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Bringing Down the Eschaton: The Apocalyptic Structure of John Howard Yoder's Theology

by Anthony G. Siegrist

Anthony Siegrist is currently a doctoral student in systematic theology at Toronto School of Theology, Wycliffe College in Toronto. He is a member of River Corner Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa.

John Howard Yoder is a theologian who gives the appearance of being unconcerned with method and yet remains rigorously consistent-even methodical. Yoder's principled unwillingness to discuss his theological method in traditional terms coupled with the fact that most of his work is done in the essay genre allow him to be easily misunderstood. This means that Yoder's work can be given facile labels based on one or two of the theological shorthand terms commonly associated with a facet of his work. For example, Yoder's Barthian training is often associated with the term christocentrism, his Mennonite heritage with pacifism, his approach to scripture with biblical realism, his ecclesiology with Radical Reformation, and his way of reading history with Constantinianism or sometimes historicism. None of these terms, however, reveal quite as much about his methodology as does apocalyptic. The apocalyptic mood or style of Yoder's theology has generally been overlooked, although a few scholars such as David Toole and Michael Cartwright have named significant aspects.(1) In this essay I intend to follow hints dropped by these two scholars and sketch Yoder's apocalyptic style as it applies to his eschatology, ethics, history, ecclesiology, and christology. I will show that an apocalyptic paradigm, emphasizing divine revelation, the subversion of an apparent reality, and a strong concern for the trajectory of history provides the necessary points of reference for understanding how these theological categories merge in Yoder's mind. In doing so I hope to demonstrate that such a paradigm is useful in understanding Yoder's method. This will show how Yoder's theology assumes the end of both the 'world' and of ethical 'realism'.


In theology in general and for Yoder specifically the realms of apocalyptic and eschatology are not far apart. Talk of either often arouses images of the earth's end in a grand and bloody cataclysm; this is more than a misdirection when thinking about Yoder's eschatology. He gives the term more refined meaning when he says that eschatology is the equivalent of "a doctrine of what is ultimate."(2) In The Politics of Jesus Yoder makes a parallel proposal describing the biblical genre of apocalyptic. He says that "none of the biblical apocalypses, from Ezekiel through Daniel to Mark 13 and John of Patmos, is about either pie in the sky or the Russians in Mesopotamia. They are about how the crucified Jesus is a more adequate key to understanding what God is about in the real world of empires and armies and markets than is the ruler in Rome."(3) For Yoder the theological category of eschatology is mostly concerned with "the meaning of the eschaton for the present." In his vocabulary it is apocalyptics that is concerned with a precise mapping of future events.(4) Although it can be said that Yoder's eschatology embraces apocalyptic, he is not interested in mapping the future in any sort of predictive detail-apocalyptics.

If we let stand Yoder's claim that he is not interested in precise speculation about the future, we must not do so at the expense of missing the broader significance of eschatology in his project; it is the promise of the eschaton that is the promise of the coming fullness of Christ's Lordship. This promise grounds the Christian's ambitions and gives history a teleological structure. It is this "meaning of the eschaton for the present" that gives Yoder license to pass judgment upon both history and the present, judgments which would otherwise be mere subjectivism or opportunism. Supporting the importance of such a perspective, Yoder observes that, whether for good or evil, significant actions historically speaking are accomplished only when the present is viewed in an eschatological light.(5) In this vein we should also recognize that important sections of the Politics of Jesus, which underwrite Yoder's attempt to subvert the concepts of war and death, are developed using the forward looking perspective of John's Revelation.(6) It is therefore a mistake to imagine, as the adjective "christocentric" seems to imply, that Yoder's theology is given structure only by looking backward at Jesus. Jesus is not merely a datum of history-he is Lord over it.

In an often overlooked essay called "Historiography is Ministry" Yoder says, "The future that the seer of Patmos sees ahead is a universe-that is, a single system-in which God acts and we act, with our respective actions relating to each other."(7) This vision of the future is in keeping with Yoder's emphasis upon the Sermon on the Mount and the kingdom which is already here, though not in full. And here is an important Yoderian twist upon standard apocalyptic themes: Yoder does not believe that there will be a radical discontinuity between our current world and the future one. Instead, he believes that the biblical ideas about the hereafter do not describe a world radically different from the one in which we now live, "but rather that it lies further in the same direction in which we are being led."(8) This lack of discontinuity fits with the general tenor of his theology, which is one centered around the continuity and constancy of both God's work and the response of God's faithful people.


