Israel & Christian Theology

In some of his recent works, N. T. Wright has noted that the historic creeds of the church leave Israel out entirely.  Thinking theologically apart from Israel results in a hollowed-out vision of the church’s identity and mission and tends toward a gnosticized conception of history, salvation, and Christian existence.

Wright’s point is largely that neglecting Israel keeps us from recognizing that the Scriptures tell the story of God establishing his reign of blessing over all the earth in Israel’s Messiah Jesus.

I’m currently enjoying Kendall Soulen’s masterful The God of Israel and Christian Theology.  He argues that the distinction between Israel and the nations is fundamental to Scripture and to God’s eternal purposes.

“ . . . the distinction between Israel and the nations is an inescapable fact of the biblical narrative.  Indeed, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt has suggested that the distinction between Israel and the nations constitutes the basic structure of an ontology in Israelite idiom.  In this he is undoubtedly correct.  Marquardt’s appeal to the term ontology is appropriate because the Scriptures view the distinction between Israel and the nations as a part of the abiding constitution of reality in God, anticipated from the beginning and present at the end of all things.  At the same time, his observation can be made more precise.  Viewed in light of the distinction between Israel and the nations, biblical ontology takes the concrete form of economy, that is, of God’s providential care and management of the households of creation.  More particularly still, biblical ontology takes the form of an economy of mutual blessing, in which God summons the households of creation to receive God’s blessing in the company of an other.  Because it belongs to the glory of the biblical God to love the human family in a human way, in the fullness of its corporeality and concreteness, God’s economy of mutual blessing exhibits a certain order or taxis, a taxis summarized by a first-century Jew in the phrase, “to the Jew first and also to the Gree” (Rom. 1:16) (p. 121, emphasis added).

Soulen’s work is programmatic and far-reaching, and it has implications for all aspects of Christian theology and practice, from the identity of God to the character of mundane relationships.

Reckoning with the relationship between Israel’s Scriptures and the Christian canon is an abiding challenge for biblical scholars and theologians.  Much of my work is driven by a desire to overcome a reading of Paul that marginalizes Israel, either as being subsumed within the church or left behind as merely preparatory for God’s work in Jesus.  Soulen provides a profound, hopeful, and compelling theological vision for rightly reckoning with Israel’s Scriptures, the God of Israel, and the Israel of God.

4 thoughts on “Israel & Christian Theology

  1. Sean LeRoy (@seantleroy)

    Great post…I’ll have to check out Soulen’s work; seen it referenced countless times, but never read it.
    I’m always reminded of what Paul said (in summation) – “You, Gentiles, strangers and aliens to the covenant of promise, have been grafted in, brought near and have become partakers, not over-takers.”

  2. Patrick

    Well, I agree with Wright’s view.

    Where I think problems come up is it seems there is a great debate about what is an authentic Jew or what is Israel and who were the covenants with?

    I find we’ve got tons of various views on this issue. So, while I share Wright’s views, I also fear until the church finds some unity and accuracy here, we’ll struggle with this idea.

    1. timgombis

      The point that the historic creeds leave out Israel doesn’t have reference to modern Israel or contemporary Jews, necessarily. It’s more a point about the lack of mention of most of the OT. Does God’s call of Abraham and Israel and his relation to Israel and the nations in the OT mean anything for how we think about Christian existence? If you read the creeds, you’d get the impression that the OT narratives are fairly irrelevant.

  3. joey

    I believe that the covenant whereby the Church is established IS a JEWISH covenant, that is, a covenant that God made with Jews. The Hebrews writer speaks of the “second” covenant. Gentiles did not have a “first” covenant that could then lead to a “second.” Only Jews had a “first.” Gentiles are subsequently invited into the second, Jewish covenant.
    What so many today mistakenly do is equate the modern, political state of Israel with the Israel of the Mosaic covenant. They are not. First of all, the Mosaic covenant is annulled (Jer 31, and Hebrews). Secondly, the only true Jew is a one who believes in Jesus (Romans 9) which is why Paul can say, “All Israel will be saved” in Romans 11.

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