This week, and this week only, I am going to feature a few blogs by friends who disagree with me. Rich Robinson works for Jews for Jesus and is a genius. He just happens to be wrong about a few things :-) But seriously, here is the first of a few (limit 3, okay, Rich?) installments of Rich’s response to the recent debate about Dr. Mark Kinzer’s Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism. I will share a brief comment in italics at the end.
I have not been able to read this blog since Friday but want to continue the conversation. As I read through the past posts, the substantial issues that are raised include the following, which I will list out and then expand upon in this and subsequent posts, blog owner permitting. I’m writing this not so much to respond to particular statements but to begin working out my own thoughts on the subject of messianic Jewish theology. It’s still relevant to post here, though as I will be interacting with much of what’s been written on this blog.
1. Foundational issues: how do people arrive at a theology?
2. Defining terms
3. Theological issues including
(a) the Bible,
(i) particularly the place of the Old Testament and the Law of Moses in Christian theologies and teaching;
(ii) authority and decision-making, i.e. who interprets and applies?
(b) the People of God
(i) The question of supersessionism and who are the people of God
(ii) The nature of the Jewish rejection of Jesus
(iii) The nature of God’s preservation of the Jewish people
(iv) The nature of post 1st century Judaism
4. Practical issues, including
(a) the nature of witness
(b) assimilation and the next generation
First some foundational issues. How is it that any of us arrive at a theology? I’m not an expert on the history or philosophy of theological construction. I’m actually just a lower-middle class guy from Brooklyn, New York. But perhaps I will be permitted to venture a few thoughts.
Theological construction is more than simply exegeting individual passages, and more than just finding a matrix to hold them all together. Probably most of us initially learned a theology from whatever particular group, congregation, or church we came to faith in. Later on, we discovered that there were alternative ways of looking at Scripture and theology, which sometimes dismayed certain ones or perhaps was a breath of fresh air for others.
Any theological system is a grid through which we see the Scriptures, God, ourselves, salvation, ultimately everything. It is a way of organizing our understanding of reality based upon God’s revelation in the Scriptures. It is also a way of applying that reality to our current situation. In that role, practice and theology mutually influence one another.
Sometimes someone’s theology may gradually evolve, as they think through the matrix they have held to and make readjustments in light of new understandings of particular verses or of the world in which they live. Other times a theology may be a sudden radical paradigm shift (see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), as the Reformation was (though some will see more continuity with what preceded it than often recognized).
Enmeshed as we all are in the culture and modes of thought of our own times and places, our theological thinking, even the way we do theological thinking, the way we think itself, is largely unconscious and un-self-aware. In recent years, with insights from anthropology, missions theology (contextualization), and postmodernism, we have become more aware that there are in fact alternate ways of conceiving things and this means we are at least partly able to self-examine our presuppositions, at least recognize that we have presuppositions.
Much has been made of the cultural presuppositions we bring to our thinking; less has been made of the fact that we also each bring a psychological disposition to our thinking and hence to our theologizing. (I do not have particular individuals in mind in this section, much less particular ones in the messianic movement; I am speaking in general terms of what informs our theological choices.) So, Reformed theology that is tightly organized may lead someone of a disciplined, intellectual bent to that system; someone inclined to be “free wheeling” may gravitate toward a Charismatic theology. A “black and white person” may feel only one theological system has all the answers; a “shades of grey person” may feel comfortable being more eclectic. And so on.
As various ones think through a messianic Jewish theology, we ought to at the outset acknowledge that we are products of our time and place and self-examine ourselves. In a postmodern world culturally and as “post-liberal” theology emerges; as the “emerging church” movement grows; as pluralism and multiculturalism continue to define our world; we need to ask whether and to what extent our theology is being informed by these movements. Likewise, we need to ask to what extent our own psychological dispositions may lead us to incline in one direction or another.
The help in the second area is to interact with other people; the help in the first area is to interact with those of other cultures and generations.
Having said all that, I wish to say something about the issues of “acceptance” that has come up on this blog. Has the “acceptance” of the Jewish community been at all instrumental as a formative factor in the creation of messianic Jewish theologies? I am not saying yes or no; but I raise the question.
