EXCERPT FROM MUSALAHA'S A CURRICULUM OF RECONCILIATION
What does it mean to be a part of the elect, chosen people? How do we as believers deal with the issue of God’s choice and God’s sovereignty? How has the Church related with the people of Israel, and how should we as followers of Christ the Messiah relate to the people of Israel, especially since we are Palestinian Christians and Israeli Messianic Jews?
The goal of this chapter is to present a brief history of the theological development of these issues, and then present arguments from both sides of the debate. Eventually, we hope that these issues can be discussed in the context of fellowship and relationship that has developed between Israeli and Palestinian participants. The hope is that even if they do not totally agree in the end, they will be able to understand each other better, and have a greater appreciation for the nuances of the other side’s arguments.
The Origin of the Issues
The issues of election and covenant have come up from the earliest days of the church, because the church itself is grounded in the narrative of the people of Israel. The entire redemptive story of Christ, from his birth to his death and resurrection is dependent on the Old Testament, and set in the context of the Jewish redemptive history. There is a clear line which runs through the entire Bible, from Abraham to Jesus. Therefore, Christianity is impossible without a theology of Israel.
Therefore, the question “has never been whether Christians should speak and act with reference to the Jewish people. Rather, the questions has been how they should do so, and how what they would say and do would affect the existence of the Jewish people.”
The history of how the church has dealt with the concept of Israel in terms of election and covenant is long and full of bold claims, reversals and mistakes. This history can be divided into two stages. First, the Supercessionist Stage, and second, the Post-Holocaust Stage. We will examine these two stages in some depth before moving on.
This period began with “the great trauma of the early church’s initial separation from the Jewish people.” The church sought to redefine their relationship with the Jewish people, and reached the conclusion that although their faith had come from the Jews, they had replaced the Jews. This had a knock on effect on the subjects of election and covenant.
In this way the church, for the most part, declared that God was finished with the Jewish people; now his redemptive work in the world would be done through the church and through the followers of Christ.
Although supercessionism had very negative results as Jews suffered persecution from the Christians who dominated Europe from the time of the Roman Empire. The Jews were viewed as cursed by God, since they had rejected his son, and therefore treating them as second- class citizens and their eventual descent to the sub-human came very easily. This behavior toward the Jews eventually culminated in the Holocaust. The long history of Christian oppression of the Jews created fertile ground for Nazi propaganda to paint them as sub-human and worthy of extermination.
Kendall Soulen identifies three different types of supercessionist theologies: punitive, economic, and structural. Punitive supersessionism is represented by figures such as Hippolytus, Origen, and Luther. It is the view that Jews who reject Jesus as the Jewish Messiah are consequently condemned by God, forfeiting the promises otherwise due to them under the covenants.
Economic supersessionism refers to the economy of God’s salvation. It is the view that, in God’s plans, the practical purpose of the nation of Israel is replaced by the role of the church, and differs from punitive supersessionism in that it does not see this as punishment of Israel. It is represented by writers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine.
Structural supersessionism is Soulen's term for the de facto marginalization of the Old Testament as normative for Christian thought. In his words, “Structural supersessionism refers to the narrative logic of the standard model whereby it renders the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about how God works as Consummator and as Redeemer engaging humankind in universal and enduring ways.”
After the horrors of the Holocaust became known, many Christians began rethinking their theological relationship with the Jewish people, specifically the Supercessionist ideas that had so long dominated much of Christian theology of election and covenant. “After examining again the sources of their faith, some churches have concluded that the teaching that the church displaced the Jewish people in God’s plan is wrong or at least seriously misleading. In its place they have affirmed that the church has not superseded the Jewish people in God’s plan and that God remains faithful to God’s election of the Jewish people.”
This shift has taken place in part because the significance of Old Testament covenants has been reevaluated, but also in large part because of Christian guilt over the Holocaust.
