The Witness of the Jews to God

Israel was chosen by God in order to reveal himself to the world and to be a blessing to the nations. Because God chose to accomplish these tasks through Israel, God made a covenant with Israel about the land that it would dwell in. These are the uncontroversial teachings of the Hebrew Bible. What has been more controversial across the history of the church, is the claim that this God given vocation—to be a witness and blessing—as well as the promise of the land, continues into the present day. David Torrance’s edited volume, The Witness of God to the Jews attempts to reflect upon these theological claims at the behest of the Overseas Council of the Church of Scotland. In 1981 the council’s final report was published; it was then that the General Assembly declared its belief “in the continuing place of God’s people Israel within the divine purpose.” (139) The present volume was birthed out of that declaration. The editor’s hope was that this book would encourage Christian-Jewish dialogue and that it would give thoughtful Christians the opportunity to reflect upon how Judaism—both in the past and present—affects Christian belief and practice. Although each essay is written from a different perspective—the authors disagree on a number of controversial points—there is a shared conviction among all the authors, namely that, “the Jewish people have a decisive place in God’s creative and redemptive purpose for his world.” (viii) This claim is not that the Jewish people had a decisive place in God’s plans for the world, rather, it is that the Jewish people continue to have a role in that plan. In light of this shared conviction, each author—most of whom are academics or pastors—contributes an essay that will further the dialogue between Christians and Jews. Although the editor seems to have loosely organized the essays so that similar essays appear next to each other, this collection of essays can be though of as focusing upon four themes: (1)Israel and the land, (2) Israel in Christian and Jewish relations, (3) Israel’s ongoing vocation as God’s covenant people, and (4) the personal stories of Jewish Christ followers. The essays are followed by four appendices reproducing ecclesial pronouncements, four appendices containing publication information, and three tables of statistics about Jewish populations.[1]

George Knight, John Reid, and David Torrance contribute essays that deal with Israel and the land. Knight argues that Israel’s relationship to the land must be seen as bound up with Israel’s election. The land is basic to the fulfillment of all the promises made to Israel. He says that “The Land is the focus of them all, for it is on The Land that all these promises came together in Israel’s thought and experience.” (34) Thus, even the spiritual promises made to Israel cannot be realized without a “place for them to become history.” (34) Knight argues that God’s promises are still abiding, yet, that The Land is best understood of as being composed of Jesus physical body, for Jesus’ physical body is “now the place of God’s redemptive purpose.” (40) Reid’s essay, on the other hand covers issues related to Israel’s right to the land by addressing the differences between “a people” and “a nation.” He claims that “there is for the people today no discernable role that woul require, or be enhanced by, or achieve richer fulfillment in, possession of the land…”(53) David Torrance, the editor of the book, contributes two essays to the volume. “Israel today in the Light of God’s Word,” addresses how God continues to speak through Israel to the church today. Torrance explains that we can affirm that God, “who is a God of love is behind these events and Israel’s restoration to the Promised Land is a fulfillment of the Word of God.” (109)

George Anderson, C. E. B. Cranfield, Jacob Jocz, and Murdo Macleod each contribute essays related to Israel in Christian and Jewish relations. Anderson’s essay sets the stage for a number of the essays in this collection. He argues that it is in seeing Israel as the people of God—along with Israel’s political, military, social, economic, national, and racial contexts—that the “theological implications of her self-understanding as the people of God are clarified and emphasized. (13) Cranfield offers and exposition of Romans 9–11 and draws implications from this passage for Christian-Jewish relations today. Jocz considers the tragedy of the Holocaust and how these horrific events have led many Jews to reconsider their understanding of God and humanity. He also brings up the issue of guilt and rightly claims that “Auschwitz casts a dark shadow over traditional Christianity.” (67) Macleod addresses the controversial topic of mission to Jews. He rightly recognizes that the church has not taken the place of Israel, rather “it has been grafted into Israel.” (75) Thus, Israel’s priority (historical and ontological) must be a factor in how Christians understand mission to Jews who do not believe that Jesus is the messiah.