It would be wrong to say that there is a link between Yoder's eschatology and his ethics, for the two categories cannot honestly be separated. Yoder's eschatology is an integral part of his ethics and he strongly criticized those attempting to do social ethics without paying attention to a properly Christian notion of the trajectory of history. In Yoder's view it was the poor eschatology of some pre-World War II Protestant thought that made it unable to sustain a peace witness. Here also is one of the classic points where he criticizes Niebuhrian realism because it is based fully in what Yoder calls the "old eon" and disregards the new.(9) The new eon, as it recognizes the work of Christ and the social reality of the church, is different from the old in that it does not place the meaning of history in either nation or state. Yoder says: "[I]t is clear in the New Testament that the meaning of history is not what the state will achieve in the way of a progressively more tolerable ordering of society, but what the church achieves through evangelism and through the leavening process."(10)

It is apparent that for Yoder the apocalypse has already come; in Christ a new age has been initiated and the calling of God's people made clear.

Jesus' life, death, and resurrection has undercut the fallen powers of the world. His Lordship over history cannot be reduced to an abstract philosophical conclusion; it must be a crucial ethical and theological axiom:

Christians' confidence in the Lord-ship of Christ over history has been surest in the life of the church when this Lordship has been the least visible. The knowledge that Christ is Lord, that even now providentially He is guiding things that we cannot understand, and events that we cannot influence, for His purposes, frees us from the need to feel "responsible" for making things come out right; it joyfully liberates us from the pressure of thinking that the future of the world depends on us.(11)

The gospel's mandate for reconciliation, justice, and peace can be embraced by the church not because it is the most effective (although it may be). It is right because God, through Jesus, has defined what it means to be effective. "Nonresistance is right, in the deepest sense, not because it works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain."(12) Christians should go about their work unanxiously, because the end of history is found in the coming of the King, the slain Lamb, not the clash of nations. Here then we see yet another example of Yoder's apocalyptic style. It is not the world as we commonly see it that provides us with a true ontology of ethical agency; it is the world as the prophets see it-as it is seen through the hermeneutic of the Lamb who was slain.

Reading History

We have begun to gain a sense of how theology and history intersect for Yoder in the church's quest for faithfulness. As Yoder puts it: "Faithful theology is not simply a matter of being in a stream that comes from the beginning. It is rather the process within that stream of calling it to judgment, checking and testing it with the origin, of going back to where we came from to see where we got off track."(13) Yoder's theology, his christology in particular, prompts him to reinterpret history in a narrative counter to the usual parade of nations and battles, which allows for 'unrealistic' politics-a redefining of possibility and reality. What is 'practical' or 'realistic' must be defined through the gospel rather than through categories of rationalism or a tragic world view.

Yoder constructs historical arguments, limited neither to the Constantinian synthesis nor the Radical Reformation, to support his ecclesiology. For example, in an essay entitled "Christ the Hope of the World" Yoder argues that the church is most effective when it avoids alliances with dominant political structures.(14) In this essay he also points out that many good social projects in Western society such as schools, hospitals, and various forms of voluntary service were patterned after initiatives taken by the church. Yoder argues that this innovative character of the church supports his ecclesiology. For Yoder the Christian faith is grounded in a historical realism that values actual events as God's activity in the world. Revelation itself occurs within the confines of history, in the language and in the logic of the day-in a fallible context. This does not make the original revelation un-authoritative; rather, it simply means that the revelation is authoritative as a contextual historical event. The ongoing attempt of Christians to remain faithful is also fallible and therefore demands constant reformation. This contextual, or historicist, understanding of revelation demands ongoing vigilance to maintain faithfulness on the part of the church. The resulting reformational impulse becomes an important thread running the length and breadth of Yoder's work. A corollary then is that it is the church, not Western culture or some ill-defined 'public,' which forms the grid for understanding history and frames the task of ethical discernment:

[T]he meaning of history lies not in the acquisition and defense of the culture and the freedoms of the West, not in the aggrandizement of material comforts and political sovereignty, but in the calling together of [persons] for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, a 'people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.'(15)

It is the free church and not the free world that is the "primary bearer of God's banner."(16) This way of reading history clarifies my assertions about Yoder's apocalyptic style. His apocalyptic style is not some sort of a free-range mysticism; in contrast, it is historically constrained and chastened. Yet it remains clear that Yoder reads history through a counter-narrative prompted by his understanding of God's revelation in Christ.


