Which Messiah Does Save Us?
When Pope Benedict XVI now for a good week visits the Middle East, he has to master big challenges. After he had lifted the excommunication of the four bishops of the Pius-Brotherhood, among them a Holocaust denier, there were again violent irritations between Jews and Christians.
The Austro-American Rabbi Arthur Schneier and Rabbi David Rosen, president of the prestigious International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, however, ostensibly gave Benedict XVI their backing: his theological high regard for Judaism and the Jewish faith is beyond question. They also rejected any suspicion that the Catholic Church could deviate from the dialogical line of the Second Vatican Council. In the meantime in Germany a fierce dispute developed. It was caused by the publication of a booklet of the discussion group "Jews and Christians" at the Central Committee of Catholics with the title "'No' to missionizing the Jews - 'Yes' to the dialogue between Jews and Christians" (www.zdk.de).
The committee of about thirty members in which since 1971 in a world-wide unique way Jews and Christians discuss theological key questions wants very clearly to oppose the impression that "the Catholic Church thinks missionizing the Jews is possible." However, the text of discussion group suspects that the version of the Good Friday intercession published by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 for the extraordinary form of the Tridentine liturgy could be misunderstood and interpreted in this sense. In a core statement it says, "Together with the Church of the Second Vatican Council ... we emphasize that God's covenant with the Jewish people is a path of salvation leading to God - even without the recognition of Jesus Christ and without the sacrament of baptism" (cf. CIG No. 15, p. 162).
Rarely has an inter-religious discussion document got such a journalistic attention. The reason for it is of course also Germany's particular historical problem, the responsibility for the Shoah. Large daily newspapers published favourable and negative-critical statements by theologians and reader's letters about the text. The chairperson of the Episcopal Commission for Ecumenical Relations, Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg and Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity gave a very critical view on it. They see theological shortcomings, conceptual indistinctness, and wrong pointed emphases. Also the President of the Bishops' Conference, Archbishop of Freiburg Robert Zollitsch has dissociated himself from the current text of the discussion group.
What Do You Ultimately Hope for Us?
The booklet is primarily based on the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions "Nostra Aetate" ("In our time") of 1965. One wants to develop earlier statements which are based on decades of experience in the theological dialogue between Jews and Christians. Time and again the problem of the Christians' missionizing the Jews has been discussed. Reputable theological scholars such as Bishop Klaus Hemmerle of Aachen and the Basel specialist in Jewish studies Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich stood - with many others - at the beginning of the unique dialogue.
But the theological brisance obviously remains. This is illustrated by the words addressed in 1981 to the Christians by a Jewish member of the discussion group. Two years ago the committee had published its first important paper that had been recognized by experts as one of the best statements on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. "As well as we get on with each other, I can't get the impression out of my mind that you do not tell us everything, that you have still a joker in the pocket. I want to know: What do you ultimately hope for us? What do you pray for when you're thinking of us? Are we - at least at the end of history - nevertheless to believe that Jesus is the Messiah?" Is only the Christian path to salvation universal? But the God of the Jews is the God of Jesus Christ and thus the God of the Christians. Or are there, historically and in real terms, out of the same root two equally legitimate paths to salvation, even without the belief in Christ?
Such questions time and again affect Christians and Jews in the centre of their conception of themselves. The latest text of the discussion group shows that this committee for a long time has been struggling for clarification, with an intellectually very demanding culture of conversation. One has to face here not only theological and mystical-spiritual ways of understanding, but also the real history, i.e. the anti-Judaism of many Christians for hundreds, even thousands of years producing also political and social impacts. When the prayer of the "new" Tridentine Good Friday Liturgy formulated by Pope Benedict XVI says that one is asking God that he may inspire the hearts of the Jews "so that they recognize Jesus Christ as Saviour of all people," for Jewish ears there is a frightening note of ambiguity in these words.
