I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For 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… Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved… As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Romans 11:1-2a, 25-26, 28-32
From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God… That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.
-COMMISSION FOR RELIGIOUS RELATIONS WITH THE JEWS, “THE GIFTS AND THE CALLING OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE” (Rom 11:29): A REFLECTION ON THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS PERTAINING TO CATHOLIC-JEWISH RELATIONS ON THE OCCASION OF THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF “NOSTRA AETATE” (NO.4)
The Controversy of the Vatican’s Latest Reflections on the Jews
The Vatican has just released a statement on the Jews which has caused no small among of controversy in Christian circles. While it is usual for the mainstream media to give such a slant to the Vatican and the Pope’s words as to make it seem more friendly to our present cultural climate, in this case they are not too far off when they reported the Vatican’s new policy on not converting the Jews. To cite the relevant portions:
The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.
I wish in this post to explore three distinct questions raised by this controversy. (1) The character of the Jews, (2) The salvation of the Jews and (2) the role of the Jews in the eschatological scheme of salvation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Jews
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, is a figure known universally in Christendom for his opposition to the Nazism to the point of martyrdom. To that end, I think a draft confession which he drew up with another great Lutheran theologian, Hermann Sasse, as a theological response to the arguments and ideas of the German National Socialist, would be particularly instructive.
The Bethel Confession was initially drafted by Bonhoeffer and Sasse but was later abandoned by them when other Lutheran theologians took over the project and toned down some of their more strident opposition to the ideas and practices of the National Socialists. The draft of the confession produced by Bonhoeffer is known as the “August version” while the draft which was eventually published is known as the “November version”. The confession was intended to be a specifically Lutheran response to the arguments of the National Socialists, especially as it pertained to the question of the relationship between the Christian faith, the German church, race, and the Jews. The below passage is taken from the “August version”, the draft which came from the pen of Bonhoeffer itself, with respect to the “Jews themselves”:
God has given proof of overflowing faithfulness in remaining faithful to Israel, according to the flesh from which Christ was born in the flesh, despite all Israel’s unfaithfulness and even after the crucifixion. God still wants to complete with the Jews the plan for redeeming the world that began with the calling of Israel (Romans 9-11). This is why God has preserved, according to the flesh, a sacred remnant of Israel, which neither becomes absorbed into any other nation by emancipation and assimilation, nor becomes itself a nation among others through zionistic or similar efforts, nor can be annihilated by measures such as those used by Pharaoh. This sacred remnant has the character indelebilis of the chosen people.
We object to the assertion that the faith of a Jewish Christian would, unlike that of a Gentile Christian, be a matter of race or blood; this is a Jewish form of “fanaticism”.
We object to the attempt to make the German Protestant church into a Reich church for Christians of the Aryan race, thus robbing it of its promise. This would put up a law based on race at the entrance to the church, making such a church itself legally into a Jewish Christian congregation. We therefore oppose the establishment of congregations for Jewish Christians, because they would be based on the false premise that there is something particular about Jewish Christians at the same level as, for example, the special character that French refugee congregations in Germany have for historical reasons, or that Christians from Jewish backgrounds had to develop a particular Christianity appropriate to their race. What is special about Jewish Christians has nothing to do with their race or kind or their history, but rather with God’s particular faithfulness to Israel according to the flesh. In fact, so long as Jewish Christians are not set apart legally in any way within the church, they serve as a living monument to God’s faithfulness and a sign that the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down, and that faith in Christ must not be distorted in any way to do with a national religion or with Christianity according to race. “Gentile” Christians should be ready to expose themselves to persecution before they are ready to betray in even a single case, voluntarily or under compulsion, the church’s fellowship with Jewish Christians that is instituted in Word and sacrament.
This passage is quite a mouthful and I would analyse it according to the three questions I have posed.
Defining the Jew
Bonhoeffer rejects, as a defining trait of a Jew, their race, kind, or history. The only thing which is special about the Jews is their inheritance of the Old Testament promises of God to “Israel according to the flesh” to save them through faith in the Messiah, that is all.
Thus the defining characteristic of the Jew in salvation history is the inheritance of the promise of God to the Jews to bring them to salvation, a promise made in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament with the appearing of the Messiah. It is this promise to bring the Jews to salvation in the Messiah, and the signs of the Old Testament which marks this promise (circumcision, etc), which alone characterises the Jews and nothing else, not race or history.
