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Church and Israel — Christianity and Judaism

Lately the question of the relation between Israel and the Church and Christianity and Judaism has been raised. 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 about revelation versus religion. Certainly the revelation of God stands as judge over all religions, 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.

All of this is only to note that I think we sometimes skip far too 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. What precisely that difference is and how it matters theologically is the very stuff of truly theological dialogue between Christians and Jews.


  1. bobby grow wrote:

    I think there is a dialectical relationship between the ‘Church’ and ‘Israel’, so that the nation of Israel mediated the Messiah to the nations, and now the nations, ironically, are to mediate the Messiah to the ‘nation’ of Israel—in an on-going tango, so to speak (so Rom 9–11); with the result of ONE new people group—Christians (so Eph. 2).

    Furthermore I believe the instrumental particularization of the ‘Jewish’ Jesus is superseded by the ontological anhypostasis of the eternal logos so that any discussion of Jew or Gentile must be framed beyond ‘a humanity’ from below, and must find its starting point in the ‘humanity’ that has always and already been in the life of God (i.e. logos asarkos, particularized in logos ensarkos). In other words, whether Jew or Gentile, any particularization of humanity only bears witness to the ‘humanity’ of God disclosed in the Second Person (boy that sounds more Thomistic than I like, oh well . . . ).

    Let me know if any of this makes sense, these are very crude thoughts on my part :-).

    Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Nate Kerr wrote:


    The issues that you raise here are of absolutely crucial importance for our time. I think you are absolutely right to refuse the reduction of either “Israel” or “Church” to “Judaism” and “Christianity,” respectively. It is finally this refusal that precludes supercessionism as well as a false Christian universalism. What Christians learn from Jews is that “Israel” is always “more than” a place, as precisely “more than” the cultural and political center of a religion. And this means that “church” is always “more than” Christianity, precisely by way of its relation to the excess that is “Israel.” I think recognizing this moves us decisively beyond the Jewish-Christian conversation as a matter of mere “inter-religious dialogue.” For all the talk of the need for such “dialogue” these days (a cottage industry of sorts, for sure), I’m not quite sure the question has ever widely enough been taken seriously in a way that does not presume the the ideological and “heresiological” (to use Boyarin’s term) constructs of “Christianity” and “Judaism” as distinct “world religions.”

    I would also want to argue that taking the conversation in this direction is to suggest that perhaps the Jewish-Christian question is at bottom the way forward for a renewed thinking of “catholicity.” Perhaps in all of our talk of “Christian unity,” we have missed addressing the real originary “shism” that must be addressed if such unity is to be forged anew. (And for what’s its worth, if I remained convinced of the need more and more these days to be distinctively and deliberately “Protestant,” such conviction is inextricably bound up with this Jewish question.)

    Thanks for prodding us to nuance and reframe this question otherwise than we have become accustomed to.


    Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Mike Bull wrote:

    James Jordan has an innovative take on this issue here:
    Romans 9-11 spoke about future events, but they are not future to us.

    Monday, October 20, 2008 at 3:51 am | Permalink
  4. Tim F. wrote:

    Halden and Nate,

    I am in large agreement here. In fact, there has been some work done on the issue of Israel’s relationship to the Church recently; more specifically, trying to (figurally) read the church as divided Israel in some intelligible and helpful way. Ephraim Radner works some on this and Yves Congar has a little known piece on this as well. I can’t think of it off hand, but I can easily look it up if someone’s interested.

    However, for this to happen many other questions rise to the surface, particularly how we read Scripture. In fact, this might be the most fundamental difference between Christians and Jews: how to read the Old Testament, or should I say the Hebrew Bible?


    Tim F

    Monday, October 20, 2008 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Doug Harink wrote:


    The distinction you make is indeed fundamental. But while Church and Israel are not to be identified with Christianity and Judaism (i.e., the historical practices of two ‘religions’), the words do refer to people(s) in some sense historically marked by baptism and circumcision. There is still the question then, what is the relation of the Church to baptism and Israel to circumcision? Certainly not identity on the one hand; but certainly not complete non-identity on the other? Or, does the ‘true’ people of God remain fundamentally invisible, with the relation of the theological entities to the historical practices purely apocalyptic and miraculous? Or do the historical practices serve a providential purpose in enabling us to say ‘Israel’ and ‘Church’ of certain corporate bodies (i.e., do they save us from gnostic temptations)? I ask these as genuine questions, with only a rough idea of where I might go. I am convinced that Barth’s commentary on Romans is more promising on them than many think (more even, perhaps than the CD material on Israel), but also not without problems). Thanks for continuing to stimulate the discussion.

    Monday, October 20, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Phil Sumpter wrote:


    I posted on Radner’s typological exegesis a while back. I make a vague critique and link to an excellent and detailed book review. And I agree that the key issue is hermeneutical. This is why recent work on the theological distinction between midrash and allegory is so important.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 4:40 am | Permalink
  7. Nate,

    Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by a “false universalism”? I couldn’t figure out quite how that got into the conversation. What are you referring to?

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  8. Tim F. wrote:


    Thanks for the link. I am familiar with Marshall’s review. If you’re interested in what I have said on Radner you can take a look at my essay in New Blackfriars (January 2008); it’s on the 19th century Ugandan martyrs but Radner figures(!) heavily with some critique.



    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  9. Chris Donato wrote:

    It seems to me that if we just keep the notion of adoption or ingrafting before us, then that will keep our “replacement” tendencies in check: “…to the Jew first and also to the Greek” & co.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 6:57 am | Permalink
  10. Mike Bull wrote:

    “…to the Jew first and also to the Greek” & co.”

