REFLECTIONS ON COVENANT AND MISSION FORTY YEARS AFTER NOSTRA AETATE

by John T. Pawlikowski

The release of the study document Reflections on Covenant and Mission from an ongoing consultation between the National Council of Synagogues in the USA and the US Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs on 12 August 2002,1 caused a firestorm in sectors of the Catholic Church with Cardinal Avery Dulles taking a lead in attacking the document.2 While no single document within mainline Protestantism has elicited quite the same vigorous response, a number of European statements such as the declaration from the Rhineland Synod3 in Germany have elicited strong reactions. And some evangelical Protestant groups in the United States have severely critiqued several statements, including the recent Pontifical Biblical Commission document dealing with the Jews and their Scriptures in the New Testament and the statement A Sacred Obligation released in September 2002 by the ecumenical Christian Scholars Group on Christian–Jewish Relations. Clearly the discussion of the theology of the Jewish–Christian relationship and its implication for the churches’ understanding of mission relative to the Jews has moved centerstage in recent years. We shall return to the contemporary discussion later in this essay. But first a bit of recent history on the question is in order.

In an address to the Catholic Theological Society of America annual meeting in 1986 the Canadian theologian Gregory Baum, who served as an expert at the II Vatican Council and worked on Nostra Aetate, argued that ‘the Church's recognition of the spiritual status of the Jewish religion is the most dramatic example of doctrinal turn–about in the age–old magisterium ordinarium’ to occur at the Council.4 For centuries Christian theology, beginning with most of the major Church Fathers in the second century and thereafter, was infected with a viewpoint which saw the Church as replacing ‘old’ Israel in the covenantal relationship with God. This replacement theology relegated Jews to a miserable and marginal status which could only be overcome through conversion.5

Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, together with many parallel Protestant documents, fundamentally changed Christianity's theological posture relative to Jews and Judaism that had permeated its theology, art, and practice for nearly eighteen hundred years. Jews were now to be seen as integral to the ongoing divine covenant. Jesus and early Christianity were portrayed as deeply rooted in a constructive sense in the religiosity of Second Temple Judaism (particularly its Pharisaic branch). Jews were not to be held collectively accountable for the death of Jesus. Vatican II did not ’forgive’ Jews of the so–called crime of deicide as some newspaper headlines proclaimed. Rather it argued that there existed no basis for such a charge in the first place.

One indication of how thorough the change was on the Catholic side can be seen in the references the Bishops at Vatican II used to support their argument for a basic turn in the Church’s understanding of its relationship with the Jewish People. Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, who oversees Catholic–Jewish relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote some years ago that ‘Nostra Aetate, for all practical purposes, begins the Church’s teaching . . . concerning a theological or, more precisely, a doctrinal understanding of the relationship between the Church as “People of God” and “God's People” Israel.’6 Examining chapter four of Nostra Aetate we find scarcely any reference to the usual sources cited in conciliar documents: the Church Fathers, papal statements and previous conciliar documents. Rather, the Declaration returns to Romans 9–11, as if to say that the Church is now taking up where Paul left off in his insistence that Jews remain part of the covenant after the Resurrection despite the theological ambiguity involved in such a statement. Without saying it so explicitly, the 2,221 Council members who voted for Nostra Aetate were in fact stating that everything that had been said about the Christian–Jewish relationship since Paul moved in a direction they could no longer support. It is interesting to note that Nostra Aetate never makes reference to the several passages in the Letter to the Hebrews where the original covenant appears to be abrogated after Christ and the Jewish law overturned. (Heb. 7:12; 8:13 and 10:9) Given the interpretive role of a Church Council in the Catholic tradition this omission is theologically significant. It indicates that the Council Fathers judged these texts from Hebrews as a theologically inappropriate resource for thinking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism today. I will return to this point subsequently in discussing Cardinal Avery Dulles’ reaction to the study document Reflections On Covenant And Mission.

In reality the theological about–face on the Jews at Vatican II represents, along with such closely related statements as the affirmation of the democratic constitutional state in the Declaration on Religious Liberty and the depiction of the Catholic Church as ‘subsisting’ in the one true Church in which the other Christian churches are to be regarded as integral members in the document on ecumenism, one of the central theological developments at the Council. Unfortunately its full significance for all of Christianity has been insufficiently recognised up till now within Catholicism. This is also largely true within Protestantism where the several ground–breaking statements on continued Jewish covenantal inclusion have not significantly impacted the course of Christian theological reflection in the last forty years.

The German theologian Johannes–Baptist Metz is one Christian scholar who acknowledged the overall theological implications of the recent documents from the Christian churches on the understanding of the Christian–Jewish relationship. Metz has insisted that these implications go far beyond the parameters of the Christian–Jewish dialogue. Especially after the Holocaust, Metz insists, they involve a ‘revision of Christian theology itself’.7 Yet we have seen little impact from these documents thus far on theology as such. One looks in vain for citations to Nostra Aetate and subsequent papal/Vatican documents on Christian–Jewish relations or to the major parallel Protestant statements in books or documents reflecting on Christian theological identity outside the context of the dialogue with Jews. Yet, historically, Christian identity, including in particular Christological affirmation, has been rooted in the notion of the Church as the replacement for the Jewish People in the covenantal relationship with God.

Jewish participants in the dialogue with Christians have sometimes noted the above reality with dismay. They are right in expressing their concern. Do these declarations on the Church’s relationship with the Jewish People have relevance only when Christians are actually speaking with Jews? Or are they brought into the picture when Christians are conversing among themselves in terms of theological identity. Only if we begin to see a development of the latter can we say that there has been genuine reception of Nostra Aetate and the Protestant declarations within the Christian community.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2006-7, Vol. 56,  No 4.