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Why Christian Mission?

While I agree with Richard John Neuhaus that Redemptoris Missio is highly important (“Reviving the Missionary Mandate,” The Public Square, October 1991), I worry that it is not nearly as “profoundly countercultural” as he believes. The six reasons he discerns that the pope gives for mission are embarrassingly anthropocentric; only “obedience to Christ” really focuses on Christ, but one has the sense in the document that it is our discipleship that is the central factor.

More revealing is what this encyclical omits. Surely the greatest motive for mission is the glory of God, who wishes to be adored by all his creation. Many missiologists have pointed out the significance of the mission from Antioch (Acts 13) having its start in a worship service, yet this crucial reason for mission is not spoken about by the pope.

Fr. Neuhaus mentions hell in his introductory comments, yet the encyclical does not ever even use the word. But a crucial reason for the church’s mission throughout her history has been the theological conviction that those without Christ are lost, and that they are in grave danger of staying lost, the consequences of which are final, irreversible, and awful in the world to come. Outside the encyclical, the pendulum of recent Catholic thinking has swung so far away from a deep belief in sin and hell that one almost has the sense that many of God’s creatures, who are “anonymous Christians” anyway or who show the “baptism of desire” even if they haven’t been baptized, would be worse off if they were evangelized since then they would have more knowledge for which they would be held accountable.

I respectfully suggest that if Augustine were alive today he would find much more source for concern in Redemptoris Missio than has Fr. Neuhaus.

(The Rev.) Kendall S. Harmon
Oxford, England

Richard John Neuhaus responds:

Father Harmon and I seem to read Redemptoris Missio differently. But I don’t understand his concern about its being “anthropocentric.” All six of the reasons I discuss are directly related to our obedience to the revealed will of God in Christ. If it is “anthropocentric” because all have to do with the salvation of humanity, it would then appear that God is, thank God, anthropocentric. The phrases “anonymous Christians” and “baptism of desire” do not appear in the encyclical. According to that document, all people will be held accountable for their response to the truth available to them, and therefore the evangelized are not “worse off.”

Regarding Jewish Christians

David Novak’s “When Jews Are Christians” (November 1991) correctly identifies the issue between Judaism and Christianity as “the whole question of who Jesus is.” Indeed, Jesus himself recognized that this would be the issue of central importance both during and after his sojourn on earth (e.g., Mt. 10:16“39, 16:13“20, 24:4“13).

However, Novak has begged the question of whether Jesus is Messiah by defining Messiah merely as “a political designation for a divinely restored Jewish king in Jerusalem” as opposed to “the incarnate Son of God.” He has thus attempted to define as fact what was simply the opinion or interpretation of the majority (but not all, viz., Saul of Tarsus) of first-century Pharisees. Yet Jesus claimed to be Messiah (John 4:25—26). Further, Jesus went on to explain that the Kingdom was far more than merely a geopolitical entity, and that Messiah was far more than just a temporal Jewish king in Jerusalem. Jesus based his claims as to the nature and identity of Messiah squarely on the Scripture (e.g., Mt. 22:41“46). Consequently, the nature of Messiahship and his identity as the incarnate Son of God are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Indeed, Novak did not mention the many Messianic passages (e.g., Ps. 22; Is. 52:13—53:12; Dan. 9:25—26) that describe the suffering aspect of Messiah (and that led some early Jewish scholars to posit that Messiah would be twins). Nor does Novak deal with any of the Messianic prophesies that were literally fulfilled in Jesus (e.g., Micah 5:2; Zech. 9:9, 12:10). Contrary to Novak, the exegesis of Scripture does provide a “common criterion of truth available for debating (and) resolving the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity.” The reasoning by Jesus, Paul, and others from the Scriptures and the acceptance of the identity of Jesus both as Messiah and incarnate Son of God by Jews from the first century onward demonstrate that Messianic Judaism is indeed “a legitimate covenantal option for Jews.”

A second “common criterion or truth” for testing the claim of Jesus to be both Messiah and the incarnate Son of God is objective history. Jesus claimed that he would be killed and buried, but then would bodily rise from his grave after three days (Mt. 17:22—23; Mk. 10:32—34; John 2:18—22). Whether he did so is not a question of philosophy or theology, but of historical fact: either he did or he didn’t. The identity of Jesus (and thus the validity of what he said) depends on the answer to that question (1 Cor. 15:12—19). The historical evidence for the resurrection has been thoroughly discussed in such books as The Resurrection Factor by Josh McDowell. The criteria for assessing that evidence are common to Jews as well as Christians (indeed, to anyone). If the resurrection is an historical fact as persuasive evidence indicates, then for Jews who accept that fact the “legitimate covenantal option” of Messianic Judaism should no more be denied them than should any other legitimate covenantal option be denied any other Jew who accepts any other fact of history.

