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Thursday, May 11, 2006 

Jews, Christians, and Robert Jenson Part 1

Those of you who have been reading my blog since the beginning know that one of my chief interests is the relationship between Jews and Christians. I posted very briefly on this in a book review of Jews and Christians: The Parting of Ways that I did here. I am currently reading another book dealing with some of these issues entitled Jews and Christians: People of God edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. Though I have enjoyed reading T.B. Vick's quotes from Robert Jenson (here and here), I myself had not read any of Jenson's work until now. His is the first essay in the book and I must say that I was impressed. In that particular essay Jenson highlights the need for developing a Christian Theology of Judaism.

In this essay Jenson proposes the central problem in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as the question of who now is "Israel" after Israel. Jenson makes a distinction between what he calls "canonical" Israel and Judaism. The canonical Israel is that Israel which

"denotes the national political and cultic entity that was established through Moses and David and endured, in one recognizable form or another, for something like a millennium. This Israel came to an end when Rome terminated temple-worship and made the land of promise foreign territory, this time apparently for good." (p. 2)

The problem then for Christians is figuring out how to undestand and incorporate this latter Judaism's "theological claim to be Israel" with Christian belief. (p. 3) Jenson further explains:

"That there should be any difficulty in understanding Judaism's claim to be Israel may, of course, seem preposterous to Jews. But for Christian theology it is not merely a difficulty but a torment. Christian faith is the conviction that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead and installed him, if hiddenly and prolepticaly, as the Messiah of Israel, and that by this prolepsis he has opened the ingathering of the gentiles to Zion. That the vast majority of Abraham and Sarah's descendents have rejected and do reject this claim, and maintain a claim to be faithful Israel without acknowledging Jesus' resurrection, must indeed give the church furiously to think, and has done so since at least the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. From a certain angle of vision, the mere existence of Judaism looks much like a refutation of Christianity-and may indeed be just that." (p.3-4)

This is problematic for Christians especially for those who see the law and the prophets as being fulfilled by Jesus' death and resurrection. If it has been fulfilled then what do we do with Judaism? Can we still call them God's people? Can we accept their theological claim to be "Israel"? Are Christians now the new "Israel"? These are questions that have vexed me in the past and they are questions that need answering from a Christian theological standpoint.

Jenson himself rightly dismisses "supersessionism" as being the theological answer. This is the belief that all things Judaic have become obsolete and that the term "Israel" now defines only Christian believers. Jenson's own proposal is a somewhat modified two covenant theory. He speaks of God mysteriously taking two detours, one of which is beneficial for the ekklesia and one which is concerned soley with Judaism. Says Jenson:

"I propose to my fellow Christians that God wills the Judaism of Torah-obedience as that which alone can and does hold the lineage of Abraham and Sarah together during the time of detour. And that lineage must continue, until the day when lineages shall end."

Jenson's proposal is that God still wishes to have a people who are to be identified as seperate from everyone else. This seperation being marked out by their ancestral lineage and their obedience to the Torah. By virtue of being predominately Gentile, the ekklesia cannot fulfill this desire of God because it cannot claim physical descent from Abraham and Sarah and cannot affirm itself as being marked out by the Law and obedience to that Law. Moreover God wishes for the Torah to not only be heard in this time of detour but to believed in. The former is the job of the Jews, the latter the job of Christians to believe that "the Torah became flesh and dwelt among us." (p.12) Jenson concludes his essay with one final proposal:

"My final-and perhaps most radical suggestion to Christian theology (not, let me say again, to Jewish self-understanding) is that, so long as the time of detour lasts, the embodiment of the risen Christ is whole only in the form of the church and an identifiable community of Abraham ad Sarah's descendents. The church and the synagogue are together and only together the present availability to the world of the risen Jesus Christ." (p.13)

To be continued...

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