Jews, Christians and the “New Anti-Semitism” – Replacement Theology

By Edward Kessler

In Jewish-Christian relations an old problem has been generating a new controversy and has compelled some people to ask whether we are facing a ” ˜new antisemitism”. In this case, concern has been raised about the doctrine of replacement theology – the doctrine that Christianity has simply replaced Judaism. This has revived fears among some Jews about the spectre of a resurgence of Christian antisemitism. Replacement theology suggests that since the time of Jesus, Christians have replaced Jews in God’s favour and that Christianity has inherited all of God’s promises, including the land of Israel.

According to the article published by Melanie Phillips in the Spectator, :”(Melanie Phillips ‘Christians who hate Jews’, The Spectator, 16 February 2002.)”: anti-Israeli feeling in Christian circles has arisen as a result of replacement theology. She quotes Canon Andrew White that ‘almost all the Churches hold to replacement theology’ and argues vehemently that what she identified as an outpouring of Christian anti-Zionism is driven by this ” ˜new antisemitism’.

Concern about replacement theology has become prominent for two reasons. Firstly, the collapse of the Israel/Palestinian peace process and the present violence has alarmed ordinary Jews, Christians and Muslims. In particular, all are concerned for the innocent victims (Israelis and Palestinians) of the conflict. Secondly, a consequence of September 11 is that Jews and Christians have realised that they need to consider more seriously than before the encounter with Islam. A marked increase in Islamophobia in the UK has been noticeable over the last 12 months. We should also acknowledge the exposure of latent antisemitism that uses the Intifada and ” ˜9/11’ as excuses. This, I suggest, is not only fundamentally irrational and but also contradictory to Christian self-interest.

One of the controversial topics in the Abrahamic encounter (the dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims) concerns replacement theology because some Muslim theologians argue that Islam itself replaces Christianity (as well as Judaism). If Christianity replaced Judaism, so the argument goes, Islam replaces Christianity. If Islam has a replacement theology vis-a vis Christianity, the same denial by some Christians of Jewish legitimacy towards Israel also implicitly undermines Christian theology and its presence in the Middle East. The problem of replacement theology is more evident in Protestant and Orthodox churches, as the Roman Catholic Church has done more than most to explicitly reject–or at least distance itself from—a Christian invalidation and/or replacement of Judaism.

But does Christianity teach that it replaces Judaism? If we examine the traditional writings of the Church there is only one answer – yes! For example, the church fathers argued that because Jews had rejected Jesus as the messiah they were punished by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and by being driven out from their land. In 135 CE after the disastrous bar Kochba revolt, they were banned from Jerusalem, which was turned into a Roman city. Jews only survived through the centuries, according to this teaching, because their lowly position witnessed to the truth of Christianity.

FORTUNATELY ” “ for both Jew and Christian – the days when Christian identity was based on a negation of all things Jewish have passed. Any reflection on Jewish” “ Christian relations must recognise the enormous strides forward that have taken place since the locust years of Nazi Germany. Thanks to many distinguished scholars and activists, the relationship has been immeasurably transformed for the better. Yet there needs to be a move into a future less dominated by the Holocaust and the history of Christian antisemitism. It still remains to be seen whether Jewish” “Christian relations might be based not on negative but on positive grounds. Nevertheless, the Pope’s moving and successful pilgrimage to Israel in March 2000 is a clear illustration of the change in Christian attitudes towards Jews. There is a re-awakening among Christians to the Jewishness of Christianity and most recently a recognition that the formation of Christian identity today is dependent upon a right relationship with Judaism.

Ironically, this should not be regarded as a new theological development but rather a re-discovery among Christians of an old theological argument, which can be seen in the earliest parts of the New Testament ” “ the letters of Paul. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tackles exactly this point when he raises a particularly controversial question: what of the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with his Jewish people? Did the church, as the ” ˜New’ Israel, simply replace the ” ˜Old’ as inheritors of God’s promises? If so, does this mean that God reneges on his word? If God has done so with regard to Jews, what guarantee is there for the churches that he will not do so again, to Christians this time?

One might argue against Paul by saying that if Jews have not kept faith with God, then God has a perfect right to cast them off. It is interesting that Christians who argue this way have not often drawn the same deduction about Christian faithfulness, which has not been a notable and consistent characteristic of the last two millennia. Actually, God seems to have had a remarkable ability to keep faith with both Christians and Jews when they have not kept faith with him, a point of which Paul is profoundly aware. He goes out of his way to deny claims that God has rejected people whom he “foreknew”  (Romans 11:2), and asserts that their “stumbling”  does not lead to their fall (11:11). And in 11:28, he proclaims that “the gift and the call of God are irrevocable” .

