The Theology of
the Churches and the Jewish People

by Allan R. Brockway

    1. Antisemitism
    2. Covenant and Election
    3. Mission to Jews
    4. Jesus the Jew
    5. The State of Israel
    6. Conclusion


When I began my theological studies, the theological generation that took its slogans and fundamental stances from scholars such as Karl Barth, Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich was in vogue. But no sooner had I begun to think of myself as a budding young neo-orthodox theologian than along came the existentialist school, which resurrected Søren Kierkegaard; adopted the maxim, "existence precedes essence"; discovered the theological profundity in Albert Camus' novels; and knew it owed a great debt to Martin Heidegger (though almost no one actually read what he had written, even in translation).

Since then theologies of all sorts have piled upon each other in profusion. There is liberation theology, feminist theology, 3rd-world theology, environmentalist theology, and black theology. There are theologies of mission, theologies of evangelism, theologies of dialogue--in fact, theologies "of" almost anything one can think about. And today I want to speak about "The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People."

Before I do, however, I feel compelled to point out that each of these theological movements had and has a particularistic beginning point, an axe to grind, if you will. Neo-orthodoxy reacted to nineteenth-century liberalism, which it felt had identified the Gospel with a type of Enlightenment humanism. Existentialism responded to the trauma of the world wars by what some thought was a melancholy reversion to the Roman "carpe diem." The "of" theologies usually begin and end with a sociological or methodological assumption, or both. In sum, there is no such thing as "pure" theology or even comprehensive theology, despite the work of such great systematic theologians as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and, in this century, Karl Barth.

There is a different type of theology, however, that tends to draw eclectically upon the theologies, past and contemporary, developed by individual thinkers and their students. It is what I would like to call the official theology of the churches. Please note that word--"churches"--for the official theology of one church may be significantly different from that of another. That is certainly the case among the protestant churches, but it is also true that within Roman Catholicism the "official" theology of the bishops in one national or regional area may not coincide with that of another or,even, with Rome. Add to that the particular theology of the Orthodox churches, and you may quickly begin to suspect that Christianity is not one religion, but rather a plethora of religions.

This is not the occasion to examine the question of church unity or the significance of the difference between Church (with a capital C) and churches (lower case C). It is sufficient to note that, for present purposes, "churches" refers to ecclesiastical bodies, which only in some instances claim to be the sole representative of Christ on the earth. They enunciate their theology in "confessions," "creeds," and in statements and resolutions adopted by representative bodies such as synods, general assemblies, presbyteries, and the like. These official theologies are, naturally, informed by the work of professional theologians but, especially within Protestantism, they are developed and promulgated by assemblies of people who, by and large, make no claim to technical theological expertise. They are, therefore, often much closer to the actual belief of the Christians who comprise those churches than is the thought of even the most influential theologian.

So, then, we come to the specific subject for consideration today: what are the theologies of the churches with respect to Jews and Judaism?

Almost three years ago, the Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People (CCJP)--the committee of the World Council of Churches that is specifically charged with maintaining and improving relations with the Jewish people--decided to initiate a study designed to make available to the WCC and the interested public a representative sample of the statements that relate to Jews and Judaism, which had been adopted officially by the World Council and its member-churches since 1948. It was decided to do this, not only by publishing selected documents, but by appending a short theological commentary designed to assist in evaluating them. Last December, the World Council of Churches published the results under the title, The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People.

Literally hundreds of such statements have appeared since the end of the Second World War. A number of them have been collected by Helga Croner in two English volumes, Stepping Stones to Jewish Christian Relations (1977) and More Stepping Stones to Jewish Christian Relations (1985), but the most comprehensive collections have appeared in French and most recently by Rolf Rendtorff and Hans Hermann Hendrix in Die Kirchen und das Judentum Documente 1945-1968 (1988). These volumes, as well as several texts that appeared more recently were consulted by the CCJP working group, as were the positions taken by the World Council of Churches' six Assemblies. The twenty documents we chose incorporate, in our judgment, all the most significant positions taken by the various ecclesiastical bodies.

