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Israel in Christian Theology

One of the issues I often come back to in seeking to understand the overarching flavor of various theologians is the way in which Israel as the people of God functions within their various theologies.  I suggest a couple preliminary points about how one’s theology of Israel affects one’s overall theology, particularly ecclesiology.

First, how one views Israel will largely determine how they view the nature of redemption and the church.  If our understanding of Israel is a purely intrumental one, namely that Yahweh elects Israel merely for the purpose of fixing the fallen creation, then our ecclesiology is likely to be fundamentally instrumental as well.  Israel and the church are viewed as means to other ends, rather than as loci of God’s action and presence.  On these readings, God’s work in salvation history is really something other than what is happening in Israel and the church.  They may witness to that other end, or be some sort of tool in God’s toolbox to get the world there, but they do not really participate in, or embody that end. 

Second, how one views the way in which the church’s identity is mediated through Israel will largely determine the political character of the church polity and practice.  If the (largely Gentile) church understands itself as being grafted into the reality of Israel through the Spirit, it will understand its own polity in a fundamentally Israel-like way.  Most specifically this view of ecclesial identity inclines the church towards a diasporic self-understanding.  On the contrary, a supercessionist view in which the church replaces Israel as the people of God tends to find the church’s idenity mediated through other political structures, such as the state.  This is to suggest that how one understands the continuity of Israel and the church will largely determine how one views the political identity and practice of the church in the world.

5 Comments

  1. Halden. Thanks for this post. Again, I think you’re saying some important things here. One question though. You write: ‘If the (largely Gentile) church understands itself as being grafted into the reality of Israel through the Spirit, it will understand its own polity in a fundamentally Israel-like way.’ Leaving aside for now the important question of whether or not there is a (singular) ‘Israel-like way’ of being, what do you see this ‘way’ of being as? Can I invite you unpack further what you have in mind here? What do you think is lost in the negation? Steering clear of supercessionist concerns, what do you think might be gained (if anything) in such a move?

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    You’re right, Jason, I do have a specific “Israel-like” way in mind, and there are many such “ways” we could find in the Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann has explored this whole ball of wax more thoroughly than anyone else I know of.

    I try to hint at what sort of mode of being I take to be appropriate to the church, and I see that as the diasporic posture of Israel in exile. The church, like Israel lives a life of dispersion among the nations, living “out of control”, bearing witness to the Heavenly politeuma. This whole diasporic way of understanding Judaism and Christianity is well developed in John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. In the responses by Peter Ochs at the end of each of Yoder’s chapters, Ochs offers a very well-informed Jewish theological response and multifacted rapproachment with Yoder’s understanding of the church and Israel as a fundamentally diasporic peoplehood.

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Most specifically this view of ecclesial identity inclines the church towards a diasporic self-understanding

    Unfortunately, I still don’t see how “being grafted into Israel” should automatically lead to the church being “diasporic.” When Brueggemann talks abou this in Hopeful Imagination (I think it’s this book) his point is that there are a number of modes of being Israel, and the reason why the post-modern church should see itself as “in exile” is because Christianity is no longer the dominating religion. When it was, cultic or monarchial modes were appropriate methaphors. In other words, the decision concerning where to locate ourselves is based on an analysis of our contemporary situation and a search for a good parallel, rather than automatically resulting from our being “ingrafted.”

    Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I agree with you, Phil, to a point. I think Brueggemann’s arguments are helpfully bolstered by Yoder’s contention that galuth is not just one mode among others for Israel, but is in fact the normative mode and reflective of Yahweh’s divine calling. This is fleshed out most thorough in his essay “See How They Go with Their Faces to the Sun” in the book I mentioned above.

    In other words, for Yoder, and I would say for Brueggemann as well (as shown in his book, The Land in particular), exile is not just a pragmatic mode, but rather exemplifies the normative mode of being of God’s elect people in the world.

    Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  5. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. I’ve added Yoder to my “to read” list.

    Monday, January 28, 2008 at 5:16 am | Permalink

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