Probing the Jewish-Christian Reality

by Paul van Buren

Dr. van Buren is a professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 17-24, 1981, pp. 665-668. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christian theology has been wrong about Israel, the people of God, and therefore to that extent wrong about the God of Israel, wrong about the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The Jewish faith does not give an "indirect witness to Jesus Christ," but a fully historical living tradition, constituting a quite direct witness to the God of Israel.

In my last conversation with Karl Barth, in 1961 -- a conversation that was for both of us in some ways painful -- I asked him what he expected of his former students, seeing that he was so dissatisfied with what I was then doing (i.e., developing what was to be The Secular Meaning of the Gospel). Barth’s answer was that every page of his Dogmatics was in need of improvement and that we should set to work to make it better. I took him to mean that we should be devoting ourselves to writing footnotes on his work. Instead, I took another path which led to some dozen years of working in analytic philosophy of religion, and that was where I was when the 70s began.

By the end of the decade, however, I was at work at the task that Barth had asked of me, not as I then heard it, but as I now hear it. The dogmatic or systematic theological work of the church, of which Barth’s Church Dogmatics is a distinguished crown, is indeed in need of serious correction on every page, and with the years that remain, I mean to Continue the task of trying to improve it.

Administrative Tasks

My change of mind in moving from the philosophy of religion to the task of systematic theology came roughly in the middle of the decade. The first third of the decade saw my last efforts at unsnarling the puzzles of religion, taken as puzzles of language. With The Edges of Language (1972) I had reached the limits of what I could do to understand religion with the help of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and I was not impressed with the results. I was not impressed with the results which others had come up with either. Some were cleverer than others, but none of them seemed to make much of a difference. Philosophers in general -- and so also philosophers of religion -- were simply writing for each other, and their results seemed to me to have little to do with the real world.

The "real world" of the first third of the ‘70s, it will be recalled, included the ever-escalating Vietnam war and the ever-degenerating language flowing out of Washington. It was the Nixon era, the one that ended with Watergate. Perhaps in some indirect way of which I was not fully conscious, the degeneracy of language (and not only language) that was so evident a feature of the last years and final collapse of the Nixon presidency sapped my enthusiasm for the battle for clarity in analyzing the workings of religious language.

I could sympathize with the moral passion of Wittgenstein in the face of a similar situation of linguistic degeneracy in the last days of Hapsburg Vienna. It was the driving power of his philosophical work. I found instead that I was becoming increasingly bored by philosophical analysis. I there. fore gave in to the urging of colleagues and accepted something I had carefully avoided all my life: administrative work. I took on the chairmanship of the religion department at Temple University in 1974.

For the next few years, I was engaged mostly with parenting: working to develop the cooperative spirit and patterns so necessary for a department of 20 specialists if we were to listen to and learn from each other in such a way that we could train graduate students together rather than at cross-purposes. Other university administrative tasks were also added, in the form of chairing a review of graduate programs in all of the colleges of the university. Teaching was reduced to a minimum and done mostly with the left hand. I found myself working almost exclusively as an academic administrator, and perhaps I would be doing that now, were it not for the fact that one particular administrative task played a central role in bringing about a change of mind.

Wrong About Israel

The first and primary job confronting me as chairman of the department was to shepherd the troops into making two appointments in Judaism to replace Jewish colleagues who had left us for other institutions. The process took us two years, and I spent a good deal of that time talking with Jewish scholars, reading about Judaism, and reading the works of and finally interviewing candidates. In the meantime, I had to make short-term appointments to keep our offerings in Judaism available for students. The first of these was Rivka Horwitz, visiting in the area from Israel. Just to see how things were working out, I visited her graduate seminar, and there I was introduced to Franz Rosenzweig’s doctrine of creation, which struck me as exceptionally exciting and clearly a step ahead of what usually is said on the matter in the Christian tradition.

Rosenzweig, importantly, but also all those other contacts with the world of Jews and Judaism opened my eyes to something I had been looking at somewhat casually all along but had never really seen: Israel, the Jewish people, the people of God, was definitely alive. "The Synagogue," "Jewish legalism," and all those old slogans of our theological tradition came tumbling down like the house of cards they were. In their place, actual Judaism, the living faith of this living people of God, came into view. I was fascinated.

