Late last year, the Vatican issued a document— The Gifts and the Calling
of God are Irrevocable— marking the 50th anniversary of Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the Catholic church’s relationship with non-Christian religions.
The Catholic church has made significant changes in its stance towards Judaism— especially in the last 50 years. There is no doubt that these changes are significantly motivated by post-holocaust examination of the Catholic church's role in the rise of antisemitism and persecution of the Jewish people.
As the largest Christian denomination and the historic ancestor of all western churches, the Catholic church played a central part in the history of Christian hostility towards Jews. But, the Protestant churches that broke away from it also continued and contributed to a culture of anti-Judaism. All denominations share in this anti-Jewish cultural heritage and each church must independently do its own self-examination of its attitudes towards Judaism. This Catholic document may prompt us to reflect for ourselves on this topic.
Several statements in The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable (referred to as the document below) are especially interesting in the context of this forum. Which of the statements quoted below from this Catholic document can we agree with?
Judaism is not to be considered simply as another religion; the Jews are instead our “elder brothers”, our “fathers in faith”. Jesus was a Jew, was at home in the Jewish tradition of his time, and was decisively shaped by this religious milieu.
The document asserts that Judaism is special— it is not just any other religion. I believe we can agree on this. No other world religion shares Scripture with us; our founders were all Jewish.
One cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples without situating it within the Jewish horizon in the context of the living tradition of Israel; one would understand his teachings even less so if they were seen in opposition to this tradition.
The document is rejecting the centuries-long Christian tradition of seeing Christianity and Judaism as opponents. This perspective is open to the possibility that Christianity is “right” without insisting that the essentials of Judaism must be “wrong”. It is quite a remarkable change.
The first Christians were Jews; as a matter of course they gathered as part of the community in the Synagogue, they observed the dietary laws, the Sabbath and the requirement of circumcision, while at the same time confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah sent by God for the salvation of Israel and the entire human race.
The separation of the Church from the Synagogue does not take place abruptly however and, according to some recent insights, may not have been complete until well into the third or fourth centuries. This means that many Jewish Christians of the first period did not perceive any contradiction between living in accordance with some aspects of the Jewish tradition and yet confessing Jesus as the Christ.
From our point of view, the acknowledgement of Sabbath observance in the early church is an obvious point as is the dietary laws. Some of us may be challenged by the claim that the Church retained ties to the Synagogue “well into the third or fourth centuries”— it is a subject worth further investigation. Some may also be challenged by the claim that Jewish Christians continued to live according to Jewish tradition— again, this is a subject that needs further study. I am already convinced of the truth of this perspective from my study of other sources.
On the part of many of the Church Fathers the so-called replacement theory or supersessionism steadily gained favour until in the Middle Ages it represented the standard theological foundation of the relationship with Judaism: the promises and commitments of God would no longer apply to Israel because it had not recognised Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, but had been transferred to the Church of Jesus Christ which was now the true ‘new Israel’, the new chosen people of God.
The covenant that God has offered Israel is irrevocable. “God is not man, that he should lie” (Num 23:19; cf. 2 Tim 2:13). The permanent elective fidelity of God expressed in earlier covenants is never repudiated (cf. Rom 9:4; 11:1-2). The New Covenant does not revoke the earlier covenants, but it brings them to fulfilment.
In this covenant community it should be evident for Christians that the covenant that God concluded with Israel has never been revoked but remains valid on the basis of God’s unfailing faithfulness to his people, and consequently the New Covenant which Christians believe in can only be understood as the affirmation and fulfilment of the Old.
It is this section on the continuity of the covenant with Israel that may be controversial. I am am already convinced that this perspective is Biblical— that God did not reject Israel.
For the sake of discussion, let's assume that God rejected Israel “because it had not recognised Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God”— let's assume that Israel is no longer the chosen people. Was there then a new chosen people? How is it that Israel continued to be the chosen people during some of the darker moments found in the book of Judges? During the reigns of idolatrous kings? During the Babylonian captivity? Is the new chosen people more faithful than Israel? Does the church— over the last two-thousand years— have a history of faithfulness? I find “rejection” theology troubling, not only because it directly contradicts the clearest possible statement from Paul— “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Romans 11:1–2 NRSV)— but I am also not convinced that we have been more faithful. If God rejected Israel, then we are equally deserving of rejection.
There is much more to say about these topics— they are the subjects of this forum.
For more on the “gifts and calling” in this forum see this topic— The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable.
For more on supersessionism and the church see this topic— Reading the Bible After the Holocaust.
For a Lutheran document covering similar ground as the document above see this topic— Declaration of the Lutheran Church.