So what is the relation of Jews and Christians regarding their hope of salvation? The discussion group argues theologically with the help of the unique relationship between Jews and Christians as a "spiritual relationship of the church with Judaism continuing to exist up to the present day". The covenant made by the God of Jesus Christ with Abraham and his descendants has never been terminated.
The Covenant is not Terminated
The covenant documented in the New Testament, as it is described particularly in the Gospels' reports on the Last Supper and in the First Letter to the Corinthians, interprets the death of Jesus as event of universal forgiveness of sins brought about by God. Jews cannot share this statement about Jesus Christ's universal importance for salvation as long as they continue to hope for the Messianic fulfilment at the end of time. The discussion group refuses to regard this as "stubbornness". The covenant with Israel was still in existence. It was not replaced by the covenant of the New Testament. "It rather opened anew God's salvation history with all peoples and reaffirmed it. Israel and the Church are together and each in a specific way God's tools for the coming of his universal kingdom."
The paper deals with the toing and froing in the chapters 9-11 of St Paul's Letter to the Romans which sometimes appears contradictory. Here Paul is struggling in paradoxical language with his own identity as a Jew who believes in Christ - and this in view of Israel's vocation. To say it sharply, he "hems and haws" - psychologically understandable. The apostle and missionary of the pagan peoples declares that God has not disowned his people Israel (Rom 11.1) and that the Gentile Christians must not feel superior to the Jews (Rom 11, 13-24). For "Not you are bearing the root, but the root bears you." But he also says, "I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great grief and unceasing pain in my heart. ... for not all who are out of Israel are Israel; For if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God has raised him up from the dead, you shall be saved." What does this mean conversely? Here the great uncertainties that probably can never theologically be clarified are already with Paul. How much harder must it be for us to solve the inconsistencies?
Since God's covenant with Israel has already opened up the salvation, the church does not need to be worried about Israel. The ancient salvation pessimism expressed in the sentence from the third century "outside the Church no salvation" is opposed by the discussion group's view that God creates salvation on ways known only to him. It remains hidden and is left to God's unfathomable will when, how and whether Jews and Christians meet each other on their way to the kingdom of God.
One People of Jews and Gentiles
At the request of the president of the Bishops' Conference Gerhard Ludwig Müller wrote an opinion. Müller emphasizes that the Christian order of salvation, to be precise, the "new and definitive covenant" based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was "unsurpassable" (www. dbk.de/aktuell). The Old Testament could therefore not be read as a testimony of a real covenant founded by God "in contrast to the New Testament" without really and truly recognizing Jesus as the Incarnate Word. The idea of two paths of salvation, as it is suggested by the text of the discussion group, reduced the doctrine of God's universal salvation in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The Regensburg bishop also condemned any form of depreciation of Jews ("but of 'Gentiles' as well"). Enmity against Jews in (nominally) Christian circles was not a result of the faith in Christ but a proof that it was betrayed. But it was also completely out of place when Christians bring the Church's mission to preach Christ into discredit by using the negative keyword "missionizing the Jews". For the Christian desire that all people profess their faith in Christ had nothing to do with a depreciation of Judaism.
Müller firmly answers the argument that the Old Covenant with Israel constituted a path to salvation of its own and had the same importance as the Christian one. This limited, from a Christian perspective, in an inadmissible and unhistorical way "Jesus Christ's deed as Saviour" for the Gentiles outside of God's people Israel and "turns thus the entire biblical testimony upside down". For the first Christians were Jews. There is therefore after the Christ event only one nation of Jews and Gentiles - "united in Christ".
The former Bavarian minister for education and cultural affairs Hans Maier on the other hand defended in a statement the discussion group. "The universal significance of Jesus Christ's salvation is for all Christians out of the question. In its statements of 1979 and 2005 the discussion group "Jews and Christians" has clearly admitted this and has repeated it in its new statement. The only question is what conclusions are to be drawn from it. Are Jews too obligated to say 'Yes' to Christ and to believe in him for the sake of their salvation? Are they to let themselves be baptized in order to gain salvation? The vast majority of today's Jews reject this."
