Israel and the church: co-witnesses to the love and kingdom of God

I’m not going to blog exhaustively about the remaining chapters in Clark Williamson’s A Guest in the House of Israel, where he applies the insights of a post-Holocaust theology to various topics (covenant, scripture, Christology, doctrine of God) with interesting results. What I thought I’d do instead is take a look at one area–the doctrine of the church–to see how his approach plays out. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Williamson is explicitly doing theology in the context of and for the church.

The problem with traditional thinking about the church, Williamson says, is that it has been deformed by the insistence that the church replaces Israel as the people of God:

What must first be taken into account in a post-Holocaust church theology is the underside of Christian teaching on the church, how the marks of the church were systematically distorted by the anti-Jewish, supersessionist connotations with which they were endowed. (p. 233)

In its traditional understanding of the church as the “ark of salvation,” Christian theology has correspondingly downgraded the status of Judaism. “The more universalistic the doctrine of the church became, the more anti-Jewish it was” (p. 235). The idea of the church as the replacement people, the new Israel, was a popular theme among the church fathers. Later, Reformers such as Luther projected their criticisms of medieval Catholicism back onto 1st-century Judaism, a trend continued into the modern era by both “liberal” and “orthodox” theologians.

In light of this, Williamson says, the Jewish “no” to the church’s claims is “a proper and faithful response to the church’s distortion of the gospel”:

The Jewish “no” is quite real, but it was a “no” to a displacement ideology of the covenant; a “no” to a spiritualized and dehistoricized understanding of redemption emptied of its this-worldly promises of the end of oppression, war, and injustice; and a “no” to the claim that salvation was now the property of Gentiles and accessible to Jews only on condition that they turn their backs on the God of the Exodus and Sinai. (p. 243)

Instead of seeing itself as the exclusive ark of salvation or the replacement people, the church should learn to “de-center” itself. It needs to move away from “ecclesio”-centrism and toward theo-centrism:

The church needs to see that its reality can only appropriately be understood and stated in a way that takes the church out of the center of the picture and in place of itself sees there, instead, God, Christ, the neighbor, and God’s promise of what is to come. (p. 246)

Accompanying the church’s distorted understanding of its mission is the relativization of the Kingdom of God. Since the church saw itself as the replacement people, it could see itself as the fulfillment of God’s promises. “Any sense of disappointment on God’s part, at having wanted the kingdom of God and having gotten the church instead, was missing” (p. 252). As the church gained more temporal power, it became natural to view the extension of that influence as the kingdom of God coming in fullness. This conflation of the church with the kingdom eclipses the sense of anticipation or expectation of God’s hoped-for kingdom where death, suffering, and sorrow are brought to an end. “With a loss of the sense of contrast between the present realities of life and the hoped-for kingdom of God, the church was free to aggrandize itself at the expense of Judaism and the Jewish people” (p. 254).

Williamson proposes that the purpose of the church

is to make known in the world the promise and command, the call and claim, of the God of Israel, to spread abroad the love of God and of the neighbor. It is to do this through words and deeds, neither words alone nor deeds uninterrupted by words, but both. Words separated from deeds are empty; deeds separated from words are blind. The mission of the church is one that it shares with the people Israel, not one that it is to take to the people Israel. Its mission is its call from God to bear witness before the world of the promise and command, the grace and task, of God. This mission is itself a gracious gift to the church from the God of Israel, as Israel’s mission of being “a light to the Gentiles” a gracious gift to Israel from the God of Israel. The relationship of the church to the Jewish people today is based on the fact that both have been graciously and irrevocably called and claimed by God. Hence, the church has no conversionary mission to the Israel of God. Its mission to the people Israel is one of service (diakonia), not one of proclamation (kerygma). Its service may be critical; there may be times when Christians will want to call Jews back to faithfulness to the God of Israel, but its service is never to call Jews to convert from the God of Israel. Jews, too, may serve the church critically by reminding it of what it is all too prone to forget, that it is called and claimed by the God of Israel. (p. 250)

He emphasizes that “Christian mission is a shared mission, one in which both the church and synagogue are called to be witnesses of the God of Israel before the world and each other” (p. 251).

Recovering this shared mission, along with a sense of eschatological expectation, will allow the church to recognize that it is not the final form of the people of God. Williamson envisions a “future changed relationship between the church and the Jewish people…when the first schism within the people of God will be overcome, when both church and synagogue will look different from the way they do now, when the church’s days of wandering in the wilderness of exclusivist anti-Judaism finally come to an end and we all enter into God’s promise to the children of Abraham” (p. 265).

2 thoughts on “Israel and the church: co-witnesses to the love and kingdom of God

  1. Bob Almond

    What strikes me is the absence from most of this discussion of the person of Jesus. Many of the points you (or Williamson) make are really helpful, but the Church is fundamentally ‘about’ Jesus Christ, and the substance of any call to conversion directed towards Judaism is not, and I suspect never has been, a call to convert ‘from’ Israel’s God, but rather a call to see Jesus as Messiah. Judaism without Jesus is as incomplete as Christianity would be without the Old Testament. Not read the book yet – but would be interested to hear your response?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I think you raise a good point, and I do have some concerns about Williamson’s Christology. I think another post might be in order….

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