Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Witness of the Scriptures: A Biblical Theological Reflection: A Reformed Christian's response

The Presbyterian Study Committee on the Middle East has released their second section, “Witness of the Scriptures: A Biblical Theological Reflection.”* In their earlier release of an introduction and letters they stated that the biblical reflection would be a Priestly one. I disagreed with their term in my posting on the first part of their work, Report of the Middle East Study Committee to the 219th General Assembly: Is it priestly? I still have disagreements.

And so let me begin by stating first of all to my Jewish friends, my response to the study paper with be from a Christian point of view. It is necessary that it be from that viewpoint because this is a paper that will be voted on by a Christian denomination. It must be thought about from a Christological point of view. It is because I am a Christian, devoted to Christ, but also it is because you are my friends that I take the view I do.

One more qualification. I again state I must come from a Christological view and therefore from a biblical view, so I must disregard the Muslim texts used in this paper, not out of disrespect for Muslims, but because their sacred texts are not for me holy Scripture.

The Committee with this theological reflection looks at Justice, Zion, Covenant and Land, and Reconciliation all from what they perceive to be the Old and New Testament viewpoint. They have wisely used many biblical texts, but they have not always used them wisely.

Reconciliation and my foundation: The under girding of my response: Jesus Christ is Lord and it is his life, death and resurrection that not only shapes our view of scripture, which is his word, but it also forms our relationships with others and in particular our relationship to the Jewish people. So I will turn to the last subject of this paper to retrieve the most important connection the Christian has to God. I will look first at reconciliation.

The authors take the New Testament verse Eph 2: 14, “For he himself [Christ] is our peace, who made both groups [Jew and Gentile converts] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,” and apply it as a universal principle to the Middle East situation.

They write that although the early Christians saw the verse as dealing with hostility between Gentile and Jewish converts, the Holy Spirit has led twenty-first century Christians to understand it to mean that the death of Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility between any two peoples or groups within God’s creation.” Biblically, in the setting of this particular text their statement is not true.

The verse is preceded by Paul’s thoughts that now the Gentle believers have been brought into the “commonwealth of Israel” which includes its covenant and promises. But what has brought them in? What has reconciled them to God? The blood of Christ. The cross has been applied to the lostness of the Gentiles and they have come home to the Father.

The authors attempt to validate their interpretation of Eph 2:14 by using Col. 1:19-20, which they refer to as “cosmic” theology. But what they are actually doing is universalizing salvation. They also see Jn. 12:23, 32 and Romans 5:10 in this way, moving away from any kind of orthodox view of the atonement that connects Jesus’ death distinctly to the church.

Christianity is about a particular relationship with God through the saving death of Jesus, to attempt to apply this to Islam, Judaism or any other religion as a mediating principle is dishonest. As I stated in my posting on the introduction, to be priestly as a Christian is to function as one who is united to Jesus Christ because of his redemption. It is to proclaim in an honest manner that Christ is Lord.

It is important then to look at the several subject matters the committee has addressed and see them from a true Christological position:

Justice: The first subject the committee addresses is justice. They bring to the paper a great deal of Scripture and important thoughts on justice, both from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They define who must do justice and to whom it should be done. This is good.

But they disconnect from Christology and in doing so some texts are misused. For instance when attempting to define what justice is they write, “The Bible in general and Jesus in particular answer in this way. Justice is promoting truth; …” and then in reference to Jesus' ‘answer’ they use Mt. 22:16 and John 18:37-38. Mat.22:16 is Jesus’ enemies trying to trap him with a question about giving tribute to Caesar and they flatter him by saying that he is truthful and “teach the way of God in truth.” They were probably not sincere and there is no definition of truth in the verse.

The other verses, John 18:37-38, contains Pilate’s question about Jesus being a king. To this Jesus answers “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” And what did they leave out—that Jesus is the Truth. (John 14:6)

So proper Christology is missing and because of it justice flounders. Biblically believers can only do justice because they have been redeemed and transformed. This is the believer’s message to the nations. Christians believe they must pursue peace and justice but it can never be outside of the parameters of a biblical theology that upholds the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Justice belongs to God and not only must he define it (and he does in Jesus) but it flows from his own work. The paper makes doing justice a universal law that is disconnected from a redeeming, transforming Savior. And so it disconnects and distorts needs in the Middle East.

Zion & justice: The committee makes the distinction between physical Jerusalem and the New Testament’s vision of Zion the heavenly Jerusalem. They posit acts of justice as that which allowed the people to remain in Zion or Jerusalem. They give the reader a great deal of texts to prove their point. And they are not wrong but they are incomplete.

Israel is connected to Zion because of her faithfulness to the law which includes justice, but it also includes this “You shall have no other gods before me.” Doing justice and being faithful to the God of Israel are never severed in the biblical texts. Israel was unjust in her forgetfulness of God. She followed the Baals and other foreign idols whose tenets and ways were full of injustice.