The Permanent Council of the German bishops has confirmed Bishop Müller's critical statement. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch states that the German bishops as a whole take a negative view of the last statement on missionizing the Jews, because the text used a "one-sided viewpoint and terminology". It fell behind the previous helpful suggestions of the discussion group "Jews and Christians" and disappointed because of "theological shortcomings". With Bishop Müller one is of the opinion the statement gave the impression that the discussion group was able in an obligatory way to deal with a theological topic the clarifying of which is reserved to the teaching authority of the church. And Cardinal Walter Kasper thought the occasion to publish the booklet of the discussion group was basically good. However, the text contained a "collection of half-truths".
It can also be argued that the participants in the discussion group do on no account lay claim to doctrinal authority. Moreover, among the members of the discussion group are well-known Jewish and Christian personalities who are teaching theology at universities and who have taken part in the drafting of the text. It is a spiritual interest in each other that profoundly motivates the members of the discussion group. Jews and Christians profess their faith in the shared revelation just by that interest - it says in the first paper of 1979. "Their interest in each other is therefore in itself an act of worship of God." In a clarification the chairman of the discussion group, the Augsburg pastoral theologian Hanspeter Heinz emphasized that one had not wanted to submit a theological treatise, and that the loyalty to one's own tradition was always out of question.
In a FAZ reader's letter Thomas Söding, the Bochum exegete of the New Testament and a member of the Vatican Theologian Commission tried to mediate and to clarify: "The key question is ... whether Christians can, from the centre of their own faith, see the way gone by Jews in loyalty to the Commandments and without confessing Jesus as Christ as God's way with his people and can therefore say 'Yes' to it as a way leading to God. According to the New Testament there is no doubt about it."
The debate in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" was intensified by two polemical contributions. The Munich philosopher Robert Spaemann (20.4.) explained why he "did no longer want to belong" to a church that supported the theses of the discussion group. Based on the New Testament he regards a "dialogue without mission" as non-biblical. For Peter's first letter called upon the Christians not to preach a blind faith but to "account to everyone for the reason of our hope" - by doing missionary work. Universalistic religions such as Christianity were in their very nature missionary. They would give themselves up for lost if they would see that their message was applied only to certain groups.
Michael Brenner, the Munich historian and specialist in Jewish studies wrote a reply (28.4.). He confirms that the discussion group has rightly seen and understood the often tragic Christian-Jewish family history. "Reducing the question of the Jews' conversion to Christianity to its theological origins" was tantamount to disregarding the historical circumstances.
Many Religions - Ordained by God?
The debate on Christians' missionizing the Jews touches fundamental issues. Is it a discussion that deepens the interreligious dialogue as a whole? Or will it come to nothing, as is at present the fate of so many theological debates?
According to the testimony of the Second Vatican Council religions are looking for answers "to the unsolved riddles of the human condition" and are signs of the "restlessness of the human heart" ("Nostra Aetate", 1 et sequ.). The theological question of whether the non-Christian religions can be regarded as legitimate, i.e. as way to salvation wanted by God, is basically unsolved - also in the theology of history. For apart from the subjective creed and one's own legitimate salvation mysticism - for Christians a deep all-embracing mystic contemplation of Christ [universale Christusmystik] - one has also to see the objective historical facts: that the modern man, Homo sapiens, had for 100 000 years to look for a path to salvation without the faith in Christ, and that also today the vast majority of mankind does not declare its faith in Christ. Is the evolution of the religious spirit, is the plurality of mankind's religiousness against God's will - even though the creation is supposed to be "good" and wanted by God? These are the major unresolved questions of the faith in God which are essentially resonating here.
Even if the discussion group "Jews and Christians" cannot solve this riddle, and even if the current text sounded, without the previous statements, in a way that could be misunderstood, it cannot be appreciated highly enough that the question of God is vigorously kept alive - for the salvation of the Jews and Christians, yes, universally of all believers.