The Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) enthusiastically endorsed the Great Commission. In effect he said, “Go, by all means go into all the world and preach the Gospel! Don’t let anybody or anything stop you from going! And your hearers, they should come! There is no other way for them but to come!” Yet at the same time this man rejected Christ and called himself “anti-Christian.”
Rosenzweig’s view of Christian evangelism is stated clearly in one of his letters. He says, “We are wholly agreed as to what Christ and his Church mean to the world: no one can reach the Father save through him.” But he goes on to say: “The situation is quite different for one who does not have to reach the Father because he is already with him. And this is true of the people of Israel (although not of individual Jews)” (Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, edited by N. Glazer, Shocken, 1967, p. 341). This has been called his “Two Covenant Theory,” for he visualizes two covenants made with man by God. One covenant is with non-Jewish man through Christ, the other with Jewish man through his membership in Israel, the covenant people.
Some Gentile theologians have praised this statement as a great breakthrough in Jewish/Christian relations. But anybody who reflects on its implications for the Gospel as it is found in the New Testament will see a vital principle at stake here that we surrender only at our peril.
The man who formulated this controversial idea, which he takes from the Lord’s words in John 14:6, was born on Christmas Day 1886 into an affluent Jewish family in Cassel, Germany. The home was a hive of social and cultural activity, but little attention was given to the Jewish religion. Several of Rosenzweig’s relatives converted to Christianity, something that was common in the period. Rosenzweig said himself at a later date, “Conversion takes away the best from us, not the worst.” His teacher Hermann Cohen said, “Many of our young people … are … seduced into conversion,” and he mentioned that it was “the higher classes” among the Jews that were going over to Christianity. One Jewish writer, I. Cohen, cites a figure of 224,000 Jewish conversions to Christianity in the nineteenth century. German Jewry in Rosenzweig’s day was in the middle of this. Also at this time a Jew in Germany would feel rather overwhelmed by the strong influence of Christianity on German life. Karl Marx complained about it. Rosenzweig commented on it to his mother, saying, “We are Christian in everything!”
So Rosenzweig in his youth was not strongly influenced for Judaism but did feel the powerful influence of Christianity, which was very much the dominant faith in his milieu. His studies took him into medicine and then history and philosophy, and he went on to write a standard work on Hegel entitled Hegel and the State. He reacted against Hegel’s system, however, and tended toward an existential “life-oriented” position. He became friendly with one of his teachers, a Hebrew Christian named Rosenstock-Huessy, and under his influence came to the conclusion that Judaism was passé and bankrupt and that the only way open to him was to be baptized as a Christian.
Rosenzweig said to his mother at this time, “There is only one way, Jesus.” It is important to notice this realization of the person of Jesus. He is not talking about a mere cultural or social identification with Christianity but seizes on personal discipleship as the key to the Christian life. Also at this time he accepted the authenticity of the whole fabric of institutional Christianity. Instead of seeing it as a Constantinian perversion of the original New Testament Church as many contemporary critics did, he saw it as the kingdom of God on earth, marching out in triumph across the lands of the whole earth. So Rosenzweig had a high view of the Christian life and a high view of the Church; these he kept even after he turned his back on both.
This dramatic reversal came in October, 1913, when he attended an Atonement Day service in a Berlin synagogue. He renounced his resolve to become a Christian and in fact took a position that he described as anti-Christian. He decided to devote himself to the study and propagation of Judaism. But the remarkable thing was that he still maintained that Jesus was the only way to God and that the Church was the divinely chosen instrument for bringing the world to God. So here we see a very subtle mind at work. No wonder Gentile writers have acclaimed his position as a breakthrough in Jewish/Christian relations and Jewish writers have denounced it as a sell-out to the Christians. But in fact it was neither. Rather it was a very ingenious way of diverting Christian attention away from the Jews. That was Rosenzweig’s immediate aim. Describing his major work, The Star of Redemption, he said, “The ecclesiastical point of The Star [is that] there must not be an organized mission to the Jews.”
If Rosenzweig’s idea is taken up by professing Christians as a valid interpretation of the Great Commission, then evangelism as we know it is paralyzed. So I would like to examine his position, not just as it applies to Jews but as it applies, by extension, to every ethnic and racial group.