What do they say? And, perhaps more importantly, what do they not say about the Jewish people? And what do they say about the churches' own theological self-understanding?

1. Antisemitism

Preeminently, the documents roundly condemn antisemitism. The earliest such condemnation in the period studied was that by the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which met at Amsterdam in 1948. "We call upon all the churches we represent," the delegates to the founding Assembly of the World Council asserted, "to denounce anti-semitism(sic), no matter its origin, as absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith. Anti-semitism is sin against God and man."

Though their positions on such matters as the Hebrew Scripture, the State of Israel, mission to Jews, and God's covenant with Israel may vary widely, the churches are singularly unambiguous in their denunciation of antisemitism. The fact that rejection of antisemitism is the one conviction upon which the churches can agree was highlighted by the decision of the Third Assembly of the World Council in 1961 to reaffirm the Amsterdam position while, at the same time, explicitly ruling out all discussion of anything else relating to Jews and Judaism on the grounds that such discussion would be "divisive." Rejection of antisemitism was not considered "theological" and, therefore could be affirmed unanimously without reference to such difficult questions as mission to the Jews or the Jewishness of Jesus.

After the Shoah it is inconceivable that any church would issue a statement concerning Jews and/or Judaism without condemning antisemitism. As a study document issued by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1987 put it, "It is painful to realize how the teaching of the church has led individuals and groups to behavior that has tragic consequences. It is agonizing to discover that the church's 'teaching of contempt' was a major ingredient that made possible the monstrous policy of annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany."

The Presbyterian document is the most recent of those included in the study. It is a comprehensive statement that includes many facets, most of them explicitly theological, other than antisemitism. Nevertheless, the implied definition of antisemitism in this confession of the church's responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the Shoah is limited to denigration, defamation, and persecution of Jews. It is a definition that could, with the necessary changes, be applied to any identifiable group of people. The church is called, in other words, to change its theology and practice in order that people not be hurt, physically or any other way, in their basic character as human beings.

In itself, that represents tremendous progress. The Shoah was the ultimate in the denial of human rights that had been more the norm than the exception throughout the history of civilization. It demonstrated in the most horrible fashion what "minor" human rights violations can, and did, produce. But it is, nevertheless, a human rights definition of antisemitism that scarcely touches the surface of what antisemitism is all about.

I will attempt to illustrate what I mean by a look at some of the other elements to be found in the statements by the World Council of Churches and the churches that comprise it. And first among those is the way some churches have begun to understand God's covenant with Israel.

2. Covenant and Election

Though the Scripture contains a number of versions of God's covenant with Israel, the basic elements are that God will be Israel's God and Israel will be God's people, followed by God's promise to Israel of the Land.

This election of Israel by God has been a problem for the Church from its very beginning, a problem that was solved for many centuries by the simple statement that the Church had replaced Israel in the covenant. As late as 1948, the Bruderrat of the Evangelical Church in Germany could say that "The election of Israel through and since Christ has passed to the church, which is composed of all nations, both Jews and Christians." Yet only two years later the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany declared that "We believe that God's promise to the people of Israel which He elected is still in force, even after the crucifixion of Christ."

It is this latter conviction that since has been appearing in church statements with ever greater regularity. For instance, the General Synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church asserted as early as 1970 that "Because God's election is based solely on his own faithfulness, this people remains even now the chosen people, and their sonship and the promises given are still valid."

Although it is not generally recognized, this Protestant ecclesiastical acknowledgment of the continuing validity of God's original covenant represents a quantum shift, not only in the churches' understanding of the Jewish people, but in their understanding of their own relationship to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob...and Jesus. It is a change that may justly be compared with the Roman Catholic rejection of the charge that the Jews killed God.* But its impact, even within those churches whose highest bodies have adopted it, has been minimal to date. Perhaps the impact will only come when the practical implications have been thought through and spelled out. Those implications reach into virtually every corner of the churches' theological and, if you will, political self-understandings.

