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Robert Jenson’s “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel” gave me my first honest encounter with the problem of supersessionism and Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Jewishness. Reading him, I came to see that Christians are indeed bound by two seemingly opposed truths: the Lord, the God of Abraham is never false to his word, does not change and cannot be forced to change, and yet Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s boy and Pilate’s victim, is God-in-the-flesh “without qualification,” the revelation of Israel’s one Lord and the realization of his will for all things. 

Obviously, the attempt to hold those truths together meaningfully puts pressure on Christian speech, straining and peculiarizing it, rendering it strange. Christians cannot say either that “the salvific role of Israel as a separately identifiable people is simply over” or that “the continuing synagogue can only be an institutionalization of unfaithfulness.” But they also cannot not say that Jesus is Christ and Lord.1 How, then, can we say anything coherent and convincing at all? 

Jenson makes it clear that by “Israel” he means not the modern nation-state but both the Jewish people and their faith. And he sets himself the task of affirming traditional, even “classic” christological teachings in terms that defy conventional presuppositions about Jews and the teachings of their rabbis. Unsurprisingly for those who know his work, he does so by appeal to the fugue-like capaciousness of the church’s hope:

The time of the church is a time within the advent of the Christ to fulfill Israel’s history . . . Until the last judgment and our own resurrection, the Christ has not yet come in the way that consummates Israel’s mission . . . The church, which came when the kingdom should have come, and leads to the kingdom by way of the mission to the gentiles, is precisely a detour from what before the fact had to be seen as the straight line of God’s purpose . . . Christian theology should interpret continuing Judaism as another detour occupying the same time as the church.2

Christians and Jews, the church and the synagogue, are, he says, twinned realities and have been from the start. Rabbinic Judaism and apostolic Christianity emerged at the same moment from the same period of crisis, each identifying itself as the God-championed “continuation of canonical Israel.”3 For more than two millennia they have existed side-by-side—sometimes in peace, often in conflict (usually Christian-initiated). But in spite of what many in the two camps claimed to be the will of God, and in spite of what they seem to have wanted, both traditions remain alive and vibrant to the present day. So, Jenson asks us to consider the possibility that both are essentially right in their affirmations, even if they are wrong in their denunciations of the other, both equally and mutually sustained by God’s determination to fulfill his promise to his Abraham. He draws a bold conclusion: “If we believe God’s promises cannot fail, we have to think what in fact happened [in the rise of Judaism and the continuation of the Jewish people] is also somehow within the will of God.”4 That, he says, is a mystery, undoubtedly. But it need not be a scandal, a cause of offense or confusion. When all is said and done, when Christ’s coming “has been accomplished in such a fashion as to make further coming superfluous,” there will be no more need for Judaism and synagogues than there is for Christianity and our sanctuaries.5 Then, Christians must say, all will be one with Christ in God and God will be one with Christ in all.

Peter Ochs, in his account of the various Christian responses to Jewish suffering after the Holocaust, focuses on three movements: (a) liberal approaches, which suggest not only that Christians have lived unfaithfully but also that traditional Christian theology is deeply, perhaps irredeemably flawed; (b) postliberal approaches, which identify supersessionism as a dogmatic heresy, as well as an immoral practice; and (c) radical orthodoxy, which argues, against both liberal and postliberal approaches, that a traditional, non-relativist Christian theology is the world’s only hope for a future “beyond the law.”6 He sees the most crucial difference between these movements in their handling of the Scriptures. Liberal theologians “reinterpret their Scriptures in the interest of universal principles of human rights, justice, and peace,” while postliberals argue that that “the Gospel is authoritative both as a witness to the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection and to a particular practice of reading the narrative of Christ as a reading of the narrative of Israel.” Radical orthodox thinkers, for their part, do not regard the Old Testament as such as essential to the witness of the Gospel, arguing instead that “the narrative of Christ may be said to disclose a theological a truth (such as ‘Christ alone displays the free gift of God’s love’) rather than speaking God’s Word to His people or His Church in a given time and place.”7

Writing roughly two decades earlier, Eugene Borowitz, a self-identified “Reform Jew of religiously traditional bent,” disagrees with the radical liberal claim that anti-Semitism is “the left hand of Christology.” He does not dismiss the critique out of hand. Still, his reading of postliberal christologies leads him to conclude that in spite of the fact that “classic Christology was closely associated with anti-Semitism, and while some remnants of it are to be found among traditionalist theologians,” it clearly is possible for Christians to speak in orthodox terms about Christ without being anti-Semitic in theory or in practice.8 On that basis, he offers a personal reflection on his experience of studying Christian theology:

