Magazine article The Christian Century

Passion and Precision

Magazine article The Christian Century

Passion and Precision

Article excerpt

DEEP FAITH, my fundamentalist Christian friend with whom I have shared many train rides, once told me that mainline Christians would never be good public theologians until they learned to articulate theology with both passion and precision. We were arguing over one of our many differences when he hit me with this: "You mainliners are so eager to be accepted that you water down your faith, and you are so afraid of rejection that you hide your passion." When I reminded him that Protestant and Catholic groups frequently issue pronouncements on social issues, he was quick with a response. "I don't see enough theological precision in those pronouncements, and what passion is displayed is rooted more in logic than divine wisdom. Anyway, the sort of public theologians I am talking about are those who speak up as individuals, not just as members of organizations."

If such is the case, then a notable exception was evident recently when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered a speech on anti-Semitism at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Visiting Jerusalem with Catholic and Jewish leaders from Chicago, the cardinal reiterated the church's rejection of, and repentance for, anti-Semitism, and told a largely Jewish audience that several New' Testament references to "the Jews" should be understood not as permanent expressions of hostility to Judaism but as reflections of a first-century controversy.

The cardinal restated the church's rejection of "any idea that all Jews then or now can be charged with the responsibility for Jesus' death," quoting from the new catechism of the Catholic Church. He also reminded his listeners that the recent Vatican-Israeli accords include an "unequivocal condemnation" of "hatred, persecution, and all manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews."

Midway through his address, the cardinal changed gears. "Until now I have been speaking of developments that have already occurred. As we all know, much more needs to be done. In particular, there is need for continued scholarship and theological reflection, especially with regard to what many consider to be problematic New Testament texts." (One news report, unfortunately, understood "problematic" to mean that the cardinal had such a problem with the Gospel of John that he wanted Christians to reject it.) Bernardin called for a "pastoral approach" to passages that through the centuries have been used to justify anti-Semitic views.

Bernardin found a basis for this pastoral approach in the writings of Raymond Brown, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of, among other works, An Introduction to New Testament Christology and The Death of the Messiah. Said Bernardin: "In commenting on John's use of `the Jews,' Brown expresses his conviction that, by deliberately using this generic term (where other Gospel writers refer to the Jewish authorities or the various Second Temple Jewish parties), John meant to extend to the synagogue of his own day blame that an earlier tradition had attributed to Jewish authorities."

The Christians who had been converted from Judaism and who were living in the Johannine community that produced the Gospel of, John were in conflict with the synagogue authorities. The converts had been expelled from Judaism, Bernardin explained, "making them vulnerable to Roman investigation and punishment. …

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