Reflections on the New Uniting Church of Australia Statement on relations with the Jewish People

I have just read through this statement – JEWS AND JUDAISM: A STATEMENT BY THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA – from The Uniting Church Synod of Australia’s Task Group on Christian Jewish Relations.

In general, it is a very good statement and has the advantage of clarity. I like the way in which statements have been divided into “The Uniting Church acknowledges…”, “The Uniting Church acknowledges with repentance…”, “The Uniting Church affirms…”, “The Uniting Church does not accept…” and “The Uniting Church encourages its members and councils…” sections.

I like paragraph 11, which says:

The Uniting Church affirms…that Christians in their lives and by their words bear witness to God as known to them through Jesus Christ;

That puts the controverted “evangelisation” question very appropriately, I think. As I read it, it says that we are not trying to convert Jews to the worship of a different God, or proposing a different religion to them. We are saying that we have come to know the God of Israel through Jesus, and that it is appropriate that we (indeed we are commanded to) bear witness to this in our “lives” and “words”.

Most interesting is the way in which they treat the issue of the validity of the Covenants.

The Uniting Church affirms…(12) that the gifts and calling of God to the Jewish people are irrevocable;

The Uniting Church does not accept… (17) the belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people; …(18) supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God;

I think these statements are ones that we can affirm also as Catholics, although the devil is in the detail, especially the detail of what you mean by “covenant”, and especially the question of “which covenant?”.

You may recall that last year the United States Catholic Bishops Conference altered their catechism by removing the words

“Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

and replacing them with the words from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

“To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”

(See here for the National Catholic Reporter reaction).

The fact is that the statement that the “covenant…through Moses remains eternally valid” does not accurately reflect the clear teaching of the New Testament. It is simply too bold and too sweeping and too inaccurate. Much better is the UCA’s affirmation that “God’s gifts” to the Jewish people “are irrevocable” and that God has not “abolished the covenant with the Jewish people”. Those statements are true. The devil, of course, is in the detail. What do we mean by “covenant”?

The definition of “Covenant” in the UCA statement is left to the glossary, where it says:

2. Covenant is a pact or bargain between two parties. In the Hebrew Scriptures, covenant refers primarily to the bond between God and the people of Israel initiated by God, and grounded in God’s grace and steadfast love. The covenant was made with Moses at Sinai (Exod.19f), reaffirming the bond made with Abraham (Gen. 15:17), reaffirmed later with David (2 Sam.7) and in the restoration from exile (Isa. 40-55). In the Hebrew Scriptures, God also made a covenant link with Noah. In Jewish thinking, this covenant applies to all humanity, requiring only that people respect life and live by a codified rule of law that has integrity (Gen. 9:8-17).

In the New Testament, covenant is used to refer to God’s new and renewed bonding of all humanity through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is seen as fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34. A long history in the church has declared that God has revoked the covenant with Judaism, and this has produced an exclusive view of salvation: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’. (John 14:6) (NRSV) This text, Hebrews 8: 6-13 and
others were written in the period when the followers of Jesus were breaking away from Judaism, and so these texts need to be understood in the context of that division.

Now I have a few problems with this – mainly with seeing the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenant as the same thing and through the lens of the Mosaic Covenant, and the final statement that chooses to see the words of Christ as some kind of polemic against the Jewish people. But the authority of these statements in the glossary are not clear. These are not opinions predicated by the statement “The Uniting Church affirms”.

The whole issue of the continuing significance of God’s covenants with the Jewish people remains unclarified in Catholic teaching at this point – even though, I would contend, the broad outlines and boundaries of what we can say are very clear indeed. Things were stirred up a number of years ago by the document “Reflections on Covenant and Mission“, which seemed to claim a “two-fold path of salvation”, one through Christ for the Gentiles and one through the Mosaic Covenant for the Jewish people. Hence, the document concluded, Christians should not evangelise Jews. Both statements are very controversial, although you will find some in the Catholic Church today defending them as if they were official Catholic teaching. They are not – even though some official Catholics do teach them (if you get what I mean).

As far as I understand it, we would want to join the Uniting Church in rejecting

“19. forms of relationships with Jews that require them to become Christian, including coercion and manipulation, that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom.”