For instance, mission. . . . . . .

3. Mission to Jews

As a theological student in the 1950's, I learned that the Church does not have a mission, the Church is mission. Without mission the Church had no reason for being, it was merely an empty organizational shell. And the key reference for this understanding of the Church, of course, was Matthew 28:19--"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. . . ."

Though this exclusive sort of theology has generally run its course, mission remains integral to the theological self-understanding of many churches--as it does of the World Council. But what mission entails has become less and less certain, particularly in the case of mission to the Jews. In conventional understandings, mission simply means the organized effort to so preach and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ that those who hear and see will be convinced that what Christians and the churches declare is valid for them as well. In other words, mission is the attempt to convince others--that is, Jews--to adopt Christianity.

But in these latter days a new activity called interreligious dialogue has come into being. Those who engage in dialogue usually claim not to be interested in conversion, neither of their dialogue partners nor of themselves. But for others in the churches dialogue is simply a more sophisticated form of mission or evangelism, a door through which they may introduce the Gospel in a persuasive manner. And there are variations on those two themes. A paragraph in a statement recommended to the churches by the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches in 1982--entitled "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue"--succinctly sums up where the various churches stand with reference to mission directed toward Jews:

"There are Christians who view a mission to the Jews as having a very special salvific significance, and those who believe the conversion of the Jews to be the eschatological event that will climax the history of the world. There are those who would place no special emphasis on a mission to the Jews, but would include them in the one mission to all those who have not accepted Christ as their Saviour. There are those who believe that a mission to the Jews is not part of an authentic Christian witness, since the Jewish people finds its fulfillment in faithfulness to God's covenant of old."

Though this diversity remains present, the churches that have spoken on both mission and dialogue generally tend to lean toward dialogue rather than evangelistic mission, though sometimes they appear to do so with a guilty conscience. A 1975 statement by the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany may be representative of the difficulties some churches have had in attempting not to collapse dialogue into mission:

"After all that has happened, there are many different opinions on the proper way of Christian witness. The discussion during the last few years has centered mainly on the terms 'mission' and 'dialogue'; these were often interpreted as mutually exclusive. We have now come to understand mission and dialogue as two dimensions of one Christian witness and this insight corresponds to the more recent view of Christian witness generally."

Mission to Jews, however, poses a particular problem for those churches that have become more aware of their relationship with the Jewish people. For them the question arises as to whether or not attempts to convert Jews is theologically legitimate. It is a question that cannot be avoided once the continuing validity of God's covenant with Israel is clearly acknowledged. Baldly put, the rhetorical question is: How can the churches dare to tell Jews that the only true worship of the God known to them through Torah is the way gentile Christians worship that same god, that is "through Jesus Christ our Lord"?

In 1967, the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches met in Bristol, England, and approved a study document that is arguably the most comprehensive and thoughtful theological paper on the churches and the Jewish people that has appeared to date. In it, the Commissioners made a distinction between understanding the Church as the Body of Christ, in which case "the Jewish people are seen as being outside," and understanding the Church as the people of God.

If the Church is the people of God, the statement proposed, "it is possible to regard the Church and the Jewish people together as forming the one people of God, separated from one another for the time being, yet with the promise that they will ultimately become one. Those who follow this line of thinking would say that the Church should consider her attitude towards the Jews as theologically and in principle as being different from the attitude she has to all other men who do not believe in Christ. It should be thought of more in terms of ecumenical engagement in order to heal the breach than of missionary witness in which she hopes for conversion."

On the specific matter of Israel's election, the Bristol paper resorts to a device utilized many times in church statements. It says, though not in these particular words, that "some of us believe this and some of us believe that; some of us believe that election is solely in Christ and some of us believe that Israel is still God's elect people, full stop." Nevertheless, the section in which that admission of failure to come to a common mind is made concludes with the strikingly accurate observation that "in this question the entire self-understanding of the Church is at stake."

