In the autumn of 2023, we held a series of seminars to review aspects of the work in Christian-Jewish dialogue and theological reflection of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, considering how the process and shape of this work may inform our own Orthodox Christian consideration of similar issues and themes.
We began our series with a discussion of the Church of England’s God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Christian Perspectives of Jewish Christian Relations.
Professor Emeritus of Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, Rev Dr Ephraim Radner presented the document, its history and main ideas within the broader context of the development of attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in the theology, pastoral practice and worship of the Anglican Church — starting from open antisemitism (“Jews are degrading Christian culture of England”), through “philosemitic evangelism” (proselytising activity, conversion of Jews), to revising negative images of Jews in church teaching and liturgy and accepting Jewish-Christian relations as a mystery that can be resolved only in the age to come.
Dr Radner described what the document sets out as four “approaches” or “theological frameworks” of the relations between Judaism and Christianity reflecting various positions within the Church of England. These capture stages of historical development in the church’s Jewish mission and relations. In the emerging preferred view, the Church of England accepts as undeniable the “continuing participation of the Jewish people in Israel as God’s gift and God’s creation” and that “there is a mystery here that transcends its understanding in history.” This approach has already influenced changes in the language of worship as well as further theological reflection, informed by the questions that are posed throughout the document.
In our ensuing discussion, the key questions raised centred on Christian identity in relation to Israel, Jews, and Judaism. How do we identify ourselves? Are we Christians, distinct from Judaism and Jews, who are simply struggling to conquer antisemitism and exhibit openness and love towards Jews? Or is the relationship deeper and more fundamental? What does it mean for the church to be Israel, participating in God’s covenant with Israel? How do we construe the mystery of that shared covenant with the ongoing Judaism — as something we just can’t puzzle out or understand for now, or as a true mystery in the sense of paradox in which both claims to being “Israel” are true? And who then are Jews for us — “we” or “they”?
These are questions we will continue to reflect on in our upcoming working seminars.
In our second seminar, we reviewed Preaching and Teaching “With Love and Respect for the Jewish People,” published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after many years of discussion of anti-Jewish aspects of Lutheran theology, liturgy and pastoral practice as “a tragic contributor to the wider Western cultural antisemitism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” This practical guide aims to provide a new vision for teaching and preaching about Jewish tradition and its significance. Leading our discussion was the Rev Dr Peter Pettit, Lutheran minister and teaching pastor at St Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, who led the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations which authored the document.
If our first seminar centred around issues of Christian identity in relation to Jews, Judaism, and God’s Covenant with Israel, the main questions of this encounter were more practical, addressing the problem of framing the “newness” of Jesus and Christianity by contrasting these with his Jewish tradition and context (for instance, “Since Jesus is the light of the world, Jews are portrayed as being in the dark”).
Dr Pettit showed how this document creates a system of counterbalances to this language, primarily through historical-critical and biblical studies. He emphasised unbiased studies of Scriptural texts, particularly St Paul who needs to be read “before Augustine and Luther,” as well as the necessity to avoid anachronisms “between the time of Jesus and the New Testament writings, between the first century and 21st century.” Thereby Jesus can be understood as “a Jew within Judaism, not terminating it,” keeping “Torah as a lifestyle,” and not contrasting himself with Israel, but rather offering a prophetic word and challenge in the same vein as Jewish prophets had before him. Dr Pettit described how the guide revises the traditional Lutheran confessional reading of Paul: Luther used Paul to oppose the pope, while Paul himself never “opposed Judaism with Jesus,” instead criticising it from within, using its own language; it is an intra-Jewish discussion to which the nations are invited. Dr Pettit also demonstrated how the document reinterprets other key concepts of Lutheran theology around law and grace, promise and fulfilment, on which anti-Judaic theological discourse has relied for centuries.
By carefully rereading the New Testament and early Christian tradition and reframing theological presuppositions based upon that tradition, the document is able to make informed recommendations for renewed teaching and pastoral practice. It has even begun to influence a new, historically-sensitive translation of the Revised Common Lectionary used in a number of western churches, called “Reading from the Roots.” In the Biblically-grounded and careful historical work of this document, there is no doubt a model for our working group’s review and renewal of Orthodox theology and practice on similar issues.
In our third seminar, Dr Gavin D’Costa led us in a review of documents from Catholic-Jewish encounter and dialogue, including the watershed Nostra Aetate, a section from Lumen Gentium, and the 2015 document, “A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate.”