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The Church and Israel: An Exercise in Category Mistakes

In most discussions of Jewish-Christian relations the questions are generally posed in a manner that suggests that the key question for Christians pertains to how the church is related to Israel.  The key assumption here is that whatever the theological entities named by “church” and “Israel” are, they are the same kind of thing, and their theological relation must be narrated in a way that is theologically acceptable.  Thus, the notion of the church “superseding” Israel is highly problematic to members of the Jewish faith.  Christian theologians then try to deal with this problem by constructing a “non-supercessionist” theology within which Israel and the church both continue to have a form of salvific relationship with God, in light of which both should be able to affirm the self-understanding of each other, at least in some significant fashion.

The glaring problem with such approaches lies in the assumption that the church and Israel are two entities of the same type.  However, biblically the entity to be juxtaposed with Israel is not the church, but “the nations.”  Israel is distinct as a theological entity from other ethnoi, from other national peoplehoods.  The church, however is not an ethnos in the same sense as Israel and the nations, rather it is composes of persons from all nations.  The church, then cannot be seen in the kind of binary opposition to Israel as the nations.  The church, at least according to her own self-understanding is not a nation alongside other nations, but a fundamentally new reality, a mystery which has been established by God in which the old antinomies of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free no longer hold true.  The church’s self-understanding insists on that she is the site at which the communion of God (the God of Israel!) is realized with all humanity, from all nations, be they the chosen nation of Israel, of the nations of the Gentiles.

My point in all of this is simply to call for a refocusing of the terms in discussion of Jewish-Christian relations.  Too often it is assumed that Jewish-Christian relations are somehow the same thing as “church-Israel” relations.  This however is not the case, at least not if we are being careful in our theological speech.  The church’s self-understanding is that she is the body of Christ into whom all persons from all nations, be they Jew or Gentile are called into communion with the one God.  To deny that the church should understand herself as such is to deny something that has been utterly central to the church’s self-understanding from the very beginning of the church.  This, of course may be seen as a supercessionist theology.  However, this is not the case.  The church supersedes nothing.  Rather, Christ, through the church interrupts everything.  The church is not a static reality which comes along and replaces Israel, rather it is the apocalyptic aftermath of Christ’s invasion of the world which has cosmic implications.  The church does not crowd out, take over, or overrule Israel or any other nation, rather the church is simply God’s way of continually interrupting the world in Christ through the Spirit.  This certainly poses a challenge to the self-understandings of all nations unique and distinctive ways, including Israel (and Rome and America, I might add).  And this challenge is a stumbling block that we dare not remove if we are to be faithful to the gospel.

7 Comments

  1. I wonder, in light of a few passages like Romans 11 and Eph 2, if it´s not the case that Israel has been renewed and restored through Jesus, the Messiah, and that one of the most profound “new” things is that now gentiles can be incorporated into God´s Israel, God´s people? (While non-believing Jews have been “cut off”, but only temporary.) Isn´t it true that God has only one people, the one called in and through Abraham?

    I also question if we use the concept of “church” in a useful way, construing it as all those who belongs to Jesus. Standing close to the radical baptist tradition, I prefer to view “church” primarly as followers of Jesus, when they are gathered (“the local church”), in line with for example James Mc Clendon. “God´s people” (Israel!), to me seems to be a better concept, leaving “church” for God´s people in it´s gathered aspect.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I agree with you on this . . . and I think Eph. 2:11ff makes this point explicitly.

    I can’t help but think, probably being presumptuous, that this post may have been prompted by the issues I have been discussing lately at my blog. If not very ironic and coincidental.

    Alas . . . I am on hiatus, talk later :-).

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 3:17 am | Permalink
  3. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I do think what needs to be stressed, though, is that the apocalyptic claiming of history by the in-breaking of the Kingdom in the particular history of Jesus of Nazareth is a particularly Jewish event.

    It is perhaps also significant to consider here Revelation’s depiction of “the churches” (church is plural there, not as an overriding of unity, but to home in on the particularity of local gatherings) as being gathered up into “the New Jerusalem,” where the previous scriptural sentiment: “I will be their God and they will be my people [singular]” is there transformed to: “I will be their God and they will be my peoples [plural].” Indeed, the shekinah of Yahweh dwelling at the very center of the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven to earth calls forth peoples from every tribe, nation, and tongue…but, notice there that there is still an “opposition” (if you will…I prefer to use the language of John: “judgment”) to “the nations” who refuse allegiance to the slaughtered-resurrected Lamb by allying themselves with the beast (though from out of the eternal mercy of Yahweh, the gates to this new city forever remain open, and the tree at the center of the New Jerusalem contains “leaves for the healing of the nations”). So, I think a profound interaction is taking place between church and Israel, and indeed this interaction takes place in the apocalyptic in-breaking of the Jewish person Jesus of Nazareth…but as an event that “fulfills” the history of Israel (and “event” here means the very history of this person…which to me includes Ascension and Second Coming). Alright. Thanks for this reflection.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:25 am | Permalink
  4. Gerard Murphy wrote:

    Obviously, there will always be a problem with the inclusivist theological stance the Catholic Church assumes due to its eschatological sense of superiority over and against Israel. Certainly, the way the Church views Israel is different from other religions as Israel forms the history of the Church. Yet, this history is one which is gathered and completed in Christ. Such a stance tends to come across as either patronizing and/or imperialistic.

    The church as not being juxtaposed to Israel as a nation precisely because the Church goes beyond nations and is for all nations due to Christ’s breaking in and completion of Jewish history overlooks a certain logocentricism and there is little we can do about it. The Church understands Christ as the first and last Word of things, a Word which will finally encapsulate the Jewish people at the end of time.

    Now, unless we can understand the Jewish hopes of the coming messiah are ones that do not have to be completed in Christological terms then ideas like “interrupting” and “superseding” do exactly the same damage in how they challenge a nation’s paradigm.
    However, this disunity of faith and denomination is precisely what gives meaning to people. Once we accept this without doing violence to each other and respecting the fact that one looks at the other through a certain paradigm then maybe dialog will truly progress.

    It reminds me of a joke that was recently told to me.

    “There was a man on an island, he had been there for years and whilst he was there he built two churches. When a ship came to pick him up many years later the captain asked him “why are there are two churches?”
    The man answered “That’s the one I go to and that’s the one I don’t go to”

    Friday, March 28, 2008 at 3:13 am | Permalink
  5. Freder1ck wrote:

    I would say that the Church and Israel are not two examples of the same kind of thing, but one people that is divided by a stumbling block.

    As I commented over on Andy’s reply to your post at Fire and the Rose: “The stumbling block is Christ, who is a person and a fact, not only an idea. If the promise of Israel is fulfilled in the Church, neither can the Church lay claim to that promise apart from God’s preference for the Jewish people in history. If Christ has incorporated us into His body, then we Christians are Jews in Him.”

    Friday, March 28, 2008 at 4:48 am | Permalink
  6. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I was wondering what you thought of my comment when you have a chance. If you’d rather email me, that is perfectly fine with me. If you’re too busy, I also understand…just curious how what I said might modify some of your thoughts a bit (or if there is some persuasion I perhaps need to consider). Thanks again. peace
    dave b (j.david.belcher@gmail.com)

    Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 7:08 am | Permalink
  7. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Any word at all?

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 7:25 am | Permalink

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