, pp. 198–206; Jesus, pp. 78–95.

27 That is, non-systematically, rather than rarely.

28 Let me note at the outset, though, that I do not see Yoder's ecclesiology as synonymous with or contained within the ecclesiology of Stanley Hauerwas. With due deference to Hauerwas' work, which has an integrity of its own, the reflex of judging Yoder through the prism of Hauerwas is an unfortunate accident of academic reception history. As a consequence, there are two chief rules to follow when interpreting Yoder – rules with which, I think, Hauerwas would agree. The first is to note where and how one is reading Yoder through a Hauerwasian filter. The second is to stop it.

29 See Yoder, John Howard, Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism, rev. edn (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), esp. pp. 133–8Google Scholar for his own position, what he calls ‘the pacifism of the messianic community’.

30 Yoder, John Howard, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), p. 72Google Scholar. The quotation continues, regarding the ‘it’ to which all Christians are called: ‘absolute nonresistance in discipleship and . . . abandonment of all loyalties which counter that obedience’.

31 Yoder, Original Revolution, p. 28.

32 Yoder, John Howard, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 50Google Scholar.

33 Yoder's shorthand definition is ‘a structured social body’. For further discussion, see his Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), pp. viii, vi–xi.

34 Yoder, John Howard, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 92Google Scholar.

35 Yoder, Body, p. ix. Cf. Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, p. 92: ‘The church is thus not chaplain or priest to the powers running the world: she is called to be a microcosm of the wider society, not only as an idea, but also in her function.’

36 Yoder, Nations, p. 24. The church can do this, says Yoder, because ‘[t]he calling of the people of God is . . . no different from the calling of all humanity’.

37 Yoder treats this issue delicately and superbly in his essay, ‘“But We Do See Jesus”: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth’ (Priestly Kingdom, pp. 46–62), in which he argues for the historical contextuality of the missionary gospel and the inevitable particularity of truth claims. On the ground, this entails taking cultural raw materials for granted and then reworking them according to the logic of the gospel. For example: ‘To ask, “Shall we talk in pluralist/relativist terms?” would be as silly as to ask in Greece, “Shall we talk Greek?” The question is what we shall say.’ Thus: ‘We are now called to renew in the language world of pluralism/relativism an analogue to what those first transcultural reconceptualizers [the apostles and writers of the New Testament] did; not to translate their results but to emulate their exercise’ (p. 56). Note well the similarities to Tanner's argument in Theories of Culture.

38 Yoder, Nations, p. 27 (de-italicised). In context, Yoder is explicating a claim he finds in Barth, but with approval.

39 See also Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, pp. 151–95; Nations, pp. 15–93; and (for concise example) his The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiastical and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994), p. 364: ‘The multiplicity of gifts is a model for the empowerment of the humble and the end of hierarchy in social process. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit is the ground floor of the notion of democracy. The admonition to bind or loose at the point of offense is the foundation for what now would be called conflict resolution and consciousness raising.’ See also Yoder's comment in his The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), p. 126: ‘we must refuse to concede “ownership” of the “human” to those who deny creation and redemption. The God of creation, making humankind in his image, was the first humanist. The story of the “humanization” of Western culture – limping, imperfect as it is, but real – is part of the work of the God of Abraham, Father of Jesus, partly done through his body, the church. That humanization of cultures is not the same as the salvation of individual souls, nor is it the same as the praise of God in gatherings for worship, nor is it the same as the coming of the ultimate kingdom of God, but it is a fruit of the gospel for which we should be grateful, and for whose furtherance we are responsible.’

40 See e.g. Lindbeck, George, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), pp. 128Google Scholar, 134: ‘It was thus, rather than by intentional effort, that biblical religion helped produce democracy and science, as well as other values Westerners treasure; and it is in similarly unimaginable and unplanned ways, if at all, that biblical religion will help save the world (for Western civilization is now world civilization) from the demonic corruptions of these same values’; ‘the vitality of Western societies may well depend in the long run on the culture-forming power of the biblical outlook in its intratextual, untranslatable specificity’.

41 Yoder, ‘Armaments and Eschatology’, Studies in Christian Ethics 1 (1988), p. 58. This quote has been made famous by its use as an epigraph to Stanley Hauerwas' With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), p. 6. Cf. Yoder's rhetorically similar comment in Original Revolution, p. 159: ‘We are not marching to Zion because we think that by our own momentum we can get there. But that is still where we are going. We are marching to Zion because, when God lets down from heaven the new Jerusalem prepared for us, we want to be the kind of persons and the kind of community that will not feel strange there.’

42 Yoder, Royal Priesthood, pp. 128–40.

43 See the recently edited collection of essays by Yoder, A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder's Nonviolent Epistemology, ed. Christian E. Early and Ted G. Grimsrud (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010).