I remain very much moved by the spirit of the men and women I have been exposed to here. For all that I differ with them and have, at given points, been roused to indignation by their ideas, I know myself to have been in the presence of believers, some of the profundity of whose faith I could palpably feel and share. In their struggles to sense and articulate their Christian belief I have seen something of what I and others concerned with thinking rigorously about Judaism have been going through. In their effort to be realistic about personal and social existence while being true to what God wants and Christian belief demands of them today. I have been touched by their courage and wisdom. For me this has been a most uncommon intellectual experience because it has been so existentially moving. I deem it appropriate, therefore, to give thanks to God who has given me this privilege. . . . To be sure, I see a substantial distance between my faith and that of the theologians I have studied here, but I cannot say that their wisdom is only “human wisdom.” They know a good deal about the God of my people and their knowledge has consequences for their lives in ways which, though they are not the commanding-forgiving ones of Torah, are recognizably directed to God’s service. So having another understanding of the truth than that of some of my spiritual forebears of some centuries ago, I respectfully invoke my Reform Jewish right to let Jewish traditions make claims on me in ways different from those of another time and I say: “Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, ruler of the universe, who has given of Divine wisdom to flesh and blood.” I do not know what other Jews will feel about the propriety of my invoking this blessing in this situation, Jewish law of the seventeenth century having forbidden it. I venture to say that, in a development analogous to that which in recent centuries removed Christians from the legal category of idolaters, my act will find some measure of quiet understanding among those who uphold the law and its traditions.9

I find Borowitz’s reflections deeply moving. His honesty both presses and impresses me. It forces me to bear in mind that whatever I say of Christ, however true it seems to me, however beautiful, however good, it will be heard differently by those who do not share my faith. And it stirs up in me a desire to bear witness to the truth as I have been allowed to see it. Without downplaying any real differences, without forcing a false accord, I want my faith to be palpably felt—especially by those who literally cannot believe it. 

An insipidly pluralist Christology, one that is merely inoffensive to Jews or to those of other faiths, will not be of help to anyone. What is needed is not a theology drained of meaning into a lifeless neutrality, but a theology charged with awe, penitent humility, and joy. For the sake of our neighbors, believers and nonbelievers alike, Christians need to give voice to the wonder that claims us in the contemplation of Jesus. And we cannot speak rightly of that wonder if we fancy ourselves superior to the people God has called his own out of all the nations, the people from whom salvation comes. Precisely in order to be faithful to the gospel, we must feel the full weight of Israel’s counter-witness, which comes to us both in the sacred Scriptures and in the voice of the living Judaistic tradition. Then, and only then, can our speaking be trusted.

Yes, Christians read the Scriptures expecting them to speak of Jesus, the crucified and risen one, the one Mary raised in the fear of the Lord, the one that Pilate killed out of fear of Man. But we do not believe that the texts in and of themselves simply tell us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is God, our Savior. These texts speak to us Christians about Jesus as they do just because the Spirit of God has opened our hearts, awakening in us the capacity to hear the words of the prophets as gospel—the announcement of Jesus’ death as the victory of God. We, given our distinct, peculiar calling, read these Scriptures as a witness to Jesus because we have been taught by the Spirit to look to him as the truth of God—the truth that sets us free to live reliably human lives. 

That said, the words of the prophets can be—and in God’s wisdom are—sometimes heard otherwise by others. It is not that the hearts of Jews simply remain closed or hardened against the truth, only that their hearts have been attuned to hear these words as Torah. Only as we Christians allow the Old Testament to say what the Spirit wants it to say to us, as distinct from what the Spirit wants the Tanakh to say to Jews, can we see the way of life Jesus has opened for us in his crossing, the way we are to follow.10

Our hope is the same as Isaiah’s:

In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
    Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isa 2:2–3)11

Because I had been so deeply marked by Jenson’s notion of the providential detours, this promise of the return of all peoples to the home of Jacob’s God immediately struck me as the defining figure, an agenda-setting image. For now, obviously, Jews and Christians exist in separate communities, living and reliving in unique patterns the cycles of exile and homecoming, following the highways and byways that lead from and to Zion, passages God has cut in his own passing (Ps 84:1–7). But if Jenson is right, and I believe he is, we only appear to be moving along diverging paths, keeping our own company; in reality, we’re being led together toward a final, eucatastrophic convergence and the fulfilment of the prophet’s hope. 