    Surely this puts that process in context. Since AD70 there is no longer any Jew-Gentile distinction in God’s economy, only those inside and outside the New Jerusalem.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  11. Chris Donato wrote:

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, Mike, in the sense that all men and women who are united to Christ are united to him by faith (with baptism mixed into that) — not the old covenant torah.

    This doesn’t negate the fact that, as St. Paul wrote, the Jews have an advantage, primarily understood in the fact that God entrusted them with his covenant (see Rom. 3:1). To be sure, the destruction of Jerusalem ends up being significant in God’s redemptive plan, but, ironically, as a means to the end of bringing his people (Jews) to repentance. That’s fundamentally what God’s judgment is meant to do, per the prophets.

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  12. Nate Kerr wrote:


    My apologies for the delay in responding to you. In the course of trying to keep track of all I’m currently involved in, I missed your question. I have several things in mind when I use the phrase “false Christian universalism.” Mainly what I have in mind is the kind of interpretation of Christ which makes of him a cipher for a universal humanum, a kind of transcendental principle through which differences are genuinely generated and perceived, and which makes of the Church the locus of that “universality.” I have in mind the Badiouian reading of Paul, the Christology of Milbank, and the whole Schleiermacherian tradition through to post-liberalism.

    I think the relation of Christian to Jew and Christ to Israel is best thought of in terms of election and radical particularity. Christianity is not a “universalism” either if that simply means that Jesus Christ makes God’s election of Israel “open to all.” Rather, I think that Jesus in his stark singularity is instead the excessive fullness (the pleroma) of particularity itself. The gospel of Jesus is for all insofar as it is a kind of non-identical repetition of Israel’s election of each one in Christ. If Jesus is about anything here it is not so much universality as genuine catholicity (and I do not take these to be synonymous).

    One more thing: And that is that I take the real “universalism” (if we can use that term) to be not about “Christianity” as such, as about the New Jerusalem to come. It is in relation to that very concrete apocalyptic (and so as irreducibly Jewish as Christic) reality that we genuinely have that “all” in which God will be all in all.

    There is much more to say. But I hope that at least helps indicate a little of what I have in mind when I use the phrase and how I understand it to function within this discussion. Thanks for the question.

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Nate, what you describe above about Christ encoding a principle of some sort “universal humanum” “which makes of the Church the locus of that ‘universality.’” Sounds very much like the kind of perspective advanced by Henri de Lubac in Catholicism:

    “Thus the unity of Mystical Body of Christ, a supernatural unity supposes a previous natural unity, the unity of the human race.” (p. 25)

    “The Church which is ‘Jesus Christ spread abroad and communicated’ completes — so far as it can be completed here below — the work of spiritual reunion which was made necessary by sin; this work which was begun at the Incarnation and was carried up on to Calvary. In one sense the Church is herself the reunion, for that is what is meant by the name Catholic…” (p. 48)

    Would this be the sort of “false universalism” you are arguing against?

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Nate Kerr wrote:


    In a word, yes. I will pause there in anticipation of follow-up comments. ;-)

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I wonder what you would make of the distinction I note between de Lubac and Bonhoeffer, in a previous post:

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Your post is interesting stuff, and I am going to want to explore what is said here with regards to Bonhoeffer. I do not have Sanctorum Communio at hand right now, but my inclination is to think that there’s something in Bonhoeffer’s account of the church that I can work with which is not the case with Lubac. And I think that has to do with the idea that what is “superseded” here is “humanity” as the old Adam in “the person of Christ existing as Church-community.” I do think this Christic notion of the supersession of the old Adam is the way in which to speak of the church in its catholicity — that is, I think the location of true catholicity is “in Christ.” And it is the singular historicity of Jesus Christ that relates the church to Israel, but by way of election. That is, we might say that what is elected in “Israel” is itself precisely the supersession of the old Adam “in Christ.” Israel is itself a supersession of “humanity” as such.

    Now, I would want to suggest one thing here, though: viz.., that “Christ existing as the Church-community” be read as a statement about the church as sacrament. The church is not in-itself the fulfillment and true end of all humanity so much as the sign and sacrament of that what all of humanity is to become. The locus of apocalyptic is not transferred from the singuarity of Christ to the universality of the church, here. Rather, the church lives according to the “already” of Christ’s apocalypse as the sign of the apocayptic “not yet” that is the New Jerusalem “to come” (in terms of which coming alone would I really want to talk about “universality,” if at all). The church thus witnesses to the fact that their ingathering into the “already” of the new reality in Christ is the “fulfillment” only as the “sign” of the “fullness” (the excessive pleroma) of that final reality which Jews insist is still yet to come. Here then is the paradox I am suggesting a certain reading of Bonhoeffer leads us to: the church is the supersession of humanity as the lived embodiment of that which continually exceeds and supersedes itself — the new humanity in Christ. I don’t think that Lubac’s reading of the church according to the “nature/grace paradigm” (as my friend Josh Davis has convinced me) can be read as faithful to this paradox. I think Bonhoeffer’s evolving struggles to work out and understand just exactly what to say about the church in its relation to Christ, the eschaton, and the world in Discipleship, Ethics and in the Letters and Papers from Prison testifies to his ongoing struggle to remain faithful to precisely this paradox (especially, and increasingly, in relation to the Jewish-Christian question).

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    I agree both with your evaluation of de Lubac here, and of Bonhoeffer. I think there is a danger in Bonhoeffer’s formulations to too much of a conflation between Christ and the church, but generally a less problematic reading of such formulations seems near at hand most of the time, as you point out.

    In fact, as I’m sure you know, Ziegler has recently pointed out the fundamentally apocalyptic nature of Bonhoeffer’s ethics, which I think bears witness to the trajectory of his thought as a whole and the shape of his mature reflection.

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 12:45 am | Permalink

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