Yet the study paper hints that other religions worshiping on ‘Mount Zion,’ Jerusalem, was to be part of the final reconciliation. The common bond here is only justice. After hinting of this the authors write, “It is thus noteworthy that while Jerusalem has indeed become a place holy not only for the Jews but also for Christians and Muslims the longed for age of peace and reconciliation has yet to come.”

Almost all of the references to both spiritual Zion and physical Zion that are found in the New Testament are offered in the paper and finalized by writing that early Christians “fully transferred the locus of God’s concrete presence in the world of space and time from the place of Zion—that is, Jerusalem—to the person of Jesus, who had been crucified and raised from the dead just outside Jerusalem.”[1] They then ask the question, “So what do Christians make of the claim that a link endures between God’s covenant with Abraham and the promise of land?”

“Covenant and Land—and Justice”: Here the theological study rubber meets the Christological road and bounces—off the road. First the author’s ply the reader with the constant refrain “Presbyterians …” So we move from biblical theology to what Presbyterians believe or not. And references are constantly given to a 1987 paper that was not adopted by the 199th General Assembly but simply received and commended for study.

But the important thoughts in this section are, according to the committee, that land for the Jewish people is more than a gift it is a “leasehold” with a set of responsibilities. And we can’t be sure what the land boundaries are because it has changed over thousands of years since God gave his promises to Israel. As it is put in the document, “Thus, Presbyterians believe that one cannot define ‘the land of Israel with any kind of religious specificity. The varying boundaries of ‘the promised land’ have always been more a matter of ‘Realpolitik’ than of theology.”

We have an aside that Presbyterians approach with something like “horror” the Old Testament passages that state that God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. A Jewish scholar is used to suggest that not only does a strand of anti-Semitism run though the New Testament but some parts of the Hebrew Bible hold “unsavory” and immoral ideas. But this all fits into a mold with contradictions.

We are told that the Christian and Muslim Palestinians have lived in the land for a long time and therefore they have rights, as well as responsibilities, to the land. The authors quote, “Now, ‘Byzantine Palestine was, for Christians, a Holy Land but [it was] also a homeland, a place where men and women tilled the ground and planted orchards, built homes and raised families, bought fish and sold olives, buried parents and grandparents.’ And when Jerusalem was captured by the Persians in the seventh century of the Common Era, it was the Christians, not the Jews, who sang a lamentation over the Holy City.”[2] (It should be stated at this point that the Jews have lamented over Jerusalem for two thousand years.)

So because the theology is not grounded in a Christology that reflects Christianity the paper basically places the Palestinians in the land on the grounds that they have lived there, truly lived there, it is their life, while keeping justice is emphasized for the Jewish people. (There is even an apology to the Palestinians for using the term “The right of Israel to exist.”)[3]

Rather than connecting to the coming Christ the paper connects to a spirituality of land and place. The authors write, “We have set forth the biblical emphasis on Zion as a place for all nations and peoples to worship the God of justice and learn war no more and as a place where people’s covenant responsibilities are to be fulfilled and God’s justice is to be practiced toward all persons.”

A theology of land as a means of some kind of final reconciliation may replace Christian Zionism but it also replaces any sense of the rule of law, the need for defense against enemies by a secular state, which happens to be Jewish, or even the demand that a two state solution is a commonsense practical undertaking. This is spiritual blackmail, not Christian blackmail, but spiritual blackmail. If voted for by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) it will be Presbyterian blackmail.

The biblical approach to a Jewish Israel and the Jewish people for the Christian is to see them as a sign of God’s faithfulness. God made promises to keep his chosen people and he has kept his promises. Israel as a Jewish nation is about God’s faithfulness. God chose the Jews to bring forth the Messiah. As Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews.”(John 4:22b) The Palestinian Christians are our brothers and sisters through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But none of us can forget that “from the standpoint of God’s choice they [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and calling are irrevocable.” (Romans 11: 28b-29)

Download Witness of the Scriptures: A Biblical Theological Reflection

[1] It is interesting here, as well as alarming that the authors refer this belief to the early Christians. Perhaps I am reading too much into their words, but after seeing references to the Koran used as sacred text in this paper I have to ask if the committee fails to see the locus of God’s presence in Jesus Christ?

[2] Robert Wilken, No Religion is an Island: The Nostra Actate Dialogues, ed. Edward Bristow (Fordham University Press, 1998) 133.

[3]“The phrase ‘The right of Israel to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the 2009-2010 Middle East Study Committee, who are in solidarity with Palestinians who feel that the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable rights.” This is proof of how badly this committee was stacked toward those who are pro-Palestinian.

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