Fulfillment Theology and the Future of Christian-Jewish Relations

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, January 23, 1980, pp. 66-69. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


To the growing debate on “fulfillment theology” the author adds a contribution from a Reformed theological perspective: the thesis that New Testament messianic claims can be abandoned only at the cost of sacrificing crucial aspects of the church’s witness to the gospel of the Kingdom, but that Christians do need to abandon a good deal of “fulfillment theology” that finds its source in ecclesiastical triumphalism.

The book Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (edited by Eva Fleischner [KTAV, 1977]) contains an exchange between two theologians -- a Roman Catholic and a Russian Orthodox -- on the question of "fulfillment theology" and its significance for future Christian-Jewish relations. John T. Pawlikowski, following other Catholic scholars such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Gregory Baum, challenges the traditional "fulfillment" concept as basically inaccurate and calls for new approaches in Christology which he believes will "profoundly alter Christianity’s self-definition and make possible a more realistic relationship to Judaism and to all other non-Christian religions." The basic implication of his proposal is that Christians ought to abandon the claim that in Jesus the messianic age has been inaugurated.

Orthodox scholar Thomas Hopko responds to the challenge by expressing the hope that Pawlikowski’s proposal will not be realized, because, he says, "the ‘fulfillment’ understanding of Christianity [cannot] be abandoned without the destruction of the Christian faith." He fears that the suggested changes in Christology will portend "the end of all meaningful religious and spiritual dialogue" and will result in a "sterile relativism, a monistic spiritual syncretism devoid of creative, truly pluralistic conflict and fruitful, truly creative tension."

To this growing debate on "fulfillment theology" I would add a contribution from a Reformed theological perspective: the thesis that New Testament messianic claims can be abandoned only at the cost of sacrificing crucial aspects of the church’s witness to the gospel of the Kingdom, but that Christians do need to abandon a good deal of "fulfillment theology" that finds its source in ecclesiastical triumphalism.


The New Testament everywhere contains fulfillment language. In christological context, fulfillment terminology is used to assert that in Jesus of Nazareth, God acted in an ultimately decisive way in history; used in this way, fulfillment language reflects the fait accompli aspects of the Christian faith.

According to the most ancient Christian confession, Jesus appeared when the time was fulfilled, and his coming meant nothing less than the breakthrough of the new age of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). In this faith Christians came to see themselves as people who had "tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). In short, an encounter with Jesus as the living Lord was experienced as a foretaste of the future of the Lord proclaimed by prophets and seers. The emphasis in New Testament fulfillment theology is on foretaste, not on the full realization of divine redemption in present history.

Nevertheless, the christological claims of the New Testament can hardly be overestimated. We are told not only that time has been fulfilled, but also that in Jesus Christ the law and the prophets have been fulfilled. In Jesus, claim the early Christians, "all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ " (II Cor. 1:20). Jesus’ death was interpreted as an act of atonement and as a victory over the forces of sin and death that hold humanity captive. Thus he was confessed as "Lord of all" (Rom. 10:12), who has overcome the world (John 16:33).


Traditional Judaism has countered these Christian claims with some very fundamental questions. How can one speak of a breakthrough of the messianic era in light of the fact that the world is so obviously unredeemed? Does not the entire "Christian era" provide one great testimony that the fulfillment of the prophetic promises is still a vision of the future? Some Jewish scholars maintain that empirical evidence shows a deterioration of the human condition since the death of Christ, rather than an improvement.

Redemption, as Martin Buber never tired of pointing out, will mean Die Vollendung der Schöpfung, a fulfillment of the creation which will amount to the re-creation of the whole world. That particular redemption surely has not taken place.

