Well, I have finished reading The God of Israel and Christian Theology by R. Kendall Soulen.
My impression? What started as a brilliant depiction of the problem of standard Christian theology ends with a resounding flop. I am grateful to Soulen for numerous insights (some of which will be reflected in what I have to say later on), but his solution is unappealing and unconvincing.
I will not attempt to summarize Soulen’s solutions, because I doubt you want to read pages of explanation. I will simply say that in the end he downplays redemption too much. In seeking to show that God is still Israel’s God and that Israel and the Hebrew Bible did not become obsolete after Yeshua’s death and resurrection, he has given too little place to Yeshua’s death and resurrection (in my opinion).
But you are not reading this blog to hear a book review. You are interested in how God works with Jew and Gentile and how the Bible is read as a Jewish book. So let me offer a few more thoughts:
1. Let me remind you what the problem with standard Christian theology is (see post from Dec 19, Christian Theology and Israel). The problem is that Christian theology almost completely skips over the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). There is a certain way that people see the Bible (Old and New) hanging together. It is called the Standard Canonical Narrative. The Standard Canonical Narrative (SCN) is:
That is, God made the world perfect, we screwed it up, God sent a redeemer, that redeemer is coming back some day to consummate (make perfect) everything in creation.
Where does the entire history of Israel fit into this SCN? It is only a footnote. Israel is simply the vessel through whom God brings the Bible (Jews wrote it) and Messiah (born as a Jew).
2. Does the New Testament seem to agree that Israel’s place has largely disappeared? No. Rom 11:2 says God still has a covenant with Israel. Rom 11:28-29 is clear that this covenant is with Israel even in unbelief.
Furthermore, the promises for the end times continue to show Israel as the center (not periphery) of God’s plan. The famous New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a perfect example. This is about Israel (not a code word for Christianity). It involves the Law (written on the heart, not abolished). Jeremiah 31:31-34 is perfectly compatible with Christianity, just not with the SCN. God’s blessing of the nations comes through Israel, not apart from Israel. God is still working through Israel to bless the nations. Remember? The blessing comes through Abraham’s descendants, not in spite of them.
3. In a future blog (in other words, after I have had some meditative time to think about it), I will suggest a better way of looking at the Bible and how it hangs together (not the SCN, but an alternative Canonical Narrative). Meanwhile, I offer these observations:
a. God is doing more in the world than just forgiving sin. The forgiveness of sin is crucial, but not the highpoint of God’s work. Soulen makes this point well by saying that “Redemption is for the sake of Consummation, not Consummation for the sake of Redemption” (p.175). In other words, the salvation that was made available in Yeshua’s death and resurrection is not the end of God’s work. It is the turning point (Soulen says this also on p.175), but not the final goal. God has so much more to do with us and with creation than simply forgive sin. All has not been accomplished. Messiah has not ended the place of Israel or God’s work through Israel and the nations. He has taken it on the last and greatest part of what God is going to do.
b. If we are true to the Bible, then we must believe what the Bible says instead of ignoring the majority of the Bible in favor of our own theology. If the Bible makes Israel central to God’s plan and shows Israel having a continuing role, then we cannot ignore Israel in our view of how God is working. Christian theology consistently finds too little place for Israel. We must attempt to be more biblical and less attached to historic Christian theology. Historic Christian theology should not be ignored, but neither should it be granted a status even close to that of the Bible as authoritative.
c. Yeshua is Israel’s Messiah as well as the savior of the nations. Whatever our solution to the problem of the SCN will be, we cannot simply ignore Israel’s need to know Messiah. Soulen doesn’t exactly ignore it, but gives this too little place. He does not state explicitly his opinion about Israel’s current standing with God. He overlooks questions of salvation. Perhaps he is simply emphasizing what has been ignored (that there is more to God’s work than mere salvation). Or perhaps he does not see an individual obtaining salvation as important. In answer to that, I offer my final point.
4. God’s work is national and corporate, but the individual needs to join in. Soulen and others rightly criticize standard Christian theology for being too much about individuals. The Bible, they rightly point out, deals with people as nations and families. I think it would be fair to say, Yeshua did not die on the cross for you and me, but for all Israel and the nations. We need to see our place not just as saved individuals, but part of the people of God. Those who are “saved” but have nothing to do with God’s communities (churches, synagogues) are out of fellowship with God and must change or answer to God who forms communities.
But here is my big point, though God works with nations and families, individuals must join in. Let me use as my example circumcision. In Gen 17, God says his covenant with Israel is unconditional, but in order to be part of the covenant, each individual Jewish male must be circumcised (women are assumed to join in through their father/husband). God is doing something with the nation of Israel, but if you want to be part of it, you have to join through circumcision.
Thus, standard Christian theology has not been wrong to emphasize the need of each individual to come to faith in Messiah and secure Messiah’s sacrifice for forgiveness. We as individuals must join in to God’s blessing of Israel and the nations. If you want to be part of it, you have to do something.
Well, enough thoughts for one day. I hope tomorrow or in the next few days to write a sugestion for a better way of seeing the Bible as a unity. I will try to be clear and concise. Hopefully these scrambled thoughts from today will not deter you from reading further later.