March 2017 Credo
Recent years have seen the emergence of strongly Jewish sentiments in some Western Christian circles. The issue is not about whether Judaism should be understood on its own terms (we do that for other religions); what is objectionable is their disregard for a Christian understanding of Israel.
Unlike the dispensationalists of yesteryear whose view of Israel was at least theologically driven (even if mistaken), these modern sentiments are driven more by political correctness expressed in two strategic moves.
One is the refusal to transliterate the tetragrammaton (YHWH) into a pronounceable form. For Jews it may have something to do with their belief in God’s mystery and transcendence: None can see God’s face and live; none can touch God’s ark without provoking him to break out in judgment.
There is also a tradition about not taking the name of the Lord (YHWH) in vain, etc. Ostensibly, this move is made out of respect for Jews. But why now, when the facts have long been known? The political climate has changed especially after the Second World War.
Like many forms of political correctness, there are usually powerful socio-political forces at work. First, the West seems to be burdened with a collective guilt regarding the Holocaust. Any action or speech perceived as anti-Semitic is immediately singled out for harsh censure. When a former president of Iran questioned the existence of the Holocaust, the Western reaction was swift and shrill. Now, anti-Semitism is indeed reprehensible—but so is any form of racism.
Another reason for Western Christians’ acting politically correctly is that the space where they once inhabited and enjoyed considerable influence has shrunk alarmingly. Christians of orthodox persuasion are finding themselves shunned, marginalized and evicted from the public square by an increasingly militant secular elite. But together, Christians and Jews could mount a counter-attack. This is amply illustrated in the influential magazine First Things.
Islam, potentially, could be another friend, but given the current geo-political climate an alliance with Islam would be imprudent. Also, one must not underestimate the influence of the Jewish lobby in America.
But political correctness comes with a high price. To refuse to name God implicitly undermines a central pillar of the Christian faith.
Christians have good reason to call God Yahweh or Jehovah, even if they are not sure what the actual pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is. The basis for Christian boldness is the Incarnation.
The God of Israel has taken on flesh. In Christ, God is revealed in visible and tactile concreteness: “that which we have seen, which we have touched with our hands…” With Christ’s coming, Israel’s God has acquired a face and a name: we behold his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; we dare to call him “Abba, Father.”
Some theologians have suggested that Father is the proper name of God in that the Person so named stands in a unique relationship to Jesus Christ as his one and only Son. If Christians are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to call God “Abba” why should they not dare call Israel’s God by his proper name, Yahweh?
The second strategy is to replace the phrase “Old Testament” with “the Hebrew Bible” or Tanakh. This move may seem like a small concession but it too comes with a price.
The “Old Testament” is, admittedly, a distinctively Christian designation. From the beginning, Christians have always regarded the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New, for it points to and prefigures Jesus Christ.
This understanding is encapsulated in Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet” (The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed). It is a relationship of the shadow and the real, of promise and fulfilment.
Understanding their relationship in this way does not imply that the Old is superseded. Some elements in the Old are indeed superseded and no longer necessary, such as the bloody sacrifices, as Hebrews teaches, but it does not mean that the Church replaces Israel as some supersessionists believe.
Israel is our still big brother or, putting it differently, the Church is Israel expanded. The Church is not a gentile church but the new people of God uniting Israel and the nations. It is the natural olive tree (Israel) into which the wild olive branches (gentiles) are grafted.
Some, however, are not content with this New Testament conception of the Church. For them the divine economy has to be so reconceptualized as to give Israel its own distinctive place, making it virtually a separate entity. Here again, I’m not thinking of dispensationalism but certain forms of modern nonsupersessionism. The result is a Christian Bible without a Christological centre.
For Christians the two testaments form a single Bible. This is why the early Christians interpreted the Old Testament typologically as pointing to its fulfillment in Christ. They used the Old Testament in their catechetical instructions for precisely this reason. Ambrose of Milan is a classic example, whose preference for the Old Testament is based on the rationale that just as the Old prepares for the New, it prepares catechumens for baptism into the Body of Christ.
Not to recognize the Old Testament as indeed the Old Testament is an implicit denial of the continuity and development of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. It is tantamount to denying its status as Christian Scripture. The New Testament would make no sense without the Old; on its own the New presents only a truncated story without a real beginning. The New without the Old would produce a distorted Christianity—in fact, another version of the Marcionite heresy.
Christians, especially those in the Majority World, should recognize these moves for what they are: they are not a theologically better way of understanding Jewish-Christian relations but strategies driven by political correctness. Why should Christians in the Majority World bear the guilt of the West? Our battle with secularism can be better fought not just by forging alliance with faithful Jews, but also with the faithful in other religions.
Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).