John Howard Yoder’s Missional Exiles and Jeremiah 29: A Case Study for Missional Hermeneutics

In my doctoral work at Duke with ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, New Testament scholar Richard Hays, and missiologist Laceye Warner, I have been exploring John Howard Yoder’s missional ecclesiology. At the 2008 and 2009 GOCN forums at SBL, there has been significant discussion about what constitutes a missional hermeneutic. This paper argues that Yoder’s use of Jeremiah 29 represents the potential and pitfalls of a missional hermeneutic. Mennonite theologian, ethicist and biblical interpreter Yoder (1927-1997) argued forcefully that the church should establish an identity distinctive from the surrounding world. He argued that God’s people should always see themselves as people in exile but that this stance has often been lost since Constantine. However, the church is not distinctive for its own sake. Rather, it is For the Nations as he titled one of his last books. The people of God are told by God to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer 29:7). The distinctiveness of the Christian community’s life together will embody the good news of the reign of God to the world. This set of ideas constitutes a missional exile hermeneutic which has fueled rich and evocative readings of Scripture by Yoder which New Testament scholars like Hays have praised. Furthermore, the Christian ethics Yoder promoted continues to inspire; at least seven books were published in 2009-2010 on Yoder. However, Yoder’s emphasis on the exilic character of Christian identity has begun to receive significant criticism. His critics argue that Yoder’s presupposition that the church is always to be on the move in mission has led him to downplay biblical texts that seem to support settling down, institution building, structure, and formation. Peter Ochs, Paul Kissling, and Michael Cartwright have noted how his use of Jeremiah 29 is a particularly egregious example of the imposition of his presuppositions on the text. Yoder’s example suggests the vitality of a type of missional hermeneutic and cautions against its potential excesses.