Due to lack of space, the following article by our Australian field worker did not make it into the December Herald. He has been encouraged and frustrated by some recent books on theology and mission, and the way they deal with the Jewish people.
I am not writing this as a book review of volume one of his Selected Works, although I highly recommend it to those used to reading theology. The first 191 pages (out of 430) are on the theme of Jew and Gentile in the purposes of God, and even when he moves to the theme of the Church, the Jew/Gentile theme is rarely out of the picture. I should say that it is demanding reading and not a “popular” work. A section of it has been published separately as Faith’s Framework, and contains one chapter entitled “Jew and Gentile in the New Testament”; in this chapter you have all the elements of his thinking. I cannot agree with all he says, even though he is writing on issues close to my heart and from the same theological perspective, but he is always stimulating.
Three recent works
If this is not a book review, what is the point of this article? It is to ask the question: how many lecturers at theological colleges, when asked to give five lectures on “The Structure of New Testament Theology” will have one of them focusing on Jew and Gentile in the New Testament? As the quote at the start points out, most have little practical awareness of this theme. Those of us with a burden for the salvation of the Jews frequently sigh or even groan over the lack of sensitivity to what Scripture says of the Jewish people on the part of preachers, Christian authors and college lecturers.
Let me illustrate this by reference to three major works I have recently read. All of them are Christian writing of the highest quality and so I do not want my criticism to appear churlish. However, they all caused me to sigh. They do not merit the groan deserved by the insensitive statements of some Christian preachers, but I could not help sighing. David Hesselgrave’s Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally is a major work on mission, and a textbook in many colleges. It contains much to stimulate and has surely taught and helped many. However, it grieved me that when he examines different worldviews he fails to give the Jews a separate section but lumps them with Muslims as monotheists, and he directs most of his remarks to approaching the Muslims. I found that hard to swallow.
‘Far As The Curse Is Found’ by Michael D. Williams is a fine volume on the covenant story of redemption which I highly recommend. My “but” concerns the way Israel disappears rather too quickly from the story once the fulfilment in Jesus is reached and the church engages in the task of mission. I would have liked to see some discussion of the implications of Israel’s continuing covenant status and some acknowledgement that early days of mission was Israel fulfilling her missional role through the apostles and early believers. Michael D. Williams graciously responded to my letter on these points with, “There is some truly excellent work being done in biblical theology today, especially in relationship to the theme of mission and the enduring question of the relationship of Israel to the new covenant people of God. I am learning more about these issues all the time …..”
The third book is a magnum opus by Chris Wright entitled The Mission of God. Again, it was a book which greatly blessed and stimulated me and I strongly recommend it. Furthermore, I am very reluctant to criticise a book which presents mission as the key hermeneutical principle for understanding Scripture, and especially when the principle of “to the Jew first” is mentioned and it is emphatically stated that Israel is not rejected or replaced. However, it suffered from the same problem of the Jews disappearing rather too quickly out of the picture as the focus shifted to all the nations being blessed. When Israel’s priority was mentioned and Paul’s practice noted, it would have been good to have given some indication of what that means for the mission of the church today, but nothing is developed. Chris Wright makes it plain that the Jewish people are included in the mission of God today but examination of what that means in practice would not have been out of place in a book of such comprehensiveness, especially when it is borne in mind that it will be a textbook in many theological colleges.
Falling through the cracks
All of these works are what might be called “overviews”, a genre that has always been of value, and all the more so as Biblical illiteracy increases. They attempt to paint the whole picture of God’s work, and of course the danger is that something gets missed. When that is the place of the Jewish people in the early development of the New Testament church, and their ongoing place and role in the church’s mission, then something major has fallen through the cracks. Those who teach the Bible, at whatever level, need to work hard to avoid this. To do this teachers need to immerse themselves more in the setting of the gospels and early church, rather than just picking up on what seems of immediate relevance to their hearers today. It seems to me that Donald Robinson is an example of one who succeeded in this.
To be practical, why not take a trip to the land of Israel? Something that is a lot easier to do now than anytime in the last 2,000 years. You do not have to get involved in the politics, just live among the people of the promise (and others) in the land of the book. It will stimulate your thinking in a unique way. I knew a minister whose preaching was immensely helped by such a visit because it helped him to sit where the Jewish people sat in Bible days and subsequently. My testimony would be that that has been an immense help to me over the years, encouraging me to immerse myself in the historical context of the Biblical accounts. Christians and churches with such teachers will be much more effective in provoking Jews to jealousy, and seeing some of them come to faith.
CWI Australian Field Worker