The third kind of essay addresses Israel’s ongoing vocation as God’s covenant people. David Torrance, Henry Ellison, and T. F. Torrance make contributions towards this topic. In an essay that shares a title with the book, David Torrance argues that knowledge of God is only available to us through Israel. He lists ten theological claims that “only Israel is able to unfold.” (2) Operating in the background of David Torrance’s essay is the notion that each of these theological claims are sharpened by the revelation of the one who represents Israel in its fullness, namely Jesus Christ. Henry Ellison contributes an oddly short essay in which he says that the concepts of election, law, suffering, morality, the unity of God, and sin are made clearer because of Judaism. T. F. Torrance’s argues that Israel “has been given a vicarious mission to fulfill which is of critical significance not only for the Christian church but for mankind.” (85) However, this vicarious mission, from a Christian perspective, must be understood in a way that shows that “Jesus gathers up in himself the whole history of Israel… and fans it out through his death and resurrection and ascension in an expansive movement toward the coming world community or oikoumene, the all embracing People of God.” (86) Thus for Torrance, Israel is a Christological category.

The final kind of essay consists of the personal stories of Jewish Christ followers. Mark Kinzer recounts his journey of coming to see Jesus Christ the Messiah and explains that faith in the Messiah is the fulfillment of Judaism. Initially, he explains, he feared that becoming a Christian would erode his Jewish identity, instead, he says, he found that his Jewish identity has been strengthened and even fulfilled. He has grown in his love for the Hebrew Scriptures, his zeal for following the Torah has increased, he has grown in his appreciation of the daily patterns of Jewish worship, he has grown in his love of the Hebrew language, and he has grown in his love for the Jewish people and his family. Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner writes her essay in order to “give reasons for the life and hope which is now within me.” (126) She writes of her life as a Jew who came to believe in Jesus as the messiah in order to build a bridge between the church and the Jewish life and faith that she was born into.

The authors of this book ought to be commended for advancing the idea that Israel continues to play a role in God’s plans and purposes for humanity. Furthermore, some of the authors—including both Torrances—deserve recognition for doing the hard work of showing how Christ relates to Israel. T.F. Torrance for example, develops the patristic notion of recapitulation in order to show that Jesus not only recapitulates humanity but that in an important sense Jesus also recapitulates the history of Israel. For Torrance, the vocation and destiny of Israel is fulfilled by the one Israelite who represents all of Israel, namely Jesus Christ. Despite the book’s commendable goal and the Torrance’s interesting contribution towards a Christology that values Israel, the book suffers from a number of problematic claims. George Knight argues that Jesus is the The Land. All the promises about the land that God made to Israel are reconceived as actually being about Jesus’ body. This claim, problematically, erases all of God’s promises about the literal land of Israel.  Similarly, John Reid argues that the Israel’s vocation is directed to the people of Israel, not the state, and that a people do not need land in order to fulfill their vocation.  In other words, God’s calling upon the people is “irrevocable” but the promise of the land is not. He concludes that the “land and sovereign statehood” of Israel is theologically irrelevant. Another problematic element can be found in Dobschiner’s chapter. Although it is difficult to criticize this chapter because much of it is the retelling of her personal experiences and her personal faith, she communicates an under-nuanced, and perhaps even false, portrayal of how most Jews relate to the law. She explains that she “rigidly” kept to the Jewish observances taught by her parents and elders. Yet, she felt bound by her Jewish tradition. Jewish ritual, for her, ended up being a “prescribed method” which exemplified the notion that “the letter killeth.” (133) She explains that eventually she found life and freedom from the law through the Messiah. She was now accepted unconditionally by God rather than being accepted because of a “prescribed method.” (133) Even more problematic than these deficiencies in specific essays is the lack of engagement with different kinds of Judaism. The authors sometimes use “Jews” or “Israel” to refer to the Old Testament (or 2nd Temple) people of God. To say that the Jews of the Old Testament, or during the time of Jesus, have something to say to the church is not a particularly interesting claim. What is more interesting is to say that Jews—specifically those who do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah—can teach the church is far more interesting. Yet the discussion of “Jews” rarely moves beyond the Jews of the Bible or generic Judaism (if there is such a thing). More engagement with specific types of Judaism—both historical and modern—would have strengthened this book. Despite these weaknesses, this book serves as a helpful starting point for those who want to consider the claim that Judaism continues to play a role in God’s purposes for humanity.

[1] Although listed in the table of contents, a number of these elements are missing in the Wipf & Stock edition.

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