This started as a comment on Sonja’s post below, regarding Benedict’s interpretation of the long-lethally interpreted (yes, I mean that literally) line in the Gospel of Matthew, “His blood be upon us and our children.” So you should read that first.

Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion," 1938
Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion," 1938 (Art Institute of Chicago)

It’s rather hastily written due to some pressing commitments in my life, meaning it’s somewhat incomplete, doesn’t cover all the important issues, and is somewhat inchoate in points. To make matters worse,I’ll be using the internet sparingly for the next week–so please forgive the time it may take to respond to any follow-up comments. With that said:

Sonja asks about Benedict’s (or, rather, Joseph Ratzinger’s, as I believe he specifies that he is writing as a private theologian and not the Pope) re-interpretation of “His blood be upon us and our children,” to indicate salvation rather than condemnation.

If it had been written in the 1950s or 1960s, I would think it was really significant. But as it stands, it ignores (willfully? — I think there is a genuine possibility that this is consciously written in contradistinction to, not in ignorance of… Benedict is a smart man, and this isn’t the first time he’s written on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism) the post-Nostra Aetate trajectory of theological reflection on the relationship between Christ and the Jewish people. Is saying “Jews, corporately, are saved by the redeeming death of Christ” a huge step forward from saying, “Jews, corporately, are condemned by the redeeming death of Christ, and so Christian theology mandates a state of exile and suffering for the Jewish people until the eschaton?” Yes. But official (and I want to be careful to say official: there are definitely problematic resonances of this, it’s not something we’ve totally gotten rid of) Catholic and mainline Protestant theology hasn’t said that since the early 1960s. The question that we’re considering now is not “Does the death of Christ condemn the Jewish people?,” it’s “What is the relationship of the (permanently valid and irrevocable) Sinai covenant [as it has evolved through Jewish tradition into rabbinic Judaism, and without excluding Reform (or, a priori, Reconstructionist? I’m far less familiar with Reconstructionist thought than with other forms of Jewish thought, and I don’t want to put Reconstructionist Jews in a theological box they reject; I also don’t want to exclude Reconstructionist Jews from the voices of Jewish self-definition to whom Christians should be intently listening.) interpretations of its meaning] to the Christ event?” The edge of theological difficulty now [and again, I want to distinguish this from popular notions which are also reflected in a lot of theology that is not directly about the Jewish / Christian relationship) is not “His blood be upon us” but “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Sidenote: with all the translation controversy about the new Roman Missal changing “for all” to “for many,” I wonder if there is an opening here for theology of religions to understand this switch not in a sense that restricts salvation–God’s grace embraces many, but not all–but in a sense that restricts the necessarily-christic facet of grace–God’s grace embraces all, but is directly connected to the Christ-event for many (and for many, is connected to Torah; and for many, is connected to the Qur’an — the central question in “theology of religions” being the autonomy of the religions). This is something I’m just trying out, is a little half baked, and is not something I’m certain I want to be held to later.

So by framing the question in the way that he does, Benedict is saying that the important theological issue is the one that was resolved — on an official level — back in 1965, and ignoring the central question now: Is the Sinaitic covenant, which the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches teach is unbroken, efficacious in a manner dependent on or autonomous from Jesus Christ? This is sort of a falsely-dichotomous manner of framing the issue, as there are lots of shades of gray between those two alternatives, but… that’s what I would have been interested to read a really searching inquiry into. The mainstream of Christian theologians looking at the Jewish-Christian relationship are going to say that the saving covenant between God and Israel (i.e., the Jewish people–not the Church as a patristic / medieval verus Israel) does not depend (at all? in a direct and unnuanced fashion?) on the saving covenant of Christ’s blood (due caveats about contemporary issues surrounding soteriology, the problems of locating Christian salvation in the blood of Christ, and so forth: if I were writing this under less duress, I would spend some time on my own soteriological leanings at the point. But, well…)

Benedict doesn’t include a searching inquiry of that because, I believe, he wants to keep the relationship between Christ and the Jewish people (and the relationship between Christ and Islam, and the relationship between Christ and Theravada Buddhism, and the relationship between Christ and atheism…) under the umbrella of “constitutive inclusivism” — non-Christians are indeed saved, but through the action of Christ. Let me make clear: that’s not a dialing-back of Nostra Aetate (though arguably a dialing back to Nostra Aetate). It’s the official stance of Vatican II; it’s the theology (in differing ways) of Daniélou and Rahner; it’s been the official Magisterial stance on non-Christians and salvation consistently for the past 46 years.

