Thursday, October 13, 2011

My thoughts on the IPMN Symposium: Bible, Land and our Theological Challenge: A Presbyterian Conversation

I watched part of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) symposium titled, Bible, Land, and our Theological Challenge: A Presbyterian Conversation. I heard Dr. Gary Burge, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton as well as all of the afternoon forum and question and answer time. I have several thoughts about Burges speech and also reflections on a question that Dr. Charles Wiley, of the Theology and Worship office, asked.

It seems that much of the symposium was a reaction to the paper “Christians and Jews: People of God” that was offered to the 219 General Assembly. As the advertisement for the symposium states, the paper was referred back to the offices “of Interfaith Relations and Theology and Worship for broader consultation and revision, including individuals, networks, committees and caucuses related to issues of the Middle East and interfaith understandings.”

There are as yet no internet recordings so I am working from memory and my thoughts will be general. But I was stuck by the focus of Burge’s speech which was mostly aimed at Christian Zionism and included the 37th Psalm as well as part of the Sermon on the Mount as it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. By aiming at Christian Zionism and ignoring the reality of the needs of the modern State of Israel, I believe Burge failed to address them and his main audience which is the PC (U.S.A). The fact is his speech also failed to address the needs of the Palestinians.

Burge’s main idea was that for the Christian, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people and I concur with that. But there is so much more that needs to be said about the Jewish people and about our responsibility to them. Burge tried to make a point that the early Christians no longer held Jerusalem as sacred or the land as important. That is simplistic since there was an evolving development of events and reactions that separated the Jews from the Christians, and it does not address the basic problems in the Middle East.

Members of the PC (U.S.A.) must address the problem from a Reformed position. We will not help anyone until we do so. And our sources must be both the Bible and modern history. From the Bible we gleam an ethical outlook which includes kindness and compassion but also truthfulness. As far as our faith goes, yes we are to proclaim Christ to the nations—all the nations. As the text states:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17.)
But as far as the Jewish people are concerned let us not forget their history—or ours. I will not say that the Nazis were Christians, they were not, but they killed 6 million Jews; they almost wiped out a whole people and when extraordinary events occur Christians are called upon to do extraordinary things. In our past century we witnessed this slaughter and we witnessed the boatloads of Jewish exiles seeking a haven. We witnessed those who were turned away from nation after nation. We need to know that history, but most have forgotten it.

Such hatred was built on a foundation already there; it was laid in the name of Christianity in medieval Europe and beyond. During the Nazi years it was introduced in the Middle East by some Nazis; it is still there, we see it in Iran, within Hamas and Hezbollah and among many other groups.

We also need to know the history of the Jews in Palestine. Jewish neighborhoods have always existed in Palestine. Many do not know this. They do not know that the Jewish section of Jerusalem was emptied of Jews during the war of 1948 when 5 Arab nations attacked the new State of Israel. So along with the sad and horrific stories of the Palestinians we need to remember the Jewish story.

We have an obligation, not because of some biblical mandate for land or for a temple but because as Christians we must love both the Israeli and the Palestinian and help them toward a two state solution. So why as Reformed Christians should we care about the Jewish people? Why do we still see them as chosen by God?

First, I was stunned by the callousness toward the Old Testament as I listened to the conversation. It wasn’t there in everyone’s voice but it was there. When one interprets the Old Testament, as a Christian, it must first be approached from a historical view. This is the story of the Jews; it is their history and the history must be respected, even loved. And then the Christian story seen in the types, the promises and the prophecies inform the Christian about her faith. In fact a study of the appearances of the Lord of hosts is a beautiful study of the eternal Son of God. Truthfully the plan of God, the compassion of God envelops the whole O.T.

So the beginning of the Reformed attitude toward the Jewish people is built on the Old Testament. Their Scriptures are also the Christians and the New Testament grows out of theirs. (Try reading Hebrews without constantly returning to the O.T.) Jesus when explaining to his disciples his resurrection, purposes and being, refers to the law, the Prophets and the Writings. (Luke 24: 44) Christianity is not connected to the Koran, the Upanishads, or the Book of Shadows, not to any other sacred text, but it is forever joined to the Hebrew Bible of the Jewish people.

Salvation came through the Jews who were chosen by God for that purpose. As Jesus explained to the woman at the well, salvation is from the Jews. And as Paul stated, “From the stand point of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 28-29).

David Torrance, a very Reformed pastor writes:
That ‘salvation is of the Jews’ was true of Israel in the Old and in the New Testament era and it is ever true. God revealed himself to his covenant people, in a way in which he has not revealed himself to any other people. To them were given ‘the very words of God’ (Rom 3:2), that is, God’s Word, God’s message, God’s Law. Within Israel God did great and marvelous things, many miracles, so that his power and his glory were made plain to other nations.
Torrance goes on to explain that Israel had no light in herself, but it was God’s light. And that Light was the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. And then he speaks of Jesus the Jewish man who is God and all of this through the people that God chose.

