Chapter 5. Amsterdam I: The Christian Approach to the Jews

The founding Assembly of the World Council of Churches opened on 22 September 1948 in Amsterdam on the theme, "Man's Disorder and God's Design." It was an appropriately chosen theme, for Europe, three years after the end of the war, remained in chaos, physical and social reconstruction hardly begun. The continent was awash with refugees, not only Jews but men, women, and children from virtually every nation. And wars continued to break out, not least between Israel and its Arab neighbors following the declaration of the State of Israel on 14 May, less than four months before the WCC convened its Assembly, creating in the process yet another group of refugees.

While the Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews, as such, was not represented at Amsterdam (John A. Mackay and John W. Decker officially represented the International Missionary Council), a number of those active in or related to the Committee were present in one capacity or another, among them: Conrad Hoffmann, Göte Hedenquist, W. W. Simpson, Birger Pernow (IMCCAJ chairman), Elfan Rees (Adolf Freudenberg's successor as director of the WCC refugee service), John R. Mott, and Norman Goodall (IRM editor).

Curiously, the 1947 meeting of the IMCCAJ did not deal with the forthcoming WCC Assembly or, if it did, the minutes do not record the discussion. Nevertheless, the leadership of the Committee was deeply involved in preparations for Amsterdam and in what finally happened there. Conrad Hoffmann acted as secretary of the Assembly's Committee IV, section B, on the Christian Approach to the Jews. And Göte Hedenquist, who was to be his successor as IMCCAJ director, was the liaison officer for the committee. But their influence was more than these functional responsibilities would suggest.

Hoffmann had prepared a report prior to the Assembly on the attitudes of churches to Jews in various countries and it, along with other such preparatory papers, had been published and distributed to the delegates. Further, both Hoffmann and Hedenquist had been involved in preparation of the draft that formed the basis of the statement which issued from Committee IV and eventually was received by the Assembly.

The Protestant Federation of France

But IMCCAJ's was not the only contribution to development of the Assembly's statement on the Christian Approach to the Jews. Other bodies also provided "background" positions and studies, most notably the Commission on the Witness to Israel of the Protestant Federation of France. This paper, entitled "The Approach to Israel" and published in an "Amsterdam Assembly Series" volume called The Church's Witness to God's Design, offered one of the most clear-cut examples of a kind of theology vis-à-vis Jews that the IMCCAJ gradually had been evolving away from, but which was, in 1947, current within the European churches. It is, therefore, worth a careful look, particularly when we compare it with the Amsterdam statement itself. As we shall see, the French Protestant statement is unapologetically forthright, pulling no punches in its Gospel conviction.

It opened with what must have seemed a bold declaration to many: "Only blind optimism could have expected the Jewish tragedy to vanish at the end of the war with the Nazism which had forced it to the front of the stage. We know now that, here as elsewhere, the war settled nothing." What was not settled, of course, was the so-called Jewish question, the question of what to do with the Jews, including the problem the Jews were thought to pose for European reconstruction, which was then the urgent necessity.

Not only that, but "the evolution of Zionism is leading to an apparently insoluble dispute with Great Britain and ranging against Jewry even those who flew to arms against the totalitarian régime of their murders. The Church of Jesus Christ, which could not tolerate the Nazi persecution of the Jews, cannot remain indifferent to their present plight. Not that the Church needs to intervene in the political problem that the Jews want to settle in Palestine and that the British refuse to let them do so; but because the Church as the 'New Israel,' must not forget that it is bound up with Israel according to the flesh, whose name it has inherited. Karl Barth has just reminded us that 'from the Christian point of view the most serious aspect of the nihilist revolution was the struggle against Israel and hence against the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God.'"

The concern for Jews was not a question, therefore, "of the Church adopting a position inspired by what unbelievers so easily call 'Christian charity,' but of being bound to solidarity in its attitude and in its action. It is not a question of 'pitying the Jews,' but of basing our Christian attitude and our Christian action on the certainty that our destiny is linked up with theirs."

