The long humiliation: Judaism and Christianity

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

During my doctoral studies at Northwestern University/Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, I heard that one of the professors at North Park Theological Seminary, Dr. Fredrick Holmgren, was being severely criticized for a recent book. I had been attending the Winnetka Covenant Church for a few years and knew about North Park but had not yet met Fred, who was later to become a treasured friend and colleague. According to one of my instructors at Garrett, Fred’s 1979 book The God Who Cares: A Christian Looks at Judaism had stirred up quite a controversy. Obviously I now needed to read it! The book is an introduction to contemporary Judaism for Christians and is intended to function as a handbook for Jewish-Christian understanding and dialogue. The section that evidently troubled his critics dealt with the question of Christian evangelization of the Jews. Did Jews really need the gospel of Jesus Christ, Fred asked, or was their Covenant with God sufficient? Fred provided a number of contemporary answers to this vexed question, but did not insist on the necessity of the evangelization of the Jews. On the other hand, he did not say that Jews should not be evangelized. In the end, the controversy died down and Fred continued his distinguished teaching career.

When I arrived at North Park Seminary as Dean of Students in 1981, I found that Fred was not the only North Park professor of his day interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Dr. Burton Nelson was a highly regarded scholar of the life and work of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a student of the Holocaust. He was also deeply concerned with Jewish-Christian relations. Through Burton a wide array of Jewish and Christian scholars of the Holocaust and Judaism shared classes and gave lectures at the seminary. Burton himself lectured around the world on the Holocaust and its impact on both Judaism and Christianity. Why, I wondered, was there such an interest in this dialogue at a place like North Park in a denomination like the Evangelical Covenant Church?

Fred and Burton both developed as scholars during the immediate post World War II years. As they were studying Old Testament and Theology, the full implications of the horrors of the Nazi death camps were beginning to be realized by both Jews and Christians. Nearly everyone realized that the catastrophic events that had so recently occurred in Europe had altered the conversation between Jews and Christians forever. Christians needed to face up to their complicity in the slaughter of the Jews. The church’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, which had developed over many centuries, had now borne bitter fruit in the rise of virulent anti-Semitism. Fred and Burt were early leaders within the Evangelical Covenant Church and beyond in advancing repentance for the past, reassessment of relationships in the present, and reframing the conversation for the future. Since the near destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of the state of Israel, momentous changes were required in the relationships between the Jewish people and the Christian church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Mainline Protestant churches, and even Evangelical churches expressed their horror and sorrow at the failures of the churches and individual Christians with regard to the Jews. Fred and Burton were among the first scholars at an Evangelical school to think, write, and teach on the topic. As their colleague I am proud of their not inconsiderable place in this process of repentance and reevaluation.

So, why did this occur at North Park? I suppose there are a number of reasons. North Park is rooted in historic Pietism and there is, I would argue, a natural relationship between Jews and Pietists. Pietists, like Jews, are more concerned with life than with theology. For Pietists how you live is more important than what you think. Obedience to the will of God is more important than correct theology. Both Jews and Pietists are people of the book and believe in the close reading and application of texts. For both Jews and Pietists practices are important. For both Jews and Pietists the community is important. Pietism at its best, like Judaism, is sustained by a clear sense of peoplehood. All of these things are clear in the writings of Spener, Francke, and the Mission Friends. There are, of course, many differences and I would not want to overstate my case, but it is

not surprising that Fred and Burton were drawn to a study of Judaism. Nor is it a surprise that it is an interest and concern I share with them!

Fred’s book is itself worth another look. Some of the readers of Pietisten may have it tucked away somewhere on a shelf or hidden in a box. I encourage you to reread it. You may wonder what all the fuss was about. In this essay I want to recommend two other books of a more recent vintage that reflect on the developing conversation between Christians and Jews. The first volume is The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited by John Howard Yoder. The book was produced in 2003 as a compilation of essays by Yoder over a number of decades. The volume includes responses to Yoder’s essays by Peter Ochs, a renowned Jewish scholar from the University of Virginia. Ochs is both an appreciative and critical conversation partner for Yoder. Yoder was a pioneer in the historical and theological reassessment of the church’s relationship with Israel. Not surprisingly and, in my opinion, rightly he argues that the church’s Constantinian settlement was disastrous for both the church and the Jews. Gaining imperial power not only compromised the church’s mission, but gave it the power it needed to oppress the Jews. Yoder also argued as early as the 1970s that both Jesus and Paul must be understood within their Jewish context. While this is commonplace today, in those early years biblical studies were still under the thrall of the “history of religions” school that wanted to find the background for early Christianity in Greek rather than Jewish culture and thought. Since the late 1970s, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, N. T. Wright, and many others have established beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus must be understood as a Jew who was awaiting the coming of God’s kingdom. This is a fascinating volume that shows the development of a seminal and controversial thinker over a number of decades.

The second volume I would recommend was published in 2000. It is entitled Christianity in Jewish Terms and includes Jewish reflections of Christian history, theology, and practice. The contributors are among the most distinguished contemporary Jewish thinkers including Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, Michael Signer, Irving Greenberg, Elliot Wolfson, and many others. Like the Yoder volume it includes respondents, this time from the Christian side: David Tracy, George Lindbeck, Robert Louis Wilken, Susan Ross, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf. Some of these essays I found quite stunning, including Greenberg’s “Judaism and Christianity: Covenants of Redemption,” and Wolfson’s “Judaism and Incarnation: The Imaginal Body of God.” These are generous and irenic essays. They cover the key concerns between Christians and Jew: God, Scripture, Commandment, Israel, Suffering, Embodiment, Redemption, and other topics. A third collection of essays is entitled Covenant and Hope and was edited by Lutheran scholar Robert W. Jenson and Jewish thinker Eugene Korn. The focus of the volume is on the key concept of “covenant.” Once again a distinguished collection of Jewish and Christian scholars participate in the conversation.

These are exciting days for all of us involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I have treasured the opportunity to represent the Pietist tradition in conversations between Evangelicals and Jews over the last four years. Given the history of the church and our historic mistreatment of the Jews it is an act of incredible generosity and courage for Jews to speak with us at all. But in these conversations I find myself ironically closer to the Jew Jesus, the Jew Paul, and all those early Jewish followers of Jesus who looked, as we do, for the consolation of Israel. I hope readers of Pietisten will not only take a look at these excellent volumes, but get involved in the rich and ongoing conversation between Christians and Jews in every part of the country.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

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