” ‘If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you…it is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.’ So spoke the President [Bill Clinton] of the United States in a speech delivered before the Israeli Knesset assembled in Jerusalem. He was recalling with apparent approval the words of his desperately ill pastor. He concluded the speech by saying, ‘Your journey is our journey, and America will stand with you now and always.” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, p. 1)
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Jesus, Matthew 23:37-39)
Picking up from last time, I begin this segment on the theological relationship between ethnic Israel and the Church of Jesus with a few preliminary remarks and cautions. First, I think it is both helpful and necessary to remind ourselves from time to time of the crucial distinction between what the Scriptures actually teach on various subjects (in their original context and in view of the historical intentions of the biblical writers), and what we may or may not like to believe about these same matters today. Such a distinction may seem obvious to us–indeed, it should–but it is no exaggeration to point out that both liberals and conservatives, in their own remarkably different ways, often obliterate the gulf that lay between their own cherised convictions and what a given text actually puts forth.
Liberals do this, of course, when they offer up interpretations of Jesus or Paul in which these ancient, primitive Jewish figures actually turn out, upon closer inspection (and a whole lot of exegetical gymnastics), to be curiously possessed of strikingly modern Western values and sentiments far ahead of their time. If only we had actually grasped what they were saying, we could have arrived at the life-giving nadir of the 21st century and its blessed enlightenment so much earlier! One thinks here of the shoddy scholarship of writers such as John Shelby Spong or Marcus Borg, in which the sheer Jewishness of the New Testament evaporates before our wondering gaze and Jesus becomes precisely what we would have wished him to be if he had never existed and we had to invent him for ourselves. Better to admit you simply disagree with ancient patterns of thinking than to engage in intellectual dishonesty in pursuit of the (non-existent) fern seeds all the while the elephant itself looms right in front of you, completely ignored. Do we really think Jesus did not believe in the regular, supernatural intervention of God in the created order or in real divine judgment upon human sin? Demythologizing the New Testament did not explode onto the academic scene because Bultmann was glancing down at his “what would Jesus do?” bracelet for guidance when he opened his Bible and sharpened his scapel. If, at the end of the day, you choose to disent from the Scriptures in light of the supposed superiority of modern reason and scientific or moral discoveries, be my guest. But let it be a consciously admitted disagreement, rather than ruthless revisionist history of the sort that would cause Dan Brown to blush in shame and deny three times that he knows you were he asked.
On the other hand, conservatives are in perennial danger of confusing their own (often highly peculiar and uninformed) interpretations of the Scriptures with the infallibility and inspiration of the Word of God. Those of us who are conservative in theological orientation must be ever aware of our constant tendency to avoid the unsettling experience of cognitive dissonance by means of twisting the Scriptures to match our own private religious hunches and to line up with our neat, tight systems of thought that admit no disturbance or unrest. Such unrest, alas, is often identified with unbelief in many of the circles I travel in. But to disagree with my interpretation of a passage is not necessarily to call the truthfulness of that passage itself into question or to assert another foreign, unlawful authority in place of God’s. It simply means you disagree with my understanding. John Murray once brilliantly pointed out that “the intention of Scripture is Scripture.” Let’s take that to heart and allow its wisdom to sink deep into our core intuitions and to shape our primal instincts. Wrestling with the finititude and falleness of your own potentially mistaken interpretations is not to cast aspersion or doubt upon God’s Word–only yourself. And it is a worthy thing to regularly doubt yourself. I am the only object in the universe towards which I am justified in employing a hermeneutic of suspicion in every interpretative engagement. Not God, not my neighbor, not my enemy, not Scripture. Only me. Because of sin, silly.
I belabor this point because the discussion about Israel and the Church is one that has long been and continues to be full of empty rhetoric, shoddy gamesmanship and heated tempers flaring up in utter disgrace of the gospel we claim to adhere faithfully to. Let’s lay aside, for a brief while and as genuinely as we are able, our own preferences and presuppositions and try to get into the minds of the various NT authors as they addressed this issue. Above all, I want to know what they thought about this issue. No elaborate, trumped up charges of anti-semitism simply because someone holds to a different (but plausible) set of ideas about God’s attitude towards the political nation of Israel today, or in response to a conviction that Jews as well as Gentiles stand under God’s holy wrath and are called upon to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. Instead, let’s ask first and foremost: is this what the NT actually teaches? This happens too rarely. With G. K. Chesterton, let us learn to assign bigotry not to certain objective perspectives we dislike or disbelieve, but rather to that peculiar subjective disposition of the human heart that renders it utterly unable (and unwilling) to see how and why another person could think so differently from us. The attitude that regularly expresses itself in the words “how could they think that?” is the fountain of all bias and ignorant prejudice.
Second, much of the seemingly unresolveable confusion in the current conversation can be traced to underlying assumptions and vastly conflicting hermeneutical strategies and committments. These almost always lay under the surface and remain unacknowledged–or at least are granted the certitude of self-evident truth and thus safeguarded from any real inspection. Therefore, we must be aware of whether our methods of interpretation are warranted, not merely the content or conclusions we arrive at by virtue of said methodology. Are all OT promises, a priori, to be read “literally”, and what does this mean? Does every NT writer speak from a common vision and shared understanding of the relationship between God’s people of old and His newly formed people in Christ, or could there be various viewpoints espoused in these documents? What would this mean?
Moreoever, how do we handle the undeniable tensions of the NT on this theme? How can Paul–in the same letters, no less!–claim that the gospel and the salvation it brings are to the Jew first and only then to the Gentile (Romans 1), and yet argue that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile and that both are one in Christ Jesus (Romans 3 & 10 & Galatians 3)? How can he express his deepest anguish over the fate of his people (Romans 9) and yet confidently say that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11)? How can he claim that God has not rejected His people (Romans 11) and yet propose that God’s wrath has come upon them to the utmost (I Thessalonians 2)? Even more stunning, how can the Lord Jesus himself weep over the tragic reality that his messianic identity has been “hidden” from the eyes of Israel (Luke 19:42) after earlier rejoicing in the very fact that God has “hidden” His Son’s true identity from them (Luke 10:21)? On any reading, the realities being dealt with here are complex and laden with multiple layers of significance. To which pole, if I may so speak, do we give epistemological priority at the expense of the other? Is there a proper balance to be discovered here or are we consigned to our own personal preferences, as we arbitrarily pick and choose what passages we will listen to while ignoring the inconvient portions that do not cohere with our vision? The dilemmas are legion in this terrain and often feel insurmountable. May God help us not to make fools of ourselves or our confession of faith.
Next up: on to (finally!) the Gospels, before moving on to the NT letters and Revelation.