Here, for me, is the bottom line: the church exists because of God’s faithfulness to Israel, not because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. And our own faith in Christ depends not only historically and theologically but also ontologically on Israel’s gifts and calling, which are “irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:2). “They are Israelites”—even now—“and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:4–5). As Soulen says, Paul’s words knock us off balance:

For Christians accustomed to thinking of themselves in terms of the church/world paradigm, Paul’s words are profoundly decentering. Gentile Christians are jolted awake with the discovery that they are—not just were—gentile Christians, with the discovery that they are—not just were—dependent on God’s fidelity to a people other than themselves.12

Knocked off balance, decentered, rerouted by the Spirit—that is how we find our way back to the ways of the covenant, learning again to live with thanksgiving and praise, remorse and contrition, covenant-kindness and care. And it’s only when we live in those ways that we fulfill our calling as priests of the Most-High God, blessing and receiving blessing. 

We should not say it too easily, and we should never forget the pain our failures have caused, but I believe that our differences, real though they are, are cause not for denunciation or rivalry, not even for grief, but for genuine respect, even amazement—at each other, and at God. The challenge we offer each other is, as Rowan Williams has said, “truly a matter of fraternal love, undertaken as a sort of mutual human covenant.”13 So, Jenson is right, I believe: 

Has Israel believed something like what we now know as Judaism would have been the matrix of the ecclesia’s life, the community into which baptism brought gentiles… Only that is not what happened, and if we believe God’s promises cannot fail, we have to think that what in fact has happened is also somehow within the will of God. And that, for the church, is the mystery.14 

Needless to say, this is no mystery to “solved.” It is a wonder to be adored, to be embraced by and enveloped in. 

According to Rosenzweig, “Christian consciousness, absorbed entirely in faith, pushes toward the beginning of the way, to the first Christian, to the Crucified One, as the Jewish consciousness, gathered entirely in hope, toward the man of the last days, to David’s royal shoot.”15 These different consciousnesses are symbolized for him in two images: the cross of Christ and the star of David. The arms of the cross “are extended ad infinitum,” reaching to the last extreme of every corner of creation. The points of the star, by contrast, are unbrokenly closed, enfolding “all the rays into the heart of the fire” that is Israel with her beloved Lord.16 For Christians, of course, faith and hope are one in love; so, Rosenzweig’s vision must strike us as prophetic. Whatever God is doing with the church and its faith, and however long it takes for that work to be accomplished, the hope is sure. The ever-unfolding cross fits within the ever-enfolding star as surely as the star is the heart of the cross, the point at which the arms meet and cross over into one another. And in the end, Christ must be “all in all” precisely because it is through him that humanity as a whole, Jew and gentile alike, has been renewed in the image of its creator (Col. 3:11)—the very one Israel introduced to the world as Abraham’s awe and Moses’ friend. 

Over time, Jenson’s theology came to be both bolder and more modest, as he found sharper and sharper formulations for his intuitions and impressions. And so, in an essay written after “A Christian Theology of Israel,” he draws what I have no doubt he recognized as the necessary conclusion to the question that had presented itself to him:

My final—and perhaps most radical—suggestion to Christian theology (not, let me say again, to Jewish self-understanding) is that, so long as the time of the detour lasts, the embodiment of the risen Christ is whole only in the form of the church and an identifiable community of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. The church and the synagogue are together and only together the present availability to the world of the risen Jesus Christ.17 


  1. Robert W. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel,” Pro Ecclesia 9.1 (2000): 43–56 (47).
  2. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel,” 48–49.
  3. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel,” 50.
  4. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel,” 51.
  5. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Israel,” 56.
  6. Peter Ochs, “Judaism and Christian Theology,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, ed. David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2005), 645–62 (660).
  7. Ochs, “Judaism and Christian Theology,” 661.
  8. Eugene Borowitz, Contemporary Christologies: A Jewish Response (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 176–86.
  9. Borowitz, Contemporary Christologies, 187–88, 190.
  10. See Chris E. W. Green, Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, Scripture, 2nd ed. (Cleveland, Tenn.: CPT Press, 2020).
  11. This grand poem, enshrined at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, “envisions what could be called the ultimate United Nations, where Judah’s capital will become the capital of the world and the torah of the Israelite nation will become the charter of all nations.” See Rickie D. Moore, “Isaiah,” in Wesley One Volume Commentary, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Robert Wall (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020), 385–425.
  12. Soulen, Irrevocable, 141–42.
  13. Rowan Williams, lecture given at the conference on “The Place of Covenant in Judaism, Christianity and Jewish-Christian Relations,” Jewish-Christian Relations Centre, Cambridge, UK, December 10, 2004, https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2004/12/lecture-at-jewish-christian-relations-centre.aspx.
  14. Jenson, “A Christian Theology of Israel,” 51.
  15. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 368.
  16. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 368.
  17. Robert W. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism,” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Jews and Christians: People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 1-13 (13). 

Chris Green is Professor of Theology at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL, and the author of Surprised by God and The End is Music. He lives in Lakeland with his wife, Julie, and their three children.