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Powers and Practices §2: Philip Stolzfus

The second chapter of Powers and Practices is a far cry, in terms of quality, from the first, and hopefully all the following essays. It is entitled “Nonviolent Jesus, Nonviolent God?” and it attempts to critique Yoder for allegedly not going far enough in purging his “concept of God” of violent images, such as those contained in the Exodus narrative.

In the last few pages of the chapter the author makes clear what’s really at work in his critique of Yoder. Stolzfus is really just advocating for a certain sort of well-worn of Mennonite theology that parrots Gordon Kaufman and Sallie MacFauge  by simply discounting all elements of the Bible’s depiction of God that are deemed insufficiently nonviolent. For Stolzfus this means that, in contrast to Yoder who reneged on the task, we need to get down to the real business of “theological construction” (p. 40), that is by articulating a properly systematized and pristinely nonviolent conceptuality of God.

Stolzfus’s chapter amounts to little more than a fit of whining about the fact that Yoder didn’t do theology that way. It also makes clear how deeply Stolzfus really doesn’t understand the nature of Yoder’s project. Ironically, Stolzfus, in his rabbid concern to purge all “violent” conceptions of God from theology in advance, winds up advocating some mode of theological thinking that is, from the outset, totalizing and violent in itself. Stoltzfus has no patience for Yoder’s “dialogical stance” (p. 38)  because it fails to secure, in advance, the concept of God that Stolzfus, as a liberal Mennonite is willing to accept.

But this is precisely where Yoder is, in fact the true “pacifist” while Stolzfus by contrast is utterly, well, violent. He cannot take the risk of letting the reality of God come to him from somewhere other than his own predetermined image thereof. God must be only and always this. Therefore any thought along these lines is excluded. The sort of “nonviolence” that Stolzfus wants to hardwire in advance into our conception of God is hardly the peace of Jesus. It requires the presence of “violent” images of God, against which it must be counterposed to have any purchase. The “nonviolent” God that Stolzfus argues for is defined, agonistically, by what it is against. This “nonviolent” God requires violence and is systematically rendered within a binary (violent) mode of theological reflection that is at once simplistic and lackadaisical.

This is not to say that the images of divine violence in the Bible are not real problems. They are. But it is Stolzfus who fails to deal with the problem, not Yoder. Yoder, in keeping with his commitment to vulnerable engagement with the biblical witness, takes time and patience to actually struggle with the text, rather than deciding in advance what simply must be stripped away because of his own predetermined theological sensibilities.

I’m all for reading solid critiques of Yoder, but a lazy half-baked Marcionism like the kind offered here doesn’t impress me at all. I hope the next chapter is better than this.

One Comment

  1. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Thanks for writing about this book, Halden. I was pleasantly surprised by it myself—there are a number of excellent essays. It’s interesting to me, though, that so far I think you are 0 for 2 in your evaluations.

    I thought Huebner’s essay was one of the book’s most disappointing, ironically, since he’s kind of the “senior” scholar of the group. I thought he just didn’t say much.

    On the other hand, though I don’t really agree with Stoltzfus’s critique, I found it refreshing to see Yoder being critiqued for not being nonviolent enough. I think you should take this critique more seriously than you do rather than dismissing Stoltzfus’s points out of hand.

    I got a kick out your condescending label of Stoltzfus’s approach as “well-worn Mennonite theology that parrots Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague.” I have read a lot of Mennonite theology and had discussions with a lot of Mennonites, theologians and other-than-theologians, for over thirty years now and I don’t think ever heard a single one “parrot Kaufman and McFague” (not that that wouldn’t be an improvement over a lot of what Mennonites do parrot!).

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

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