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Yoder on Protestant Identity

“All that is sure about ‘Protestant’ identity is that it is not Roman Catholic: it does not have a pope or magisterium with theologically imperative, morally binding authority, nor a structure of confession and absolution wherewith to educate and enforce. Yet that negation is not made on behalf of a counter-patriarch or an anti-magisterium, but rather by virtue of a critical principle of appeal to the sources, which can reach unpredictably farther than those who first called themselves ‘Protestant’ dreamed.”

– John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2984), 17.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I’m curious about the context of this quote. Is he being critical of Protestantism or laudatory? It’s not obvious to me. The concept of a “critical appeal to the sources” seems rather suspicious, but I don’t know whether or not Yoder feels this way.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Not to be obtuse, but I think the answer to your question is a kind of “neither…nor.” What Yoder is wanting to do, I think, is both to inhabit his given ecclesial location in such a way as to reconceive and to “unhand” what it means to be “Protestant.” Perhaps we could say (borrowing a distinction from Michel de Certeau) that Yoder is trying to articulate “Protestantism” as a kind of tactic for living ecclesially that subverts the assumed established identities of “Catholic” and “Protestant,” conceived as mere strategies for the securing of an ecclesiological identity. Yoder’s Protestantism is thus a kind of living and moving through history without a home, which makes its critical appeal to the sources on the basis of this homelessness: the sources are constitutive of a genuine traditio insofar as they are an “unhanding” of history and are themselves ever to be received anew in their reading as the principle witnesses to faithful, missionary existence in exile. Hence, Yoder articulating a kind of “Hermeneutics of Peoplehood” (the title of the essay in which this quote appears), and is bound up with his peculiar reading of history, one which refuses simply to read the history of a given tradition as self-justifying, but rather sees history as that which is to be critically re-read and offered ever-anew as a space of appearance of the very particular Jesus Christ, which appearance occurs in history as precisely beyond its “control,” from outside of its immanental scope.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Thanks, Nate. That was quite helpful. I’m still curious to know what constitutes the sources for Yoder. Is it just scripture? I’ve seen reference to his idea of a “genuine traditio,” but what exactly is a part of it from his point of view?

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I think here it is Scripture in terms of what Yoder later in the same volume will call “the very particular story of the New Testament.” That is, “Jesus, the prophets before him, and the apostles after him, as a base for evaluating what has been done since in their name, are to be found fully within the researchable, debatable particularity which according to the New Testament witness is the meaning of the Incarnation” (128). It is important to note that this is for Yoder neither a mere biblicism nor is it postliberal intratextualism. It is rather a way of saying that the church is “traditioned” by the singular historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Yoder is resituating the question of tradition according to an entirely reworked kind of Christic, apocalyptic historicism. So, “the very particular story of the New Testament” is a way of naming something much more complex than merely “the Bible” — something much more akin to Barth’s three-fold Word of God, perhaps. I hope that helps some. I am sorry that I don’t have time to elaborate more upon that, especially as regards Christic-apocalyptic understanding of history, apart from which Yoder’s rethinking of tradition does not make much sense.


    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    Thanks for taking the time to elaborate. That’s a very helpful explanation. I need to get around to reading Yoder some time soon.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, Nate you have stated Yoder’s way of looking at tradition perfectly, and its attending historiography. I couldn’t have said it anywhere close to as good.

    Hill, you definitely should read Yoder. If for no other reason than to expose yourself the best of the radical protestant tradition.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I’m sure you’ve posted this elsewhere, but what three books should I read and in what order?

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I’d say The Politics of Jesus, The Priestly Kingdom, and The Royal Priesthood. Some other really good shorter works are Body Politics and The Original Revolution.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 11:18 pm | Permalink
  9. Theophilus wrote:

    The doctrines of the Reformation are known in continental Europe as the “evangelical doctrine”. This name is much more revealing and descriptive of the unpredictable, Gospel-driven nature of Protestantism than the reactionary label “Protestant”. This Gospel-drivenness is the vitality of Protestantism, rather than its status of being outside the Roman communion.

    Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  10. Hill Harman wrote:

    Your point is somewhat evasive, Theophilus, but it illustrates my principle concern with Yoder: what he calls Protestantism (and what you are calling the Evangelical doctrine) is often only tenuously related to what history knows as Protestantism. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, the problem comes when arguments like Yoder’s are used by more or less run of the mill mainstreamers as some kind of defense for their ecclesiological position. To me “Gospel driven” is something of a buzz word or catch phrase, and to suggest that Protestantism is “gospel driven” in a sense that Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is naive.

    Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 8:51 am | Permalink
  11. Hill Harman wrote:

    ‘to suggest that Protestantism is “gospel driven” in a sense that Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are not is naive.’

    Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 9:01 am | Permalink

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