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Should There Be a Christian Witness to the Jews

by Isaac C. Rottenberg

Isaac Rottenberg is a minister of the Reformed Church in America and has been active in ecumenical and interfaith affairs. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 13, 1977, p. 352. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christian evangelism among Jews remains one of the most sensitive and controversial issues in Jewish-Christian relations. In 1975 when the Vatican issued its “Guidelines and Suggestions” for contacts between the church and the Jewish people, the document was greeted by Jewish leaders with a mixture of delight and distress: delight at the change of outlook it reflected, and distress that it still contained references to the church’s “divine mission” and “witness.”

Should there be a Christian witness to the Jews? Many of my Jewish friends, as well as a growing number of my Christian friends, would answer that question with a resounding No. But many other Christians would respond with a firm Yes. Recently the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary’s school of world mission called on “Christians in all traditions to reinstate the work of Jewish evangelism in their missionary obedience.” According to these scholars, “Jewish-oriented programs should be developed. Appropriate agencies for Jewish evangelism should be formed” (Missiology, October 1976). Others would express themselves a bit more cautiously. Missiologist Gerald H. Anderson, for example, has stated that “Christians have no special mission to the Jews, but neither is there any special exemption of the Jews from the universal Christian mission” (Missiology, July 1974).

An Ecumenical Priority

Instead of a resounding No or a firm Yes, my own answer to the question usually comes out more like “Yes, but . . .” I must hasten to add, however, that for me the qualifying word “but” looms larger all the time. I increasingly feel drawn toward conclusions that I have resisted for decades.

Some years ago I would probably have welcomed the suggestion made recently by a joint committee of the Christian Reformed Church and my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, that these two denominations enter upon a united program of “Jewish evangelism.” After all, the Apostle Paul tells us that not only would that be the proper thing to do, but in fact it ought to be a priority -- to the Jew first (Rom. 1:16). My argument is not with Paul’s position but with the motives and methods with which it is often applied today.

The early church argued the question of whether the Judaic tradition should be preserved in every detail: for instance, must gentiles submit to circumcision when entering the church? Today we face an entirely different situation. One of the key issues now is that through a long process of de-Judaization the Christian church has lost contact with its basic roots in the Hebraic tradition. For the sake of its own wholeness, the church needs the encounter with Judaism. Christian-Jewish relations should be an ecumenical priority of the first order. However, between the debate in the early church and the contemporary debate lies a long and tragic history of estrangement and, in numerous instances, of the church’s participation in persecution of Jews. The unwillingness of many Christians to come to terms with that history constitutes a major obstacle to presenting a genuinely Christian witness to the Jewish people.

A ‘Mission’ or a ‘Witness’?

I purposely use the word “witness.” It has rich biblical connotations rooted in Israel’s covenant history: “You are my witnesses . . .”  (Isa. 43:10); “I shall give you as a light to the nations!” (Isa. 49:6). The life and ministry of God’s covenant people always involve witness. I agree with Krister Stendahl’s suggestion that this word may yet be exonerated and come to be of key value in relations among believers across all barriers.

Already in Greek antiquity the word “witness” had moved beyond its technical courtroom usage and had come to mean the proclamation and exchange of views held with conviction. In the New Testament, however, witness is not just a matter of words; it involves the sharing of life. To me, the word lacks the connotation of an aggressive campaign, of mission “drives” and evangelistic “crusades.” That’s why I like it.

The term “mission to the Jews” should definitely be abandoned. It will lead only to confusion and to the multiplication of existing misunderstandings in Jewish-Christian relations. Surely the church has a worldwide mission! But because of the common bond in God’s covenant promises, its relationship to the Jewish people is sui generis. That fact should be clearly expressed in the language we use. People who don’t recognize this special relationship and who, contrary to Romans 11:29, insist that God has revoked his covenant with Israel are bound to become boastful and imperialistic in their approach to the Jews.

Believers who share the covenant faith that has come to us through Moses and the prophets don’t missionize each other. Yet there ought to be room for witness, the sharing of faith perspectives and the exchange of deeply held convictions.

