by Rt Rvd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Woolwich and Chair of Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ)
The recent Vatican document issued by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews – The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable – is highly significant both for Catholic-Jewish relations and more widely as a call to all Christians.
It asks the Christian community to look back on the past 50 years of improved relations with Jews with gratitude, and it also provides a new stimulus for the future. Although it is not a magisterial document or a doctrinal teaching of the Church, it reinforces the ground breaking call of Nostra Aetate for the Church to revisit her approach and attitude to Jews and Judaism on several key theological questions, and emphasises the duty of those in authority to ensure that the message is heard.
While dialogue with all faiths is important, and should follow the principles outlined for dialogue with Jews, nonetheless, this document emphasises that the dialogue with Jews is qualitatively different for Christians because of the history and the role Judaism has played in Christianity. Indeed, the document declares that Christian-Jewish dialogue is not a matter of choice but a duty.
While affirming Christian beliefs about the person and work of Christ, the new document points out that both Jesus and his disciples studied and taught within the context of Torah observant Judaism; “Fully and completely human, a Jew of his time, descendant of Abraham, son of David, shaped by the whole tradition of Israel, heir of the prophets, Jesus stands in continuity with his people and its history.” Jews are to be regarded as the “elder brothers” and “fathers” of the Christian faith.
Moreover, the document clearly states that one cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples apart from the horizon of the living tradition of Israel. More importantly, it warns that we would understand these teachings even less if they were seen in opposition to this tradition. While the Jewish origins of Jesus and his first followers is less controversial than it was when Nostra Aetate was first issued, there are still many parts of the Christian world where this has not truly been acknowledged.
The new statement also rejects supersessionism or ‘replacement theology’, the erroneous teaching which taught that Judaism had been made redundant and was now ‘replaced’ in the covenant relationship by Christianity. Instead, the statement explains that the New Covenant is not an annulment nor a replacement, but rather a fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant.
Another significant development in the statement concerns the question of mission. It aspires to articulate the logic for a very real tension between two seemingly incompatible claims: that there is only one path to salvation through Jesus Christ, but also that the Jews are not excluded from salvation because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. The document declares that it is unquestionable that the Jews are participants in God’s salvation (for the Scriptures affirm that salvation comes from the Jews), but how that is possible without confessing Christ is and remains a “divine mystery.”
The title of the document itself is carefully chosen, quoting the letter of St Paul to the Romans regarding the enduring relationship of God with the Jewish people. By quoting this text, it is clear that the statements made here are emphatically following the teaching of the Church from its first days, and are consistent with Christian scripture.
The Church clearly and unambiguously is recommitting herself to a right relationship with Jews and Judaism. Vestiges of old, harmful and erroneous teachings are to be cleared away. The document also recognises that although texts and documents are important, they cannot replace the ongoing commitment to personal encounters and face-to-face dialogue. For these reasons, this document provides a significant signpost and must be welcomed by all who value Christian-Jewish relationships.