Does the Holocaust change the context for Christian evangelization of the Jews?

When thousands of evangelical pastors, theologians, teachers, and other Christian leaders gathered at Lausanne II in Manila last year, the outcome was a significant theological declaration, the Manila Manifesto. Lausanne II’s highly professional press office issued daily releases about developments during the ten days of meetings.

Just months before, a small group of 15 evangelical scholars met in Willowbank, Bermuda, under the sponsorship of the World Evangelical Fellowship, to draft a two-page, theological document on the appropriateness of Christians evangelizing Jews. The gathering did not enjoy the services of a full-time press office.

Guess which group got more press coverage?

Journalists, after all, love a fight. The Manila Manifesto looked like a lot of gray prose, and religious prose at that. There is no story in theology.

However, when Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee deplored the “Willowbank Declaration on the Christian Gospel and the Jewish People” as nothing less than “a blueprint for spiritual genocide,” religion reporters all across the country knew that they would not have to cover parish bake sales that week.

Why did the Willowbank Declaration receive such a heated response? Why did Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the Holy Land Fellowship of Christians and Jews lament that the document sets Christian thinking on Judaism back 20 years?

A look at the theological trends that prompted the Willowbank Declaration provides the answer. Such trends were summarized in the declaration’s preamble:

Some church leaders have retreated from embracing the task of evangelizing Jews as a responsibility of Christian mission. Rather, a new theology is being embraced which holds that God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham establishes all Jews in God’s favor for all times, and so makes faith in Jesus Christ for salvation needless so far as they are concerned.

This “new theology” (which is not all that new) is sometimes called “two-covenant theology”; much of it has grown out of the work of scholars involved in regular meetings of Jews and Christians over the last 20 years in what is sometimes called Jewish-Christian “encounter” or “dialogue.”

A Retreat From Evangelization?

Even a brief survey of the literature produced by these theologians shows that the Willowbank Declaration’s assessment of the theological state of affairs is polite understatement. Many church leaders and theologians have not only “retreated from embracing the task of evangelizing Jews,” they have vehemently condemned the traditional understanding of the person and work of Christ that undergirds evangelicalism.

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Consider these examples:

• Protestant theologian Paul Van Buren has argued that Christians should not confront Jews with the gospel because for Christians—let alone for Jews—Jesus is not really the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, though he is the “Christ of the Church.”

• Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism is a seminal work in modern literature on Jewish-Christian relations, contends that the New Testament’s own explanations of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death are anti-Jewish at their core, especially those of the Gospel and epistles of John. Ruether asserts that “anti-Judaism is the left hand of Christology.”

• A. Roy Eckardt, author of Jews and Christians: The Contemporary Meeting and other studies, has suggested that the doctrine of the Resurrection must be dropped from the credo if we are ever to correct the classical Christian distortion of Judaism.

• New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown advises that the “anti-Jewish” passages in the Gospel of John be retained for public reading, but only if the readings are followed by sermons that insist that the attitude of the apostle is wrong for Christians today.

While all these positions have not been formally endorsed by American denominations, the theological framework has been accepted by many. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church have all produced statements in the past two years that are informed by the two-covenant perspective.

“Two-covenant-communities theology” might be a better label, because these theologians argue in one form or another that we must understand Judaism as a divinely guided religion that is parallel to Christianity, not superseded by it or fulfilled within it. Christians ought not to try to convert Jews; that would be asking them to deny their election as members of the continuing covenant community of Israel.

Meanwhile, the covenant community of the church faces a huge problem, these theologians say. Christianity is “infected” with radical anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the source of which is the New Testament itself. Much of the New Testament is seen as motivated by “a polemic against the Jews and Judaism,” the necessity of which arose when the followers of Jesus were disappointed with the failure of Christ to usher in the kingdom of God as they had expected. As Ruether summarizes:

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At the root of this dispute lies a fundamentally different understanding of the Messianic idea that developed in Christianity.… Judaism looked to the Messianic coming as a public, world-historical event which unequivocally overthrew the forces of evil in the world and established the reign of God. Originally Christianity also understood Jesus’ Messianic role in terms of an imminent occurrence of the coming reign of God. But when this event failed to materialize, Christianity pushed it off into an indefinite future, that is, the second coming, and reinterpreted Jesus’ Messianic role in inward and personal ways that had little resemblance to what the Jewish tradition meant by the coming of the Messiah. An impasse developed between Christianity and Judaism, rooted in Christian claims to Messianic fulfillment and supersession of Judaism, that were not only unacceptable but incomprehensible in the Jewish tradition.

New Testament Christology, soteriology, and (worst of all) its ways of interpreting the Old Testament were thus infused with this idea of supersession, and “the teaching of contempt” of Judaism and hence of the Jews. Franklin H. Littell, in The Crucifixion of the Jews, blames supersessionism for the Holocaust: “The cornerstone of Christian Antisemitism is the superseding or displacement myth, which already rings with the genocidal note.”

In much of the literature generated by Jewish-Christian dialogue, the Holocaust stands as the definitive event that must redirect all theological reflection. For many of these theologians, Jewish and Christian, the Shoah (Holocaust) is the historical moment that must condition our understanding of all other events, including the Exodus and Resurrection.

But in these circles are also some assumptions about the nature of revelation and about the task of theological reflection that evangelicals find impossible to accept.

One of these is evident in the rule of thumb attributed to the Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz: Stay away from a theology that could be the same before and after Auschwitz. For Metz, as for most theologians of this stripe, the Holocaust has revelatory status. A. Roy Eckardt, for example, laments the fact that the Shoah may never “gain acceptance by Christian theology and the church as ‘revelatory’ and in consequence as religiously revolutionary.”