But it’s not where the theology is pushing… which makes it at best a pretty tame stance, and at worst a dialing back of theological progress to 1965.

One final thing:
Part of the history of Vatican II that gets lost is that as the Decretum de Judaeis went through various drafts (the Decretum eventually became Nostra Aetate, after breaking off from the Decree on Ecumenism and including other world religions, in what was ultimately a supremely significant and positive turn of events–but which was set in motion because the Council Fathers from the Middle East were concerned that a Decree on the Jews would be interpreted in pro-Israeli political terms, given the historical situation of the 1960s… God writes straight with crooked lines &ca) — a significant part of the changes aimed at removing any implication that it supported proselytizing Jews. In a significant incident, Abraham Joshua Heschel, responding to leaks concerning the draft, wrote a memorandum to the Vatican later quoted in Time magazine, declaring that, faced with the alternatives of Auschwitz’s gas chambers or conversion to Christianity, he would choose the former. This resulted in a number of interventions on the floor of the Council by bishops concerned that the final draft of the Decretum de Judaeis not give the impression that Jews need to convert to Christianity: they very explicitly wanted it to be a reconciliatory document, and it was felt strongly that any implication of a missionary / proselytizing message be avoided. (You can read about this in John Oesterreicher’s commentary on Nostra Aetate, found in vol. 3 of the Vorgrimler-edited Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II).

So I think I would have some concern, too, that Benedict’s book does what Nostra Aetate was rewritten in order to avoid the suggestion of doing: remove the deicide charge only to replace it with a theology that inspires an explicit missionary aim.

Update: After the break, a relevant exchange between John Allen and Thomas Weinandy from the Ignatius Press teleconference launching the book.

I might comment on this next week, but I did just want to bring this relevant discussion to others’ attention.

(I’ve made two minor changes to the official transcript: 1) the original mis-transcribes “covenant admission” for what should read “Covenant and Mission,” referring to the 2002 document from a consultation of National Council of Synagogues and the US Bishops Conference’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, which two years ago occasioned a doctrinal “Note on Ambiguities” from the Bishops Conference; 2) the original reads “Cardinal Douglas” when it should read “Cardinal Dulles,” who was, to put it mildly, not a fan of “Covenant and Mission.” Mary Boys, Phil Cunningham, and John Pawlikowski–three Catholic scholars at the forefront of the Jewish-Christian dialogue–respond to Dulles here.)

John Allen:            Thank you, this question is directed in the first place to Father Weinandy although anyone who wants to respond I’d be very grateful.  Father I’m interested in the section of the book that the Benedict refers to as the time for the Gentiles pages 27 and the following in which he talks about among other things Israel’s role in evangelization and it seems he quotes Hildegard of Bingen to the effect that the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jew.

It would seem the Holy Father is saying that at least in this order of history – it’s the Church should not be worrying about the conversion of the Jew.  I’m wondering first of all, is that an accurate reading, do you think, of what the Holy Father is saying?  Secondly, what would the theological significance of that be?

Father Thomas Weinandy:      John that struck me too when I read it, I think the context in which the Pope is quoting both Hildegard of Bingen and also Bernard of Calvo is he’s talking about the age of the Gentiles that we first need to have the true number, the full number of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ and after we have the full number of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ then in the Lord’s own time the conversion of the Jews will be accomplished.

But he’s stressing here first of all, that to say should not concern herself with the Jews because it’s a fixed time for God is that our major concern right now should be with regards to the Gentiles but he’s also saying I think that there’s no specific program that the Catholic Church has to convert the Jews, again that’s in God’s time, leaving open the freedom of the conscience that Jews can become Christians as Christians could become Jews.  So that would be my overall answer, now did you have – what was your second part of it again John?

John Allen:            Well the point was the theological significance of that and of course what I have in mind with that is you’re very familiar obviously with the debate over Covenant and Mission, the criticism that was raised by Cardinal Dulles, the debates around the so called dual-covenant theology and I’m just wondering if anything the Pope says here bears any of that.