That is definitely so for those churches which have gone on record as affirming the contemporary validity of Israel's covenant, for that affirmation wipes away in one stroke all ambivalence about the centrality of Jewish mission to the definition of the Church. Once it is clear to Christians and the churches that God remains faithful to the covenant with the elect people, then any attempt to woo Jews away from that covenant is revealed as an attack upon the God who made the covenant. In sum, Christian mission to Jews is nothing less than Sin.

I am aware, of course, that I run the risk of being declared heretic by many in the churches by enunciating that conclusion. But it seems inescapable when simple logic is put into play. Further, Christians can hardly trust in God's promise of salvation for all who believe in Christ unless they know God to be a God who keeps promises. The God who keeps the promise to Israel is the same God who keeps the promise made through Jesus Christ. Yet, the church through the centuries has thought its standing before God rested on God's rejection of the covenant with Israel--without comprehending that precisely the opposite is the case.

Thus we see that a crucial theological corollary of acknowledgement of the continuing validity of God's original covenant is that the church forswears, both in principle and in practice, all missionary activity directed toward Jews. And, it is important to note, the church does this, not because it has suddenly become sensitive to Jewish offense at Christian missionizing, but for the sake of its own repentant faithfulness to the God whom it knows through Jesus Christ.

The framers of the Bristol document could not have been more correct when they noted that the entire self-understanding of the Church was at stake.

And that brings me to the next point, which is the way the official theology of the churches deal with the Jewishness of Jesus.

4. Jesus the Jew

The main christological tradition of the church, almost from its beginning, not only ignored the Jewishness of Jesus, but actually removed him from his Jewish context entirely. But today historical reality is more and more generally recognized in ecclesiastical documents. For instance, the Central Board of the Swiss Protestant Church Federation observed in 1977 that "Jesus was a Jew, born of a Jewish mother" and that "The teaching of Jesus is rooted in Jewish thinking, in Jewish teaching, and in Jewish life."

But the christological implications of Jesus' historical reality are almost never drawn out and questions such as those asked by people such as Paul van Buren have not been raised, much less addressed. "If Jesus is now confessed as a Jew," van Buren asks, "does that imply anything about the church's reading of the New Testament. . . ? If Jesus was a Jew in his life on earth, is he still a Jew? If modern epistemology insists that anything or anyone is understandable only within its context, what does that imply for the christology of a church which acknowledges that Jesus was (is?) a Jew?"

Again, by recognizing that Israel's covenant remains in force, the churches have opened up the possibility, if not the necessity, of examining what faithfulness to that covenant and obedience to Torah meant to Jesus and what it thus means for the faith of the church. As yet, however, official church theology has not attempted to discover that meaning, perhaps because the church's theologians have not themselves, with few exceptions, addressed the question.

However, one aspect of christological language--the appropriate usage of the title, "Messiah"--is addressed more frequently in theological literature today. As more is learned about the Second-Temple period and the Judaism practiced then, awareness of the great diversity of messianic expectations prevalent in Jesus' day is gradually leading to the conclusion that it may be inappropriate for the church to refer to Jesus as the Messiah. A simple equation of the titles Messiah and Christ is out of congruence with historical and theological reality. Unfortunately, the statements made by the churches evidence little awareness of this realization. So that even the 1980 Declaration of the Synod of the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland, which in other ways is extremely sensitive to the theological nuances of Christianity vis-a-vis Judaism, could refer to "Jesus Christ the Jew" as "Israel's Messiah."

The sentence in which those phrases appear is, however, worth study for another, and perhaps more important reason. "We confess Jesus Christ the Jew, who as Israel's Messiah is the Saviour of the world and binds the people of the world to the people of God," the Rhineland Synod declared, and thereby pointed out the direction in which profitable theological reflection could go. Could it be that in the days to come Jesus, called the Christ, could become in actuality the positive link between the church and the Jewish people instead of the all but impassable barrier he has been for centuries?