This is not to say that Gentiles do not receive the promises of the Old Testament to the Jews. Gentiles do receive the Old Testament promise, not through physical descend or inheritance, but through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who fulfils the promise of the Old Testament and extends its benefits to the Gentile Christians through faith alone in him.
Does Rabbinic or Talmudic interpretations of the Old Testament constitute any part of the character of the Jew? Bonhoeffer would be denied this utterly, rejecting explicitly the “history” of the Jew as having any theological significance in their constitution as Jews. In the eyes of God, this history is of no intrinsic soteriological significance, if not in many instances seriously mistaken. From here we can judge that while the vast majority of Jews, who are Talmudists, would be Jews in serious error about the true nature of a Jew, the Karaite Jews who affirm the canonicity of the Old Testament alone would be closer to the truth as it were.
Likewise would Bonhoeffer condemn the idea that the promise to the Jews involve any promise of land or a reconstituted empirical kingdom. This is clear in his rejection of zionism or any zionistic attempt to constitute the Jews people by creating an Israeli state for them. The promise of salvation in the Messiah, along with its marks, are alone constitutive of the Jews, and nothing else. Neither race nor history nor any political state are in any way constitutive of the Jewish people.
The question then arises, does the Jew then receive salvation by sheer virtue of receiving the inheritance of the Old Testament promises? Or is something else required?
The Salvation of the Jews
Although the parts cited above do not explicitly state it, we can, based on Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran credentials and other works, reasonably argue that Bonhoeffer does utterly deny that a Jew could be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ.
From here we need to make a distinction between a promise to save and the fulfilment of that promise. To promise to give you five dollars is one thing, to put it in your hands is another.
Thus, God did promise to the Jews, in the Old Testament, to save them by sending the Messiah. Part of this promise is fulfilled by the actual incarnation and appearing of the Messiah two thousand years ago. However, the promise to save will only be complete when the Jews themselves actually believe in the Messiah so promised and repent. Thus, Bonhoeffer explicitly denies that there is anything special about the faith of Jewish Christian from that of a Gentile Christian or any suggestion that the Jewish Christian’s faith is based on blood or race rather than upon the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Let’s review. God promised the Jews, in the Old Testament, that he would save them by sending the Messiah. This promise of salvation is fulfilled when both the Messiah is sent and the physical heirs of this promise believe in the promised Messiah. Therefore, the Jews, according to the flesh, are still the heirs of the Old Testament promise, and part of this promise is fulfilled by the appearing of Christ. However, the promise would only be brought to completion when the Jews believe in the promised Messiah. They cannot be saved if they reject the Old Testament promise by rejecting the promised Messiah.
The Role of the Jews in Salvic Eschatology
What role does the Jew play in eschatological scheme of salvation, especially when they continue to persist in their rejection of the promised Messiah?
It is here where we get the interesting bits of Bonhoeffer’s exposition. The continued existence of the Jews, as heirs of the Old Testament promise according to the flesh, witnesses to God’s “overflowing faithfulness” to his promise. Despite the Jew’s rejection of the promised Messiah, God remains faithful to his promise, and continues to preserve a “sacred remnant” and never ceases to call them unto faith in the promised Messiah, and through that faith, bring to completion his promise to save them.
Thus the continued existence and preservation of the Jews is itself a witness and a sign of God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness to his promise to Israel according to the flesh to the world. They are the living and empirical sign and evidence of God’s faithfulness to his promises to save them. Even the great agnostic Samuel Clemens could not help but observe:
The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
–Concerning The Jews, Harper’s Magazine, 1899
To the Christian their secret is no secret, it is grounded upon the promise of God.
Conclusion: A Living God who Acts in History
While Karl Barth rejected dispensationalism, he was able to appreciate the correct instincts behind such theologies, the idea that God is sovereign over world events and history, and his promises do have empirical effects upon the world. The same logic applies to zionism as well, that no matter how misguided or wrong it maybe, it is grounded upon a like intuition. Faith in the concretisation of God’s will unto particular events is much preferable to the hazy sort of platonic emanation of God’s goodness unto the world via some nebulous idealistic system.
This is why incidentally I am also a partial preterist. For in partial preterism the Olivet discourse and many other prophecies of the NT are given a real flesh and historical blood meaning and embodiment in the literal destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD.
The physical preservation of the Jews in all of history twist and turns, their stubborn survival despite all the odds, and despite their sinful rejection of the very Messiah himself, is God’s witness to us that he is no mere dead or static Platonic form twiddling his thumbs in the heavens and acting hazily through vague platonic emanations, but is an active and living God, enacting mightily his divine will unto particular world events in real time.