Nevertheless, the French Protestants were anything if not blunt:

A Jew who has been stricken in body and soul by the trials of the last few years will tend to make no difference between an anti-semite like Hitler...and the men who explain, or even excuse, the persecutions by saying that they are God's answer to the cry of the Jewish people: 'His blood be on us, and on our children' (Matt. xxvii. 25). This notion of the blood falling on the heads of the Jews must be faced; we must not evade it in order to avoid wounding anyone's susceptibilities. We cannot prune the Word of God to meet the needs of evangelism.

Yes, the blood is falling. Yes, the Gospel says, "All the people said, 'His blood be on us and on our children.'"...This seems to play into the hands of the religious and secular extremists who say to the Jews: "You asked for it! You are responsible for your own persecution!"...The Jews then reply that this expression is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, who was the most anti-Jewish of the Synoptic writers, and they point out that Jesus was put to death by the Romans under the pressure of a powerful minority in one City: Jerusalem.

There would appear to be ground for the assertion on both sides. Yet, if the Bible is regarded as God's Word, both must be driven out of court and their strange blindness rebuked.

In our view, the curse was invoked in the name of the whole Jewish people, just as Pilot condemned Christ to death in the name of all Gentiles. But Jesus replied with a Word of blessing, valid for all Jews and all Gentiles: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke xxiii, 34).

This Word is for the whole Jewish people and for all men: "For God hath concluded them all in unbelief" (unbelief which culminated in the crucifixion of His Son, for which both Jews and non-Jews are responsible) "that He might have mercy upon all" (Rom. xi, 32). This mercy was manifested by His death, which was an act of redemption for all men.

Through [Jesus'] death the New Covenant was sealed in His blood. The blood that falls, then (in accordance with the Jews' invocation) is "the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel" (Heb. xii, 24)--and this sprinkling exceeds the sprinkling made by Moses at the Passover (Heb. xi, 28) to which the Jews nevertheless owed their deliverance.

Peter, the Apostle of the Jews, preached nothing else to them at Jerusalem (see his sermons in Acts ii and iii) than their responsibility for the death of Jesus....

There are two dominant affirmations in Peter's preaching which ought to form the basis of a message to the Jews today: "The promise is unto you" (Acts ii, 39) and "Neither is there salvation in any other" (Acts iv, 12).

The statement then goes on to discuss God's promises:

Israel is a Chosen People, in virtue of God's own promise, and in order that that promise may be fulfilled. Upon this promise St. Paul took his stand when, at Antioch in Pisidia and elsewhere, he proclaimed in the synagogue Jesus "raised by God according to promise", raised up "in fulfilment of His promise" (Acts xiii). So the Gospel for the Jews should be able to stand simply on what the Old Testament says about them. It is always a matter of lifting the veil which Jesus Himself lifted at Emmaus, of explaining the Scriptures as the deacon Philip explained them to the Ethiopian eunuch.

But Israel has been unfaithful to this promise. In the Old Testament this unfaithfulness consists essentially in their refusal to recognize the One, True God, and to consecrate themselves to Him, i.e. in a form of idolatry. The punishment for this idolatry comes in the shape of the trials and sufferings God permits Israel to endure. But the Gentiles, who made themselves the instrument of this punishment, are in their turn condemned and overthrown for having attacked God's People.

The Church to-day must return to the attitude and the message of the prophets, for Israel, for the Jews, and for its own members. It is a message of repentance and of hope.

To the persecuted people, the Church must say that their sufferings are not God's vengeance for the death of Jesus, but an appeal to conversion and to turn from their unfaithfulness. It is obviously very hard to use this language to the survivors of the Nazi massacres. But Christians cannot attempt to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews unless they begin by affirming that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God, and that their unfaithfulness consists in their refusal to recognize him as the Messiah foretold in the Prophets. In this connection, it is essential to explain the exact significance of the doctrine of the Trinity, which Orthodox Jews represent as the worship of several gods, and therefore as a betrayal of monotheism.