This is a significant theological change, and it seems to go far toward repairing the damage done to Christian-Jewish relations over the centuries of persecution. However, it has also brought many other questions to the surface. If the church has not replaced the Jews as the new elect, and if the Jews are still in a covenantal relationship with God, then how do we explain the fact that they continue to reject belief in Jesus as the Savior and Messiah? Also, for many Jews, any attempts at evangelizing the Jews and sharing with them the message of Jesus the Messiah is seen as anti-Semitic and a continuation of Christian persecution. Some Christians say that because the Jewish people are in a covenant with God, they do not need Jesus for salvation. For most Christians however, sharing the message of their faith is a commandment, and a way to reach out to all who are lost in the world, including the Jewish people.
Needless to say, these are difficult questions to answer. One thing is clear; the church can no longer simply ignore the Jewish people, nor can they revert to the traditional Christian approach of persecution and suppression. A theology of election and covenant is needed in order for Christianity to function and have meaning.
Election and Covenant: Two Approaches
The first, as we have seen, views the covenant that God made with the children of Israel in the Old Testament as unbroken and unbreakable. This view, which we shall term the Ethnic approach, sees the Jewish people as the chosen people, with a claim to the promises that God made to Abraham, based on their ethnicity and on Jewish halakah. The second position, which we will call the Sovereignty approach, sees the elect as being people who are in proper standing with God, and views God’s covenant as unbroken, but rejects the ethnic claims to membership of God’s covenant. They argue, instead, that because of God’s sovereignty, He chooses whom he wills, and we are obliged to accept it. We will now examine these two approaches, looking at both their positive and problematic aspects.
The Ethnic Approach
As we have seen, the ethnic approach to this issue claims that God’s election and covenant with the Jewish people is everlasting. This is based on a reading of Old Testament promises that God made to Abraham, and later to Moses. The covenant God made with the Jewish people is binding, therefore, the church has not replaced the Jewish people, and God still has a place for the Jewish people in his redemptive plan for the world. There are different theological positions concerning what will happen to the Jewish people in the end, especially since the majority of the Jewish people today do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. However, most Christians who adhere to this approach would agree, eschatologically speaking, that the Jewish people will be eventually saved, either through a national repentance and acceptance of Jesus, or through their original covenant with God.
This approach, for obvious reasons, is the approach that has been taken by most Israeli Messianic Jews. It lends legitimacy to their presence in the land, and conforms to the idea that the Jewish people are chosen by God to play an important and unique role in the drama of redemption. The emphasis in this approach is on the ethnic or cultural aspect of Jewish identity; the focus is on the Jewish people who were originally chosen and who have passed this status of chosenness down to their children through the generations.
While it is easy to understand how the Bible could be interpreted in this way, it is important to remember that it is an interpretation. The linking of theological concepts of election and chosenness with ethnicity has a long and grim history all over the world. We will now look at two examples which warn us against this method of interpretation, and indicate how dangerous it can be. First, in the history of the United States, and second, in the history of South Africa.
United States Example
For the European colonialists who came and settled in the territory that would become the United States, the idea of election and of being a chosen people set to inherit the new Promised Land was very common. This idea can be found from the earliest days of European settlement in North America. This idea, that Americans were fulfilling their God-given right and destiny by colonizing the land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, “was more or less taken for granted, not only by American clergymen but also by American politicians and other spokesmen. This is how America has seen its own manifest destiny. It comes from God.”
This belief fueled the continuous westward expansion of American settlement. Indeed, God’s hand was seen as moving in this settlement project, a very dubious claim given that the “westward expansion across the continent (and the near genocidal displacement of ‘heathen’ Native Americans) was rationalized repeatedly by references to providence, ‘natural right,’ the ‘creator,’ and ‘God’s will.’”