I was more than fascinated. In the midst of administrative chores taking more and more of my time, I was set to thinking furiously. The Christianity I knew said that what I was coming to see so clearly simply did not exist, had not existed since Jesus Christ. What I was discovering was something of which I had heard nothing as an undergraduate, seminarian or graduate student. Yes, I knew that Barth had said some highly original and interesting things about ancient Israel and even about the continuing Jewish entity, but the latter was not real. It was but a ghost of ancient Israel, kept alive in the world as only a shadow of something else.

What I was coming face to face with, however, was no shadow, no "indirect witness to Jesus Christ," but a fully historical (certainly "warts and all") living tradition, constituting a quite direct witness to the God of Israel. If Christian theology said that this did not exist, then Christian theology, at least on this point, was simply wrong. It was wrong about Israel, the people of God, and therefore it was to that extent wrong about the God of Israel, wrong about the God and Father of Jesus Christ. I was far more than fascinated; I was back at my old discipline, wrestling with fundamental issues of systematic theology. What would Christian theology look like if it were corrected at so central a point? Would it even be recognizable as Christian theology?

Willing to Speak the Language

I thus found myself drawn deeply into the two linguistic communities of the church .and the Jewish people. Whatever my earlier difficulties in understanding the use of the word "God," I found that if I were to get anywhere with the problems now confronting me, I had to accept myself as a member of one of those two linguistic communities and therefore to speak with them of the God of whom they both spoke. My older problems did not receive any direct answers. They simply receded into the background; or rather, the position from which I had been asking them was, no longer one on which I could stand if I were to take seriously this new (or very old) problem.

Instead, seen from within this tension between the church and Jewish people, what before had been the problem of "God" now was the problem of God as the God of both of these realities. By entering into their common problem and conflict, I found myself able and willing to speak their language. All the old problems remained, but they now appeared to be philosophical problems, not half so burning as the theological ones. I had run into a paradox and an incoherence that made the philosophical ones seem positively trivial.

The task confronting me -- indeed, confronting the whole of theology and the whole of the church, if it were ever to notice it -- was therefore to understand and interpret what God had done in Jesus Christ that had resulted in the concurrent existence and history of the church and the Jewish people. Both were there, side by side. I had to understand how this had come about.

No church history I had ever been taught had so much as hinted at the real historical situation. And what was that Judaism of the post-Exilic period, which had produced not only Jesus of Nazareth but also Yohanan ben Zakkai, and which was to flower in not just patristic Christianity but also, during precisely the same centuries, in rabbinic Judaism? Clearly I had much to learn. I therefore escaped at the first decent moment, at the close of my first term as chairman, and went off to read for a year -- and think.

The last third of the decade of the ‘70s was spent digesting, digging deeper and formulating for publication the results of the change of mind that took place during the middle third. The prolegomena, or things to be said first, of the larger (and multivolume) systematic reflection on the matter, subtitled "a theology of the Jewish-Christian reality," has already appeared (Discerning the Way [Seabury, 1980]). Rather than speculate about what lies ahead, however, I would prefer to focus now on my perceptions of my context and my work, as these have been influenced by my change of mind.

The Context for Doing Theology

Let me begin with the interesting contextual situation. Here I am at present, and as a result of the change, a self-confessed Christian systematic theologian working in a large department of religion in a state university. Does that make sense? Is that any place in which to do a theology that openly addresses itself to the church? Is that appropriate to a religion department, in contrast to a school of theology or a divinity school? And is this proper, constitutionally, in a state-supported university?

I have not had to appeal to that oldest and best argument for the institution of academic tenure, the unqualified freedom of a scholar to move as his or her research and thinking lead, without being bound by past assumptions or present colleagues. As we have developed our department, we have intentionally left open the possibility that teaching about religion might be carried on by those committed to a religious tradition. Indeed, at least some colleagues outside of our department seem not at all opposed to the discussion and articulation of real theology -- in their terms, real religion -- within what is, after all, a department of religion.

My response to the question, therefore, will be more substantive. If Christian theology, which may or may not be listened to by the church, needs to be done in full awareness of Jewish theology, as I now believe, and then in due course in awareness of Islamic theology, and eventually surely also in awareness of Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions, then where better can it be done than in a context in which it must be hammered out in constant discussion with Jewish (and then Islamic, and then Eastern) colleagues and especially graduate students, whose interests -- and in some cases commitments -- lie in these other traditions?

The history-of-religions point of view has no monopolistic right to be the only ground for the study of religion. If one is moved on theological grounds to take other traditions seriously, one has another and most fruitful approach to the study of ones own tradition in the presence of and in relation to other traditions. And where else but in such a department can a Christian theologian have the glorious if frightening responsibility of training, e.g., future Jewish theologians, as well as those who may contribute to turning the church toward new responsibilities?

