A nineteenth-century German rabbi said that it is far more important for God to describe Man than for Man to describe God. This observation captures the reason many people regard theology as hopeless speculation, akin to the proverbial “medieval” speculation about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. The essential elements of the religious life are our responses to divine revelation through prayer and acts of piety that God uses to draw us closer to himself. In all of this the formal intellectual work of theology can seem remote, even counterproductive.
Until it matters. Perhaps good theology is a superadded benefit that true piety can do without. But bad theology surely matters, for it can have toxic effects.
As a Jew and a Christian, a theological chasm separates us. But we know bad theology when we see it. Both of us are horrified by the references to Christian theology in the screed of John Earnest, the Poway synagogue shooter.
Nineteen-year-old Earnest was a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation, a church in the Reformed tradition. Two theological tenets prominent in that tradition seem to have influenced him. The first concerns salvation history and the teaching that God transferred his covenant with Jewish Israel to the Church after most Jews in the first century failed to accept Jesus as the messiah. Historically, this supersessionist view of the Jewish people in the first century has underwritten harsh attitudes toward them in the present. The second concerns predestination. Earnest professed a Calvinist belief that he was one of God’s elect. According to one report, he wasn’t worried about his actions because his salvation was assured.
We don’t think these beliefs were the reason that Earnest entered the Chabad synagogue with the intent to kill as many Jews as possible. His church's horrified reaction was clear and unequivocal, and his pastor's teaching has been friendly to Jews. This is not surprising. The same Calvinist tradition is known for heroically defending Jews during the Holocaust. Between 1940 and 1944 the little French village of Le Chambon, inspired by its Reformed pastor Andre Trocme, sheltered 3500 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Calvin himself was not as hostile to Jews as was Luther. Earnest was radicalized by the dark Internet of racial hatred, not by what he heard in church.
Is this a relief to Jews? Not really. With anti-Semitism on the rise around the world, including two recent attacks on synagogues in the U.S., Jews would like to believe that certain strands of Christian theology do not contribute to this new wave of persecution. But they need reassurance.
We’ll leave aside the thorny question of predestination and focus on Christian theological claims about the Jewish people. Truth be told, most Christians accepted some version of supersessionism (the belief that the Christian Church superseded and replaced Jewish Israel in God’s affections) over the centuries. It was only after the Holocaust that some started to ask how one of the most Christianized countries in history could have accepted Nazi ideology. This led scholars to rediscover Christianity’s Jewish roots. As New Testament scholar C. E. B. Cranfield put it after his reexamination of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “These three chapters [9–11] emphatically forbid us to speak of the church as having once and for all taken the place of the Jewish people.”
Paul wrote in Romans that Jews who resist the new Jesus movement are still “beloved” to God, and their “calling” as God’s chosen is “irrevocable” (11:28–29). For this preeminent apostle, God is still in covenant with Jews, even those Jews who do not accept Jesus.
Since the 1950s Christians have been rediscovering the Jewishness of Jesus. Jews and Christians alike have come to appreciate his insistence that he had “not come to abolish the Torah and the prophets,” warning against relaxing the Torah’s commandments (Matt 5:17, 19). He told his followers to “practice and protect” the teachings of the Pharisees (Matt 23:3). Many have been surprised to see that in two gospels he called the Jerusalem temple “my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49; John 2:16) and in two others “my house” (Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17). Also jolting was the New Testament’s record of his apostles continuing to attend temple liturgies after Jesus’s death and resurrection (Acts 2:46; 3:1).
This renewed appreciation of the affirmative dimension of early Christian views of Judaism led the Vatican II bishops to declare in Nostra Aetate that “the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for he does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.” They asserted that Jesus’s death “cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon Jews of today.” Karl Barth wrote that the history of God’s covenant with the Jews continues “right up to our own day. . . . The glory of the history of Israel in its totality [is] . . . an unbroken sequence of new events of divine faithfulness.” Evangelicals and especially dispensationalists have long seen God’s covenant with Israel to be ongoing. (Sadly, a new generation of evangelicals is losing that conviction.)
Since the Holocaust, Jews have been largely pleased by the theological re-thinking among Christians. This re-thinking has firmly rejected the deicide charge that Jews were (and still are) collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. And although the questions of salvation history remain contested—Jews will always disagree with Christians about the difference Jesus makes—replacement theologies have been discredited.
These developments cannot be taken for granted. Theology matters. When misused, it can spell the difference between life and death. We urge priests, pastors, and catechists to teach about Jews and Judaism, and to do so in accord with the very best insights of recent decades.
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi, and the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Gerald McDermott is the Anglican Chair at Beeson Divinity School and the author of Israel Matters (Brazos).