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Christian Fulfillment and Jewish-Christian Dialogue

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, Alkpril 12, 1989 p. 387. 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.


Lively debates are taking place among Christian theologians in dialogue with Jews. Christians are seeking to discover what aspects of their faith are or are not negotiable as churches reassess their positions vis-a-vis Jews and Judaism.

Quite understandably, the Christian belief in Christ as the world’s redeemer is at the center of Christian-Jewish dialogue. Or to put the issue more in terms of the Jewish dialogue partner: If redemption has occurred in Christ, why is the world still so obviously unredeemed? This question has profound implications for other issues such as attitudes toward mission and even approaches to social-political matters.

Eugene Fisher’s article "Covenant Theology and Jewish-Christian Dialogue" in the January-May 1988 issue of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy may be taken as representative of the Christian attempt to establish common ground for Christian-Jewish dialogue. He writes: "While earlier generations of Christian thinkers tended to stress only the ‘already here’ aspects of the New Testament kerygma, more recent scholarship has sought to reintegrate the eschatological ‘not yet’ into their vision." In other words, we ought not to make claims for redemption today as if the kingdom of God had already arrived, and we should not spiritualize redemption in such a way that we remove it from history. Fisher reminds us that the promises of the messianic age have not yet been fulfilled. Whatever Christians may believe about Jesus as messiah, both Jews and Christians are still waiting for the fulfillment of redemption.

By emphasizing the proleptic or anticipatory nature of Christ’s redemptive

work, and by saying that Jesus is messiah in a not fully accomplished way, we can retrieve for systematic theology the "not yet" aspect of messianic ministry and also meet some of the Jewish objections to certain historic Christian claims. Fisher quotes David Tracy: "To affirm the belief in Jesus Christ is . . . to affirm the faith that in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the decisive token, manifestation, prolepsis of the future reign of God (and, thereby, Messianic time) is already here in a proleptic form and, just as really, not yet here." We may add a quote from John T. Pawlikowski: "All talk of a ‘realized eschatology’ must be buried once and for all. What we Christians in our faith now profess is that through the coming of Christ we have a clearer vision of the final dimension of the kingdom."

Fisher also contends that the term fulfillment should be "reserved for its proper eschatological usage, that is to the End time when the Kingdom will be made manifest and the One God, the God of Israel, will be all in all." According to his view, fulfillment is an eschatological category, not so much because it signifies a breakthrough of the future in Christ and through the Spirit and therefore a present reality, but because it represents a future event when God will be "all in all" (I Cor. 15:28)

These proposals cannot, however, be easily reconciled to the New Testament. Like Fisher I welcome the rediscovery of the truth that the New Testament is eschatological. And I think it is of the utmost importance that we recognize that the church is not the kingdom of God, nor is the state of sanctification the same as the promised glorification. Losing sight of such distinctions has usually meant that the church became mired in perfectionism or triumphalism. However, it is also essential that we make a careful distinction between fulfillment and the biblical visions of the End Time when God will be "all in all." Fulfillment is not the same as the consummation of the kingdom of God. Yet it is central to the message of the kingdom. A survey of every instance in the Greek text where we find the word pleroma (fullness) or one of its various derivatives will show that we are dealing with a concept that permeates the New Testament Scriptures; it is foundational to the Christian kerygma.

The idea of fulfillment is used both in a christological and pneumatological context. What God has done in Christ and what God is doing through the Spirit is considered so dramatic and so monumental that the New Testament writers constantly take recourse to the language of pleroma. The concept refers to time, Torah, prophecy, individuals, the church, even the cosmos.

For example, the stories in Acts 1-2 describe the ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh, and Ephesians 4:9 explains that Christ "ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things." The New Testament tells us that the incarnation has come to an end, but the presence of the historically acting God has not.

We cannot get away from the fact that in the New Testament we are confronted with statements about redemptive fait accomplis that are both numerous and extraordinary. In Christ "all the fullness [pleroma] of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19) Something has happened. The historically acting God has intervened mightily in the affairs of humankind. At the same time, we are constantly reminded that as those who have tasted "the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5) , we are reborn to a living people, awaiting "a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Pet. 1:5) There is an "eschatological presence" now (though I agree with Pawlikowski that the term "realized eschatology" might better be avoided) , but the eschaton is not yet.

This tension between the already and the not yet cannot be resolved by deducting christological affirmations or adding eschatological expectations. Fulfillment -- breakthroughs of God’s future in our present -- causes all of life to long for the consummation of the kingdom of God. Expectation is the essence of this fulfillment, not because Christ’s messianic ministry is incomplete, but because in him God has acted decisively in the midst of the chaos of sin.

