Soulen’s interpretation of the gospel within the entire canonical framework allows him to characterize the life of Christian discipleship as cruciform–without negating the OT’s very this-worldly promises of blessing. “Jesus…frees his disciples to live in such a way that the blessing of others knows no bounds” (p. 167). This is consistent with the divine economy of blessing-in-difference, but in a world afflicted by sin, this lifestyle will inevitably invite suffering.
Following Bonhoeffer, Soulen argues that the Christian doesn’t court suffering for its own sake. Rather, suffering is endured for the sake of the economy of mutual blessing. “The cross does not supersede the economy of mutual blessing; it establishes the outermost point of God’s fidelity to it on behalf of the estranged other” (p. 168). This is a healthy corrective to the sometimes morbid fixation on suffering as somehow meritorious in itself that characterizes some strains of Christian spirituality. God wants to deliver God’s creation from suffering, sickness, hatred, estrangement, and death. Moreover, Soulen says, the cross is not about “the denial or destruction of Israel’s national privilege” but is the means by which “God preserves the economy of mutual blessing through suffering love, to which Jew and Greek alike are called to be conformed” (p. 168).
Following this, Soulen turns to the nature of the Christian community. The church is “the table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles that prays in Jesus’ name for the coming of the God of Israel’s reign” (p. 169). Soulen goes on to argue that the fellowship of the church “confirms rather than annuls the difference and mutual dependence of Israel and the nations” (p. 168). Rather than seeing itself as a “spiritual” fellowship that transcends “carnal” differences such as that between Jew and Gentile, the church should be “a table fellowship of those who are–and remain–different” (p. 168). He maintains that the distinction between Jew and Gentile is not erased, but realized in a new way, in the church. “What the church rejects is not the difference of Jew and Gentile, male and female, but rather the idea that these differences essentially entail curse, opposition, and antithesis” (p. 170). The church is the “social embodiment of the doctrine of justification”–the reconciliation between peoples. He notes that this view of the church is underwritten by the decision at the so-called Council of Jerusalem recorded in the Book of Acts. It was decided that gentile Christians were not bound to observe Torah, but that Jewish followers of Jesus would continue to observe it. “Hence obedience to Jesus is possible from either of two vantage points” (pp. 170-171).
Further, the church must be mindful of its status as a provisional fellowship that anticipates God’s reign–it is not that reign itself. This is exhibited in part by the empirical fact that the church is overwhelmingly Gentile and that most Jews have declined the invitation to become part of the church’s fellowship. The church must simultaneously remember that it is a fellowship open to Jews and Gentile but also that gentile Christians do not have a mission to convert non-Christian Jews. This is a fine line to walk, but the church shouldn’t seek simplistic solutions as it lives in between the times.
Finally, Soulen argues that Christians have no warrant for thinking that Jews will convert en masse to Christianity in some sort of end-times scenario, as is sometimes imagined. Citing Paul’s discussion of Israel’s destiny in Romans, he says that only a “trans-ecclesiological” free action of God will determine the final status of each person. The fate of the Jews is not mediated by the Church, but is rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.
Summarizing, Soulen writes
The unity of the Christian canon is not best unlocked by insisting that everything in the Bible points toward Jesus Christ. Such a construal of the canon’s unity systematically disregards Bonhoeffer’s admonition not to speak that last word before the last but one. What results practically is a Christian theology that is triumphalist in its posture toward Jews and latently gnostic in its grasp of God’s purposes for the earth and its history. More helpful for discerning the unity of the canon is the recognition that the Scriptures [OT] and the Apostolic Witness [NT] are both centrally concerned with the God of Israel and the God of Israel’s coming reign of shalom. (p. 175)
I’ll save my own thoughts and questions for a subsequent post.