This French proposal to the WCC's first Assembly contains a number of extremely interesting aspects, not least the extreme form in which it presents the Christian claim and its understanding of Jews and Judaism. Like the missionaries of the IMCCAJ, the French Protestants were only too aware of the current plight of the Jewish people but, unlike many others in the churches, they based both Christian attitude toward and action for Jews, not on what they called Christian charity, but rather on "the certainty that our destiny is linked up with theirs." It was a theological insight that had been fully developed by the Jewish missionaries and which found its way (in language that almost certainly was influenced by the French paper) into the Amsterdam Assembly's document: "To the Jews our God has bound us in a special solidarity linking our destinies together in His design."

The link between the Church and Israel was understood to be of a particular nature, virtually limited to what the Church had "inherited" from Israel, including its name (New Israel) and, especially, Jesus Christ. The WCC report, discussed more fully below, said it all:

In the design of God, Israel has a unique position. It was Israel with whom God made His covenant by the call of Abraham. It was Israel to whom God revealed His name and gave His law. It was to Israel that He sent His prophets with their message of judgment and grace. It was Israel to whom He promised the coming of His Messiah. By the history of Israel God prepared the manger in which in the fulness of time He put the Redeemer of all mankind, Jesus Christ. The Church has received this spiritual heritage from Israel and is therefore in honour bound to render it back in the light of the Cross. We have, therefore, in humble conviction to proclaim to the Jews, "The Messiah for Whom you wait has come." The promise has been fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

The theological logic in this paragraph is identical with that of the IMCCAJ, whose leadership, as we have seen, had a large hand in its drafting. The theological function of Israel is to prepare for the coming of Christ. But since the Jews refuse to acknowledge that the messiah has come, it is the responsibility of the Church to "render it back" to them. As the French Protestants said, "our salvation and theirs is at stake."

At least two bits of knowledge were necessary for approaching the Jews with the Christian message: (1) an interpretation of the Bible, New Testament as well as Old Testament, and (2) an understanding of who the Jews were and of their relationship with Scripture. Of course, a not inconsiderable portion of the time and effort of the IMCCAJ had been devoted to just these questions ever since its creation. But now, in the paper from the Protestant Federation of France they were succinctly spelled out in unequivocal terms.

(1) The French "The Approach to Israel" discussed biblical interpretation at length. The paragraphs on "the blood falling," quoted above on pages 90 and 91, are an example of New Testament interpretation that attempts to explain away and, at the same time, affirm a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that caused difficulties but which, it was felt, must not be evaded "in order to avoid wounding anyone's susceptibilities. We cannot prune the Word of God to meet the needs of evangelism." Are "the Jews" responsible for Jesus' death? Did they genuinely assume responsibility for it throughout all eternity? Yes, the position paper affirms, they did--"the curse was invoked in the name of the whole Jewish people." But at the same time Pilot did the actual condemning "in the name of all Gentiles." So everyone is responsible and all are guilty. But Jesus wiped that guilt away when he declared on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Church knows this; the Jews do not. Thus the necessity of mission.

(2) In the beginning of its life, the Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews had seen its great missionary opportunity in what was thought to be the spiritual malaise of Jews recently released from the ghetto. Part of this malaise was considered to be the failure of Judaism to understand its own Scripture--the Jews did not understand that the Old Testament prophets pointed to Jesus and confirmed him as the Messiah. In 1947 the French Commission on the Witness to Israel went further by asserting that Israel not only misunderstood the Old Testament but had been unfaithful to its promise "in their refusal to recognize the One, True God, and to consecrate themselves to Him, i. e., in a form of idolatry." Although the language could possibly be interpreted in more than one way, the apparent import of this judgment is that Jesus Christ is the One, True God and that the God worshipped by Israel is an idol. That suspicion is reinforced by the discussion, a few lines later, of the significance of Jewish suffering. The "persecuted people" are said to suffer, not because of the death of Jesus (which is at least partially its fault) but rather as "an appeal to conversion and to turn from their unfaithfulness," which consists in "their refusal to recognize [Christ] as the Messiah foretold in the Prophets."

Reference shall be made to other sections of the French Protestant paper during further consideration of the Amsterdam statement, not because it was particularly influential but because of how far the World Council, and thus the IMCCAJ, had deviated from the positions it enunciated.

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