‘Faithful Dialogue’

Why not just use the word “dialogue”? Edwin Newman, in a recent TV commentary, called it “one of the most boring words to come along in years a word that is bunk.” According to Newman, dialogue means only that people are talking with each other. In Christian ecumenical circles, where the term is frequently invoked, it is often stressed that “dialogue” carries a broader meaning. Sometimes, in order to make the point that we are talking about “talk plus,” the term “faithful dialogue” is used. The partners in dialogue are to be free to affirm their beliefs.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, a basic rule of the game seems to be that one must not expect anyone to change. Any such anticipation, it is feared, will inevitably lead to manipulation. It is all right to share convictions so long as one does not try to be convincing; persuasiveness is seen as tantamount to proselytizing.

It is often said that the only legitimate motive for dialogue is to gain better mutual understanding. To be sure, that would be no minor achievement! An I/Thou relationship -- that basic prerequisite for all true dialogue -- cannot be established until some of the prevalent misunderstandings and caricatures have been erased. I have the impression, however, that interfaith dialogue is frequently practiced at the level of intellectualizing; it thus tends to become a polite and somewhat elitist enterprise. In daily life situations, where faith perspectives meet and historical movements encounter each other, things are not so neatly managed.

It seems to me that all witness should have a dialogical quality; i.e., there should be a willingness to listen to and learn from the other. In other words, witness ought not to be triumphalistic -- or, to use a biblical term, it should never be boastful. Whenever we feel called to witness, we ought to be aware of our true motives. They are rarely as pure and loving as we like to make ourselves believe.

Likewise, all dialogue should include a dimension of witness. All too often interfaith dialogue is designed for safety. That unwillingness to risk leads to sterility. A little passion, even a bit of polemics will not damage a dialogue that has reached the stage of basic mutual respect and trust.

I am not pleading for a return to the old-time polemics with its adversary mentality and its barely concealed insults. But in interfaith dialogue we are not just exchanging information; we are also testifying to truths that have taken hold of us and shaped our commitments. There are profound issues at stake, such as the ones raised in Martin Buber’s polemical book Two Types of Faith. We ought to be able to reason and occasionally to argue with each other about those things.

According to a study published recently by the Evangelischen Kirche in Germany, “the point of Christian-Jewish encounter is to male their different confessions of the one God fruitful for mutual witness.” In this way of stating it I sense a dynamic which seeks to move beyond improved mutual understanding; it seeks to affect the life and witness of both communities.

The Message of Conversion

So we are talking about change after all -- not about “convert the Jews” campaigns which are supposed to take the place of conversation, but rather about mutual change. It seems to me that any encounter with the Jewish people lacks Christian Integrity if it does not grow out of a profound recognition that the church itself needs to come to a radical transformation as a result of the experience.

By the same token, it should be pointed out that conversion is an essentially Hebrew concept. The question of conversion arises when we meet the God of Israel -- the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- the Holy One who addresses us and calls us to respond. The faith of Israel is fundamentally different from the kind of religiosity that people have in their blood, that simply flows from their being -- their gut feelings. Such religiosity does not demand ultimate decisions. Paganism comes naturally; therefore, the question of conversion does not arise.

At best, the message of conversion is good news about the transforming potential of faith. Jews and Christians both pray for the day when all humanity will turn to the Lord and give glory to his name. Why, then, has it become such bad news to Jews when Christians start talking about making them converts? In order to begin to understand Jewish feelings on this matter, Christians will have to enter into the Jewish experience throughout Christian history in a way few of them have been willing to do.

Most Christian clergy have studied church history without ever being introduced to this shameful aspect of the church’s story. The Jews, however, do know about it. They know about the anti-Jewish polemics of certain church fathers; about the forced baptisms, especially of children; about the church council decree that sanctioned the removal of such children from their parents; about a papal edict encouraging raids on Jewish synagogues by the faithful; about the expulsion of all Jews from a country like Spain; about Luther’s hate language directed against Jews when they did not convert according to his timetable; about the prohibition against Jews living in Calvin’s Geneva; and about all the cruelties Christians have felt justified in perpetrating against the people they called “Christ-killers.” Is it surprising then that, to so many Jews, conversion came to mean “joining the enemy”?

