God Is Faithful to God's People: The New Theology of Israel in Contemporary German Protestantism

By Rosenhagen, Ulrich | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

God Is Faithful to God's People: The New Theology of Israel in Contemporary German Protestantism


Rosenhagen, Ulrich, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


In November, 1990, at a conference at the Protestant Academy of Bad Boll, Rolf Rendtorff, chairperson of the Study Commission "Church and Judaism" of the Evangelical Church in Germany, assessed the relations of Christians and Jews in Germany following the Shoah. (1) In his talk, Rendtorff, a Hebrew Scriptures scholar who was soon to retire from the University of Heidelberg, critically reviewed forty years of church statements regarding Christian-Jewish dialogue. Concerned with the Christian side, Rendtorff stated that Christians cannot have dialogue without fundamental transformations of their identity and theology. Before these changes could occur, Christians had to overcome the theology of supersessionism, or replacement, which maintains that Israel by rejecting Christ has revoked its own chosenness, and the church had become the legitimate heir of the Jewish people. Rendtorff explained that this theology of replacement must not only be refuted because it supplied antisemitic ideology, (2) but it must also be contested because it did not recognize Israel as a lived faith. (3) Moreover, it made the chosenness of the church dependent on a simultaneous rejection of Israel. As one theological Festschrifi for a Lutheran missionary society stated in 1971: "The fact that the Jews consider themselves the people of God questions the very existence of the Church as God's people." "Yet," the Festschrift added emphatically, "there cannot be two people of God." (4)

Rendtorff struggled with Christian replacement theology because it boldly rejected the Jewish claim to be "people of God" in order to affirm the Christian claim of being "God's people." The Christian church had always understood "people of God" as an exclusivist term, and therefore the Jewish claim to be that "people" threatened its whole fabric. Sincere dialogue at eye level, Rendtorff pointed out, was impossible under this threat. Dialogue, he continued, cannot take place if Christians recognize Judaism as mere prelude to Christianity. Thus, according to Rendtorff, the church "has to overcome [its] thinking in opposites" and has to give up its theology of "antithetical logic." As a presupposition for dialogue, the church must acknowledge that its origins are not against Judaism but, rather, lie within Judaism. (5) Christians need to go back to reaffirming their Jewish foundations.

But, at Bad Boll, despite the many efforts by himself and others, Rendtorff was disheartened by the state of dialogue in Germany. To the scholar, not enough church leaders had stepped up to reject the old replacement theology. Instead, in the field of Christian-Jewish relations, Rendtorff perceived only small groups of interested Christians and a diminishing group of Jews who were frightened by the past and deeply concerned about the future. Accordingly, Rendtorff did not mince words when it came to a verdict. "One has to state clearly," he asserted in 1990, that "a dialogue between the Church and the Jews ... in light of the Shoah does not take place in Germany." (6)

Rendtorff's conclusion came at an awkward historical moment. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and only one month before Rendtorff's talk, on October 3, 1990, East Germany formally joined West Germany. Rendtorff thus gave his talk against the backdrop of recent German reunification and a temporary wave of national emotions. (7) In that situation, he did not realize how far the dialogue had indeed progressed and how dramatic and unprecedented the shift toward accepting Jews and Judaism had come since the Declaration of the Rhineland Synod of 1980. For that matter, while for a short time national passions were dominating public discourse, Rendtorff failed to realize that the dialogue for which he called was already underway and that German Protestantism had begun to develop a new theology of Israel.

This essay will examine the Christian-Jewish dialogue in today's Germany from a Protestant perspective. …

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