We have been receiving hints all along of Yoder's ecclesiology. True to form, here too Yoder's apocalyptic style shows through. It is the giving of the Holy Spirit which marks the dawn of a new eon. From Pentecost until the fullness of time, the world and the church exist as distinct but overlapping social institutions.(17) The coming of the Holy Spirit is the empowering of the church-it is the enlivening of a new social and spiritual entity. The church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is the locus and manifestation of Jesus' social ethic. It is important to recognize that Yoder's view of Pentecost and the empowering of the church is essential to his understanding of this body. Yoder criticizes Reinhold Niebuhr for the way his ethical realism too easily eviscerates pneumatology:

In the New Testament the coming of the Spirit means the imparting of power, and that power is not a mythological symbol for the infinite perfectibility of human rationality but rather a working reality within history and especially within the church. This power opens a brand-new realm of historic possibilities; not 'simple possibilities,' but crucial possibilities.(18)

The dawning of this new eon marks the gathering together of a disparate people and the living out of the gospel. Yoder says that he wrote much of The Politics of Jesus to explain the "elements of a vision of the Christian's place in the world that can claim rootage in the thought of Jesus and Paul."(19) Using Krister Stendahl's now well known work (along with others), Yoder argues that the gospel, in the minds of the writers of the New Testament, is not focused primarily upon requiting the guilty conscience of the individual.(20) Instead, it is about creating a particular social group who acknowledged their reconciliation to God and each other. Yoder recognizes that the New Testament church was marked by a radical inclusion of a diverse group of people. After Jesus, traditional Abrahamic distinctives such as the characteristics of separateness, trust in God's provision, concrete social ethics, and the recognition of the necessity of restitution are no longer limited to ethnic Jews or their proselytes. Now the church also manifests these themes to a watching world.

The early church followed Jesus in his faithfulness to the "enemy-love of God" even though they recognized that such radical obedience could cost them apparent effectiveness.(21)

Trust that God's power reaches into the world so as to enact good in even the worst of situations is an indispensable characteristic of God's people. In Yoder's own words: "It is the 'not in charge' stance of Jewry, from Jeremiah into the Middle Ages, of which the early Christians were a derivative . . . this position may not inaccurately be called 'pacifist' or 'quietist.'"(22)

The pacifism of the early Christians is, in Yoder's mind, not an innovation of Jesus but has its roots in a stream of Judaism that, while exiled in Babylon, learned practical ways to cultivate faithfulness even without the coercive power of a nation to underwrite it. Certain sociological innovations such as the synagogue (decentralized and self-sustaining), a focus on Torah (the reading of which defined the community), the rabbinate (non-sacerdotal, non-hierarchical, non-violent and validated by its connection to the Torah) nurtured the growth of the New Testament faith.(23)

As the split with Judaism played itself out, the early church did not merely lose her Jewish sisters and brothers. Christianity itself began to be characterized less by the Jewish "decentralized vitality" cultivated in the bustling Babylonian cities of the exile and more so by authority consolidated in bishops and metropolitan seats of influence.(24) The decentralized vitality, characterized as "cosmopolitan homelessness," observed most clearly in Jeremiah, would need to be recaptured later. Yoder puts it ominously: "With its Jewishness, Christianity lost its capacity for decentralized congregationalism and was ready to function as the ceremonial ratification of the Byzantine court."(25) Concurrent with this act was a heretical shift in eschatology that mistook empire for the kingdom of God.(26) Once more we see Yoder's apocalyptic penchant for an alternative view of power and history that subverts the apparent order in favor of one which can be known only through revelation.


Christology is the center of the theological universe within which Yoder's work takes shape. We have been orbiting this point all along. Yoder's sense of reality relies upon an acknowledgment of particularity-on the specifics of the apocalypse that is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the life of Jesus, demonstrating how his disciples are to live, which reveals the practicality of God's coming kingdom. It is the death of Jesus, showing God's character, that reveals a new way of defining victory. It is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals his Lordship over and against the fallen powers of this world. Jesus' resurrection reminds us that the inbreaking of God's power into our world must never be counted out, the world's history must be rewritten and new ethical horizons must be drawn. Yoder calls this seeing history doxologically. He says, "To see history doxologically is to be empowered and obliged to discern, down through the centuries, which historical developments can be welcomed as progress in the light of the Rule of the Lamb and which as setbacks."(27)

Seeing history doxologically is a reason for living morally. In following Jesus' ethic, Christians celebrate his Incarnation and Lordship. The church then becomes the community that is the witness of this reality to the world. As it lives truthfully, the church bears witness to the fact that the world has been overcome in the person of Jesus who is the hermeneutical key to history and reality.(28)

It is notable that the preceding comments are derived from Yoder's essay "To Serve God and to Rule the World," which is based on a passage from John's Revelation.(29) Michael Cartwright observes that Yoder generally uses "biblical metaphors of cosmic conflict" as a lens for viewing history and the actions of God's people in it.(30) These apocalyptic images are especially startling since Yoder often leaves them stark and otherworldly by not translating them into contemporary phraseology. Cartwright believes that Yoder uses these vivid biblical metaphors because they are evocative enough to break the common view of what is possible created by the church-sword union. These apocalyptic images alert the attentive reader to the presence of a narrative distinct from most modern renderings of history or futurology.


