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.