How then do Christians validate their "fulfillment theology"? A common Jewish view is that Christians seek to escape from this dilemma by spiritualizing redemption. "The thesis of historical Christianity has been ‘otherworldliness,’" writes Steven S. Schwarzchild. The messianic idea, according to Gershom Scholem,

is totally different in Judaism and in Christianity; Judaism in all its forms and manifestations has always maintained a concept of redemption as an event which takes place publicly, on the stage of history, and within the community. . . . In contrast Christianity conceives of redemption as an event in the spiritual and unseen realm; an event which is reflected in the soul, in the private world of each individual, and which affects an inner transformation which need not correspond to anything outside [Auschwitz, p. 218].

Once redemption becomes spiritualized and thus effectively removed from the realm of daily life, the danger of Christianity’s becoming a status quo religion is real. Why try to change a world that is so obviously of inferior spiritual significance compared with the salvation of eternal souls for heaven?

Scholem’s and similar views do not show the whole picture of Christianity through the centuries; nevertheless, the first response of a Christian to his kind of challenge should be one of peccavi. We finally ought to face up to the false claims made in some of our "fulfillment theologies" which have contributed immensely to the prevalent misconceptions about Christian views of redemption. In no way am I suggesting that we compromise our faith, but rather that we confess our sins.

For example, patristic literature is full of polemics that seek to prove the superiority of Christianity to Judaism. "Remember," said Paul, "it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you (Rom. 11:18). Faith in Christ’s victory, however, was frequently turned into something quite different: ecclesiastical triumphalism.

As a result of this trend, "fulfillment" became interpreted as God’s rejection of his covenant relationship with the people of Israel. When the church declared itself to be the "New Israel," it usually did so not in order to acknowledge in gratitude God’s new initiatives in Jesus Christ, but rather to reinforce false imperialistic notions about the church’s calling. Ecclesiastical claims that run counter to the biblical witness (for example, Paul’s affirmation in Romans 11:29 that "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable") became accepted as New Testament doctrine. The Jewish scholar Uriel Tal was mistaken when he wrote that the idea of God’s continued covenant with the Jews "is of course contrary to the theology of the New Testament. That idea is only contrary to the church’s false claims of being the "New Israel," replacing and superseding God’s covenant relationship with the Jews.


Krister Stendahl has pointed out that the only New Testament passage claimed for calling the church by the name "Israel" rests on a mistranslation of Galatians 6: i6, a text that really speaks of the original Israel as "the Israel of God." A careful reading of the Greek text, says Stendahl, "must lead to the translation: ‘And as many as walk according to this standard [the new creation in Christ], peace be upon them -- and mercy also upon the Israel of God.’ The Revised Standard Version has suppressed the striking and strong kai (= also) before ‘the Israel of God.’"

Equally unscriptural claims were made about thd New Testament declaration that in Jesus’ coming the law and the prophets were fulfilled. A text particularly significant is Matthew 5:17 -- the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount. The church has struggled for centuries to gain a clear understanding of the meaning of these words. But the text makes unequivocally clear what Jesus did not mean to say. An interpretation this verse seeks to avoid is that the law of God, the law of the kingdom as embodied in the Old Testament, has been abolished, set aside or in any way declared defunct because of Christ’s fulfillment. In fact, Jesus came to affirm and give a new foundation to the righteous. ness of God as embodied in the law. Another interpretation the text wants to make impossible is that the fulfillment of the prophetic promises means that Christians no longer live by promise, whereas the exact opposite is true: fulfillment implies that we live by promise more than ever.

The combination of law and fulfillment, as well as the combination of law and love, is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament, particularly in the letters to the Romans and the Galatians. The New Testament leaves no doubt of its witness that something radical has happened in Christ’s act of sacrificial love. Somehow, Torah, which certainly is more than a set of legal rules, and which refers to a dynamic reality -- namely, God’s righteousness as. it comes to us in our historical existence -- has been given embodiment. That embodiment is what Christ came to accomplish, and he continues to do so through the power of the Spirit. In this sense the law is called "spiritual" (Rom. 7:14), while at the same time we are told that only "doers of the law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13) and that through faith we do not overthrow the law but uphold it (Rom. 3:31).