I think the grammar of this statement could be improved, but you get the idea. I am not sure what circumstances in the modern age would have Christians “requiring” that Jews become Christian (baptising them if they want to come to a Catholic school???). Maybe the original writers meant “require them to become Christian if they want to be saved”, but as it stands, the statement does not say that. I would certainly not “require” any of my Jewish friends to become Christian, but I would certainly propose faith in the risen Jesus as Messiah and Lord as the path to which God is calling all people, including Jews. I think this is the difference between “proposing” and “imposing” that my banner at the top of this page refers to.

But with regard to the covenants, and their continuing validity, I am coming to understand that it is far better for us to speak of the covenants which God made with the Jewish people specifically rather than in general. You see, the New Covenant which God makes with his people in Jesus is related to each of the three OT covenants, but in a somewhat different manner in each case. (I am leaving aside the Noahide covenant for the moment – the relationship between this and Christ is a little different, and it is a universal covenant, not one specifically with the Jewish people).

In particular, I believe that the Church can affirm the eternal validity of God’s gift and calling to the Jews which he made with them “through Abraham”. The relationship between Jesus and the Abraham covenant is different to that between Jesus and the Sinai Covenant. According to St Paul, the Mosaic Covenant was a temporary arrangement – one which reached its fulfillment in Christ and hence no longer justifies one as a member of the family of Abraham. But Christ did not come to abolish the Abrahamic covenant – on the contrary, he came to fulfill that covenant by expanding it to embrace all people, Jews and Gentiles, within the embrace of Abraham’s family. (Jesus’ relationship with the Davidic covenant is somewhat more specific – it cannot be said that the Davidic Covenant was made with all the Jewish people – it was a covenant with the House of David about an eternal Kingship. The connection to Christ is obvious, one would think. The Davidic covenant has not been abolished either).

So, my final point after all this. I don’t know which way the Church will come down on these controverted issues. I hope that very soon we can have a definitive statement which is at least as clear on matters as the UCA statement is (yet without the deficiencies of the UCA statement). At this stage I believe that the Catholic Church clearly teaches (in broad agreement with the UCA):

1) that God’s gifts and calling to the Jewish people are irrevocable.
2) that in our relations with Jews we should not act in a ways that coerces or manipulates them to become Christian, or in ways that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom

I would like to see the following clarifications:

1) that in Christ the covenant God made with the descendants of Abraham is both fulfilled and eternally validated
2) that through Christ, all people are called into this covenant relationship with God
3) and accordingly that Christians, in their lives and in their words, are called always to bear witness to Christ and propose the Gospel to all people, including the Jewish people.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Reflections on the New Uniting Church of Australia Statement on relations with the Jewish People

  1. matthias

    . Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets,and that Christians should live their lives fulfilling the covenant.Sadly Christendom has not fulfilled it in relation to the Jews.
    My father and his mother -nominal Anglicans-were converted at the Hyman Appelman Crusades in the early 1930s’.Appelman was an new York Hebrew Christian ,and I and my brother were instilled with a respect and love for the Jewish people by my father,and looking back i now recognise that it was in the same vain as your two points :”that God’s gifts and calling to the Jewish people are irrevocable.
    2) that in our relations with Jews we should not act in a ways that coerces or manipulates them to become Christian, or in ways that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom”.
    I do have a problem with the last part of the UCA statement which seeks to contextualise the exclusivity of salvation with the break of the Christians from Judaism. Jesus the Messiah made it quite clear that He is the only Way of Salvation. Again although i greet this statement with positivity,it does show in this one area a willing ness to downgrade the Deity of Christ

  2. As those who have come to Catholicism from Judaism – or, as they see it, coming to the fulness of the Messianic hope – say, if Christ is not the Saviour of Israel, He is no one’s Saviour.

    “I came first to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” – DNJC

    • matthias

      My parents had Jewish friends who use to tell me that when a Jew becomes a Christian they usually,the ones they knew,became cathlolics.

  3. Mike

    The “two-way” approach just seems painfully illogical. Christ is a Jew. He fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures. He was the Jewish Messiah, and when he said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” he was speaking to Jews. What screwed-up sense of logic could you now use to say that His way is really for every single person in the world except Jews?

    • Yes, it is a bit hard to swallow. It is interesting to look at the supporting bibliography in the UCA statement. A little more biblical scholarship might not have gone astray.

  4. Sharon

    The USCCB have recently released a clarification of Reflections on Covenant and Mission. It should be available on their website.