South Africa Example
In South Africa, the situation was remarkably similar. The Afrikaners who settled in South Africa originally came from Europe. They fled persecution and identified very closely with the biblical account of the Israelites. They saw themselves as the Chosen People, and the territory that would become South Africa as the Promised Land.
n the case of South Africa, this idea of election, of being chosen by God and being thus unique, ultimately had disastrous consequences. The apartheid system was established once the National Party (Afrikaner) took power in 1948, and was the logical conclusion of the theological assumptions that had long been made concerning the destiny of the Afrikaner people. “The existence of different racial groups was treated as one of these orders of creation. The different races were ordained by God to be ‘apart’ from one another from the very beginning. They are not only distinct from one another; they should also be kept apart, hence the socio-political dispensation of apartheid/apartness.”
It is obvious from these examples, from genocide in North America to the cruel and racist system of apartheid in South Africa, that applying the theology of election and chosenness to a particular national/ethnic group is dangerous. It is very easy to move from saying “we are the chosen people,” to “we are better than you” and other false, dehumanizing statements which do not reflect the reality of God’s love for all his children.
The Sovereignty Approach
The second approach to the theological question of election and chosenness is the sovereignty approach. This approach is often criticized for being a renewal of the old (and problematic) supercessionist approach. We have already looked at the history of supercessionism, and see why this is not a label that many followers of Christ choose to embrace; however, those who follow the ethnic approach accuse those who follow the sovereignty approach of removing the place and importance of the Jewish people from the redemptive plan of God. This is not actually the case. In reality, the sovereignty approach is a little more nuanced than this, and we will now examine it closely, keeping in mind what we have learned about the ethnic approach.
Rather than simply claiming that the Jewish people are the elect, the chosen people to whom all the biblical promises apply, the sovereignty approach states that God’s blessings and promises are given on the basis of his sovereignty and not ethnicity. In other words, he will bless who he chooses to bless, and he will curse who he chooses to curse, and it is not our place to question his decision. God’s election of Abraham is more of a statement about God and his nature than about the subject of his choice.
This approach is entirely in keeping with the biblical understanding of election. Even in the Old Testament, the people of Israel understood that their election was based on their relationship with God and with God’s sovereignty. So far as the covenant is presented as a purely national/ethnic community, non-Jews will always live outside of the faith community. Yet throughout the scriptures it is clear that ethnicity did not define ‘Israel’ which had a fluid and unstable nature. In Galatians 3:6–14, the real progeny are not who Abraham begets, but all who are under covenant, all who are given life and are chosen by God.
In spite of this fluidity within Israel in the Old Testament, all who were called to join the community of faith joined with ethnic Jewish Israel. This is seen in the example of Ruth. There was an element of ethnicity (although culture and religion may be a better way to speak about it since ethnicity is a modern concept) that is undeniable. However, in the New Testament this all changes. With the coming of Jesus, the elect can no longer be defined apart from Christ in whom there is the one election and the one community; both of these things are now founded on him.
The elect from among the nations are no longer required to join with an ethnic group. Paul even rebukes Peter for putting pressure on Gentile believers to compromise their ethnic identity in order to have salvation and fellowship with Jews who believe in the Messiah. The mixed Jew-Gentile genealogy of the Messiah23 also points us away from a notion of racial purity towards an inclusive community founded on God’s own election of Christ. It included figures such as Ruth and Rahab who were ‘outsiders.’
This approach, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God is also problematic in some respects, as it does not allow for God to work in history, and can easily slip into a type of suppercessionism which discounts the Jewish people altogether, and even anti-Semitism. If the assumption is that God is finished with the Jewish people, and does not move through history, it is easy to make the assumption (as many in the early church did), that the Jewish people are a theological anomaly with no reason to exist.
Brian Cox, an interfaith facilitator, gives five principles of sovereignty which help explain the ways in which God moves. These principles affirm that God does work in history through his sovereignty. These principles are as follows:
- God’s governance of the affairs of nations is indirect. One cannot deduce a simple cause and effect but rather there is a strong element of mystery.
- God’s governance is implemented in ways that leave intact human free will.