Father Thomas Weinandy:      Well I don’t think the Pope would be here sanctioning a dual-covenant kind of theology, I think he would very much uphold the fact that the Lord Jesus came to save all peoples and nations, both Jews and Gentiles and that while the emphasis, the desire is that all be converted at this point in time we don’t know when the conversion of the Jews will take place and it one sense we shouldn’t be too anxious about that because that’s going to happen at the Lord’s time but I don’t think (inaudible) anything about the dual-covenant theory or that we should not at least have any care or whether or not Jews become Christian or not.

11 thoughts

  1. This is great.

    And yes, you’re right, in the first book he makes it clear that he’s writing as an individual, not as a voice of the magisterium, and that anyone is “free to contradict” him.

  2. This is an extremely well-written exploration of exactly the thing that bothered me about Benedict’s interpretation, and I really appreciated it. The historical context was something I hadn’t thought about, but it’s very relevant.

    (I realized as I read this entry that I tend to write incredibly long comments when I disagree with y’all at WIT, and stay silent when I’m nodding along, so just take this as the latter!)

  3. Interesting post!

    It is interesting the evolution Nostra Aetate went through. According to John O’Malley’s book, What Happened at Vatican II, it would have been a document just about the Jews, denouncing deicide in strong terms, but for the opposition of certain bishops … you can read what Maximos IV Sayegh had to say about it at the council here – – and I posted about it myself a while ago – The Mid-East Synod, Maximos IV, and Nostra Aetate

    1. Yes–the opposition that led the Decretum to become Nostra Aetate is truly horrifying, actually: the perspectives of some bishops, the antisemitic pamphlets that were circulated… it’s a truly revelatory look into great good coming out of absolutely inexcusable evil.

  4. Oh wow. I just read your update with the Allen-Weinandy exchange. That is surprising, viz.: “the desire is that all be converted at this point in time we don’t know when the conversion of the Jews will take place and it one sense we shouldn’t be too anxious about that because that’s going to happen at the Lord’s time.”

    Well, maybe not surprising, since I always expect Weinandy to give the more “conservative” interpretation. But…worth noting indeed. Weinandy is no stranger to thinking about Jewish-Christian relations and soteriology, either. See the preface to his book on God’s suffering. (I can’t remember if it’s in his more popular _Does God Suffer_ or in his dissertation on divine immutability.)

  5. Splendid reflections. Thanks, B — even for someone who hasn’t read the book, you made the issues very accessible.

    Although after March concludes I might suggest you consider a temporary fast from brackets and parentheses😉

  6. Whew! I wish I understood this. Judaism is taking over Christianity in my area of the Bible Belt, and I’m trying to wade my way through the muck & mire of Torah-observant teachings. I’m going to re-read this s-l-o-w-l-y, and hope I can figure out what you’re saying!

    1. Hello, the mrs. —

      I’m not sure what you mean by “Judaism is taking over Christianity” — on the basic literal level, that’s pretty impossible, given the relative numbers of Christians and Jews in the US, and the reality that Judaism has not been a missionizing religion for at least 1800 or so years (and I think the question of whether Judaism was ever a missionary religion is debated), so I’m assuming that I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

      If you’re interested in a more accessible introduction to some of these issues, I’d recommend Mary Boys’ book Has God Only One Blessing? — or the video lecture of Amy-Jill Levine linked to on this blog.

      1. Yes, a bit of an exaggeration, to be sure. Torah-observant Christians are the ones evangelizing from the basis that Paul was Torah-observant (and Jesus, too, for that matter). All of the verses in all of the books regarding “law,” “circumcision,” etc, are being explained through videos and the Jewish midrash, and the conclusion is: this was how it was always meant to be, Christians taking on the law. Not for salvation, of course, but for edification.

        Thank you for the links. Can’t wait to spend some time tomorrow with the resources.

      2. You’re quite welcome!

        And Amy-Jill Levine’s lecture is definitely relevant to this topic: she would be quite critical of Christians taking up Torah observance. She wants to see better relations between Christians and Jews, but relations which respect the differences between the traditions and the historical development each has taken.

        I hope some of them are helpful!

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