Monday, February 06, 2006

Jew & Gentile under the law

A friend recently reminded me of a post I had done a while back on “An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel.”

This is an apt time to revisit the issues raised therein. As I write, Iran is on the fast-track to getting the bomb, Hamas is now in charge of the Palestinian Authority, Israel must choose what direction to take in a post-Sharon era, and there is a showdown between the West and Muslim world over some political cartoons, the resolution of which will determine whether the jihadis dictate editorial policy in the West.

There are several problems with the open letter.

1.Assuming, for the same of argument, that its theological analysis is correct, the letter conflates a particular interpretation of the Bible with a particular interpretation of church history as well as a particular interpretation of the Balfour Declaration.

Now, even if the signatories are correct in their interpretation of Scripture, it hardly follows that their application of covenant theology to the Crusades or the Balfour Declaration is equally correct.

Indeed, it is clear from the buzzwords and catchphrases in the letter that our signatories are blindly rubberstamping the Islamic version of events, having chosen to completely ignore the Israeli version of events. And, from where I sit, the Islamic version is a pack of lies.

2.It also looks like the signatories are using the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews as a pretext to settle old scores with Dispensationalism. And they are doing so in a way that presents a revisionist version of covenant theology.

The Westminster Confession has a lot to say about covenant theology. It has nothing to say about the millennium.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly, the millennial options were not as diverse or clearly delineated as they are today.

i) Let’s take some examples. Was Augustine an amil or a postmil? The question is anachronistic. He applies the OT golden age prophecies to the church. But that is consistent with either amil or postmil hermeneutics.

ii) There are vanilla gray amils like me who are amil by default. We don’t reject premil or postmil eschatology as obviously wrong. We don’t positively disbelieve in those options.

Rather, we don’t believe them for lack of adequate evidence. They could be right. But, for us, amillennialism is merely the default setting. It’s what you are when you don’t have reason enough to be something else.

On the other hand, you have what I would call doctrinaire amils. These are amils for whom your eschatology is a constitutive feature of covenant theology. They generally come at this from the angle of redemptive-historical theology, a la Vos, Kline, Gaffin, and Robertson.

This is also an essential feature of postmillennialism. It isn’t merely an eschatological accessory. Rather, it implicates one’s whole philosophy of history.

iii) Now, even if you agree with this, it would be quite anachronistic to equate such a highly refined and novel position with historic covenant theology or confessional Calvinism.

iv) Moreover, the open letter oversimplifies the amil and postmil options.

a) There are amils like Hoekema and Poythress who do take the land-promises literally, but index them to the Consummation.

b) There are amils to favor a futurist reading of Rom 11.

c) For some odd reason, contemporary Reformed postmillennialism has been sucked into the gravitational well of preterism. I don’t know quite how that happened. For example, Rushdoony was an idealist, not a preterist.

If you’re a preterist, then, by definition the land-promises are inapplicable to modern-day Israel since, by definition, all or most-all of the endtime promises were fulfilled in the 1C.

It would, however, be a very high-handed move to make preterism the benchmark of Reformed orthodoxy.

Indeed, Hyperpreterism, which is wreaking so much havoc in Reformed circles today, is the lineal descendent of the current postmil-preterist hybrid.

Although I’m an amil, I don’t hesitate to say that historical premillennialism is infinitely preferable to the black hole of preterism.

v) Furthermore, there are varieties of Calvinism, and, in fact, varieties of covenant theology.

In Calvinism, covenant theology ranges along a continuum:

a) Mosaic law abrogated (New Covenant Theology; Strict & Particular Baptistery)>
b) Civil/ceremonial law abrogated, but not Decalogue/moral law (Westminster Confession)>

c) Ceremonial law abrogated, but not civil law (theonomy a la Bahnsen)>

d) Parts of ceremonial law still in force, along with civil law (theonomy a la Rushdoony; Reformed Anglican rule of faith)>

vi) What is more, there are varieties of Messianic Judaism. We can find these on display in the NT itself.

a) Palestinian Messianic Judaism (Matthew, James, Jude)

b) Diaspora Messianic Judaism (Hebrews, Acts 7).

c) Evangelistic Messianic Judaism (1 Peter, Pauline corpus; Mark, John, 1 John).

