Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Judge of church and synagogue

It's often assumed that theological exegesis is fideistic and inherently inclined to read its own assumptions into the Bible. This danger clearly exists, but part of the solution turns on the nature of the theological assumptions in operation. Christianity seems to have consciously situated itself in the "gap" between dialectical poles: between heaven and earth, the Old and the New, letter and spirit. It's called to negotiate both, and this should serve to keep its triumphant proclamation chastened by the need to "discern the mystery" (A. Louth) in a veiled text. In this challenge, the Jewish people serve as a constant challenge to Christian proclamation. It is what Childs calls the function of "the mystery of Israel" (thanks to D. Driver's dissertation for this insight). Here is a profound Childs quote on the issue:

A major point to emphasize is that Christianity can make no proper theological claim to be superior to Judaism, nor that the New Testament is of a higher moral quality than the Old Testament. Human blindness envelops the one as much as the other. Rather, the claim being made is that the divine reality made know in Jesus Christ stands as judge of both religions. This assertion means that Judaism through God’s hesed has indeed grasped divine truth from the Torah, even when failing to recognize therein the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. Conversely, Christianity, which seeks to lay claim on divine truth in the name of Christ, repeatedly fails to grasp the very reality which it confesses to name. In a word, two millennia of history have demonstrated that Jews have often been seized by the divine reality testified to by their Scriptures, but without recognizing its true name, while Christians have evoked the name, but failed to understand the reality itself. [*]
P.S. The image above is a typical motif on cathedrals in Europe of triumphant "church" over defeated "Synagogue." The tragedy is particular evident when you walk from the Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany, to the cathedral, where the statues still stand. Should they be taken down? Or are they affirming a difficult truth which, when out of control, leads to bloodshed? I think Childs' thoughts provide a way forward.
[Hat Tip for the image from this interesting website]
[*] Childs, Witness to Christ?, 63–64.


Bob MacDonald said...

A shining light.

Douglas Mangum said...

Thanks for the interesting post. The quote from Childs is good and once again, something I hadn't thought of that way before. Maybe I need to start reading this Childs guy after all . . .

Unknown said...

What does this line mean:

Conversely, Christianity, which seeks to lay claim on divine truth in the name of Christ, repeatedly fails to grasp the very reality which it confesses to name.

I get the impression that Childs is saying that Judaism is flawed for its lack of recognition of Jesus' divinity, while Christianity is flawed for not understanding its Jewish roots. Did I get that right?

Halden said...

Childs is making a supremely Barthian point here I think. What is absolute is neither "Christianity" nor any other religion, but only the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Such a move is most certainly to be affirmed.

What I think is crucial in such discussions is that we not equivocate on the terms employed. What is the relationship between the religion of "Christianity" and the theological reality of "Church"? Or the religion of "Judaism" and the theological reality of "Israel"?

These are, I think the supremely crucial points because they deal with the Barthian issue that Childs raises about revelation versus religion. Certainly the revelation of God stands as judge over all religons, including Christianity. But, can the categories of "Church" and "Israel" be coordinated as subsets of the religions of "Christianity" and "Judaism"? Or do "Church" and "Israel" belong to the substance of revelation itself in a crucial way? I think for Barth the answer is yes, but how that is all shaped is a very complex theological articulation.

This isn't to say that Childs makes the sort of conceptual equivocation that I'm talking about here. Only to note that I think we sometimes skip much to quickly from "Israel" to "Judaism" and from "Church" to "Christianity" in some of these discussions. Clarity on these points is absolutely necessary.

In other words, I think that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as world religions may be something quite different than the relationship between the Church and Israel in God's economy of revelation and salvation.

Phil Sumpter said...

Bob, glad you think so.

Douglas, somehow, hearing that I've motivated someone to read Childs just makes my day!

Hadassah, thanks for popping by. Childs' point is that the Bible is ultimately not about human religious expression, whether Jewish, Christian, or whatever. It's essentially theocentric, it has the genre of “witness” and its function is to point beyond itself to the only thing it cares about: “the divine reality.” Human religious responses, Jewish or Christian, are to be judged by their ability to do just that: adequately respond to the divine reality that has evoked the Bible. So it's not so much a matter of Christianity forgetting its Jewish roots (as important as that surely is!), but that often in its history it has claimed to know the divine reality (Jesus the Messiah) but in fact it this has only been a form of lip service. The church has often committed the same sin as Israel at the time of Isaiah: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, their hearts are far from me, their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isa 29: 13). Religiosity disconnected from its source is a danger we all face, so that simply getting the name right (“Yeshua,” “haShem”) doesn't guarantee actual faithfulness to the true source.

Halden puts it succinctly: “What is absolute is neither "Christianity" nor any other religion, but only the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”

Halden, thank you for your lucid response. I'm in full agreement. I'm with you on the need for the need for terminological clarity and I agree that "Church" and "Israel" belong to the substance of revelation itself, somehow ... . Again, I agree that the whole issue is incredibly important, especially given recent and current history, and that the whole issue is extremely complex! I hope to keep working on this as it's an issue that's close to my heart.

Unknown said...