Summed up, Rosenzweig’s message about the Church and Israel was that God works through both but for different groups of people. For the mass of humanity he has the Church, which presents Jesus Christ, who is the Way to the Father for all the nations of the world. No man can come to the Father except through the Son; the Son is the only Way to the Father. But Jews are an exception, not because they can come some other way but because they do not need to come! They are already with the Father. Jewish blood ensures an automatic fellowship with the Father, without any recourse to the mediation of Jesus Christ, which Rosenzweig admitted was essential for all other people.
By this subtle interpretation of the Lord’s words in John 14:6 he seemed to achieve the impossible. He kept his high view of Christ and the Church, but alongside this he placed his personal rejection of Christ, and claimed that the text allowed this for himself and all other Jews. Strangely enough, this is a concession that some professing Christians are willing to allow. Even some evangelicals who hold confused ideas about the role of Israel in God’s plan allow this idea to restrain them in holding out the Gospel to their Jewish neighbors.
One of the great exegetical problems that any Bible-believing Christian must face is the need to work out an eschatology that does not do violence to gospel principles. Unfortunately, there are those who try to keep eschatology and gospel truth in separate compartments in their thinking; they do not allow themselves to reflect on the implications that one body of doctrine has for the other. This is especially true of evangelical thought about Israel. Do we interpret the teaching about sacrifices in Ezekiel by what we read in Hebrews or vice versa? Do we understand the references to Israel in the Book of Revelation by what we read in Romans and Galatians or vice versa?
Rosenzweig’s thought comes to us as a challenge, for if we accept his interpretation of Israel’s role in God’s plan our whole approach toward evangelism of the Jews and ultimately everybody else is thrown off balance. He asserts that the Jew is by nature at one with God. He says, “That ‘connection of the innermost heart with God’ which the heathen can only reach through Jesus is something the Jew already possesses, providing that his Judaism is not withheld from him by force; he possesses it by nature, through having been born one of the Chosen People” (Glatzer, op. cit., p. 27). This is a declaration that by race and blood the Jew is at one with God and therefore has no need of the mediation of Jesus Christ.
But he also makes a parallel claim for the religion of Judaism. He says in The Star of Redemption that on the Day of Atonement the Jew “kneels only in beholding the immediate nearness of God.” This word immediate” must be understood literally because he says elsewhere that Israel walks “without mediator in the light of God’s countenance.” Again speaking of the Jew’s observing the Day of Atonement he says, “In this moment, he is as close to God, as near to his throne, as it is ever accorded man to be.” And so, in Rosenzweig’s view, a group of 14 million people have immediate access to God on the grounds of race and religion, and this access is impossible to all the other three billion of the world’s population. All these other people must come to the Father through Jesus according to his scheme.
Two principles in Rosenzweig’s scheme take us beyond the specifically Jewish relevance of the Two Covenant theory. These are the principles of race and religion as grounds for exemption from the need for Christ’s mediation. And when we look at Israel and Judaism we see the summit point in each category. National pride being what it is, not everybody would consider the Jewish people as a race as being anywhere near the summit of mankind. But disregarding such characteristics as physique, intellect, and talent, we are faced with the facts that God chose Israel as the unique channel of his revelation and that the Son of God took on himself “the seed of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16). No other nation can make a claim to match this one. So in a sense we can say that Israel’s claim to racial exemption surpasses all other such claims based on race. If the people that was graced by the Incarnation is included in the Gospel, then no other race can hope to present a better claim for exemption.
In the matter of religion, Judaism is the only non-Christian faith that can make what seems to be a Bible-based argument for a divine origin. In the case of rabbinic tradition I think this claim has to be disallowed, but the fact remains that Judaism has the best case to present of all the non-Christian religions of the world. So if a practicer of Judaism needs to come through Christ, then no adherent of any other religion, whether of ancient or modern origin, can claim exemption from the claims of Christ.
