A recent statement by the Catholic Commission on Relations with the Jews, entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” has stirred up some healthy controversy, as well as outright opposition from groups that support Jewish evangelism. David Brickner of Jews for Jesus calls the Catholic statement “egregious,” and asks whether its authors are “merely pandering to some leaders in the Jewish community who applaud being off the radar for evangelization by Catholics.” Jim Melnick of Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, says the statement “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. 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 (Jesus).”
After reading the Catholic statement, I find myself taking a calmer approach. The statement doesn’t exactly say, as one blog headline put it, “Jews are saved even without believing in Jesus Christ,” which sounds like Jews get saved just for being Jews. Rather, it seems to leave the question of individual salvation in God’s hands to a degree that might well make Evangelical Christians (or Evangelical Messianic Jews) nervous, because they strongly link salvation to “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
The statement is definitely not so black-and-white, but walks the fine line of affirming Jewish chosenness and legitimacy on the one hand, and presenting a christocentric view of salvation on the other. It says “God revealed himself in his Word,” and Jews can learn this Word “through the Torah and the traditions based on it.”
A response to God’s word of salvation that accords with one or the other tradition can thus open up access to God, even if it is left up to his counsel of salvation to determine in what way he may intend to save mankind in each instance. That his will for salvation is universally directed is testified by the Scriptures (cf. eg. Gen 12:1-3; Is 2:2-5; 1 Tim 2:4). Therefore there are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ”. Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind.
By speaking of “universal” salvation, the Vatican Commission is saying that the work of Christ provides the one way of salvation for all humankind, not that all humankind will necessarily be saved in the end. At the same time there is access to God through his Word, which Jews encounter as the Torah, and the Commission seems content to let God determine how that works out in the details. I can understand that many Christians feel like God has already said how it’ll work out—confess faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah or else—but the statement does reflect some of the mystery that remains in the Bible on these issues. Its title, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” is Romans 11:29. The preceding verse captures the dilemma, and the mystery, that the statement addresses: “As regards the gospel they [the Jews] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” Somehow we’re simultaneously enemies and elect, and the statement rightly argues that Jewish alienation from the gospel doesn’t diminish God’s ongoing election of the Jewish people.
Critics of the statement fault it for denying the need for Jewish evangelism. David Brickner asks, “How can the Vatican ignore the fact that the Great Commission of Jesus Christ mandates that his followers are to bring the gospel to all people?” But again, “the Vatican” isn’t ignoring that fact. Instead it notes that for Christians, “the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance.” But because the Jewish people are already in an elect relationship with God, and because they have suffered such a difficult relationship with the church in general, the statement says that the church has to view evangelization to Jews in a different way than general evangelization.
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.
Obviously, rejecting “any specific institutional mission work” among Jews is going to be controversial. The statement also seems to me to be overly optimistic about “implicit faith” in Yeshua among our people. It’s worth exploring the idea that a pious, Torah-honoring, God-fearing Jew might benefit from the sacrificial priesthood of Messiah Yeshua without ever professing faith in him. A dogmatic stand that all Jews are lost unless they somehow get visibly “saved” seems to dissolve when faced with specific examples of the godly grandmother or visionary rabbi who could never accept Yeshua because they thought that would mean denying their Jewish calling and community. Very few of us would answer the question, “Is that person lost?” with an unqualified “Yes.” I commend the Vatican Commission statement for grappling with the theological complexities of answering that question at all. But it seems at times to over-simplify or idealize the state of the Jewish people as a whole.
Perhaps a better resolution to the Romans 11:28-29 dilemma, even better than articulating the theology of the Jewish people as simultaneously chosen and estranged from the gospel—is to live out the resolution. That’s the vision that many of us have for Messianic Judaism. We remain fully, authentically Jewish, in line with historic Jewish self-understanding, as far as possible, even as we unambiguously affirm Yeshua the Nazarene as our Messiah and the Messiah of all Israel. It’s a typical Jewish resolution to the dilemma—to start living it out before we work out all the details in theory.