To talk about the End Time as messianic time seems unnecessarily confusing to me, and counter to I Corinthians 15:24-28. It suggests that in the end the Son will deliver the kingdom of the Father. (The Dutch scholar A. A. Van Ruler called this the "messianic intermezzo.")

During the interim between the ascension and the parousia, says the text, Christ must reign, and he does so during an era when the forces of sin and death are still very much operative. Theologians have distinguished between the reign of Christ and the ultimate reign of God. They are related in the same way that fulfillment and the consummation of the kingdom are related. Just as theologians have said that the revealed God remains the hidden God, so we can say that the power of the age to come in our midst means that signs of the kingdom, very real signs, are revealed to us while at the same time the kingdom remains hidden and is yet to be revealed in all its glory. In that sense the world remains unredeemed. The New Testament makes it very clear that there are still hostile forces to be overcome. "And the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (I Cor. 15:26)

The New Testament message gives many reasons for joy, but none for Christian triumphalism. The kingdom of God has not arrived, nor have we Christians arrived. However, we are not left empty-handed-either. As we read in I Corinthians 4:20, "The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." Romans 14:17 expands on this theme by stating that "the Kingdom of God . . . [means] righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

What does this discussion mean for redemption? Fisher describes redemption in terms of the Eucharist. But again he uses language that minimizes the Christian reality when he states that Catholics have traditionally been taught that "we have but a foreshadowing or foretaste of the Parousia, the world-to-come."

But a foreshadowing? Is there any reality to it? The broadly catholic tradition -- Roman, Orthodox, as well as Protestant -- affirms the reality of Christ-with-us, in the Eucharist. Fisher continues, "We ‘have’ not its ‘fulfillment’ but rather a definitive hope." True, when we are in the presence of the living God and experience the power of the age to come, we don’t "have" the divine reality, as if it were something that we can grasp and handle. What we have in the Eucharist is nothing more than a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. But what happens according to faith is something else. And in the biblical tradition hope is rooted in happenings, not in theological theories.

Pawlikowski says that "what we Christians in our faith now profess is that through the coming of Christ we have a clearer vision of the final dimensions of this kingdom." But I am not so sure that our vision about the final dimensions of the kingdom of God is actually clearer than that of the prophets of Israel. As a matter of fact, in order to understand the full dimensions of what God’s promises entail, Christians would do well to dig deeply into the messages of Moses and the prophets. We need the very healthy this-worldliness which is to be found there. The intensely eschatological orientation of the Gospels and apostolic letters alone will not do, certainly not for a Christianity that wants to be socially relevant. But Christians. too, deal with final realities that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human heart conceived. When the mystery of the kingdom is revealed, it does not cease to be a mystery.

It seems to me that the New Testament claim is more that we gain a deepened understanding of the foundation of the kingdom of God than that we gain a clearer vision of its final dimensions. In other words, the vision of faith is rooted in the reality of the presence of God, and in Christian terms that reality is understood very much in light of the accomplished ministry of Christ. Pawlikowski is reluctant to talk about a completed messianic ministry of Jesus because he fears Christian triumphalism, the source of so much Christian anti-Judaism. He is right in stating a basic problem of Christian history, but I cannot follow him in his proposed solution.

Judaism also lives by a magnificent vision of the future of the Lord. Both faiths represent journeys of hope. Where we clearly differ is in our understanding of the meaning of redemption in light of Jesus’ life and ministry. But I am convinced that Christians will create more difficulties than they resolve by minimizing the New Testament emphasis on fulfillment, or by talking about a Christ event that is incomplete, a messianic ministry that has not been fully accomplished. Such notions introduce elements into the New Testament witness that strike me as artificial -- foreign substances that the body of Christian kerygma will feel compelled to reject.

If it is true, as some of us believe, that the differences between Christians and Jews run deeper than is sometimes suggested, what does that mean for dialogue? To answer that in a personal way, I accept the fact that my Jewish friends don’t believe a word of some of the things I have affirmed. To some people, certain aspects of the message that I call gospel will sound more like theological gobbledygook. Were I to be told that in a dialogue group, it would obviously give me some pain or discomfort.

On the other hand, I realize that mature dialogue requires one to stand some heat, to recognize the profound faith perspectives that may lie behind other-people’s rejection of one’s position. This encounter can lead, in turn, to a deepened respect for the faith and practices that enrich the dialogue partner’s life. It is often in painful moments that we begin to understand the pain of our dialogue partners, and to face more honestly some of the terrible things that have been done in the name of our own tradition.

I do not believe that the kind of fulfillment theology I have briefly outlined will ipso facto lead to Christian triumphalism. Whatever New Testament "plerophoric" language may mean, it most certainly does not refer to a fullness in our theological wisdom.


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