What this does for us is to throw us back onto the basic presuppositions of the gospel message. One of these is the solidarity of the whole human race. Paul tells us that “God … hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26). This is not to say that racial and cultural differences are not real or are not to be taken seriously. What is meant is that on a certain level in God’s plan they are irrelevant. Racial differences are very often most obvious in the outward appearance, and we are told that this is what man sees. But God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), and here, in this seat of the human personality, our racial solidarity is inescapable. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). That was said by a Jew to Jews, and nobody of any race can escape its application to himself. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), said Paul; this is one of the basic premises of the Gospel. Even one exception to this rule, apart from the Lord Jesus, who is himself the remedy for this universal sin, would invalidate the universal Gospel, for the Gospel would no longer apply to the whole human race as it purports to do.
Another problem introduced by this “racial redemption” concept is its tendency to stir up a chauvinistic reaction to the Gospel from people of other races. What Rosenzweig is saying to the Indian or the Chinese as well as to the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin is, “If you were of Jewish blood you would not need Christ; as you are not, you must come to the Father through him.” This makes a comparison between races that the Bible does not make. The natural tendency to pride of race is transcended by a Gospel that calls to us on the basis of our common humanity. But as soon as the Gospel becomes a challenge to the worth of any particular racial category it becomes offensive for that reason, and an unnecessary confrontation is precipitated. Before God, all mankind is one in its need of redemption, and we have the obligation to tell every nation, every human creature, that God is calling all men everywhere to repent.
This leaves us with the other claim to exemption that Rosenzweig raises, that of religion. What right have we to challenge another person’s faith? The answer given to this question is often “None!” But the Gospel of Jesus Christ claims to be universally applicable. Through Jesus, God is calling all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). And when the Lord Jesus says, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6), the term “no man” must be understood to include Jewish man even if his religion can claim to stem from Abraham and Moses. In fact, the Lord Jesus makes the point that of all people a true son of Abraham would be the first to come to him (John 8:39) and a true disciple of Moses would recognize in him the one of whom Moses testified (John 5:46).
The religion of the Old Testament is in no way an alternative to Jesus Christ, a means of enabling Israel to get right with God without coming to the cross of Christ. On the contrary, the Law and the prophets and the writings were given to prepare Israel for their meeting with the Lord Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the King of the Jews. Rabbinic Judaism, however, is intended as an alternative to the Gospel, and it does involve a rejection of Christ and his Gospel, even though the Hebrew Bible is full of teaching that points to Christ. In doing this it cuts itself off from any real continuity with the Mosaic revelation and stands as a post-Christian phenomenon whose antecedents are difficult to trace with any real certainty before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Elijah and Isaiah were not rabbinic Jews, and all the most recent discoveries about Jewish religious life in Second Temple times have served to emphasize the diversity of streams within Judaism rather than to confirm the monolithic picture of Rabbinic Judaism that some Jewish historians try to read back into the past.
The Judaism put forward by Rosenzweig as an alternative to the Gospel of Jesus Christ lacks certain vital and indispensable elements that give meaning to the Mosaic religion. The mediation of the Aaronic priesthood and the blood sacrifices, which both point to Christ, are missing and in effect are rejected, even though lip-service is still paid to them. Judaism still has elements of the Mosaic system, and for this reason it stands higher than any other non-Christian religion. But our New Testament shows us that even while the Temple was still standing the Lord Jesus called Jews to repent and believe the Gospel. It was to a master in Israel, Nicodemus, that Jesus said, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). If the Gospel does not apply to Jews, then it got off to a bad start, because all the first hearers and all the first believers were Jews who were told specifically that “the promise is unto you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). The children of Abraham, the heirs of Moses, needed Christ. How much more the heirs of Akiba and Maimonides? And how much more do the followers of Muhammad and Buddha need Christ? No man-made religion can serve as an alternative to Christ and his Gospel. And even the one religion that could claim divine origin was intended to be a schoolmaster to lead men to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
So we can see in the relation of the Gospel to the Jew a paradigm of its relation to men of every race and religion. The Lord Jesus says, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me,” and despite what Rosenzweig or any other writer of any other faith may say, all men do need to come to the Father. As we invite them to come through the Lord Jesus, we know that we are presenting to them the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that in him they have their only chance of finding peace with God.
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