John Howard Yoder is an apocalyptic theologian. This label, however, like all the others, could be taken too far, for it is not the case that we can simply apply such a descriptor and think that we have really dealt with the substance of Yoder's work. Christian theology, from its very inception in the womb of Judaism, has always sounded an apocalyptic tone. To dismiss Yoder as an apocalyptic eccentric is to dismiss him as a Christian. This demonstrates that one of the most remarkable features of Yoder's theology is the way that the mood and style of scripture is deeply absorbed into his thinking. The apocalyptic style of Yoder's theology also highlights the indispensability of the person of Christ to Yoder's work and the way in which this allows Yoder to perceive possibilities and options that other more mechanistic readings of history might have precluded. It is worth noting that a whole variety of apocalyptic literature, little of it theological in a strict sense, is gaining currency in western culture. This will likely contribute to the continuing relevance of Yoder's work. In the end, though, what Yoder's apocalyptic style means for his readers is simply that the most salient feature of his project is an insistence that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus must make a concrete difference in Christian theology, ethics, and politics.


1. Michael G. Cartwright, "Radical Reform, Radical Catholicity: John Howard Yoder's Vision of the Faithful Church," in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, by John Howard Yoder, ed. Michael G. Cartwright, (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 1-52. David Toole, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, Radical Traditions Series, (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1998). I borrow the phrase "apocalyptic style" from Cartwright.

2. "Peace Without Eschatology," in The Royal Priesthood, 145.

3. Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, rev. 2d ed., (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), 246.

4. "Peace Without Eschatology," 145.

5. "Peace Without Eschatology," 157.

6. e.g. Politics, 127, 228-247.

7. "Historiography as a Ministry of Renewal," Brethren Life and Thought 42 no 3,4 (Summer/Fall 1997), 250.

8. "Historiography as a Ministry,"249.

9. "Peace Without Eschatology," 161-162.

10. "Peace Without Eschatology," 163.

11. "The Christian Answer to Communism," Concern 10 (Nov., 1961), 30.

12. "Peace Without Eschatology," 151.

13. Preface to Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2002), 179.

14. "Christ the Hope of the World,"in The Royal Priesthood, 202.

15. "The Otherness of the Church," in The Royal Priesthood, 61.

16. "The Otherness of the Church," 64. Also see "Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism," Mennonite Quarterly Review 29 (April 1955), where Yoder says, "In the Bible, the bearer of the meaning of history is not the United States of America, nor Western Christendom, but a divine-human society, the church, the body of Christ" (113).

17. "Peace Without Eschatology," 146.

18. "Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism,"116, the emphasis is Yoder's.

19. Politics, 231.

20. Politics, 214ff.

21. Politics, 233ff.

22. "On Not Being in Charge," in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Radical Traditions Series, eds. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 170. Yoder does not think "pacifist" or "quietist" are entirely accurate labels even though they point us in the right direction.

23. "On Not Being in Charge," 171.

24. "The Jewishness of the Free Church Vision," in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Radical Traditions Series, eds., Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 107. In the same essay Yoder describes additional losses perpetuated by the schism: "Part of the loss of Jewishness was of course the work of the 'apologetes', who reconceived the Christian message so as to make it credible or palatable to the authorities of Gentile culture, be they philosophers, priests, or princes, by sloughing off the dimensions of Jewish particularity. Thereby the faith became an ahistorical moral monotheism, with no particular peoplehood and no defences against acculturation, no ability to discern the line between mission and syncretism." (107)

25. "On Not Being in Charge," 107.

26. "The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics," in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 136-138.

27. "To Serve Our God and to Rule the World," in The Royal Priesthood, 132. In this essay Yoder is working with Rev. 5.7-10.

28. Michael G. Cartwright, "Sorting the Wheat from the Tares: Reinterpreting Reinhold Niebuhr's Interpretation of Christian Ethics," in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John H. Yoder, eds. Stanley Hauerwas, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner, and Mark Thiessen Nation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 371.

29. "To Serve God,"127-140.

30. "Radical Reform, Radical Catholicity," 10.