5. The State of Israel

My final point brings us back to antisemitism, to God's unbroken covenant, and to the most difficult issue confronting the churches today: the State of Israel.

There is a kind of church statement that is different from the ones to which I have made reference up until now, one that does not figure very much in the document study published by the World Council of Churches. I refer, of course, to statements having to do specifically with the Middle East. These statements usually are prepared by different people than those who work on the obviously theological pronouncements having to do with the church and the Jewish people, and often they appear to be adopted by an entirely different church body, although they may be published together in the reports of a given church or church organization. This different kind of church statement usually makes no reference to the historical and theological ties between the church and the Jewish people, but instead contents itself with "political" analysis of the Middle East conflict, frequently criticizing or condemning the State of Israel for things it has done in its continuing conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization or its administration of the territories that came under its control at the end of the 1967 war.

The framers of these declarations are acutely aware of the other positions, which emphasize the indissoluble bond between the church and the Jewish people, though usually that awareness does not appear in the statements they produce. An exception, however, is to be found in the statement on the "Israeli-Palestinian conflict" by the 6th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which called upon its member-churches "to remind Christians in the Western world to recognize that their guilt over the fate of Jews in their countries may have influenced their views of the conflict in the Middle East and has often led to uncritical support of the policies of the State of Israel, thereby ignoring the plight of the Palestinian people and their rights."

By contrast, the Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue, which was commended to the churches by the WCC Executive Committee, observed that "Jews differ in their interpretations of the State of Israel, as to its religious and secular meaning. It constitutes for them part of the long search for that survival that has always been central to Judaism through the ages. Now the quest for statehood by Palestinians--Christian and Muslim--as part of their search for survival as a people in the Land, also calls for full attention."

The Assembly statement blames "Western" Christians for acting out of guilt for the Shoah when they "uncritically" supportthe State of Israel and accuses them of "ignoring the plight of the Palestinian people and their rights" as a consequence. It says nothing about the situation of the Jewish people and their rights. The Ecumenical Considerations, on the other hand, affirms the survival significance of the State of Israel for Jews, in the context of which it declares that the Palestinian search for survival "calls for full attention." The tones and implications of these two WCC documents clearly are worlds apart.

The first statement concerning the State of Israel by the World Council was issued at Amsterdam in 1948. Then the delegates were far less certain than their successors were to be about what to say regarding Israel. Only a few weeks following the birth of the State, the Assembly approved the following words: "On the political aspects of the Palestine problem and the complex conflict of 'rights' involved we do not undertake to express a judgment. Nevertheless, we appeal to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency--political, strategic or economic--but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve centre of the world's religious life."

That was the same Assembly, you will recall, which asserted that "anti-semitism is sin against God and man." Now, after our look at what some of the churches have been saying about the continuing vitality of God's covenant with the Jewish people, we are in position to reflect more cogently on what antisemitism involves and consequently on what the sin of antisemitism actually is.

Antisemitism is more than discrimination against and/or persecution of people who happen to be Jews. It is denial of the Jewish people's right to be the Jewish people. When all is said and done, antisemitism is denial of the present validity of God's covenant with the people of Israel, which includes, as an integral part, God's promise of the Land. Antisemitism is sin against the God who makes the covenant and against the people with whom the covenant is made.

It is very difficult today to isolate the Jewish people from the State of Israel; in fact, it is impossible. To deny the State of Israel the right to exist is to deny the Jewish people the right to exist, for Israel is the concrete manifestation of the Jewish people's centuries-long struggle for survival. It is their historical claim to God's promise in the covenant.

