By what authority?

After surveying the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian theology, Clark Williamson proposes some criteria for a post-Holocaust theology:

– Beware of unchanged “pre-Shoah” theological statements (i.e., we need to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to traditional formulations).

– Do theology in conversation with Jews.

– Say nothing that could not be said “in the presence of the burning children” (e.g., theological statements that imply that God willed–or permitted–the Holocaust to happen).

– Stress discipleship (i.e., faith as a “Way of life).

But if post-Holocaust/Shoah theology is to be a genuinely Christian theology, it also needs a Christian-specific norm against which it can be tested. What is the authority by which we could be justified in undertaking a reconstruction of traditional theology?

Williamson rejects two contrasting models of authority. The first looks to the past, to some Golden Age of the church, as a perfected ideal against which to measure all subsequent theology and church life. Williamson identifies this with a “Roman” model of authority and quotes the early church historian Robert Wilken: “There never was a Golden Age when the church was whole, perfect, pure–virginal. The faith was not purer, the Christians were not braver, the church was not whole and undivided” (A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 16).

The second model takes an opposite approach; it views authority as residing in present needs and experiences. The problem with this view is that there is no external criteria or standpoint for critically assessing theological reconstruction authorized by present-day needs. The so-called German Christians in Nazi Germany are an example of how badly wrong theology can go when it isn’t tied to such a criteria.

Williamson argues instead that we can find the kind of norm we need by looking to the tradition itself–and its long history of self-criticism and reinterpretation. He calls this “canonical criticism”: “It stresses that at whatever historical juncture we encounter the biblical community of faith, we find it reinterpreting its faith” (p. 21).

He identifies three “hermeneutical principles” that Israel used to reinterpret its faith:

– a monotheizing principle: the struggle against and within polytheistic context to affirm God’s oneness (shades of H. R. Niebuhr’s “radical monotheism);

– a prophetic principle: the call to widen the circle of moral concern (God is the God of all); and

– a constitutive principle: the emphasis on God’s particular love for us (the community of faith).

Williamson proposes that these three principles or emphases can be combined into a single “gospel norm” for Christian faith:

The good news is that God is the God of a singular promise and a singular command: the promise is that God’s love is freely, graciously, offered to each and all, and the command is the twofold requirement that we are to love God with our whole selves and to love and do justice to our neighbors as ourselves. (p. 22)

This is a Christian norm because “we find our sources of it and access to it in the testified-to Jesus and Paul” (p. 22). And because “the process of interpretation and reinterpretation did not cease in the Apostolic Age but continues and will continue throughout the history of the church” and “it is appropriate to interpret the tradition (including the canon) in the way in which it interpreted itself,” this gospel-statement can be a “standard of appropriateness in the light of which all interpretations of the Christian faith can be critically scrutinized” (p. 23).

Williamson calls this norm of appropriateness “an ellipse with two foci” because it holds together God’s promise and God’s command. The promise is that God’s love is “radically free” and “unconditional,” but it also empowers us to do justice. Lose the radical nature of grace and you have works-righteousness; lose the command to love and to do justice and you have “cheap grace.”

Too often, Christians have interpreted Judaism as promoting salvation by works, but Jews see God’s liberation and election of the people of Israel and the giving of the Torah as acts of radical grace. Living according to the pattern laid out by the Torah is a response to God’s love, empowered by liberating grace. (Just as for Christians, faith without works is dead.) Conversely, Christians historically have fallen into a form of works-righteousness when they set conditions on God’s grace. For example, saying that outside the church there is not salvation, or that only those who consciously accept Jesus as their savior can be saved.

What this gospel-norm provides, according to Williamson, is a means of critiquing Christian exclusivism and anti-Judaism. Traditional doctrines of covenant, scriptural authority, Christology, God, and the church can all be scrutinized in light of the gospel norm. If, for example, they set conditions on God’s grace or require us to narrow the scope of neighbor-love, they should be modified or rejected. The bulk of the rest of Williamson’s book is an undertaking in just this direction.

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One thought on “By what authority?

  1. Pingback: Divine determinism and divine sovereignty | A Thinking Reed

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