First of all, there are two meanings of acceptance and I fear that because of that, there has been much talking past one another. “Acceptance” can mean “approval, personal or group validation”. It can also mean “willingness to engage as a conversation partner, the ‘accepting’ of one another as human beings on an equal footing.”
There can be little doubt that many when they were new Jewish believers in Jesus originally wished to have the approval of Jewish family, friends, and even the larger Jewish community. This would have been especially true when the modern messianic Jewish movement was new, back in the 70s, and when many of us were younger, living home with parents, struggling to make sense of our identity as Jews who were also followers of Jesus. David Stern, himself an advocate for developing a messianic Jewish theology and lifestyle, writes:
“Messianic Jewish congregations have expended a great deal of energy into developing and refining theological, ceremonial, and practical ways to express Jewishness. This is to be expected, especially in the Diaspora, where Messianic Jews are a double minority—a tiny percentage of Jews and an even tinier percentage of believers in Yeshua. So we find ourselves constantly wanting to prove to Jews that we, too, are Jews, generally by showing that our practices and ceremonies are Jewish in character even though they honor Yeshua, and to Gentile Christians that we, too, believe in Yeshua, generally by showing that our theological positions are sound, even when expressed in Jewish terms. But this effort spent proving ourselves to others—and to ourselves—distorts our lives, our congregations, and our movement! We should not have the goal of becoming acceptable within the non-Messianic Jewish community—because we never will.” (How Jewish Is Christianity? Two Views on the Messianic Movement, ed. Louis Goldberg [Zondervan, 2003], p. 182).
This was and still is a reality for some Jewish believers. And undoubtedly any such desire for “proving one to be Jewish” would be a factor in developing a lifestyle and theology.
Then there is the other meaning of “acceptance.” I understand that advocates for PMJ wish to live their understanding of a Jewish life out of their understanding of God’s obligations for Jewish believers in Jesus today. The “acceptance” in this case is hoped for as a by-product of living out this obligation, namely that of the second meaning, to be an equal conversation partner, to come from “within” and not “without.” This also represents a theological viewpoint. How did adherents to PMJ arrive then at this theology? Everyone will have to answer for themselves. It is possible that for some it reflected an after-the-fact theological development in light of an earlier wish to be approved=validated by the Jewish community. For others the influence of postmodernism, postliberal or Barthian theologies and praxis may be instrumental. For others it may have come about as a further examination of Scripture, though as always influenced by the larger cultural matrix. I raise the question here simply in terms of the fact that our theology comes not out of the blue, and not even out of an unbiased objective view of exegetical evidence (total non-bias is not possible), but out of a complex of factors both cultural and personal. This is true for me, for PMJ, and for anyone else doing theology. For example, I used to be more black and white than I am today; my theology today is more eclectic than in the past. Furthermore, I recognize that my approach to doing theology has been largely modernistic in some ways; now allowing myself to be influenced by what can be learned from postmodernism as well.
So all this is to say: let us look at our influences, at the personal and cultural matrix we are in, as we work out our theologies.
And finally (for this post) a word on definitions. We need to define terms. What is “Judaism”? What is a “messianic Judaism”? What do we mean by e.g., being “hostile to” Judaism? Or by coming from “within” vs. from “outside”? I am not talking about playing semantics. When people write that we “must be a Judaism” and move in “Jewish space” and come from “within,” they need to pin down just what is meant. Otherwise, I am afraid that our terms will have emotional resonance but will not clarify the discussion.
MORE TO COME…
Derek’s comment: Rich properly explains that we who share the vision of a Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism are keeping Torah and tradition to be faithful to God and not as a ploy to gain acceptance. I do think that as Messianic Jews live as Torah-faithful Jews, a major barrier to Yeshua will be removed in the case of some people who are open to hearing about Messiah. Yet contextualizing the message of Yeshua is not our motivation. If Torah-faithfulness is simply a way to contextualize the message to Jewish culture, it will fail. Because Torah is not something optional that can be added like a hobby or fad. Also, I think that defining Judaism for the Messianic movement is an ongoing process, just as it is for other Jewish groups (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform). There are always new questions, new pressures, and cultural changes, even for the Orthodox (consider the changing roles of women in Orthodoxy today). Anyway, Rich’s first post is sort of a prelude. Not a great deal to disagree with here. Can’t wait for the next part. I’ll probably have more to critique.