We are not talking only about things that happened in some distant dark age; we are talking about the memories of our neighbors. Listen to Jewish novelist Elie Wiesel, as he spoke in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York:

I do not feel at ease in a church. I hope you will forgive my frankness. I believe in the usefulness of dialogue, but it must be preceded by an honest exchange. As a child I was afraid of the church to the point of changing sidewalks. In my town the fear was justified. Not only because of what I inherited -- our collective memory -- but also because of the simple fact that twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, Jewish children would be beaten up by their Christian neighbors [Auschwitz: The Beginning of a New Era?, edited by Eva Fleischner- (KTAV, 1976), p. 406].

There is more. At an early stage in the church’s history a process of de-Judaization was set in motion -- a process that through the centuries has deprived the church of some of the richest elements of its Hebrew heritage. The U.S. Catholic bishops spoke frankly about these things in their 1975 pastoral message. But the vast majority of Christians have yet to recognize that fundamental fact, let alone come to terms with its implications for the life of the church and its relationships to the Jewish people.

To confront the Jewish people with the meaning and significance of the life and ministry of Jesus as we understand and confess them is one thing. To ask Jews to become well adjusted denominational Christians in a hellenized church is quite another. The best among those Jews who decide to take that step are likely to end up as lonely and misunderstood missionaries, calling an unrepentant church to renewal through a recovery of its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.

A Recovery of Roots

Let me be clear. I have received perspectives of faith through the witness of the Christian church which I consider to be of ultimate significance to my life. As far as my faith is concerned, Jesus -- his message and the reality of his spirit as a transforming power -- are normative. I believe that there are accents in the New Testament message of grace that will continue to have a powerful appeal to certain Jews.

On the other hand, I can testify from personal experience that to be raised in the Christian church as we know it makes loss of basic elements of one’s Judaic background virtually inevitable, including elements that the church desperately needs for its own renewal. My father, son of a Polish rabbi, while completing his own rabbinical studies in Switzerland was introduced to the New Testament, not by an eager gentile missionary but by his overhearing (quite by accident) a discussion about Jesus in some university hall. After becoming a Christian, he stayed in close contact with his Jewish heritage. He shared his faith with his people, and during the Holocaust he shared their fate in the Nazi ovens.

For me and my family, however, things are quite different (even though my wife, too, grew up in a Hebrew-Christian home). In a number of ways we live in alienation from very rich aspects of the Jewish tradition. And when I look at my children, I realize that in many respects they are tragically ignorant of their Jewish background.

The faculty members of the school of world mission at Fuller Seminary say that it ought not to be so. In their recent statement, they call on Jewish converts to maintain their cultural ties for the enrichment of the whole church. That, however, is not so easy to do when for centuries the church has followed policies (not unwittingly, as the Fuller professors state, but systematically and by unholy design) that sought to de-Judaize the Jews and submerge them in various brands of Christendom. Why, one wonders, such passionate desire to remove the otherness of the Jews? Could it possibly be related to our problems with the otherness of the God of Israel?

Such questions cannot be avoided. How can we talk about converting the Jews when we are not passionately concerned about the conversion of the church? The church needs change, in its theology and in its life and ministry.

The Concept of ‘Fulfillment’

Some dramatic proposals for changes in Christian theology are being made by Rosemary Ruether, Gregory Baum (a Jewish convert to Christianity) and others. Ruether, who holds that anti-Judaism has developed within the church as “the left hand of Christology” -- that it is really the reverse side of the Christian confession that Jesus is the Christ -- defends the position of an “unfulfilled messianism.” In essence this means that the church would abandon its historic confession that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the future of the Kingdom of God has broken into the present in a decisive way. The claim of fulfilled messianism, she believes, constitutes an illegitimate historicizing of the eschatological.

In his foreword to Ruether’s book Faith and Fratricide (Seabury, 1974), Baum quotes her as stating: “We might say that Jesus is our paradigm for hoping, aspiring man, venturing his life in expectation of the Kingdom” (p. 20). Ruether has also argued that “what Christianity has in Jesus is not the Messiah, but a Jew who hoped for the coming of the Kingdom of God and who died in that hope” (cited in Anatomy of Contempt, by John M. Oesterreicher [Seton Hall University Press, 1975], p. 32).