By this I mean that Matthew, James, and Jude were written by Palestinian Jews to Palestinian Jews, while Hebrews and Acts 7 were addressed to Hellenistic/Diaspora Jews to Hellenistic/Diaspora Jews, and Peter, Paul, Mark, and John were directed to Gentiles.

Peter, Paul, John, and Mark write as Palestinian Jews. By contrast, Luke writes as Gentile, probably a God-fearer, addressing fellow Gentiles who may also be God-fearers.

In that respect we could put the Lucan corpus in a forth category:

d) Evangelistic Diaspora Messianic Judaism (Luke-Acts), where (d) represents a synthesis of (b) and (c).

vii) Finally, the historical debate has centered on the relation of Gentiles to the law. And different theological traditions have staked out different positions along the continuity/discontinuity spectrum.

a) Are Gentiles under the law?

If “yes,” in what sense?

Are unbelievers under the law?

b) However, the letter takes us back to a parallel debate. What is the relation of the Jew to the law during the church age?

Because the Jews quickly became underrepresented and virtually unrepresented in the church, this question came to be practically moot.

As such, this issue is an underdeveloped area of systematic theology.

But with the modern state of Israel and the resurgence of Messianic Judaism, it has once again become a very live issue.

c) Modern Messianic Jews confront a wealth of options. To begin with, 1C Judaism was hardly monolithic. Added to that is another 2000 years of Judaism since the fall of Jerusalem. Finally, you have 2000 years of church history. So with what does a Messianic Jew identify?

d) From what I can tell, most Messianic Jews have taken their eschatology from Dispensationalism.

This is somewhat ironic. For fundamentalism has, in principle, a tense relationship with Judaism.

Fundamentalism has a keen interest in OT prophecy, but little or no interest in OT law. Hence, fundamentalism has, in principle, no real use for past or present expressions of Judaism, but only for the future of the Jews.

This creates the odd spectacle of two Messianic Jews writing a book on ethics in which they basically mothball OT ethics except where it is reaffirmed in the New Testament. Cf. J. Feinberg & P., Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World.

Nevertheless, Messianic Jews have generally identified with dispensationalism, in doctrine if not in praxis.

I suspect the reason is simply that dispensationalism was one of the few preexisting Christian traditions that showed any abiding interest at all in the fortunes of Jewry: that even believes that Jews have a future!

In addition, the future has merged with the present in the modern state of Israel, which fundamentalism views as a fulfillment of OT prophecy.

BTW, here’s a question I have for my fellow amils: if the modern state of Israel is not a fulfillment of OT prophecy, then what is it? Just a blimp on the radar screen?

e) I’ve also noticed a charismatic strain in Messianic Judaism. I think this is owing in part to the fact that when Messianic Jews first began to pop up on the landscape and go knocking on church doors, most denominations didn’t know what to do with them. But they did find a more receptive community in the Foursquare church and other suchlike.

f) Another irony is that Calvinism, which is arguably the most philosemitic of all Christian traditions, both in theory and practice, has had much success in bringing Messianic Judaism under its wing. And I afraid that something like the “Open Letter to Evangelicals” could hardly be more effective in driving away any Jews of any stripe, whether secular, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, or Messianic.

g) What was at one time a promising exception was the ministry of Steven Schlissel. One was hoping that he would lay a foundation for Reformed Messianic Judaism. Unfortunately, he’s been drawn into the vortex of the Federal Vision.

h) As a consequence, you have books like How Jewish is Christianity? [L. Goldberg, ed. (Zondervan 2003)].

As far as praxis is concerned, in distinction to doctrine, I think this is the wrong question to ask. For given the varieties of Messianic Judaism on display in the NT itself, there is more than one acceptable model of Messianic Judaism. And it is there to which contemporary Messianic Jews should look for inspiration.

i) Take the ceremonial law. Let’s assume that Christian Gentiles are not bound by the ceremonial law.

To say that says nothing in particular about the relationship between Messianic Jews and the ceremonial law.

Indeed, we know from the Book of Acts that Messianic Jews continued to observe the ceremonial law.

This does not necessarily imply that the ceremonial law is still binding on Jews. But it surely legitimates that practice as a licit option.

j) What about the civil law? One way to broach the answer is to ask ourselves this question:

Is something wrong because it’s in the Mosaic code, or is it in the Mosaic code because it’s wrong?

