‘Older Younger Brother: ‘The tragic treatment of the Jews by the Christians’.
This is a 50-page booklet by Canon Andrew White (‘The Vicar of Baghdad’), published in 2014.
It has been placed into my hands by some Christian friends, and I offer here some words of summary and response.
White begins by setting out the context of his life-long ‘love for the Middle East and…hatred of all anti-Judaic polemic.’
He reminds Christians of how much they owe to the Jews:-
Their total history of salvation from the time of Abraham came through the Jewish people. They date the history of salvation back to Abraham. The Old Testament scriptures and nearly all of those of the New Testament were written by Jews. Jesus made it clear that he had not come to abolish the laws of Moses or the teachings of the prophets (Mt 5:17). In fact, Jesus was a Jew who preached out of his Jewish Scriptures and heritage.
It is out of this Jewish heritage that Christian ethics flow: the belief in love and forgiveness, caring for the poor, the dignity of every human life, the importance of marriage, and the preservation of life.
But, says White, large sections of the Christian Church have departed from these Jewish roots. The Church has ‘set its face against the Jewish people in the State of Israel’ (p7). It is at this early point in the booklet that White’s becomes problematic, due to his unargued assumption that ‘the Jewish people’ and ‘the State of Israel’ can be conflated in this way.
According to White, many Christian denominations speak and act as if there were only one side that needed to be acknowledged in the current Middle East conflict – the Palestinian side. (White, it seems to me, commits precisely the opposite error).
White argues that the Church has refused to acknowledge that its attitudes have more to do with theology than with politics. Quite so: but then we look in vain for much biblical and theological reflection in White’s booklet. (If it be objected that one cannot achieve much of this in a short booklet, then I would reply that the writer should not then have tried to cover such a large and complex issue in so few pages).
Sources of division between Jews and Christians
White locates the roots of tension between Jews and Christians within the pages of the New Testament itself. At first, Christianity was not a new religion, but rather a sect within Judaism. Its first teachers and followers were Jews. Paul, himself a Jew, faced the question of how far the increasing numbers of Gentile believers should adhere to Jewish practices such as circumcision. In time, the number of Gentile believers greatly increased, resulting in greater tension with those from Jewish backgrounds.
It should be noted that White does not attempt to explain or resolve this tension. Rather, he sees it as the precursor of the much greater tension that came in first centuries of the Christian era. A number of Church Fathers are cited with reference to their anti-Jewish sentiments. They taught, in essence, that the Christian Church had replaced the Jews in God’s affections and plan. These hostile sentiments continued into and throughout the Middle Ages.
Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation, had an early and brief period of sympathy towards the Jews. But in his later years this turned to vitriolic polemic. White claims (as others have done before him) that Luther’s anti-semitism had a direct influence on the horrific Holocaust.
In England, hatred was stirred up against the Jewish population in Norwich, Lincoln, and other places. In 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jews from Britain, and this land was effectively without a Jewish population for the next 350 years.
At the time of Cromwell, the renewed interest in the Bible by the Protestants led to scholars seek tuition in Hebrew from Jews living in the Netherlands. Many Protestants at the time were drawn to Millenarianism, which envisaged a large-scale restoration and conversion of Jews at the end of the age. Jewish people were invited and encouraged to return to England.
Such pro-Jewish thinking resurfaced in the mid-1850s with the Evangelical Movement, the leaders of which promoted missions to the Jews and were often concerned for the return of the Jews to Israel. Then, in 1917 Arthur Balfour stated that the government’s intention was for the establishment of a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people.
Following the 2nd World War and the atrocities of the Nazies against the Jews, the International Council of Christians and Jews published a statement affirming the Jewish roots of Christianity. This statement was updated in 2009. This latter includes a rejection of ‘organised efforts at the conversion of Jews.’
Replacement Theology, Remnant Theology, or Recognition Theology?
According to White, three options are available in respect of Christian understandings of Judaism.
‘Replacement Theology’ teaches that God has turned his back on the Jews, and that the Christian Church is now the object of his affections and salvific purposes.
‘Remnant Theology’, or Christian Zionism, holds that there is continuity between God’s purposes for the Jews and his purposes for the Gentiles. The latter have been grafted on to the former. All Christian Zionist groups would agree that the modern State of Israel is a direct fulfilment of biblical prophecy. But they do not all agree on whether Jewish people should be actively evangelised.
White claims that the Christian Zionist position is held by ‘the vast majority of the largest churches in the world.’ This would appear to be in conflict with what he writes elsewhere about ‘the resurgence of Replacement Theology’. Indeed, he offers the loose and unsubstantiated opinion that ‘within the Church of England, Replacement Theology has now gone viral’ (p41).
‘Recognition Theology’ argues that since Christianity grew out of Judaism, Judaism must itself be a valid means of salvation. A person could be saved either by Christ or the Torah. After all (says White) the most fundamental affirmation of Judaism is the Shema (Deut 6:7), which asserts the pre-eminence of love for God. And it is precisely love for God which Jesus affirms as the greatest commandment.
It does not take a great deal of biblical knowledge or theological sophistication to see the glaring problem here. For where, in this account of ‘Recognition Theology’, is the unique saving work of Jesus Christ? In fact, throughout White’s booklet there is virtually no mention of what, for Christians, is of ‘first importance’: ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…’ (1 Cor 15:3f). Such neglect of the central truths of the gospel is a terrible price to pay. And since White is clearly sympathetic to ‘Recognition Theology’, it points to a serious flaw in his own argument.
Conflation of the people and the land persists in this account of ‘Recognition Theology’. According to White, ‘the fundamental point of this position is that God has not forsaken His people Israel. His covenant with the people and the land remains’ (p37).
While clearly repudiating Replacement Theology, White refrains from declaring whether he holds to Remnant Theology or to Recognition Theology. I judge this to be a most serious weakness on his part. If a Christian minister is not willing to affirm with Peter (a Jew, be it noted) that ‘salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,’ (Acts 4:12) then he is guilty of a dereliction of duty.
Is there no other way?
So, having passed over this most important issue, White returns to what he regards as the pernicious error of ‘Replacement Theology’. He singles out Christian Arab leaders such as Canon Naim Ateek, and also Christian Aid (which has ‘done much to whip up the hysteria against Israel in the Church’) for particular blame. I will not take time to summarise his further concerns about this. I will only say that he has presented his reader with a choice between two positions, while ignoring the possibility that their might be a ‘third way’, which recognises
- that the Christian Church does indeed owe a great debt of gratitude to the Jewish people
- that parts of the Christian Church have indeed been guilty of terrible anti-semitism
- that the promises made by God to his people of old have been (not repudiated or replaced, but) gloriously fulfilled in Christ and universalised in his gospel, and
- that Jewish and Gentile believers are one in him, sharing in the same faith and the same inheritance
- that Christians believers should long for, pray for, and work for, the day when many Jewish people will join them in worshiping and serving our Saviour and theirs.
This is, in brief, the view that I espouse, on biblical and theological grounds. I will not elaborate any further at this point, but rather refer the interested reader to the posts linked to this one.