“What is absolute is neither "Christianity" nor any other religion, but only the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”

If religion is not absolute, how can an expression of Christian theology be absolute?

I can't argue on Christian theology, obviously, but it seems to me that depictions of Ecclessia and Synagoga have caused untold damage to the Jewish people and that theology which leads to racism must be relegated to the past.

(On the subject of imagery which led to violence in the medieval period, see http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Historic_Jewish_Enmity)

Phil Sumpter said...

The "expression of Christian theology," e.g. "Jesus is the Messiah," is not absolute. The reality itself is absolute and measures the adequacy of the person who confesses it. Language used to describe the reality is always broken and limited, so that we constantly need to be aware of our own inadequacy when we confess it. When I say that "Jesus is the Messiah," do I really know what that means? The Christians in the images you link to (great resource by the way!) no doubt confessed it, but their behaviour testifies to something else.

To try a Jewish example: if a Jew recites the Shema in gratitude to the God who redeemed his people out of slavery, his theological expression more appropriately reflects the reality of the Shma than a Jew who does it because that's just what Jews do. To use an Old Testament example, as a good Jew of the tribe of Judah, Achan would no doubt have recited the Shma in accordance with Moses' command. But this recital meant nothing in comparison to the confession of faith of Rahab, the Canaanite prostititue. The reality which we confess always exceeds the words we use to confess it, and it's this reality which stands as judge over us.

That's kind of how I'm beginning to see it, anyhow ... Let me know if it makes no sense!

Phil Sumpter said...

Oh, and Hadassah: theology which leads to racism must be relegated to the past.

I agree.

Unknown said...

On the Jewish front, "kavana" is definitely one of the most important components of a mitzvah. Fulfilling a commandment by rote, while still a fulfillment of the commandment, is considered flawed. Not just expressions of faith, but all rituals, are meant to be practiced with thought and meaning.

It would seem to me that the relationship between Christians and Jews today is defined by practical considerations much more than theological ones. Since it is in the interests of both Jews and Christians to get along, dialogue has begun. The theological dialogue is the outcome of this.

And, quite possibly, the opposite was true in the past. It benefited the Christian majority to persecute the Jews for practical reasons, so they justified it by theological arguments.

Bob MacDonald said...

What is a true benefit? There can be no righteousness in persecution. So the Most High must then have used the 'practical' sin for a larger benefit. It is difficult to see such truth. Perhaps you continue Paul's argument in Romans whereby the failure of some Jews to believe led to the Gospel's going to the Gentiles. So the failure of Christendom in its justification of persecution led where? All suffer when power structures justify themselves! Surely our faith is more perfect than a claim to power.

Phil Sumpter said...


thanks for your theological insights and pragmatic observations. I have no doubt that such practical factors play a role in both our coming together and being driven apart. I think that guilt for the holocaust and years of persecution, along with the "mircale" of 1949, also play a role in such dialogues. Whatever the cause, the church can certainly benefit from the dialogue, even if it is challenged by it to its core. As Childs said in my other quote: "For the Christian church the continuing paradox of faith lies in its encounter through the Jewish Scriptures with the selfsame divine presence which it confesses to have found in the face of Jesus Christ."

I'd like to try and clarify what I meant about the reality itself "being the judge" of our confessions of it. It is not so much a matter of subjectively meaning what I say, as if sincerity and earnestness made the statement more adequate (though, as you say, they are important and should not be left out). It's a matter of the transcendence of the object of our confession. The nature of God's work in the Bible is one that transcends itself. For example, Jews confess that the Lord is the one who redeemed them out of Egypt. But this redemption was more than a historical experience. It is echoed throughout Scripture and takes on different nuances. In Isaiah, for example, where it is tied to the return from Babylon, the redemption is eschatologized. The exodus from Babylon becomes a kind of new creation in which we are saved once and for all and creation itself is renewed. God returns to Zion and dwells with his people so that there is no more need for a sun and a moon. The "meaning" of the historical exodus from Egypt cannot be grasped if we stay with a surface interpretation. Rather, we need to grasp it in the context of the broader horizon of God's dealings with creation as a whole, as testified to in the whole canon of Scripture. A pre-exilic Jew thanking God for his redemption will be referencing the same event as a post-exilic Jew doing the same thing. But the post-exilic Jew, with the book of Isaiah behind him, will have a profounder grasp of the meaning of the Exodus and what it was for. All our creedal confessions (another e.g.: "My father was a wandering Aramean ...") reference one thing, but it has a meaning that is deeper than we realize.

So, when Christians testify to Christ, it is not guaranteed that they have really grasped what it is they are talking about. When Jews don't, but instead testify Y--h, the God of the Torah, they may be closer to the reality Christians call "Jesus" than Christians themselves realize.

I think that's what Childs means ... Like I said, I'm still trying to figure this out. Feel free to critique or tell me that this is irrelevant for a Jewish perspective!


All suffer when power structures justify themselves!

I agree.

Unknown said...


Clearly any type of persecution in the name of religion is a perversion of religion and God.


I agree that historical events have meaning much broader than the event itself. Other examples in Judaism include creation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.