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Radical Reformation Historiography

One of the contributions of John Howard Yoder to Anabaptist ecclesiology and ecumenism is the way in which he articulates clearly the sort of historical method that underlies a Radical Reformation orientation. This is precisely the historical method that Yoder puts to work in his book, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. He claims that “There is no error more natural, and perhaps there are few errors more damaging in the reading of history, than the assumption that events had to go the way they did.” His point is that what seems to us to be an inevitable historical development that we simply take as a given –the Jewish-Christian schism– was not always a given and importing its givenness into a time prior to its occurrence is to do historiographical violence.  There was a time when, to the Christian imagination, the separation between the church and the synagogue “did not have to be.” The fact that it did turn out thusly does not imbue the outcome with normativity.

This is the crux of the sort of Radical Reformation historiography that informs Yoder’s work. For Yoder, the history of God’s people is not simply providentially guaranteed to turn out in a manner that is inevitably faithful or good. Rather, the church is radically defectible.  Radical unfaithfulness is a real possibility; the church is not merely guranteed to move in slowly in the right direction for all time.  It may find itself radically off course. 

For Yoder it is axiomatic that the church is always unfinished, striving towards, sometimes limping towards, and sometimes running away from its eschatological destiny. As such, the church cannot assume, when considering the outcomes of its history, that all has gone according to God’s intentions. Rather, the task of the church is to constantly reach back into the word that evoked the first generation of disciples. “What we find at the origin is already a process of reaching back again to the origins, to the earliest memories of the event itself, confident that that testimony, however intimately integrated with the belief of the witnesses, is not a wax nose, and will serve to illuminate and sometimes adjudicate our present path.”

The church must always be open to radical reformation, the the thoroughgoing reevaluation of what have come to be its historical givens and assumptions on the basis of the apostolic witnesses to Jesus. To do this, of course, is not to be guaranteed a safe and secure theological method.  Rather it is to thrust oneself into the agony of striving after the Truth that lies beyond us in the risen and ascended Christ, trusting that he will not leave us like orphans, but will come to us, even in our radical deformation as his broken, scattered body.


  1. Ben George wrote:

    You use the word ‘radical’ quite a bit, and though it seems to be common usage to interpret ‘radical’ as ‘really really very very’, it means ‘from the root’, as in ‘radix’.

    So the term “radically defectible”: I don’t see how the church could be defectible from the Root and still be the church that is not to be orphaned, that will not be prevailed over by the gates of hell.

    Friday, July 18, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Tim F. wrote:

    How would one even measure such a thing, Halden? Which church? When? In what ways? I’m not quite sure how to make sense of this. If there is a majority of Christians world wide who are “unfaithful” is that radically unfaithful? All of us have some sin, is that “radically unfaithful?”

    Wouldn’t one have to know the status of nearly the entire church world wide at a given time in order to name it “radically unfaithful?” Who can do that?



    Friday, July 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Tim F. wrote:

    I thought Halden’s post here worthy of a more indepth response. See my “The Results and Incoherence of Radical Defectibility: A Response to Halden.”

    Click on my name above, Tim F., to see the response on my blog.



    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  4. Dave Belcher wrote:


    You will certainly want to check out Nate Kerr’s book when it is released, especially the last two chapters where Nate deals with Yoder’s Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited/i> (the most overlooked of his corpus, no doubt) in relation to both “ecclesiology” and the enactment of ecclesia. Peace.

    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  5. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    I think it was Yoder’s “unfinished” perspective on ecclesiology that led him to rub more conservative Mennonites the wrong way: they thought they had arrived. On the other hand, he also kept exposing ways in which liberal Mennonites (and the rest of us in U.S. Christianity) kept conforming to the culture.

    It’s good that you point this out so well because many thought that Yoder had a romantic view of 16th C. Anabaptism and wanted a return to a repristinated past.

    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Tim and Ben, sorry I haven’t been at my computer over the weekend. I have answers for your questions, or at least attempts in those directions, but I think I will save them for another post this week rather than confine them to the combox. Thanks much, for the probing questions.

    Monday, July 21, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  7. Travis wrote:

    Tim F.,
    You asked, “Which church?” Is there not only one church? The church that is a beautiful whore, unfaithful yet loved deeply?

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

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