I Believe In . . . God's Everlasting Love for Israel

February 25, 2017

What follows is a tiny and edited snippet from the first chapter of my soon to be released book, Converging Destinies: Jews, Christians, and the Mission of God (Eugene, OR: WIpf and Stock, 2017). It is offered here to inform, to stimulate discussion, and even to whet your appetite for the book when it comes out in March or April.  Again, what follows is a tiny fragment of my first chapter, called "Everlasting Love." Enjoy. 

This first chapter highlights what Israel remembers and the church forgets, that the people of Israel are eternally beloved. The church needs to learn this lesson, review it constantly, and explore its implications deeply. Israel is destined to be her senior partner in the consummation of the mission of God. The idea of Israel being the church’s senior partner will be quite jarring and even offensive for many Christians, but far less jarring and offensive than when Jews endure the cacophony of church’s claim to be the new Israel—words that seek to unmake the “let there be light” of Israel’s creation.

As a lesson for us all to consider, here I will speak of Israel’s election persists despite supersessionist arguments to the contrary, such as those of N. T. Wright, a man worthy of great respect, but wrong on this issue.

The Nature and Grounds of Israel’s Election

Because he roots his views in the text of Scripture, Orthodox Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod is widely read and appreciated by many Christians. But not all can digest what he says in passages like this. Many reflexively recoil:

The people of Israel pursues its course in history in the faith that it is the people of God. Because God loved Abraham, he chose him and his seed as the people of his Covenant. Because this people is a human family with all the frailties and failings of humankind, the people of Israel has never ceased to prove unworthy of its election, rebelling against the mission laid upon it by God, more often than is seemly to say. God, in his infinite mercy, nevertheless continues to love this people above all others. To it, he has given his name so that he is known to all the families of the earth as the God of Israel.[1]

Such unequivocal, stirring words, warmly resonant for most Jews, meet a far different reaction from many Christians who react with caveats, reservations, and categorical denials. Joel S. Kaminsky attributes this reflexive dismissal to two legacies. The first is the Christian West’s post-Enlightenment preference for the universal over the particular, assuming ultimate truth to lie always beyond and above the particulars of human experience and perception. The second is the historical and theological legacy of supersessionism.[2]

A Particularist Election

Will Herberg nicely summarizes the West’s aversion to particularist election.

A truly rational and universal God, it is maintained, could not do anything so arbitrary as to “choose” one particular group out of mankind as a whole. . . . God is the God of all alike, and, therefore, cannot make distinctions between nations and peoples. To this is added the moral argument that the doctrine of “chosenness” is little better than crude ethnocentrism, in which a particular group regards itself as the center of the universe and develops doctrines that will flatter its pride and minister to its glory.[3]

Many reading Herberg’s characterization are apt to respond, “Amen!” Such a commitment to universality and rejection of particularism is reflexive in the Western theological and philosophical tradition. However, that this idea has a long beard does not guarantee its wisdom, and the Jewish world would no more forsake its confidence in God’s election than would the church posit its own abandonment by Christ.

Where does this aversion to particularism come from? Kaminsky credits Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant with steering the West toward the universal. Spinoza taught that the social and political organization of the Jewish people was chosen, but not the people themselves, thus gutting the doctrine of election. Kant stressed that Christianity is a religion of universal ethical principles known and validated through reason alone, and thus superior to any sort of particularist tribalism. But Kaminsky is surely right when he characterizes and critiques the Christian tradition for reflexively assuming “the truest and best parts of the Bible are those that correlate most closely with a certain idea of universalism, (but, to the contrary,) this universalism is an Enlightenment ideal that is more indebted to Kant than to anything in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.”[4] Like carefully watching a stage magician to catch him in his craft of misdirected attention, we would do well to remember that whenever universality is being extolled, the Jewish people are being shoved down some hidden trap door.[5]

Despite Christendom’s philosophical tradition of universality, Judaism remains stubbornly particularist about Israel’s unique and enduring election. This is one of those intersections where Christendom and Judaism collide.

(And lots more follows . . .)

[1] Wyschogrod, “Israel, the church and Election,” 182.

[2] Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 1–6.

[3] Herberg, “The ‘Chosenness’ of Israel and the Jew of Today,” 270–83, at 280; quoted in Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob, 1.

[4] Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob, 5.

[5] When referring to the Jewish people, theologically considered, David Holwerda uses the term “Jewish Israel” as distinct from “Israel” which he takes to mean the church. I reserve the term “Israel” for the Jewish people, and find the term “Jewish Israel” a tautology like “canine dogs” or “two-legged bipeds.”

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