Resolving the issues between Judaism and Christianity through this kind of “unfulfilled messianism” sounds to me somewhat like resolving the debate between capitalism and communism by eliminating the idea of private property. Such a proposal tends to create a brief sensation, only to be set aside as another radical fad that has come and gone. Yet I believe that there could be great mutual benefit to the concept of “fulfillment” as the focus of a serious Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The manner in which “fulfillment theology” has been developed by the Christian church has frequently led to ecclesiastical triumphalism and, in many cases, to anti-Judaism. Often Christians have made claims for themselves and against the Jews that have no basis in the biblical message. The issue emerges as soon as we deal with some basic theological questions: How do we see the relationship between the Old and New Testament, between the church and Israel, the church and the Kingdom of God, the presence of the Kingdom in the here-and-now and the church’s eschatological hope?

Let us be more specific. Has the Old Testament become superfluous or at least of secondary value? Has God’s covenant with Israel been annulled? Can the church be equated with the Kingdom? In what sense can it be said that redemption has come to the world? When called upon to answer such questions, Christians have frequently been led astray by unbiblical doctrines of “fulfillment.”

The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is a basic Christian confession. Now we await with eager longing the redemption of all things. That, too, is a basic Christian confession, one that the church and the Jewish people share. It is when we seek to give an account of the foundations of the hope that moves us that the differences become pronounced. The church, in its witness to Jesus as the Christ, tends to emphasize the “already” of the redemption that has entered history. Sometimes the distinction between the reconciliation which, according to Christian teaching, has already occurred and the redemption of all things yet to, take place becomes obscured in Christian witness. Then Judaism confronts us with its profound sense of the “not yet,” born out of its burning vision of a new world of righteousness and peace.

In the New Testament “fulfillment” (pleroma) is a key concept, a complex one applied in diverse ways. It has christological as well as pneumatological elements. Many things receive pleroma in Christ and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit -- time, prophecy, the law, people, the church, and even the cosmos.

In essence the New Testament teaching about “fulfillment” deals with the question of the presence of redemption in history. A little over a decade ago, I traced that theme through various theological traditions in my book Redemption and Historical Reality. It is unfortunate that some Jewish scholars still pose an antithesis between Christian and Jewish positions on this issue, claiming that Christian theology conceives of redemption exclusively as an event in the spiritual and private realm of a person’s inner life, but unrelated to history. True, Christian theology has frequently suffered from overspiritualization. But there is a vast body of Christian theological literature that struggles with the question of redemption in profoundly historical terms.

The New Testament speaks about signs of the Kingdom and first fruits of the Spirit. The presence of redemption is experienced as a foretaste and pledge of the promised future. The fulfillment of all things and the consummation of all things correspond to the presence of God’s Kingdom in the midst of historical ambiguities and redemption as it will be experienced in the end time. The Reformers, for instance, carefully distinguished between the regnum Christi and the regnum Dei. Fulfillment does not make hope unnecessary; it nourishes and intensifies it.

These themes are certainly not foreign to the history of Jewish thought, although they are of course developed differently there. I see the concept of “fulfillment” as a much more fruitful basis for Christian-Jewish encounter than all the talk about “unfulfilled messianism.”

Living as a People of Hope

Such an encounter would force the Christian church to take a candid look at the quality of its own witness. Do we indeed live and work in the world as a people of hope? Perhaps the most persuasive witness of the church to the Jewish people would be for Christians to live as a pilgrim people engaged in the practice of the imperatives of the gospel. In that case much of our witness would consist of answering the inquiries of those who want to know what moves us.

Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he saw “evoking to jealousy” as the true strategy for the church’s witness to the Jews (Rom. 11:11)? It seems to me that the more we fail to be faithful to such a witness, the more we begin to act like what Paul called “peddlers of the Word” (II Cor. 2:17), holy hucksters who are prepared to apply the strategies of salesmanship, but who do not appear sincerely interested in the well-being of those whom we encounter. Behind our salesmanship there is often insecurity and an intense desire to control others.

My intention is not to condemn all that has been done in the name of “Jewish mission.” I have seen too many of those people witness not only in word but in deed, and during the Nazi persecution I saw quite a few of them demonstrate their love by risking their lives for their Jewish neighbors. However, I consider an honest encounter between the church and the Jewish people as a priority concern. This, it seems to me, can take place only if the churches become more willing to face their past and to acknowledge their need for radical transformation. Hence, for me the great priority lies not in strategies, programs and campaigns to convert Jews, but in a major Christian educational effort to help church members recover the roots of their faith in Judaism.


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