Morally we cannot be untruthful about the Jewish State of Israel and the needs of the Jews. Morally we cannot be untruthful about the Palestinian people and their needs. God holds us accountable to both, not just to one side. We must, as Christians love them both. I did not see that in the symposium I watched today.

Charles Wiley asked when we speak theologically about the Jew, what do we mean? Or how do we define the theological Jew? I do not believe anyone truly answered that question. They knew what they wanted to say politically and ethnically, but how do you say that the Jew is the chosen one? If you say that you must stand before God with empty hands. But only empty hands can be filled with the grace of God.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Viola. I was struck by your reference to the "callousness toward the Old Testament." An attitudinal if not theological Marcionism goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism among Christians. If you encounter one, the other is sure to follow.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

Marcionism, was brought up in answer to a question about how to respond to the O.T. I believe it was Burge, who is Evangelical, who mentioned it. He kind of laughed but insisted that we can't get rid of the O.T. He went on to suggest they we need to interpret it from a Christian point of view. And although he is right about that, he failed to also state that we must take the Jewish historical account seriously. That is an extreme failure on his part. If our Christianity is not based in the facts that surround the O.T., it is empty of any real meaning.

I am thinking here of a statement made by a professor in a conference on the Church and the Holocaust.”Faith which is divorced from Judaism or Christianity, the faith in faith” … in our day sooner or later finds a political channel.” It already has and the channels have many streams.

Greg Scandlen said...

I would go further than you have. The Old Testament is every bit as much the Word of God as the New. The Christian Bible contains 66 books. Most of them are in the OT. Every one of them is valid and true. The God of the OT is also the God of the New. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophesies, not to repudiate them.
Greg Scandlen
Waynesboro, PA

Presbyman said...

A review of Gary Burge's book "Whose Land, Whose Promise: What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians" includes some devastating refutations of factual errors in the book:

This book can only be described as political propaganda. The author hides from readers vast amounts of key information necessary for understanding what in reality is a complex conflict. Moreover, the information he selectively does provide is more often than not misleading, or even just false. One review of the book by Dexter Van Zile correctly notes that "the book is a compendium of factual errors, misstatements, omissions and distortions that portray the modern state of Israel in an inaccurate manner."

The review goes on to note that:

"The errors are egregious and numerous. For example:

* Rev. Dr. Burge portrayed an essay by well-known commentator Daniel Pipes as offering a message exactly the opposite of what Daniel Pipes actually wrote.
* Rev. Dr. Burge attributed a quote to David Ben-Gurion that had been exposed as false and fabricated several years before publication of Whose Land? Whose Promise? (The book the author cites as the source for the quote in question - a work book intended for high school-age students - does not include the quote in question.)
* Rev. Dr. Burge falsely stated that Israeli-Arabs are denied membership in Israel's labor movement, when in fact, one of the books he cites reports that Israeli-Arabs had been allowed full membership in Israel's largest union - the Histadrut - since 1959.
* Rev. Dr. Burge falsely reported that Israeli-Arabs are barred from the service in Israel's military.
* Rev. Dr. Burge falsely reported that Israeli-Arabs are prohibited from joining Israel's major political parties.
* Rev. Dr. Burge mis-characterized UN Resolution 242 as requiring Israeli withdrawal to its "pre-1967 borders" when in fact it does not.
* Rev. Dr. Burge portrays Hezbollah as a "resistance organization" when in fact its political agenda and leaders clearly state the organization is dedicated to the destruction of Israel - a fact he omits in his description.
* Rev. Dr. Burge portrays the founding of the PLO as an attempt to resolve the problem of Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war when in fact its founding was motivated by a desire for the destruction of Israel.

In addition, Burge wrote his own defense of his book and gave himself 5 stars in an Amazon review. I can understand defending your work, but doing so in an Amazon review and giving yourself two thumbs up (or five stars) is unprofessional and kind of embarassing.

John Erthein
DeFuniak Springs, FL

will spotts said...

I do not believe it is possible to even comprehend the NT without the Hebrew Bible. This is not just in Hebrews - but in most of Paul's letters. And the vast majority of the teachings of Jesus. The sheer volume of his references to the OT is overwhelming. Even the most unique teachings that we associate with Jesus - for instance, the Sermon on the Mount - are replete with source materials - often direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible. This doesn't even address how we are to understand the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus apart from ancient Judaism.

Viola Larson said...

Greg & Will I agree with both of you completely, I was just attempting to give particular places for readers to look at.