Criticism of the law is not an exclusively New Testament phenomenon; it is found in the prophetic writings as well. In neither case does it reflect a disrespectful view of divine law (which both the Old and the New Testament see as grounded in divine grace), but rather it refers to what is bound to happen to the law when we start "handling" it and using it to establish our own righteousness rather than letting the rule and righteousness of God dwell and become embodied in our midst. Any suggestion that such misdeeds occurred among the people of Israel but are not happening among Christians would bespeak a self-righteousness that suffocates the very truth of the gospel message.

All Christian claims that Judaism confesses a God of law in the formal/legal sense in contrast to a "Christian God" of grace are based on false views of fulfillment; such views not only damage Christian-Jewish relations but are devastating for the life of the church itself. First we lose the law, then we lose the gospel of the Kingdom, and finally we end up with a spiritualism and/or moralism with scarcely a meaningful word to say to the modern world. Gerard Sloyan makes an important point when he states that "the teaching church cannot allow the confusion to continue with its grandiose -- and often quite wrong -- contrast between the law and the gospel" (Is Christ the End of the Law? [Westminster, 1978], p. 101).


Another false interpretation of "fulfillment" is the claim that the people of the Old Testament era lived by promise, while Christians possess the reality itself. I shudder when I read Lawrence E. Toombs’s advice to preachers that they should see "the Old Testament related to the New as hope to fulfillment, as question to answer, as suggestion to reality" (The Old Testament in Christian Preaching [Westminster, 1961], p. 27). It is sheer heresy to suggest that those who believe in fulfillment are no longer saved by hope (Rom. 8:24).

Faith in Christ means that people have become "partakers of the promise with the people of Israel" (Eph. 3:6), and one of its main fruits is a rebirth of hope (I Pet. 1:3). How can we describe the Old Testament as "question" and "suggestion" and the New Testament as "answer" and "reality"? Does not the Bible from beginning to end witness to the reality of God’s presence in the world, and does not an encounter with him always make people dreamers of the Kingdom of God?

Abraham Heschel expressed a basic insight found throughout the entire Bible when he wrote: "What lends meaning to history? The promise of the future. If there is no promise, there is no meaningful history. Significance is contingent on vision and anticipation, on living the future in the present tense" (Israel: An Echo of Eternity [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967], p. 127). The Christian believes that in Jesus Christ, God’s future has broken into our midst and that there is presence of the promised future in the power of the Spirit. But it is precisely through this presence of the Spirit, which is called "the Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph. 1:13) that the whole creation is made pregnant with longing for the final coming of the future of the Lord (Rom. 8). The Holy Spirit is also called "the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Eph. 1:14). To receive the fullness of the Spirit means to be filled with expectation.

Jakob Jocz wrote some years ago that "a bridge theology" between Judaism and Christianity "can be accomplished only at the point of a diminution of traditional Christology." This process is being attempted today by a number of theologians, but more promise may be found in a re-examination of the New Testament pneumatology.

Rosemary Radford Ruether repeatedly (in Faith and Fratricide and elsewhere) makes the point that the church preaches a fulfilled messianism whenever it forgets the Parousia, losing its vision of the future. Historically, many false claims of fulfillment have indeed found their basic source in a loss of the eschatological perspective. On the other hand, the New Testament witness to fulfillment is rooted precisely in the eschatological vision and in the belief that the future of the Lord, albeit in a hidden and fragmentary way, is present in our midst in the form of signs, first fruits, foretaste and so on. These are all pneumatalogical categories. The key concept of pleroma (fulfillment, fullness of the Spirit) in the New-Testament illustrates that fulfillment is essentially an eschatologically charged reality.