- God’s governance is meant to inspire hope rather than certitude.
- God’s governance involves the work of individual and collective transformation.
- God’s governance has healing and restoration as its ultimate goal: the healing of people, families, communities, and nations.
Interestingly, the same problems faced by the early church continue to be present, especially among Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. The issue of election and choseness is once again hotly debated, and continues to be divisive. However, it is important to remember that unity in the Messiah is called for by God. We recall the passage in Ephesians 2, when Paul speaks of breaking down the “wall of separation.” The wall spoken about in this passage is often interpreted as the wall of sin which separates us from God, however the Christian theologian John Howard Yoder has a different interpretation of this passage which is very relevant to the conflict among believers here in the Holy Land. Yoder writes:
The death of Jesus Christ is spoken of in the [New Testament] in many different ways. Sometimes it is spoken of as a sacrifice, sometimes as a ransom. This time it breaks down a wall . . . What Jesus did was to remove the barrier between the ‘in’ people and the ‘out’ people. Our ordinary picture is of the cross reconciling me to God over the barrier of my sins, and reconciling you to God over the barrier of your sins so that as a result we find ourselves all (one by one) together in this new saved status. In this text the logic runs the other way. The barrier is not anyone’s sin. The barrier is the historical fact of separate stories . . . Two estranged histories are made into one. Two hostile communities are reconciled. Two conflicting life styles flow together.
Yoder’s beliefs are founded on the idea that the schism between the Gentile church and the Jewish synagogue was not an inevitable historical fact and that reconciliation between Jew and Gentile is possible in a way which is socially transformative for the community and for others around them. The intimacy of God to his people stresses the theme of covenant and indicates the universalizing of the faith community, liberating non-Jews from the necessity of formal conversion to Judaism and allowing for the development of a diverse society of Jews and non-Jews participating in the kingdom of God together.
Jewish and non-Jewish convergence in the kingdom through a common identity which frees the witness of the believer from its embodiment in a particular linguistic, cultural or ethnic framework allows the believing community to exist simply as the people of God wherever they find themselves. In this way the good news of the gospel’s saving power is spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth and carries with it the hope for a peaceful society and a reconciled world.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, 11/2.
Baskwell, Patrick. “Kuyper and Apartheid: A revisiting.” In HTS 62(4) 2006.
Conradie, Ernst, M. Afrikaner Theology and Nature, Accessed April 20, 2011, http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/bron/PDF--Christianity/Conradie-- Afrikaner%20Theology%20+%20Nature.pdf.
Cox, Brian. Faith-Based Reconciliation, A Moral Vision That Transforms People and Societies. The United States: Xlibris Corporation, 2007.
Davidson, Lawrence. “Christian Zionism as a Representation of American Manifest Destiny.” In Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 14, No. 2, 157–169, Summer 2005.
Holwerda, David. Jesus & Israel, One Covenant or Two?. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Küng, Hans. Christians and Jews, edited by H. Küng and W. Kaspar. Concilium 8/10; Seabury, 1975.
Lubragge, Michael T. Manifest Destiny, The Philosophy That Created a Nation. Accessed April 20, 2011, http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/E/manifest/manif2.htm.
Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 2009.
Soulen, Kendall. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Statement of the 1987 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA); in Alan Brockway et al., The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1988.
Suh, Robert. “The Use of Ezekiel 37 in Ephesians 2.” In Journal of the Evangelical 261
Theological Society, 50/4 (2007): 715 –733. Accessed April 20, 2011, www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/50/50-4/JETS_50-4_715-733_Suh.pdf
Tarazi, Paul. “Covenant, Land and City, Finding God’s Will in Palestine.” In The Reformed Journal 29 (1979): 10–16. Accessed April 20, 2011, http://old.svots.edu/Faculty/Paul- Nadim-Tarazi/Articles/Covenant-Land-and-City.html.
Yoder, John Howard. He Came Preaching Peace. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998.