Just as the Reformation went to the heart of what Christianity was intended to be, so the advent of Jesus and the existence of Messianic Jews go to the heart of what Judaism is intended to be. Because of the relationship of Messianic Scriptures to the life and claims of Jesus, and the witness of history, the recent attempt by Israel’s Supreme Court to simply define Messianic Jews away cannot succeed any more than did the Sanhedrin’s attempt to eliminate the catalyst for the existence of Messianic Judaism 2,000 years ago.

Jonathan M. Menn
Appleton, WI

In his article “When Jews Are Christians,” David Novak dealt with an issue of utmost importance to me. As an officer of a unique Hebrew Christian organization, I appreciated Professor Novak’s evident good will and reasonableness of tone. I would, however, like to make two points.

The first point is historical. It does not seem to me to be accurate to say, as Professor Novak does, that the early Jewish Christians “no longer regarded themselves as Jews” and that “descendants of the original Jewish Christians quickly became gentiles themselves through intermarriage with gentile Christians in the Church.” Indeed it appears from the historical evidence (see, for example, Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity from the End of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century) that Jewish Christian communities existed at least into the fourth century, perhaps as late as the ninth. They followed apostolic practice by believing in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and following the Law of Moses. Professor Novak would consider them “syncretists”; I would not. Regardless, it appears that the Jewish Christians who denied the divine sonship of Yeshua split off from the orthodox Jewish Christians and thus were a subsequent phenomenon. Furthermore, while relations between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Church deteriorated as time went on, relations were not always or uniformly bad.

My second point is theological, and I speak as a Catholic Israelite. Though the Catholic Church is sociologically gentile, it is essentially Israelite, founded by Yeshua and with a foundation of his Jewish apostles. The Magisterium of the Church has never taught that the election of Israel has been revoked. On the contrary, St. Paul says, concerning this, that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Israel is an eternal people whose gift of existence as a people and whose call to be a blessing are irrevocable. Furthermore, its destiny is to be collectively incorporated into the Church (Romans 11:25—26) and this will bring great blessings to the gentile world (Romans 11:12, 15). We are not a proselytizing organization but rather work to prepare the Church for the coming incorporation by striving to form a Hebrew Catholic community—to reconstitute an Israelite presence within the Church.

We certainly welcome friendly relations between Christians and non-Christian Jewry and do not want to be an obstacle to that. But we also think it important for Christians”Israelite and Gentile”to acknowledge and accept the irrevocable call to Israel and its eternal existence, as well as its destiny to become an effective organ of the Catholic Church. We who try to follow the Messiah as Israelites, to be faithful to our double call, do not wish to be obstacles to amiable Israelite/non-Christian Jewish relations but to be signs of the ultimate destiny of Israel in the plan of the God of the Patriarchs.

Achad HaSh’erit
Association of Hebrew Catholics
Washington, D.C.

. . . The exegetical differences [between Christians and Jews] are mischaracterized as problematical in David Novak’s “When Jews Are Christians.” While certainly some exegesis is problematic, some is quite obvious. For Jews, Deuteronomy 13, verses 1—9, is the exclusionary clause that disallows the entire New Testament and its exegesis. The existence of a 1,400-year tradition from Mt. Sinai to the approximate death of Jesus cannot easily accept a clearly back—fitted interpretation that had no prior development. Christianity and its interpretations suffer from coming chronologically second. For Christians this poses no problem. For Jews, with a clear record today of 3,304 years of an unbroken history and no prior interpretational claim, it is illogical. It is not simply exegetical differences and the compounding difficult history of inquisitions. Logic, based on simple readings and known history, can suffice . . . .

Alan Hoffman
East Windsor, NJ

I enjoyed reading the article “When Jews Are Christians” by David Novak. I found it informative about other creeds and illuminative about valid ways people of different creeds can, in unison, relate to God without violating their own convictions about what they perceive to be the truth.

But one statement mars an otherwise excellent article. “In place of the Jewish commandments (mitzvot) came the sacraments, which are like the Jewish commandments in that they are structured by their own law (what became the Canon Law of the Church).” I wrestled with this sentence trying to find some way it might be correct within the context of the paragraph. I can’t. Whatever the reasons for it, this statement is incorrect. The sacraments do not take the place of the commandments. They are really religious ceremonies designed to confer God’s blessing upon the recipient. In the words of my high school textbook, “A sacrament is a visible sign to which Jesus Christ has given the power to confer grace, to indicate the grace it confers, and to let us know that at the moment of receiving the sign we are made partakers of the grace.”

