The God of Israel and Christian Theology
By R. Kendall Soulen
Fortress, 195 pp. $19 paper.

This book is an impressive debut by a young Protestant theologian, R. Kendall Soulen. It began as his dissertation at Yale, but unlike most dissertations in theology, it is much more than a demonstration of what he has learned in the past (which is, nonetheless, considerable). It is clearly the beginning of his own theological trajectory into the future.

Soulen is explicit about his work belonging to a genre of Christian thought that can be termed “post-Holocaust.” In fact, he puts himself in the company of such Protestant theologians as Paul van Buren and Clark Williamson, who have seriously considered how the event of the Holocaust challenges Christians to rethink their whole relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. Like van Buren, Williamson, and others, Soulen wants to probe deeper into the history of Christian theology to discover how Christianity lost its proper contact with Judaism and the Jewish people and how that contact can be restored in a way that does not derail the Christian message (that is, the Gospel) in the process (something to be suspected in some Christians thinkers who have been moved by the Holocaust, but unreflectively so). Here the strongest theological influence on Soulen is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian martyred at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the evil of Nazism simultaneously led him to a reconsideration of the central Jewish element in Christianity (a point not seen in the equally anti-Nazi Karl Barth), although even he did not overcome some ambivalence in this area, as Soulen concludes.

Perhaps the main stumbling block to a better, and more fruitful, theological relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people has been the tendency of many Christian theologians to see the Christ event as the end of history. In this view, the Jews, like all the rest of the world who have not accepted Jesus as the Christ, are still struggling within history. Christians, conversely, are already beyond history and its vicissitudes and are living in eschatological time; hence they are to think sub specie aeternitatis as it were.

This, more than anything else, it would seem, has led to what becomes the bête noir of Soulen’s book: “supersessionism,” which in one form or another sees Judaism and the Jewish people as that which the triumph of Christianity over history has left in the irretrievable past. For Soulen there are three types of supersessionism: “economic,” whereby the Jews are no longer needed in the divine plan for humankind; “punitive,” whereby the Jews are seen as rejected by God because of their rejection of Jesus as the Christ; and “structural,” whereby the true relationship with God is between God and humans per se and not between God and a singular people.

Soulen is especially hard on Christian theology that has taken its lead from the “naturalism” of both Kant and Schleiermacher. That has been the attempt to make Christianity universally acceptable at the most evident level (for Kant in the immediacy of moral law to human reason; for Schleiermacher in the immediacy of the human sense of dependence on that which is greater). In this view, the “scandal of particularity,” which became the scandal of Jewish particularity, was removed by an a priori judgment. Yet even Karl Barth, who attempted mightily to overcome the legacy of Kant and Schleiermacher and to restore Christian theology to a firmer scriptural basis, still accepted supersessionism in its least objectionable form, namely, structural supersessionism (which Soulen ably traces back to Duns Scotus). Barth did manage to overcome the punitive supersessionism that sees God rejecting the Jews on moral grounds and the economic supersessionism that sees God, in effect, breaking his promise to be in irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people. In the case of punitive supersessionism, God would seem to be playing by a double standard: for the sins of the Jews, rejection; for the sins of the Christians, forgiveness. And in the case of economic supersessionism, how can the Church believe God’s promise to her if God has already broken his promise to the Jewish people? (A Jewish analogy would be: How could Abraham believe God’s promise to him and his progeny if God had broken his promise to Noah and the world?)