Eckardt criticizes Carl F. H. Henry, for example, for refusing to adjust his theology in the shadow of Auschwitz: “The Holocaust has done nothing at all to annul the missionary stance toward Jews of Carl F. H. Henry and others.” Henry has built a wall around himself, Eckardt argues, and “once behind the wall he has total immunity to any and all historical events, and all human behavior, and any and all post-New Testament revelation.”

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It must be made clear, then, that evangelical rejection of two-covenant theology in such contexts as the Willowbank statement is based on much more than our understanding of Judaism. It is based on our understanding of theology itself and, in turn, on our understanding of the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture.

Most evangelical theologians understand theology as an effort to discover unchanging truth in divinely inspired Scripture. The Bible is the revealed Word of God, and the task of the church is to understand its meaning by working to ascertain what it meant to the original audience. The significance of the text and its application might well differ from age to age, but the essential theological agenda, as embodied in creeds, confessions, and catechisms, is not altered by historical events, however momentous. Such events may cause the church to re-examine its theology but are not revelatory.

But for theologians such as Monica Hellwig, another prominent voice in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, the New Testament’s understanding of everything from Noah to the Second Coming is culturally conditioned by the necessity of the “anti-Judaic polemic.” As she puts it, most scholars “see an historical and logical connection between these suppositions [of supersessionism] and the persecution of Jews. The question then arises as to how Judaism may be ‘legitimated’ as a contemporary faith commitment in terms of a Christian theology.”

She seems to be saying that since the Holocaust, Christians must do something significant to protect the Jews. We best do that by establishing religious equality between Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, Christians must rethink their understanding of the roots of Christianity. That somewhat crude summary may not capture all the nuances of her position, but it does seem to capture many of the arguments behind two-covenant theology.

Two-covenant theology, then, not only calls into question Christian attempts to evangelize Jews; it seems to assume that the entire notion of salvation is misguided, perhaps rooted in the necessity of spiritualizing the kingdom of God. Hence, it is wrong to characterize two-covenant theology as saying that Judaism “saves” Jews and Christianity “saves” Christians. Almost none of the writers on this topic acknowledge the need for anyone to be saved.

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One participant in the dialogue, Leon Klenicki, insists that the very word salvation is a problem. “I would use, instead, the word ‘redemption,’ ” he writes. “My relationship with God is not a relationship by which I will be ‘saved.’ As a partner of God in the covenant, it is my obligation to make every effort in redeeming the world, in making the kingdom of God a reality.…”

A Less Urgent Salvation?

J. I. Packer has recently reminded evangelicals of four tempting propositions about salvation that have relevance for the two-covenant debate. He warns (in his chapter in Evangelical Affirmations) that we must beware of any suggestion that the question of salvation is less urgent, less agonizing, less central, or less substantial than we have thought. We see all these dangers in two-covenant theology.

Most obvious, perhaps, is the claim that salvation is not really an urgent matter, an essentially universalistic claim. Consider Catholic ethicist John Pawlikowski’s assertion: “The changed Christian attitude toward the ongoing authenticity of the Jewish covenant, based on a new understanding of the Christ Event, will of necessity demand rethinking of the meaning of mission in relationship to the people Israel and to other non-Christian faith communities as well” (emphasis mine).

John Kelsay and David Levenson, writing in the Christian Century about a recent Jewish-Presbyterian encounter group in Florida, observed that “Jewish participants pressed the question of Presbyterian perspectives vis-à-vis Islam, Buddhism and the other world religions. From the perspective of rabbinic Judaism, Christian exclusivism seems unnecessary, even when broadened to include Jews through an interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant. The rabbis would contend that God has a covenant with the ‘nations’ that is distinct from Israel’s covenant.”

It is ironic that two-covenant theologians, in their effort to be more sensitive to the religion of the Jewish people, seem to have no category for false religions, which is a most significant issue in the Torah. As the nature of the covenant relationship was being defined at Sinai, there was much concern about false gods and idolatry and covenant faithfulness.

Imagine an Israelite at the foot of Sinai, waiting for Moses to come down the mountain, not yet aware of the Law, but thankful that the covenant God made with Abraham brought deliverance from captivity. Imagine that upon hearing the reading of the law, he protests, “Moses is attempting to supersede the promises made to the patriarchs with legalism and ritual. We must reject this sacrilegious innovation! Moses was a fine fellow for getting us out of Egypt, but all of these sacrifices and rules are an offense to Abrahamites.”

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Imagine further that many of the Israelites feel this way, regarding the Mosaic followers as a pesky sect that arrogantly claims to be the true Israel of God. Imagine that they form a committee to establish a discussion group, based on the premise that there are now two covenants represented within the people of God, brothers and sisters with different vocations but a common task in the wilderness.

What should Moses do?

Christians believe that the progress of redemptive history always required that the people of God follow God’s lead. The giving of the Law was a new phase in redemptive history, as was the establishment of the Davidic throne and the preaching of the prophets. At each point, faithful participation in the covenant community required accepting something new, while retaining all that had gone before.

The idea that a new phase of covenantal life would fulfill earlier phases was not a stratagem of disillusioned Christians. It was the prophesied promise of a new covenant, in which the Law would be fulfilled even as it was written on their hearts. Christians believe that that new phase came in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We believe that we are faced with a duty like that of Moses in our imaginary scenario. A new day in redemptive history dawned with the Resurrection, just as it did on Sinai. To reject it is to be cut off from the community of the prophesied new covenant. There is no other name by which we are saved.

It is not the Willowbank Declaration, but the development of two-covenant theology, then, that drafts a blueprint for spiritual genocide. To withhold the gospel from any people is to ensure their spiritual death. There is no distinction, since all have sinned. The circumcised and uncircumcised will be justified only by faith. There is neither Jew nor Greek; if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

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