The Ten Commandments, in addition, have always been binding upon Catholics. I think perhaps Dr. Novak meant to refer to the Six Commandments of the Church (to contribute to the support of the Church, to receive the sacrament of penance at least once a year, the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season, etc). These, however, did not replace or diminish the binding force of the Ten Commandments.

I hope this helps to contribute to an ever-increasing accuracy and compassionate understanding of the various issues that have divided the oneness of the human family in the way we worship the one true God.

Maurice A. Williams
Brookpark, OH

. . . David Novak writes of the interpretive controversy over “whether Isaiah 7:14 should be interpreted ‘behold the young woman (ha ‘almah) shall conceive and bear a son’ (the Jewish version), or ‘behold the virgin (he parthenos) shall conceive and bear a son’ (the Christian version).” It is true that the latter indeed became the Christian version, but the source for the passage is a Jewish source, namely the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, which had been around for about three hundred years when Christianity had its beginning. So blame the seventy scholars at Alexandria who translated the passage in this way for their choice of words but don’t call it the Christian version, because what we have here is the choice between two different Jewish versions both of which had been around for centuries before the Christians came on the scene . . . .

Bertram L. Davies
Ashland, OR


The “deconstruction” of language proposed by Derrida et al. referred to by Ben F. Meyer in his essay “Ideology Therapy” (November 1991) can be refuted on the following grounds. In order for deconstruction to be true, it must hold for all languages, not just spoken/written languages. Mathematical language is a very precise written language. All mathematicians agree on the meaning of the language regardless of where they live, their ideology, their ethnicity, or their native language. The language is one of manipulation, not just of conveying meaning. Hence, one who chooses to violate the rules and meaning of expressions and operations will not be able to use it. He is stopped before he starts. The language has steadily expanded but still all mathematicians agree that the earlier versions are merely subsets of the later versions.

Having found one language that refutes Derrida’s claims, we can make the claim that they are refuted for all languages. While spoken/written languages are less precise than mathematical language, introducing elements of “fuzziness” into the interpretation, they are not infinitely or even very much less precise than mathematical language. Derrida, on the other hand requires infinite imprecision.

Robert C. Whitten, Jr.
Cupertino, CA

Unfair Dismissal

In an otherwise excellent issue, your four-sentence dismissal of William Placher’s Unapologetic Theology (Briefly Noted, November 1991) was unworthy.

The charge of “politicized pondering” rebounds on a review when the work in question largely and usefully addresses the methodological and epistemological issues raised by Rorty and company to which Richard John Neuhaus regularly and commendably directs our attention. Finding no splinter of Marxist politicization therein, this reader can only hypothesize a log in the reviewer’s eye.

(The Rev.) David Doely
Trinity Lutheran Church
Ellsworth, IA

Dirty Books Department

I am amazed that Richard John Neuhaus would condemn a book “Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today” because he doesn’t like the title (The Public Square, October 1991).

Actually, Dirt, Greed, and Sex is about, well, just what the title says, dirt or ritual purity, and greed and sex—that is, women as property.

Probably what Neuhaus doesn’t like is the conclusion that William Countryman comes to: that sex outside of marriage, including homo-sex, is dirty, that is, ritually unclean, but not necessarily immoral. He’s very persuasive.

. . . I suggest you read the book.

(The Rev.) Robert M. Belles
St. Mark Lutheran Church
Roswell, NM

Silly Us

I have the November 1991 issue of First Things here beside me. It seems to be a magazine devoted to study of the worship of an imaginary god and its application to society. What a silly idea.

What could have brought together this assemblage of men and women who seem . . . on the surface . . . to be an intelligent lot? Were you merely looking for useful work? Have you found it in your studies of an ancient and ignorant time? Is there some value in prolonging the ignorance, the superstitions, the madness of that ancient time?

If you want to study the ravings and delusions of madmen, why not try the twentieth century? We have among us the same type of irrational men that you have raised to the godhead from the hocus-pocus of two thousand years ago. Come. Join me here in San Francisco and I will lead you among those who walk and talk with gods. Listen to their preachments and their rants. You will find a remarkable similarity with the preachments and rants of your biblical times. Little has changed. These madmen still talk of gods. They still claim to have an intimate relationship with their gods and they converse daily with them. They still claim to know the laws their gods decree. They still describe the morality demanded by their gods. It all sounds a great deal like the writings of your scholars. Do you intend to devote any of your magazine to contemporary religious illusions?

Is there no one on your staff who has looked about at the assembled magazine and asked, “What is all this . . . ?” You need to hire someone who will probe and question, someone who will ask if you really know what you are talking about. Must the twentieth-century religious nut keep saying the same bull over and over in the hope that it will become believable?

Cecil W. Blank
San Francisco, CA