In Paul’s view it was impossible for God to elect the Jewish people as a whole and then later displace them – God would not simply elect and then reject. In his view, the Jewish rejection of Jesus took place so that the Gentiles would receive the opportunity to join the people of God. The Church’s election, therefore, derives from that of Israel but this does not imply that God’s covenant with Israel is broken. Rather, it remains unbroken ” “ irrevocably. This irrevocable covenant between Jews and God is now the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the majority of Protestant churches. This fact escapes the attention of many Jews who need to be told about this transformation in the Christian understanding of Judaism.

As a result of the rediscovery among Christians of the relationship between Jews and Christian the doctrine that ” ˜the covenant remains with the Jewish people’ has been enunciated by Pope John Paul II as well as by the Church of England which recently published a document called Sharing One Hope (2000) and mentioned explicitly ” ˜unacceptability of replacement theology’.

IF REPLACEMENT theology is not official teaching of the Church to what extent does it exist in the pew? Herein lies a practical problem which is at the heart of the Christian understanding of Judaism. On the one hand, the Church teaches that it is in some sense the ” ˜new’ Israel. Indeed, this is a fundamental teaching from the beginning of its existence. On the other hand the Church now teaches that the covenant remains with the Jewish people, their ” ˜elder brother’. The reason why Vatican II (1965) was such a watershed in Christian teaching about Judaism is that it represented a departure from the old idea that Judaism was essentially moribund and decayed. This has brought some confusion to the minds of many ordinary Christians which can be explained, roughly, as follows: Vatican II repudiates the idea that God has abrogated the divine covenant with the Jewish people. But to repeat, it by no means retracts the doctrine that the Church of Christ is ‘the new Israel’. This is a tension which causes difficulty for a proper Christian understanding of its relationship with Judaism. This might be compared to a confused understanding of the Jewish concept of chosenness, which can lead to the false conclusion among some that Judaism is a chauvinistic religion. A proper understanding of election and of the meaning of ” ˜God’s people’ should not allow for a superior attitude or behaviour. Nevertheless, among a small minority it does contribute to a feeling of contempt for the ” ˜other’ (as evidenced by the extreme language of some of the settlers in the occupied territories).

Returning to views in the Christian pews, Rev Penny Oliver, who recently completed an MA in Jewish-Christian Relations, suggests that her parish experience shows how replacement theology “is generally accepted”  but she goes onto say that “I think this is just muddle-headedness, and not attached to antisemitism.” 

She suggests that an appropriate response is to accept the obligation for Christian and Jew (as well as for Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and so on) to engage in interfaith dialogue. The recent Alexandra Declaration (January 2001) initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury points the way forward as it brought together Middle East religious leaders from Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians, and Christians. The willingness to engage at a senior level must become the model for us all. Indeed, a primary human task is to engage in a dialogue with people of other faiths. A leading contemporary exponent of this approach is Hans Kung, who has expressed his convictions in three memorable aphorisms:

No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.

This means that Jewish” “Christian relations must deal in an honest way with theological issues.

What is needed is that Christian teaching about Judaism needs to be filtered from the theological seminaries through to the pulpit and the pew. It is encouraging to see that for the first time, graduates (some of whom are clergy) from the Centre for Jewish- Christian Relations in Cambridge (CJCR) are beginning to make their voices heard. An increasing number of students, Christian, Jew and secular, are being educated in the Jewish-Christian encounter and have an important contribution to make. The work of the Council of Christians and Jews is also important in this regard.

ALTHOUGH REPLACEMENT theology has constantly been lurking in the shadows for 2000 years, we are now in a better position to tackle it openly and confidently than ever before. The Pope may say that ‘the covenant remains with the Jews’ (Easter Letter 1986) and the Church of England may teach that “God is faithful and does not abandon those he calls. We firmly reject any view of Judaism which sees it as a living fossil, simply superseded by Christianity”  (Lambeth 1988). However these views do not necessarily represent the faithful and their understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

There is clearly a debate going on among some Christians, which shows replacement theology as being alive and well. Those who reject it do so in response to its existence within various churches. It is important to realise that the churches themselves are divided on this subject and individual Christians the more so because they are just that – individuals.