Many theologians on the discontinuity end of the spectrum act as if the Mosaic code is what makes something right or wrong, and to the extent that the Mosaic code is supplanted by the New Covenant, what was once right or wrong ceases to be right or wrong.

This reminds me of medieval voluntarism, in which what is right or wrong is merely a divine convention, by God’s arbitrary stipulation.

But surely such a nominalistic conception of OT ethics is way off the mark. Surely the Mosaic law generally codifies social morality instead of constituting social morality.

It is because many things are naturally right or wrong, according to the creation ordinances of Gen 1-2, that when God established a theocratic state, the criminal code and case law merely explicate many prescriptions or proscriptions logically implicit in the creation ordinances.

k) Because the relationship of Jews to the law has been so underemphasized in historical theology, the letter is, to say nothing else, premature.

Reformed theologians should open a serious dialogue with Messianic Jews. We need to explore these issues together, not issue unilateral pronouncements before we’ve had time to investigate the varieties of Messianic Judaism in the NT and their relevance to the current political and ecclesiastical situation.


  1. BTW, here’s a question I have for my fellow amils: if the modern state of Israel is not a fulfillment of OT prophecy, then what is it? Just a blimp on the radar screen?

    Well, what prophecy do you suspect it fulfills?

    This does not necessarily imply that the ceremonial law is still binding on Jews. But it surely legitimates that practice as a licit option.

    Certainly licit for the period up until the destruction of the Temple. Beyond that, I'd be a bit more cautious. In Hebrews it seems rather clear that the ceremonial law is going to the wayside.

    Certainly we must regard it as illicit if it is used to prop up a division between Gentile believers and Jewish believers. Can a Jewish believer who observes kosher laws, for example, share a church luncheon with Gentile believers who are unaware of what kosher eating entails?

  2. Hi Kyle,

    These are good questions. To address just one of your questions:

    i)I don't think the kosher laws are binding on Messianic Jews. However, to say something is no longer prescribed is not to say it is now proscribed.

    ii)As to your example, there are two solutions:

    a)Since I don't think the kosher laws are binding, a Messianic Jew could accommodate the diet of his Gentile brother-in-Christ.

    b)By the same token, accommodation can work in more than one direction. They could have lunch at a Jewish deli, or have a Jewish deli cater a church luncheon.

    I assume you'd agree that it's okay for Gentile Christians to eat kosher food.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for responding. With regard to both i and a, the question would then be what precisely is the point of a Messianic Jew observing kosher laws? From my encounters, there are many who do, and who also consider it binding on all Jews (though there seems to be some debate about whether it extends to Gentiles). However, if the Messianic Jew agrees that kosher laws are not binding on him, I can see its purpose if he is working in the context of an observant Jewish community, but otherwise it seems a bit harder to justify.

    It occurs to me though that I have not really considered the case of a Messianic Jew who was raised in an observant Jewish community—because I don't think I've ever run across one! Such a case would be more akin to what we see in Acts and in Romans, I think, and he would have some legitimate reason for keeping kosher, i.e., a weak conscience. Yet, the goal should be to educate him and strengthen his conscience, should it not? So that he is no longer unnecessarily bound.

    Well, those are some more of my thoughts. I do want to let you know how much I enjoy reading Triablogue! One of the best out there.

  4. As to what prophecies the modern state of Israel might fulfill, this is really a question that someone like Jonathan Moorhead ought to answer since I can only offer a half-hearted answer myself. But I suppose a fundy would appeal to such verses as Ezk 20:33-38; 22:17-22; 36:22-24; 37:1- 14; Isa 11:11-12; Zeph 2:1-2 and Ezk 38-39, and while I may not agree, I think it's worth debating.

  5. Would you kindly mind expanding on the statement that as far as where you sit, the Islamic version is a pack of lies? Simply stated ex cathedrea, what aspects of said version are "a pack of lies" and why?

    Explanations, not simple bias and pronouncements from authority based on a fundamental disagreement with those who hold the "Islamic version".

    As for those who don't think Kosher laws are binding on "messiancic jews" would you mind addressing the views of the non-gnostic early Ebionites on this matter?

    Thank you