Three views of Christian -- Jewish relations A Protestant view Reformation in our time?

Paul M. van Buren

November 28, 1990|By Paul M. van Buren

This year, the Roman Catholic Church marks the 25th 4 anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," a document issued by the 9 Second Vatican Council that represented a sharp departure in = the church's official attitude toward Judaism. The document

renounced centuries of Christian teaching that blamed Jews for ? the death of Jesus and opened the way for Catholic -- Jewish = dialogue that has had far -- reaching effects. Meanwhile, : Protestants are also re-examining their relationship to Judaism. A As the following reflections show, these efforts at interfaith ? dialogues have profound implications for Christians and Jews = alike.


JUST OVER 40 years ago, the Protestant churches (followed a decade and a half later by the Catholic Church) began a process of change which, if carried through, may prove more fundamental than that of the Reformation of the 16th century.

They have been in the process of totally reversing their definition of the church's "significant other," the Jewish people. Redefine the one over-against whom you have defined yourself for some 1900 years and you are redefining yourself!

The churches of the Reformation inherited, more or less without question, the orthodox Christian tradition that the Jewish people were no longer Israel, the people of God, because God had rejected them and chosen the church in their place.

Already by the 2nd century, this "theology of displacement" was taking hold: The church was now the real Israel, the true heir of the story beginning with Abraham and the rightful owner of what had been Israel's scriptures. At its most benign, the teaching of the church concerning the Jews was that they were to be avoided and kept in their place, yet they were to be preserved as a sign of God's love even for the least lovable, that God was faithful even to the utterly faithless Jews. More typically, Jews were seen as Christ-killers. At the heart of orthodox Christian teaching was the idea that Jews no longer had a place as Jews in the history of God's ways with this world unless they stopped being Jews and converted to Christ.

Hitler's near-success in fulfilling the church's dream of a world rid of Jews shocked some, and then more, to reconsider. At the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948, a denunciation of anti-Semitism, prepared by church leaders and theologians, was passed with an amendment (proposed by a lay delegate), confessing the churches' partial responsibility. (No such confession appears in Nostra Aetate, the document o Vatican II.)

In 1961, the Third Assembly of the World Council firmly rejected the old deicide charge against the Jewish people. (Vatican II followed suit four years later). In 1967, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council confessed itself divided over the question of God's continuing convenant with Jews apart from the church (never a question before!). The delegates noted, in explanation, that their conversation on this subject had only begun, but they ended that section of their report with the striking agreement: "We realize that in this question the entire self-understanding of the church is at stake." Truer words were never written.

From Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal and other church bodies have come many other statements, stronger as the years have passed. How much of this 180-degree switch has filtered down to the average church member is hard to judge. Nevertheless, the Protestant churches have gone on record with a changed doctrine: The Jewish people are God's Israel to this day.

The implications are sweeping: If the Jewish people are God's Israel, then who are we Christians? Slowly, a new self-definition is emerging: The church is a community of predominantly gentiles (non-Jews) called to serve God not in place of, but alongside of, and in harmonious cooperation with the Jewish people. Moreover, a contradiction at the heart of the gospel is removed: God did not double-cross himself with the crucifixion of Jesus, as traditional Christian teachings about Jews implied. Rather, God remains true to Israel while opening a way in Christ for gentiles to know God's love as well.

A new understanding of Israel, the church and God! Call it change, renewal or reformation, it makes the 16th century look staid by comparison.

Paul M. van Buren is a member of the World Council of Church's Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People, the 6 (Episcopal) Presiding Bishop's Committee on Christian-Jewish = Relations, and consultant to the Institute for Christian-Jewish Relations in Baltimore.

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