A few weeks ago, a high-level Vatican committee released a statement declaring that Jews do not have to believe in Jesus to be saved, captioned,
“THE GIFTS AND THE CALLING OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE” (Rom 11:29)
A REFLECTION ON THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS PERTAINING TO CATHOLIC-JEWISH RELATIONS ON THE OCCASION OF THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF “NOSTRA AETATE” (NO.4)
I responded to the committee’s position in an earlier post, largely based on the early efforts of Peter and Paul to convert Jews so they would be saved, as recorded in Acts.
There’s another subtle, but very important error in their reading of scripture, and one that is shared by many an evangelical. The report assumes that the fact that the Jews have been irrevocably called and elected by God means that they are each individually saved.
The committee report states (emphasis mine) —
From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.
Such a claim would find no support in the soteriological understanding of Saint Paul, who in the Letter to the Romans not only gives expression to his conviction that there can be no breach in the history of salvation, but that salvation comes from the Jews (cf. also Jn 4:22).
God entrusted Israel with a unique mission, and He does not bring his mysterious plan of salvation for all peoples (cf. 1 Tim 2:4) to fulfilment without drawing into it his “first-born son” (Ex 4:22). From this it is self-evident that Paul in the Letter to the Romans definitively negates the question he himself has posed, whether God has repudiated his own people.
Just as decisively he asserts: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery. It is therefore no accident that Paul’s soteriological reflections in Romans 9-11 on the irrevocable redemption of Israel against the background of the Christ-mystery culminate in a magnificent doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways” (Rom 11:33). …
Another focus for Catholics must continue to be the highly complex theological question of how Christian belief in the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ can be combined in a coherent way with the equally clear statement of faith in the never-revoked covenant of God with Israel. It is the belief of the Church that Christ is the Saviour for all. There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles. Here we confront the mystery of God’s work, which is not a matter of missionary efforts to convert Jews, but rather the expectation that the Lord will bring about the hour when we will all be united, “when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ ” (“Nostra aetate”, No.4). …
The same conviction is stated also in t he Catechism of the Church in 1993: “The Old Covenant has never been revoked” (121).
I have several disagreements with the theology and “logic” of this statement. My most significant disagreement has to do with the nature of God’s “calling.” But before we get to that, we need to consider a couple of others.
The abuse of “mystery”
The committee’s report acknowledges the contradiction in believing all Jews to be saved despite their not believing in Jesus as Messiah. You don’t resolve a flat contradiction by declaring it a “mystery.” The NT use of “mystery” (mystērion) is a secret once hidden but now revealed, not an impossibility.
Counsel, or secret plan, which God shares only with his people. In most biblical passages it relates to the wise counsel of God in his guidance of history to its destiny. The most specific and significant application of the concept of mystery is to the plan of God regarding the death of Christ. It does not refer to a secret that God is unwilling to tell or to something so obscure that it could not be understood even if told.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988, 1512.
In the NT mystērion signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through his Spirit. In this way the term comes very close to the NT word apokalypsis, ‘revelation’. mystērion is a temporary secret, which once revealed is known and understood—a secret no longer … .
S. S. Smalley, New Bible Dictionary, 1996, 794.
Rather, a contradiction should lead us to study the question more carefully in hopes of discovering our own mistake. After all, it’s far more likely, when we reach a conclusion about scriptural teachings that seems to contradict other scriptural conclusions, that the error is ours. To call such a flat contradiction a “mystery” is to blame our own scholarly failings on God — which is more than a little presumptuous.
I agree with the report to the extent it condemns anti-Semitism and expresses regret for the European church’s failure to stand up against the Nazis’ mistreatment of the Jews in World War II. Christians have long sinned in their treatment of Jews — and in their failure to defend the Jews against mistreatment by others.
The “Shoah” or Holocaust is mentioned nine times in the report, largely to make the point that anti-Semitism is intolerable because of the real cost in human lives in dehumanizing Jews. I agree. But guilt regarding the Holocaust can’t drive our theology — other than motivating us to repent. But the Holocaust does not require us to declare the Jews saved without faith in Jesus.
In fact, I recently ran into the same issue when considering the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation that I disagreed with in Salvation 2.0, Part 3.1: David Bentley Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil,” Part 3. Evidently, it’s become fashionable in academic circles — in contrast and reaction to the anti-Semitism that was once common in academia — to demonstrate one’s compassion for the Jews by declaring them saved.
The biblical scholarship of the last 200 years has thus never been ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’, despite repeated claims. Rather, it enjoys—or, as it may be, suffers—a complex dialogical relation with its contemporary cultures. In particular, it has been interwoven with the various political influences at work in Europe during the period, especially the Nazi movement (one thinks of great scholars like Gerhard Kittel, who edited the world-famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and who was deeply involved in the anti-Semitic mood of the time) and the reaction to it in favour of a ‘Jewish’ understanding of early Christianity, exemplified in the work of scholars like W. D. Davies. Ironically, the claim to ‘objectivity’ among historical scholars has meant that this kind of contextualizing of their work has not often been highlighted.
N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005), 65.
Hence, to borrow from Alexander Campbell, in leaving Babylon, some have leaped entirely past Jerusalem and landed in Rome. Obviously, any theological argument built, even in part, on the tragedy of the Holocaust risks being built on pity or guilt rather than scripture.