Five decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church famously acknowledged the unique relationship between Jews and Christians. In the wake of World War II, the Vatican officially rejected anti-Semitism and a common manifestation—charges of deicide—and affirmed the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration, a group of Orthodox rabbis signed and released a statement this month acknowledging that “Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”
In separating Jews and Christians, God was not separating enemies but partners with significant theological differences, the rabbis wrote. “Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth.”
A week later, the Vatican, through its the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, honored the Nostra Aetate anniversary by releasing a statement, saying that Catholics should not evangelize Jews—at least in an organized way.
The back-to-back events weren’t unrelated: Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, signed the first document and spoke at the Vatican presentation of the second. [Christianity Today previously interviewed Rosen on how Jews and Christians can converse well.]
The Catholic document is, in its own words, "not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, but is a reflection … intended to be a starting point for further theological thought." It is entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” [a nod to Romans 11:29] and explains:
The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [the Hebrew term for the Holocaust].
These conciliatory statements are markers of a path that Jews and Christians have been on since the ending of the Holocaust, said Marv Wilson, biblical studies professor at Gordon College and author of several textbooks on Judaism.
“One of the reasons this is happening now is that there’s a growing humility, a modesty in Christian theological expression,” he told Christianity Today (CT). For Jews, the words “mission” or “conversion” are historically connected with the Crusades, the Inquisition, Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the silence of many Christian churches during the Holocaust.
But today, Jewish leaders have seen “deep introspection and self-correction” in the church, he said. In addition, they see Christianity as an ally against anti-Semitism in Europe or culture assimilation in America, he said.
The Jewish statement—widely seen as the most notable since Dabru Emet, signed by 170 Jewish scholars in 2000—is remarkable for two reasons, North Park Theological Seminary professor Jay Phelan told Christianity Today. First, it comes from Judaism's Orthodox branch, which tends to set itself apart. And second, it calls Christianity the “will of God.” “Few Orthodox rabbis would put it that strongly,” said Phelan. “Maybe they would see [Christianity] as something that God could work with, but not necessarily his intention. That is what is new for me.”
While the Jewish statement is a signpost of improving Jewish-Christian relationships, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a consensus among Jewish rabbis, Orthodox rabbi Yehiel Poupko told Christianity Today.
“No major Jewish Halachic (Jewish legal) authority has signed the statement,” he said. “And Jewish thought has, for centuries, emerged not from individuals signing letters but from a long, slow process of scholarship that builds communal consensus. This statement did not do that. In addition, complex theological issues do not readily lend themselves to full expression in short sentences presented in brief public statements.”
But it isn’t meaningless.
“The statement is a very real indication that the Orthodox rabbinate is grappling with how to understand Christianity in an era when Christianity is reaching out to Judaism and has repented of its sins against us,” he said.
The warm relationship between Jews and evangelicals is still in its infancy, Poupko said. “We are feeling our way, and this statement should not be viewed as a consensus, let alone a final statement. Rather, it’s an indication of the theological and intellectual ferment in the Orthodox rabbinate about Christianity.”
Christianity—and Islam, for that matter—are actually Jewish success stories, he said, “because Christianity and Islam use the Torah, and as a consequence, people who would now be pagans have knowledge of and are in relationship with the one God.”
Experts told Christianity Today that neither statement wipes out the significant theological differences between Christians and Jews.
“The statement focuses on moral rather than theological solidarity,” National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson said of the rabbis’ document. “The emphasis is on some of our common heritage in the Bible and tradition with shared values in justice, love, and righteousness. … The statement moves the conversation from Israel and the Middle East to moral and traditional common ground. Without denying our difference, it declares what we all believe and want.”
The Vatican statement asserts:
[F]rom the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.
That apparent contradiction, the Vatican says, “remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”
Should evangelicals leap in with an equivalent offer to abstain from evangelism to Jews? That’s complicated, said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida and co-convener of the Evangelical-Jewish National Conversation.
“While Roman Catholics can, and historically do, consign matters to divine mystery, evangelicals are less prone to let them rest there,” he told CT. “While we can certainly agree that the Jews are participants in God's [unfolding] salvation, and we can affirm that they are complete in that role, it is more difficult for us not to want to share with them our deepest joy.”
Verses such as Romans 1:16 (“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”) and the order of Acts 1:8 (“…and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”) are difficult for evangelicals to avoid when it comes to sharing their faith, Hunter said.
“[Jews] do not need to change in order for them to be God’s gift to us, and for us to cooperate fully with them and love them fully,” he said. “Yet because my identity is Christ [Galatians 2:20], my desire to be personally close to them will involve my sharing Christ by word or deed.”
Jews for Jesus executive director David Brickner was more forceful, calling the Vatican’s position “egregious.”
“They need to be reminded that they first received that gospel message from the lips of Jews who were for Jesus,” Brickner stated in the group’s response to the Vatican statement. “We believe that the Apostle Paul, whose name is invoked frequently in the Vatican document, would be horrified at this repudiation of the words with which he started his letter in Romans: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.’”
Jim Melnick, international coordinator of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE), agreed.
“While we applaud the Vatican’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism and to show love and honor to the Jewish people—one area where the document succeeds—we strongly reject how it has turned the scripture of Romans 11 on its head in order to end up with the exact opposite meaning of what the Apostle Paul intended regarding the salvation of the Jewish people,” he stated in LCJE’s response to the Vatican statement. “When Paul wrote that ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,’ he was saying that the Jewish people remain beloved in His sight—not that they can find salvation without faith in Yeshua.”
Paul’s statement was made in the context of a larger message about the Jewish refusal to recognize Jesus as Messiah, said Jason Poling, Hunter's co-convener of the Evangelical-Jewish National Conversation. “Paul certainly thinks they ought to do so, and he demonstrates throughout his apostolic ministry an interest in Jews and Gentiles alike worshipping Jesus as Messiah and Lord—precisely on the ground of God's grace to all of humanity as demonstrated in Jesus’ own faithfulness.”
But the theological divide shouldn’t stop the Jewish-Christian conversation, he said. “Jewish-Christian relations can only be enriched by the participation of colleagues like these Orthodox rabbis who recognize theological pluralism as a phenomenon without embracing it as doctrine.”
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is a freelance reporter; an adjunct instructor at Trinity Christian College and a Contributing Editor to Christianity Today International. Sarah teaches several courses publications, freshman composition, and introduction to journalism at Trinity Christian College where she is also the advisor for the student newspaper, the Courier.