Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method

Craig R. Hovey

The Conrad Grebel Review 20 no. 3 (Fall 2002)

John Howard Yoder. Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological
Method
, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002.

In many ways, John Howard Yoder’s Preface to Theology is completely out of- date. Even though Brazos Press published it only recently, this introduction intended for first-year seminarians has been available for over thirty years in mimeographed form. As a result, the assumptions of 1960s New Testament scholarship that were dominant at that time can be found throughout. How useful can such a book be as an introduction for theology students today?

The very fact that it is out-of-date is one of the book’s strengths and a
reason for its continuing relevance. Only a book like this can challenge, critique, and inform theology that is up-to-date—theology as it is practiced today. This was typical of Yoder’s approach. By combining the Anabaptist vision of his own heritage with the highest level of academic rigor, Yoder was known for doing theology in a way that questioned dominant assumptions long before the rejection of modern theology’s assumptions became widespread.

Today’s readers will benefit from how Yoder models theological education. The book is based on classroom lectures that he delivered to new seminary students. Each chapter contains preparatory questions, suggested reading lists, and so forth. Yoder’s method in preparing these students is not to talk about theology, but to do theology alongside them. To accomplish this (and also to be faithful to traditional Anabaptism), Yoder approaches theology historically. He begins with the apostles’ message and the gospel, showing how theology is the ongoing task of responding to new questions. Even Yoder’s detailed attention to the “threefold office” of Christ (king, priest, prophet) is done with an eye to historical development rather than dogmatic declaration.

Yoder wants us to understand that, without the study of history, theology
is simply unintelligible. Not only does history help us understand the theology of past times, theological reflection is the work of God’s people embodied in specific times and places. As such, theology witnesses to the action of God through time. Jesus is Lord over history, and thus the historical development of doctrine is not incidental to the life of God. Moreover, the implication of that lordship is that “the management of history is not the business of the church” (237). Instead, Christians have been given eyes to see God at work in history without being given the sword to ensure that it “comes out right.”

For today’s readers, this approach presents a number of challenges.
The first relates to the nature of theology itself. For Yoder, theology is the
activity of the church responding to new questions in ways that are both
relevant and faithful to its own heritage and authority. Therefore, theologians must learn how to serve the church before they can start doing so. A second challenge is the way that Yoder teaches this method by practice. The theologian in- training must enter into the activity of theology by learning from theologians who have served the church throughout its history and by imitating their approach in situations the church is currently facing. This is particularly helpful because it provides a model for Protestants to grasp the development of their own doctrine, overcoming the ahistorical way they have reacted against tradition in Roman Catholicism.

Yoder’s work challenges and informs today’s theological discourse also
through his disavowal of the distinctions within theology as an academic
discipline. He prefers to call the work to which he invites us “dogmatics”
rather than “systematic theology.” Yoder questions a view of theology that rigidly distinguishes systematic theology from teaching, preaching, and ethics. For example, the theology practiced in the New Testament is almost entirely “narrative or recitative” and almost never “systematic” (377). Furthermore, “the very concept of a split between belief and action is itself a doctrinal error” (390). All of theology, properly understood, has ethical implications and resists the compromises inherent in systematizing.

In the recent publication of Preface to Theology, we find Yoder’s words
to be even more meaningful now than when he wrote them, a compliment not always paid to someone who so explicitly did not attempt to write for the ages. That a book so thoroughly out-of-date could be so relevant for today is just one of the wonderful ironies of God’s Kingdom that Yoder has taught us to expect.

Craig R. Hovey, Fuller Theological Seminary; John Perry, University of Notre Dame