A Response by Douglas K. Harink PDF Print E-mail

I believe Mark Kinzer’s Postmissionary Messianic Judaism makes a timely, groundbreaking and crucial theological contribution in several respects: 1. It reflects and contributes to the theological maturing of Messianic Judaism; 2. It challenges Christian theology to ask more seriously what it will make of the Jewish people and practice, in the first place as found in the messianic ekklesia, but then also as found in its non-messianic forms; 3. It challenges non-messianic Jewish theology to account for the fact that Messianic Jews are not only Jewish by birth, but are also committed to the faithful practice of Judaism in daily life. I will comment primarily on the first of these contributions, and raise some questions for further exploration.

This is a theology for Messianic Judaism. Since I have only recently become familiar (in large measure through Mark Kinzer and Paul Saal) with the very fact of Messianic Judaism in its institutional form, I cannot comment with any real knowledge about the history, sociology, politics and theology of the movement. However, what immediately struck me from Kinzer’s book (besides the fact that he fills in some of that background) is that, even without significant knowledge of this movement, it just seemed “right” to me that it in fact exists, and that something like what Kinzer is writing is “right” theologically speaking. As I reflect on how I would come to that almost intuitive judgment, I discover that virtually everything I have been thinking and writing about Jesus, Paul and the New Testament for the last decade or more pointed in this direction. I didn’t see that until I read Postmissionary, but when I did read it I could only say: Yes!

Why? First, it is a remarkable thing (and not so very simple) for Christians to become aware that Jesus and the disciples and Paul were Jews and not “Christians” (as many of my students still assume—even about figures in the Old Testament!), and that their message and mission (including those of Paul, apostle to the Gentiles) were fundamentally Jewish in character. They were and remained Jews by birth, by intention, by practice, by conviction, and by hope, and they were and remained Jews as members of Israel, the chosen people of God.

Second, it is also remarkable and difficult to become aware that Jesus (in his earthly ministry) and Paul had very different missions. Jesus came not in the first place to “humankind,” but to “his own.” Jesus came to and for Israel. He called Israel to a new obedience. He came to “save his people [Israel] from their sins.” Indeed, in his earthly ministry, he made the Israel–centric character of his mission very clear, declaring to the Canaanite woman (Matt 15) that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and commissioning his disciples (Matt 10) to go with the message of the kingdom only to the towns and villages of “the house of Israel” and to go “nowhere among the Gentiles.” Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. There are only hints on the margins of the gospel narratives of a more universal mission to all nations; hints which become explicit and central only after Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven. In his earthly ministry Jesus came to enact and elicit the renewal of his own people, the Jews.

Paul, on the other hand, had a mission to the non-Jewish, Gentile peoples. That mission, as Kinzer so clearly argues in his book, was also very closely tied to Paul’s understanding of Israel’s eschatological role and destiny, and he enacted this mission often in the shadow of the Diaspora Jewish communities, and always in relation to the Jerusalem Jesus-community and its leaders. Still, it was to the Gentile peoples that he went with his gospel of God’s deliverance from idols through the death of Christ, of the worship of the one God of Israel, and of the hope of resurrection (1 Thess 1:9-10). He wrote his letters to Gentiles.

Now it seems to me that a theology for Messianic Judaism has to take each of these facts very seriously. Postmissionary weighs in most heavily on the first of these, that is, that Jesus, the disciples and Paul are and remain in every respect Jews in constitution and practice from beginning to end, and that they do so not in spite of the gospel revolution, but because of it. Jews becoming born-again, Spirit-empowered, God-trusting, Jesus-following, Torah-keeping Jews is the very goal of Jesus’ proclamation among God’s people Israel. Quite apart from anything else in the New Testament, this is the message of the four Gospels and the early chapters in Acts—and we would have to look no further than them to find the scriptural justification for Messianic Judaism. There are no “Christians” in the Gospels, just renewed faithful Jews. One cannot read Postmissionary without becoming completely convinced of this, and if the book achieves no other end than this, it will have been worth the effort. But of course, Kinzer’s aims are higher.

Here I come to my first questions, and these relate to the second aspect above, that is, that Jesus came to Israel. While Kinzer makes it clear in Postmissionary that Jesus never called his fellow Jews to become anything other than faithful, Torah-practicing Jews, he does not make it sufficiently clear how Jesus’ call to God’s people Israel was revolutionary in its time (and got Jesus killed). For surely other prophets in Israel before and during Jesus’ time (consider John the baptizer) also called for repentance and a renewal of faithfulness. What difference does Jesus the Messiah make, when in the gospels God’s own cause and action are so thoroughly identified with Jesus’ cause and action, precisely in order that Israel might come to a clear and specific understanding of her own cause and action? Can the shape of faithfulness to the God of Israel, including, or especially, the Torah-practicing faithfulness of Jews, any longer be sufficiently specified apart from the shape of the faithfulness of Jesus, the Messiah and king of Israel? What does the Messiah’s “Follow me!” mean specifically for Jews in the theological, political and social context of the first century in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem? In turn, what does it mean for the faithfulness of Messianic Jews in the theological, political and social context of the land of Israel in our time? If the land (as well as the law) of Israel remains central even for Messianic Jewish self-identity, as I believe it must, how does the specific shape of Jesus’ own messianic politics shape a specifically Yeshua-messianic Zionism? Kinzer rightly stresses that Israel and the Jews are not in the first place a “religion” but a people (a crucial point also for a Christian ecclesiology of the church as the people of God). But as a faithful people, Israel must reflect carefully on its geographical, social and political existence as intrinsic to its theological identity and mission as the people of God. Messianic Jews must do so as the people of the God who has come to Israel as the Messiah Jesus. Kinzer’s appropriate emphasis on the continuity of Jewish identity and practice before and after Jesus leaves me asking what difference Jesus makes for the Jewish people of God, which is called to live messianically. These questions certainly go beyond the scope of the task which Kinzer sets for himself in Postmissionary, but it seems at some point they must be taken up as central and critical to the issue of how Messianic Judaism will think about its own existence and its relation to Israel as land and nation.1

