The Image of Covenant in Christian Understandings of Judaism

By Spillman, Joann | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Image of Covenant in Christian Understandings of Judaism


Spillman, Joann, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


"Theology of Recognition"

In recent decades, several Christian theologians have advocated a transformation of the Christian understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. They have sought to overturn the traditional Christian view of supersession/replacement. They recognize the continuing role of Judaism in God's plan of revelation and salvation and are committed to the position that Judaism is a valid and valuable path to God and a partner with Christianity in God's plan. Proponents of this new theology are growing in number and influence, as readers of this journal are well aware.(1) At the center of many of these theological discussions is the image of covenant(2) - the subject of this essay. Such theology maintains that Christianity does not abrogate, invalidate, replace, or completely fulfill(3) Judaism. It recognizes that Judaism and Christianity are distinct religious traditions, each of which must be appreciated on its own terms.

There is no generally accepted name for this type of Christian theology. Several theologians use the term "theology of continuity"(4) (that is, theology that stresses the continuity between Judaism and Christianity and thus recognizes the enduring role of Judaism in God's plan). In the titles of recent books, John Pawlikowski used "theology of Israel," and Paul van Buren used "theology of the Jewish-Christian reality," for this type of theology. None of these terms has enjoyed wide acceptance, and I doubt that any of them will gain it. None has a meaning obvious in itself; all require explanation. "Theology of Israel" and "theology of the Jewish-Christian reality" are easily misunderstood. The first phrase carries inappropriate connotations that might mislead and almost certainly would distract readers, because the word "Israel" is often used by Christian theologians who see Christianity as superseding Judaism and who write a theology of Israel in which the church is the "new Israel" replacing the "old Israel." The second phrase might easily be confused with the term "Jewish Christianity."

Here, I will use "theology of recognition," a designation that I would like to see gain wide acceptance. It is a variation on a term used by Harold Ditmanson, "theology of mutual recognition and coexistence," which appears in a rarely cited article.(5) In this essay, "theology of recognition" will refer to a particular kind of Christian theology that recognizes the enduring role of Judaism in God's plan for revelation and salvation and thus sees Judaism as genuinely revelatory and salvific.

Covenant: A Central Image

At the center of much of this theology of recognition is the model or image of covenant. This is not surprising because the traditional theology of replacement understood Christianity as the New Covenant that replaces the Old Covenant. Ditmanson offered a good description of the way in which replacement theology is commonly phrased:

The major obstacle to a Christian recognition of the reality of Judaism is the centuries-old theological attitude according to which the "old" Jewish order or covenant has given way to a "new" Christian one. Since God's covenant with Israel was displaced by the new covenant in Christ, it follows that Judaism, as a living community of faith, ceased to exist nearly twenty centuries ago. The synagogue has been expropriated by the church which is alone God's chosen means of revelation and redemption.(6)

In order to confront directly this traditional way of thinking, theology of recognition must offer an alternative view of the covenant(s). Moreover, even if traditional theology had not used the language of a replacement covenant, the model of covenant would still likely play a key role in this new theology for several reasons. Covenant is a biblical image; indeed, it is one of the more prominent images in the Bible. The image of covenant(s) has been employed by many theologians during the long history of Christianity.

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