Thursday, August 19, 2010

Engaging Robert Jenson's Essay, "Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism"

In his essay, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism" (pages 1-13 in Jews and Christians: People of God [edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]), Robert Jenson takes up the pressing question for Christians of the existence, meaning, and import of Judaism as a coherent and enduring religious tradition alongside Christianity. In concise form, Jenson traces the history of these two traditioned communities, church and synagogue, explores the way in which this history is problematic for Christians, addresses negative and positive theological explanations, then proposes his own answer to the question in the form of three proposals (and a fourth radical suggestion) toward a distinctly Christian theology of Judaism.

For the purpose of clarity, Jenson distinguishes between Judaism and “canonical Israel,” whose identity may be found narrated and authorized in the Old Testament, which existed as a “national political and cultic entity ... for something like a millennium,” but which came to an end in the destruction of the second temple and in the eventual dispersion of the Jews from the land (p. 2). In any other case this entity would thereby be assumed to be done away with, historically and otherwise, yet this was not to be for Israel—for “its identity is claimed by subsequent and outwardly very different historical entities,” a phenomenon able to be explained or understood only theologically (pp. 2-3). The two primary entities emerging out of canonical Israel’s closure are rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, synagogue and ekklesia, each of which added a second volume to the Tanakh and apparently discovering God’s presence in their midst in the portable gathering around Torah, whether as text or as the one in whom Torah became flesh.

The problem for Christians is that they believe Israel should have recognized and called on Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, believing the good news that in his death and resurrection God had acted to fulfill his promises to Israel—yet on the whole this did not happen. What are Christians to say or do about this, and therefore about the parallel community that arose in messianic faith’s stead?

One hugely influential historical answer has been supersessionism: “the theological opinion that the church owns the identity of Israel in such fashion as to exclude any other divinely willed Israel-after-Israel” (p. 5). This position assumes that in the raising of Jesus the Messiah from the dead in fulfillment of the promises to Israel, there is “no remainder of expectation,” and thereby “Israel’s mission [is] concluded” (p. 6). And if this is so, surely “Judaism can have no further divine purpose.”

Yet in Israel’s logic and according to the New Testament, this account cannot be true. For if Messiah has come, then the kingdom has come, and if the kingdom has come (in full), all of history has come to its grand eschatological conclusion of redemption; but in that case “things would have to look rather more fulfilled than they do” (p. 7). In that there is “strictly speaking ... only one advent of the Messiah,” and Christians await the return of Jesus the Messiah, “the time of the church ... must be understood as a time within the one [messianic] advent.” The church “is what God ordains in the time of Jesus’ ascension, the time ... accommodated within the coming of Messiah.” In other words: “The church is a detour from the expected straight path of the Lord’s intentions, a detour to accommodate the mission to Jews and gentiles.”

Looking, as it were, across the street, recognizing the church as a detour opens up the possibility for a new perspective on the synagogue: perhaps Judaism also is “another detour taken by God on his way to the final fulfillment” (p. 8). Assuming God’s providential care for what has happened from the first century on, the question for Christians is simple: What might be discerned as God’s will in “God’s ordination of the community shaped by the great rabbis”?

In brief answer to this question, Jenson proffers that, given what did in fact happen in the Jews’ reception of the gospel about Jesus, if the (quickly predominantly gentile) “church had been the only Israel in the time of its detour,” the promised made to Israel would not have been temporally proleptic, would not have been dialectically present yet not—“they would have been simply in abeyance.” Per this thesis, Jenson offers three proposals and a radical suggestion, to be listed summarily for subsequent discussion. God wills the existence and endurance of Judaism:
  • that the lineage of Abraham and Sarah might continue in the world (p. 9);
  • that there might be a community in the world marked out by Torah obedience (p. 11);
  • that when Christ returns he might find both believers in his coming as Torah enfleshed and those utterly obedient to the Word of Torah that he is (p. 12);
  • such that “the body of Christ” names together the communities of both church and synagogue, for the body of the risen Lord is Jewish flesh, which a wholly gentile ekklesia neither is nor can be alone (p. 13).
Clearly, Jenson’s proposals are bold and, whether they ultimately obtain, they do their job in pointing toward a Christian theology of Judaism. The first question to ask of Jenson’s argument concerns the extent to which it ought to “hang together” with the thrust of the New Testament on this issue. On the one hand, Jenson is surely right to ground much of his case in the ambiguity and wrestling with this question so evident in the New Testament, particularly by Paul in Romans 9–11. Messiah has come, yet the kingdom has not (in full); while the apostles wait for the Lord to bring the kingdom in his wake, they are to be witnesses to all nations; somehow gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel, while Israel persists in unbelief; and so on.

On the other hand, the language and tone of the New Testament regarding the ekklesia, this new community gathered by and around the risen Messiah in the power of God’s own Holy Spirit, is categorically not that which calls to mind something of a “detour.” Rather, the proclamatory rhetoric of the New Testament in, say, Ephesians is that of divinely revealed mystery: that this is what God has been planning for all eternity. Not a detour, not a sidestep, not an accommodation to plans not working out; no, “church” names the miracle of Jew and Gentile sitting together at the table, names the glorious eschatological vision of the Spirit’s indwelling a community, names the long prophesied day of forgiven sins and peaceable life and obedience in defiance of the defeated powers of sin and death. Can Christians truly call this a “detour”?

Jenson seems to assume that a historical event such as Israel not believing in Jesus as Messiah must be an active willing of God and that this divine willing must therefore be purposive. But the language of Romans 9–11, however non-supersessionist, is mostly negative in tone regarding Israel’s unbelief; even if God has willed it, Israel is equally indicted for its unbelief, and it does not seem to be for a positive purpose in Israel’s own case, for it is a temporary hardening of heart until the gentiles are gathered into the covenant.

The mention of gentiles in the covenant raises an important question, the answer to which Jenson also assumes, namely whether Jews who entered the newly formed ekklesia would have necessarily lost their identity as Torah-obedient Jews. If they would not have—and it seems from the New Testament that only gentile believers in Jesus were not expected to obey Torah—then it is reasonable to conclude that Jewish identity through Torah could and indeed would have remained in the Jew-gentile church. Why, according to Jenson, could God not have willed that?

In any case, these critical challenges are not an assault on the proposals themselves as much as important questions to answer in the ongoing, and right, quest for a renewed articulation of the church’s understanding of Jews, Judaism, Israel, and itself before the Holy One of Israel, spoken of by Law and Gospel, prophet and apostle, and worshiped by Jew and Christian alike.

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