It is one of the great contributions of Postmissionary that it wrestles so carefully, thoroughly and judiciously with the writings of Paul. For surely Paul has many difficult and complicated things to say about Jews, the purpose and practice of the law of Moses, and Israel. Indeed, almost everything that the Christian church has come to believe and think about these topics, it has learned decisively and even normatively from Paul. But here is the shock, which is registered perhaps all too gently in Postmissionary: Paul writes as a Jew, about Jews, to Gentiles. He does not write directly to Jews (except perhaps, indirectly, in Romans). Clearly a Messianic Jewish theology which takes the whole of Christian scripture seriously as the Word of God (as I believe Messianic Judaism must) will have to take account of what Paul says about Jews, the law, and Israel, to Gentiles, and Kinzer does this with great skill. The question which lies in the background for me is this: If Paul writes his letters to Gentiles who are coming to worship the God of Israel through Jesus the Messiah, what does he have to say directly to Messianic Jews? If it has been the habit of a great deal of (largely Gentile) Christian theology (perhaps rightly) to give Paul hermeneutical priority over the gospels, is it also necessary for Messianic Jews to do the same? Or is that already to concede to the historic Gentile dominance in Christian theology and life? Or, should Messianic Jewish theology give the gospels priority over Paul? Is this, in effect, already an aspect of Kinzer’s project? What role should Pauline theology be given in Messianic Jewish theology, even granted that Paul’s letters are scripture also for Messianic Jews (cf. 2 Pet 3:15-16—a Messianic Jewish writer reflecting on Paul as scripture) as well as Gentile Christians? I’m not sure I have a ready answer to these questions, but they seem to me crucial ones to raise when we become focally aware of the fact that Paul is God’s apostle to the non-Jewish nations. It seems also that in raising these questions we become increasingly aware that Messianic Jewish theology (as participating in the theological history and practice of Judaism) must in some significant senses be different from Gentile Christian theology, and that this difference will be constitutive for understanding ecclesiology as the “bilateral” communion of Jewish and Gentile ekklesiai which Kinzer proposes.

So far I have raised some issues and posed some questions to Kinzer about his work as a contribution to Messianic Jewish theology. But in fact that is not his only, nor even his primary focus in Postmissionary. This is a work written in the first place to instruct the Christian church and Christian theology, not only in relation to Messianic Judaism, but also, and precisely for that reason, in relation to non-messianic Jews and Judaism. The subtitle of the book is “Redefining Christian engagement with the Jewish people,” and the argument of the book is that that engagement should be “postmissionary.” Postmissionary challenges Christian theology and the church to do nothing less than reconsider and redefine its relation to Israel, Jews, Judaism, and the Law from the roots up. It is a radical challenge to Christian theology and the church to disavow both the traditional Christian supersessionist models of that relationship (which at least have the virtue of being seriously theological) and the more recent liberal and pluralist models constructed around a concept of “religion” (and which are usually grounded in “ethics” rather than theology). Postmissionary is a thorough and fundamental criticism of these models (though with primary attention to the first). But supersessionist and religious pluralist models are far from dead, or even dying. For a good deal of orthodox Christian theology, to give up supersessionism is to lose the gospel, which on this view requires a missionary, conversionist relationship to Jews for the sake of their salvation. Religious pluralism forbids a missionary, conversionist relationship to Jews for the sake of “respect” and “dialogue.” Postmissionary challenges the church and Christian theology to reject each of these alternatives in favor of one which neither requires nor forbids a missionary relation, but which more basically rests in the conviction that the one God of the universe who chose Israel to be his people forever, has also in these latter days laid claim on the nations, that they might join God’s Jewish people (whether messianic or not) in praising God’s name and reflecting his glory for the healing of all. This is good news for Judaism, Messianic Judaism and the Christian Church. I am committed with Kinzer to proclaiming this good news far and wide.

 

Notes:
  1. It is interesting to me that Kinzer quotes frequently from John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited: A Bundle of Old Essays (Notre Dame:; Shalom Desktop,1996) but never from Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (2nd Edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Likewise the references to my own book Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003) are primarily to my chapter on “Israel” but not to the chapters on “Apocalypse” or “Politics,” both of which argue (following Yoder) that messianic political existence, paradigmatically enacted by Jesus the Jewish Messiah, is intrinsic to the messianic good news, and not something to be thought about later, as a second-step “application” of the gospel. 

 

Douglas K. Harink, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology at the King’s University College in Alberta, Canada. He is author of Paul Among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Brazos Press, 2003). He has served as president of the Canadian Theological Society and the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association.

 

 
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