Soulen sees the Christian struggle with Gnosticism lurking behind all forms of supersessionism. Whereas the Gnostic “collapsing creation into the fall” had been more or less overcome since the Church declared Marcion her first heretic, what Soulen calls the “historical wedge,” that is, “collapsing God’s covenant with Israel into the economy of redemption in its prefigurative form,” has more often than not been left unanswered-even unnoticed. Against this, Soulen wants to place greater emphasis on God’s role as the Consummator of creation (that is, the One who sustains and blesses His creation), even if that means somewhat less emphasis on God as the Redeemer from the evil that has come into the world from inevitable (“original”) human sin. Such replaced emphasis is a theological condition for coming closer to Judaism precisely because the question of redemption has been that which has made for the widest wedge between Judaism and Christianity. When one deals with God’s beneficence both to Israel and the nations as being the generic commonality between the Jewish people and the gentiles, then the difference over who is God’s instrument for ultimate redemption of the whole of humankind, Jewish and gentile, becomes a specific one. In other words, even now Judaism and Christianity might have more significantly in common than their very crucial difference.

In dealing with the centrality of God as the consummator of creation, Soulen revives the whole issue of providence. Students of Barth’s theology should recall that Barth eliminates any sense of general providence by insisting that Jesus Christ and providence are identical (thus even rejecting Luther’s distinction between the hidden and the revealed God). Barth did this because “general” providence seems too close to his own bête noir: natural theology. On this point, though, Soulen seems to be more Calvinist than Barth in presenting the notion of God’s blessing creation both through Israel and through Christ as thoroughly historical, hence nothing like the natural theology that worried Barth.

In all of this reflection, Soulen seems to be constituting what I would call “the highest possible eschatological horizon.” This comes out when he says, “The Church is not a community that issues directly into God’s reign . . . . A hiatus separates the Church and God’s eschatological reign.” Following Berthold Klappert, he refers to the awaited Eschaton as “trans-ecclesiological.” Clearly, when Christian theologians constitute a “lower” eschatological horizon, which usually has meant seeing the Eschaton as the extension of the Church’s reign on earth, it has been most susceptible to the types of supersessionism so opposed by Soulen. For at this level, the “stubbornness” of the Jews, who at times of Christendom’s worldly triumphs seemed to be the last holdouts to the inevitability of history, is most resented. It reached its low point not during the Nazi regime-which was not really Christian at all even though too many Christians were involved in it or sympathetic to it-but at the time of the Crusades. In our liturgy, we Jews still mourn the destruction of whole Jewish communities in the Rhineland that occurred as a result of that type of supersessionist fervor.

Conversely, when Christians regard themselves within history but not its masters, they become most like the Jews. (Although we Jews have our own thinkers with a low eschatological horizon and its correlative Jewish triumphalism.) In other words, we are both in nervous anticipation of an end time that neither of us can specify with certainty. In the present world of secularist triumphalism, which has marginalized Christians in the way Jews have been much longer marginalized, this point should be much more evident than it has been. After all, Roman pagans were as cruelly exasperated with the Christians among them as they were with the Jews.

Nevertheless, the highest possible eschatological horizon is one that cannot be so high that it transcends the truth claims of revelation. Thus even though Jewish-Christian differences might very well be overcome in the Eschaton, they are still very real in this time before it. Jewish and Christian truth claims about the function of the Messiah here and now, specific as they are, do come into conflict with each other. Most significantly, we are governed by different norms in our respective relationships with God. In a very real sense, Jews have to believe that Christians have missed the point about how to wait for the end, and Christians have to believe something quite similar about the Jews. And even if Christians eschew overt proselytizing of Jews (as Soulen proposes), they certainly have to encourage and welcome Jews who want to become Christians-as Jews have to encourage and welcome Christians (and there are some) who want to become Jews. On both sides of the fence, this creates the painful problem of apostasy-Christians must be angry with such Christians just as Jews must be angry with such Jews. These inevitable facts will, of course, make for tensions, but the authenticity of any new Jewish-Christian relationship is energized by this tension as much as it is energized by the rediscovery of much commonality.

This last point about necessary differences between Christianity and Judaism is not explicitly raised in the book at hand. It has quite enough to do in what it set out to do. It is only after finishing this book that a reader can request its sequel from the author, one that will deal with this very question. But it is tribute to an author that a reader’s request indicates how much he looks forward to the next installment of the author’s theology.

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Articles by David Novak

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