"God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (II Cor. 5:19) In the incarnation and the act of atonement, according to Christian confession, reconciliation has taken place and the possibility of forgiveness is offered to humankind. Christ’s work is seen in fait accompli terms. But the act of reconciliation does not mean that redemption of the world is now a reality. For Christians it means a renewal and broadening of the covenant (gentile branches are grafted onto the tree of Israel -- Rom. 11: 17) and a new foundation for hope in the ultimate coming of the future Kingdom. Through the presence of the Spirit, signs of that Kingdom are established in the world. In faith, first fruits of the eventual harvest of the new age are experienced; we receive a foretaste of the fullness of history that is yet to come (Eph. 1:10).

These occurrences take place through the presence of the Holy Spirit; they are spiritual realities. But it is a tragic misunderstanding of the Christian message to interpret that truth as meaning that redemption becomes "spiritualized." One must excise major portions from the New Testament in order to claim ‘that redemption and the life of faith have nothing to do with the poor, justice, the state, and other earthly realities.

Gregory Baum states that "the redemption brought by Jesus to mankind in the present is prophetic or anticipatory of the future glory; it is a token, a pledge, a first installment of the complete redemption promised in the Scriptures." This assertion is correct, but the christological and pneumatological aspects of such a statement, while intimately related, should not be confused with each other.

Rosemary Radford Ruether rightly rejects an "illegitimate historicizing of the eschatological." The church is not the Kingdom of God; sanctification is not yet glorification; in the first fruits we taste the promise of the harvest but do not possess the harvest itself, and the fulfillment of time is not the same as the consummation of history. Yet the presence of God in history through the Spirit is real. In sum, there must not be an illegitimate dehistoricizing of the inhabitatio Spiritus sancti either.


Martin Buber used to speak of Judaism and Christianity in terms of "two types of faith." Today a noted Hebrew University scholar, David Flusser, who has a profound knowledge of early Christian literature, in his book Jews and Christians Between Past and Future advocates the view that Judaism and Christianity are "one faith." Says he: "When both Judaism and Christianity acknowledge that it is fundamentally one religion, one faith, and do not deny it, as still happens so much either out of ignorance or out of dogmatic prejudices -- then they can really debate with each other." Flusser’s statement seems closer to the truth than Buber’s arguments in his book Two Types of Faith.

Flusser does not wish to ignore the real differences between Judaism and Christianity. Nor do I. But Jews and Christians share a vision concerning the new heaven and the new earth. They also share some basic perspectives on the nature of God’s redemptive presence in the world today, even though the Christian view of history "between the times" is influenced in a decisive way by its christological confession.

At a time when Christians of various traditions are wrestling with questions of political theology, it does not seem to make sense for Jews to insist that Christianity holds an essentially ahistorical view of salvation. That would be tantamount to saying that the Sattlemer Rebbe and his followers, who deny any form of historical realization of eschatological expectations, represent Judaism as a whole. We must move beyond caricatures of each. other’s faith. When Seymour Siegel notes that "the State of Israel is salvation but not redemption," he seems to come very close to what many Christians mean when they speak about "signs of the Kingdom" in historical existence. Such signs are an embodiment of the promise -- fragmentary and constantly threatened by the sinful impulses of humanity, but nevertheless the beginning of the dawn of our redemption. Of course there are also the birth pangs of the Messiah. Both Jewish and Christian literatures have much to say about positive as well as negative signs of the approaching end.

Emil Fackenheim has pointed out that "all attempts to link the precarious present with the absolute future are themselves precarious. . . . Yet, unless the Messianic future is to become ever-elusive and thus irrelevant, its ‘linking with a possible present, however precarious, is indispensable . The Jewish scholar here touches on a basic issue with which both Jews and Christians struggle as they seek to read the signs of the times and to approach their historical responsibility with a sense of honesty as well as hope.

Judaism and Christianity both point to the signs of God’s active presence in history as the foundation of their hope. The role of Jesus in God’s historical-eschatological dealings with the world remains a point of radical difference between the two faiths. Distorted Christian interpretations of "fulfillment" have had destructive consequences for meaningful dialogue. The debate on "fulfillment theology" is therefore of crucial importance, both for Christian-Jewish relations and for the life and mission of the Christian church itself.