44 See Yoder, John Howard, The War of the Lamb, ed. Stassen, Glen Harold, Nation, Mark Thiessen and Hamsher, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 112Google Scholar. The full phrases Yoder uses are ‘second-mile dialogical readiness’ (p. 111, de-italicised) and ‘second-mile dialogical vulnerability’ (p. 112), which he elaborates as ‘itself a form of the love of the enemy’ (p. 111) insofar as ‘[l]ove of enemy heightens the reason to give him the benefit of the doubt’ (p. 112). Along these lines, the work of Rowan Williams comes to mind as a site of further conversation; see e.g. the essays collected in On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000). For an initial foray, see Wiebe, Joseph R., ‘Fracturing Evangelical Recognitions of Christ: Inheriting the Radical Democracy of John Howard Yoder with the Penumbral Vision of Rowan Williams’, in The New Yoder, ed. Dula, Peter and Huebner, Chris K. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), pp. 294316Google Scholar.

45 Ibid., p. 137.

46 Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, p. 71.

47 Ibid., p. 69.

48 Ibid., p. 70.

49 As a representative comment from one of Barth's chief living interpreters, see Webster, John, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), p. 165Google Scholar: ‘It is not theology but the peace of God which keeps the hearts and minds of the community. Guarded by God, the community cannot and need not guard itself, because it is protected by the divine indicatives: “The peace of God will keep your hearts and your minds . . . The God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:7, 9)’. For some of Tanner's engagements with Barth, see God and Creation, pp. 77–99 (passim); ‘Creation and Providence’, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (New York: CUP, 2000), pp. 111–26; ‘Barth and the Economy of Grace’, in Daniel L. Migliore (ed.), Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth's Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 176–97. For some of Yoder's, see the writings collected in his Karl Barth and the Problem of War and Other Essays on Barth, ed. Mark Thiessen Nation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2003).

50 See e.g. Tanner, Politics of God, pp. 223, 235: ‘In a community of those owed basic respect, one leaves oneself open to the unanticipatable influences of genuine others. One's relations with these others are not defensive, as if truth and goodness were already one's own possession and one had simply to guard them against others’; ‘[h]ope in God when joined with a knowledge of one's own finitude is a counterintuitive hope that presumes . . . a full recognition of . . . difficulties. It does not help one to overlook them, it helps one to cope with them, by countering an action-paralyzing anxiety that might otherwise arise should such difficulties recur or appear insurmountable.’

51 See e.g. the essays contained in the final section of The War of the Lamb, pp. 123–98, titled ‘Effective Peacemaking Practices: The Case for Proactive Alternatives to Violence’. More or less every essay in For the Nations speaks to this theme as well.

52 Yoder, Nations, p. 10. This is a common rhetorical point of entry for Yoder in his essays; see e.g. Nations, p. 197; Sacrifice, p. 81; To Hear the Word, 2nd edn (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), pp. 95, 148.

53 See again Healy, Church, p. 72: ‘The theodramatic horizon [which Healy proposes as the perspectival approach for ecclesiology] removes the possibility of any closure for Christian existence to the other side of the eschaton’.

54 See e.g. Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, pp. 105–47; ‘Conclusions Concerning the Discipline of Theology’, in Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), pp. 377–405; ‘The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism’, in Louise Hawkley (ed.), Nonviolent America: History through the Eyes of Peace (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), pp. 21–37.

55 Tanner's Politics of God is one long exercise in this vein, just as Theories of Culture supplies the methodology for the approach. See her representative reflections in Politics, pp. 252, 253: ‘Historically marginalized forms of Christian discourse remain in circulation, waiting to be appropriated for sociopolitical purposes. . . . In [certain] historically marginalized places one may very well discover resources for Christian teachings about God and the world that help avoid the politically oppressive or escapist effects of traditional theism.’ In a word, this may be called ‘reconstructing Christian teaching along historically marginalized lines’ (p. 253), which is wholesale ‘in the business of cultural revolution, to the end of social change, in the service of greater justice’ (p. 257). See also her comments in the Preface, Politics, pp. xii–x.

56 I again signal the ripe connections to be made to the theology of Rowan Williams, in particular (though one could choose nearly any of his writings at random) his essay ‘Interiority and Epiphany: A Reading in New Testament Ethics’, in On Christian Theology, pp. 239–64. It is worth mentioning also Tanner's high praise for Williams' book; see her review in Anglican Theological Review 83/1 (2001), pp. 161–3. For instance, she says that, ‘[r]ead together’, the book's essays' ‘recurring themes become an . . . elegant interwoven tapestry, systematic theology at its best – spiritually and intellectually rich with a coherence that resists simple formulas' (p. 161).

57 Tanner's chapter on ‘Politics’ in Christ the Key, pp. 207–46, is a nice point of reference for comparison to Yoder's masterwork, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972, 1994). Tanner argues that ‘it would be better to steer attention away from trinitarian relations when making judgments about the proper character of human ones in Christian terms. Christology (specifically, a discussion of the character of Jesus' relationships with other people) is the better avenue for making such judgments: it is less misleading, far simpler, and much more direct’ (pp. 207–8). A careful explication of Tanner's and Yoder's christological politics would be a worthwhile exercise in itself. (I might also add that, if nothing else, putting Tanner and Yoder into conversation is called for simply in virtue of their having written books titled, respectively, The Politics of God and The Politics of Jesus.)