Now, before someone counters that the State is Israel is nothing more than another of the states that came into being with the collapse of colonialism and has no theological significance, let me agree that, certainly, the State of Israel is a geo-political entity. But it is the geo-political entity of the Jewish people, which causes it--whether we like it or not--to have a theological significance. For the first time in two millennia, the Jewish people have been able to claim the ancient promise of the Land. And the churches, by asserting that the covenant of God with that people is presently in force, have no choice but to affirm, even applaud, that claim.

But the churches, by and large, are extremely reluctant to do so. And sometimes they adopt peculiar ways of justifying their reluctance. The most recent, and also the most blatant, example is that of the study document approved by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1987. The history of this document stretches over several years and includes the organizational merger of the southern and northern branches of Presbyterianism in the United States. Moreover, it is unique in that it attempts to merge into one statement the positions taken by those whose interest in the Middle East is defined by "human rights" and those who would emphasize the theological identification of the Church with the Jewish people on the basis, for instance, of the Jewishness of Jesus.

"We affirm the continuity of God's promise of land along with the obligations of that promise to the people Israel," the Presbyterians stated and, they continued, "A faithful explication of biblical material relating to the covenant with Abraham cannot avoid the reality of the promise of the land. The question with which we must wrestle is how this promise is to be understood in the light of the existence of the modern political State of Israel which has taken its place among the nations of the world."

The problem faced by the Presbyterians in the one virtually all Protestant churches face today: how to reconcile the wholly legitimate Christian commitment to the dispossessed (identified as the Palestinians) and opposition to their dispossessors (identified as the Israelis) with the increasingly persuasive awareness that, apart from the Jewish people (who today are inseparable from the State of Israel), the church is historically disembodied, with no firm foundation of its own. To my knowledge, the Presbyterian statement is the first time in official church theology that the question has been explicitly addressed, and to note that the Presbyterian solution is inadequate, to put it mildly, is not to denigrate the effort.

"We, Christian or Jew, who affirm the divine promise of land, however land is to be understood, dare not fail to uphold the divine right of the dispossessed," the statement asserts. And here the Presbyterians produce a sophism that seems to resolve their dilemma, but at the expense of historical and theological reality. It only may be sufficiently comprehended by a quotation of more than usual length:

For 3,000 years the covenant promise of land has been an essential element of the self-understanding of the Jewish people. Through centuries of dispersion and exile, Jews have continued to understand themselves as a people in relation to the God they have known through the promise of land. However, to understand that promise solely in terms of a specific geographical entity on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean is, in our view inadequate.

"Land" is understood as more than place or property; "land" is a biblical metaphor for sustainable life, prosperity, peace and security. We affirm the rights to these essentials for the Jewish people At the same time, as bearers of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we affirm those same rights in the name of justice to all peoples. We are aware that those rights are not realized by all persons in our day,. Thus we affirm our solidarity with all people to whom those rights of "land" are currently denied.

The Presbyterian Church found a way to affirm the covenantal promise of the Land by redefining "land" as an abstraction. But by so doing, they effectively deprived the Jewish people of the right to sovereignty in the specific Land given by God to their father, Abraham. It is miles away from a satisfactory solution, but the Presbyterians must be given credit for a first attempt to put two all but contradictory theologies together. They have provided hope that the next effort will be more successful.

6. Conclusion

In 1967 the drafters of the Bristol document suggested that fresh insights relative to the Jewish people were putting the entire self-understanding of the Church at stake. And that is even more true today, more than twenty years later. It is a frightening and exciting prospect for those of us who contemplate it.

But now I must conclude with a final question. Does this reevaluation of the church by the churches mean anything for the Jewish people's understanding of themselves? We Jews and Christians have "grown up" together. What reevaluation is going on among the Jewish people? We wait for Jewish voices to speak. They may be assured that we Christians will listen no less carefully than our Jewish colleagues now listen to us.

* In that connection, it is interesting to note that, prior to Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, the WCC's 3rd Assembly declared that "In Christian teaching the historic events which led to the Crucifixion should not be so presented as to fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity and not to one race or community."

Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish Christian Relations Birmingham, England, 1989.