The challenge today is to consider how the new teachings are going to be implemented so that replacement theology is marginalized in the pew and the pulpit. How are they going to be brought down to grass roots level? Christian teaching today reflects a respect towards Judaism, which would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. Christian theology has been profoundly revised at the official level ” “ the vast majority of Churches are committed not only to the fight against antisemitism and to teaching about the Jewishness of Christianity but also to rejecting ” ˜replacement theology’.

The emphasis must therefore shift to regional and local levels. Consciousness of the changes has been largely confined to the elite and the object now is to get these changes into the everyday understanding of all the faithful and the fields to be addressed are churches and synagogues, seminaries, schools and universities as well as informal education, including the media. The biggest challenge for anyone involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue is how to get its message across to the masses. We have enough trouble getting through to church leaders but more importantly – even if church leaders are aware of the history of antisemitism and its roots within Christian theology – this means little as long as the people in the pew remain ignorant. One of the challenges today is to educate people who are not aware they need educating!

WE NEED TO develop tailored educational programmes whilst maintaining our separate particularities of faith. For too long dialogue has ignored the existence of “particularities of faith” . From a Jewish perspective they include, for example, an emphasis on Torah, on God’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish people and on divine sanction for the attachment to the Land of Israel. From the Christian perspective, they include the Christian conviction that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God acted decisively for all humanity.

This means that dialogue cannot simply be limited to the areas of common ground, though these will always provide a bridge. The existence of these “particularities of faith”  results in two significant conclusions:

  • Both Judaism and Christianity contain features, which although shared in principle divide in practice, as for example, the issue of the identity of the people of Israel.
  • From the perspective of both these features are central to their understanding of God’s purpose. All such convictions are strictly irreducible.

Thus any attempt to ignore the existence of the “particularities of faith”  will result in an increased likelihood of the failure of dialogue. It takes a high degree of maturity to let opposites co-exist without pretending that they can be made compatible. At the same time, it takes the same degree of maturity to respect an opinion that conflicts with one’s own without attempting to achieve a na ƒ ¯ve accommodation.

Developing educational programmes which the “theological space”  within which Judaism and Christianity can sit is essential. This implies that the participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue should not be seeking a consensus view on all subjects. What we can and should pursue in dialogue is mutual understanding.

What does this mean in practice? Let me give one final example taken from a project undertaken by CJCR, supported by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church as well as the Jewish community and the Council of Christians and Jews. In 2002 CJCR created a series of 10 week courses, requiring only 3-4 hours a week, for clergy and laypeople. The courses have been commended by senior figures within the Church and the Jewish community. For example, The Revd Canon Michael Ipgrave, Secretary to the Churches’ Commission on Inter-Faith Relations has said “these courses will be an important and timely resource for the Christian churches in Britain and Ireland, and for the Church of England in particular.”  Rabbi Jonathan Romain called them “a vital resource for those in general education” .

This ” ˜vital resource’ is one attempt to ensure that ordinary Christians and Jews are aware of the transformation in recent years and that Jews and Christians share “a common mission to the world that God’s name may be honoured” . Courses such as these are essential if we are to ensure that the transformation in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity remains one of the few pieces of good news that can be reported today.

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About the author

Edward Kessler is Founding and Executive Director of the Cambridge Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations. He received a PhD from Cambridge University in theology, MBA from Stirling University and MTS from Harvard. His PhD research examined Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a revised version of which is currently in preparation. He has published An English Jew: The Life and Writings of Claude Montefiore (London, Vallentine Mitchell:1989) a new edition of which was published in 2002 and has co-edited Jews and Christians in Conversation: crossing cultures and generations (Cambridge: Orchard Academic). A book on the founders of Liberal Judaism in England is due to be published in 2003 entitled, The Founders of Liberal Judaism: Israel Abrahams, Claude Montefiore, Israel Mattuck and Lily Montagu (Oxford & New York: Berghahn). He is also co- editing Challenges in Jewish-Christian Relations which is also due to be published in 2003 (New York: Paulist). He writes and lectures on contemporary Jewish-Christian Relations and has been invited to deliver a number of prestigious lectures included the 1st Hugo Gryn Memorial lecture (1998), 30th Cardinal Bea Memorial Lecture (2000) and the Shapiro Lecture in Chicago (2003). He is Editor of a series of monographs entitled Themes in Jewish-Christian Relations as well as Specialist Editor of A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations (which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2004/5). He writes occasional articles for The Independent, Irish Times as well as The Tablet, and MANNA.

‚ © Institute for Jewish Policy Research 2002

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