58 For her explanation of the use of this image, see Tanner, Christ, pp. vii–ix.

59 Yoder, Royal Priesthood, p. 106.

60 Ibid., p. 126.

61 Tanner, ‘Response’, p. 229.

62 Tanner, Kathryn, ‘In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell’, Anglican Theological Review 86 (2004), pp. 473–85 (478)Google Scholar.

63 Having already flagged Rowan Williams as a potential addition to this conversation, let me note another contemporary theologian: the Barthian quoted above, John Webster. If Yoder and Tanner simultaneously give priority to divine transcendence and seek to offer an account of the church in its irreducibly human, temporal, constructive and at times feeble aspect – a balance Williams attempts as well – Webster pushes in the other direction, seeking to follow the order of being in ecclesiology and so to give fundamental priority to God's agency in theological talk of the church. Discussion of what ‘constitutes’ the church humanly speaking is thus, as a matter of fundamental conviction, secondary – for it is the triune God who creates, sustains and perfects the church – even if it nevertheless retains its own (qualified, anticipated, subordinated) integrity. Webster's challenge is thus partly a difference of approach, but not only so. His perspective is therefore an important one to attend to in the sort of reflection on the church in view here in the work of Yoder and Tanner. For his writings on the matter, see Webster, John, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (New York: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 191230Google Scholar; Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 53–76; Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 153–93; ‘“In the Society of God”: Some Principles of Ecclesiology’, in Pete Ward (ed.), Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), pp. 200–22. For something of a third way, with a mind to both sides and cognisant of the ecclesiological trajectories in play, see Healy, Nicholas M., ‘Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 5 (2003), pp. 287308CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 See e.g. the account of the missions of Son and Spirit in Christ the Key, pp. 159–60. The use of an unspecified ‘us’ (as the grammatical object and thus personal recipient of God's missions of blessing) is pervasive.

65 This blurring of the lines brings to mind a kind of universalising of Schleiermacher's division of the fellowship of believers into an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer fellowship’. See Schleiermacher, Friedrich, The Christian Faith, ed. Mackintosh, H. R. and Stewart, J. S. (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2011), p. 525Google Scholar.

66 In this regard, see e.g. Newbigin, Leslie, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989)Google Scholar; Lohfink, Gerhard, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God, trans. Maloney, Linda M. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Cavanaugh, William, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011)Google Scholar.

67 Yoder, Royal Priesthood, p. 126.

68 Tanner makes a suggestive comment in ‘Response’, p. 228, when she says that Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity ‘contains no chapter on the church’ ‘[i]n imitation of pre-modern theologies (such as that of Aquinas), but perhaps not for the same pre-modern reasons’. Perhaps Tanner's project may be read as a return to presuming the church in Christian theology, such that it need not be thematised, because the focus is (or ought to be) on God's and our ‘action in the world’, not on ourselves considered as a subject unto itself.

69 Some of the group publications to which Tanner's name is attached (along with others) include: Theology Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, ‘Reflections on Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: A Response to Resolution D084 of the 75th General Convention’ (; Report of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, ‘The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective’ (; Office of Communication, the Episcopal Church Center, New York, ‘To Set Our Hope on Christ: A Response to the Invitation of Windsor Report ¶135’ (

70 Biblical citations taken from the New Revised Standard Version; here with the alternative reading of ‘Christ’ for ‘Messiah’.

71 Yoder, Nations, p. 240.

72 See Yoder's essay, ‘The New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm’, ibid., pp. 37–50.

73 Recall the recurrent language Yoder uses e.g. in Body Politics: the church prefigures or proleptically instantiates the divine call issued to all the world, as a promise of what God will in fact bring to pass for all of creation.

74 E.g. the peace witness of Gandhi or non-religious arguments against capital punishment; see Yoder, John Howard, Nonviolence: A Brief History, ed. Martens, Paul, Porter, Matthew and Werntz, Myles (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), pp. 22–6Google Scholar, 30–2, 40–2; Yoder, End of Sacrifice, passim.

75 Tanner, Theories, p. 101. Elsewhere, Tanner phrases the claim this way: ‘Being witnesses to and disciples of Christ does not allow us to escape the ambiguous world but puts us, at least ideally, more responsibly within it’. See Tanner, Kathryn, ‘Theological Reflection and Christian Practices’, in Volf, Miroslav and Bass, Dorothy C. (eds), Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 228–42 (233)Google Scholar.

76 See ibid., p. 122.

77 See ibid., pp. 112, 90.

78 Thanks to Spencer Bogle, Garrett East, Andrew Forsyth, Mark Lackowski, Stephen Lawson and Ross McCullough for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

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