As I see the matter, there is not in fact any constitutional issue at stake. When I conduct a seminar on, for example, Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation, none of my Jewish students need fear that I am trying to convert them to Christianity. Far from it. We are, rather, asking together how well Barth really understood Torah as good news to Israel (quite well, thank you), and how well he understood the teaching of the rabbis that Torah-living by the Jewish people was living by grace (quite poorly, I’m afraid), and whether the correction of his mistake could produce a better theology for Christian self-understanding and perhaps even something helpful for Jewish theology. Mutatis mutandis, in seminars on Franz Rosenzweig or Hermann Cohen, we are asking together about the adequacy and helpfulness of their work as theology for the Jewish people, and also what Christian theology has perhaps to learn from them. Does this in any way touch the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of religion?

My students are mostly Jewish and Christian, since the relationship between these two traditions is the center of my work, but we have given much thought to the relation of our traditions to the others, especially to Islam, which stands in a special relationship to ours for both historical and theological reasons. I think I might win some agreement from my students if I expressed a tentative understanding of the matter as follows. It may be that the God of Israel, as King of the Universe, is working his purposes out also in these other traditions -- and in our situation, their reality confronts us regularly in the persons of faculty colleagues and graduate students.

We as Jews and Christians need in any case to work out our own self-understandings and understandings of God together, because we share the same name of God and largely the same canon of Scriptures, not to speak of subsequent history (although Jewish history in the world of Islam must be learned and not forgotten by Christians). We should do this, however, in such a way as to be open to the question of whether we can hear in these other traditions the voice we have been disciplined to hear by our own Scriptures. This is (with Schleiermacher and Barth) to deny the validity of the concept of natural or general religion, but (with Barth and against Schleiermacher) to learn to listen to our own Scriptures, in order (with neither Schleiermacher nor Barth) to listen to the Scriptures of other traditions with sensitive ears for the voice of the God we trust we know, perhaps even to hear a word that may correct our reading of our own Scriptures.

That, I am prepared to argue, is a fittingly scholarly investigation of religion in a department of religion in a state-supported university. May it go on elsewhere as well, but if not elsewhere, surely it can and should go forward where it is currently taking place.

A Christian, Not a Jew

To return to the theme of this series, let me conclude with three points, the clarification of which will help define how my mind has changed in the past decade. The points are that I am now a Christian, doing systematic theology, not "Holocaust theology." First, I am a Christian, not a Jew. The more I learn about Judaism and the Jewish people, the clearer it becomes that I am not a Jew, not an "honorary Jew," not a Jew by adoption or election. I am a gentile, a gentile who seeks to serve the God of Israel because as a Christian I share in the call of that God to serve him in his church, alongside, not as part of, his people Israel. As a gentile, I am bound to that God not by Torah but by Jesus Christ. That, as I see it, is not my decision but his, or it is mine only as an obedient acknowledgment of his.

Second, I have returned to the work I left off in the beginning of the ‘60s, the self-critical task of the church called systematic theology. I have now found a new lens, Judaism, through which to carry on this work, but I am finding Karl Barth once more to be a superbly stimulating and helpful teacher, especially at the points at which I must disagree with him. He is proving to be a better guide than Calvin, Luther, Thomas, Augustine, Athanasius or Irenaeus (with all of whom he was in continuous dialogue) because he was both more thorough and more rigorously systematic down to the smallest detail. He sets a standard for theological work for which we can only be grateful. When I disagree with him, he forces me to think hard and carefully. What more can one have from a teacher?

Finally, in the light of all that has gone on in the 70s, I must say that I do not in any way conceive of myself as a Holocaust theologian or a theologian of the Holocaust. The horror of the Holocaust has surely opened the eyes of many Christians to the reality of the Jewish people. I have told the story of how my eyes were opened, which was not by way of the Holocaust. What Christians need to see, in my judgment, is not the Holocaust, but that which lives after and in spite of the Holocaust, the living reality, "warts and all," of the Israel of God, the Jewish people.

What concerns me as a Christian theologian is whether Christians will come to see that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is still loved, revered and obeyed by his original love, the people of God, the Jews. And if most of them do not love and serve God, what shall we say about most of those who have been baptized? The reality of the Jewish people, fixed in history by the reality of their election, in their faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness, is as solid and sure as that of the gentile church. That is what I ran into and had to see, and that is what accounts, as far as I can tell, for how my mind has changed in the past decade, and my agenda for the future.