The Realization of Ancient Promise
“The only second century Christian who understood Paul was Marcion, and he misunderstood him.” -Franz Overbeck
Over the summer, I met a man at a conference for homeschool families who had some books in Hebrew. I assumed he was a seminary student, so I engaged him in conversation, asking him what books he was carrying. His response startled me some: “My family and I have decided to keep Torah.” For whatever reason, this is an increasingly popular perspective among certain segments of Christians. This Hebrew Roots Movement is enamored with historic Judaism and recommends and/or insists that adherents keep the Jewish Law, recover the Jewish feasts, accept dual covenantalism, and consider modern Israel “God’s chosen people.”
While I admit I find this view incredibly problematic, I do so while acknowledging two important caveats. First, the study of Judaism and the Old Testament are good and necessary. There is much to be gained in those studies to help us better understand our Christian faith. “The new is in the old concealed;” Augustine remarked, “the old is in the new revealed.” But it must be remembered that classical Christianity is the culmination of the Old Testament.
Second, the term antisemitism is often deployed to critique theological arguments which downplay the ethnocentricity of Hebrew Roots thought. This is not an accurate usage of the term. Opposition to “Judaizing tendencies” is not an argument against Jewish people. The treatment of Jewish people over the course of history—particularly at the hands of Christians—should remind us that our rhetoric and argumentation should be inherently humanizing. That said, many critique the Church’s treatment of Jewish people by prooftexting the Church Fathers out of context, in both literary and historic senses. It must be remembered that the Church Fathers did not occupy the same world we do (for more on this, see Robert Wilkin’s John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4thCentury) so we have to avoid anachronism.
The pastoral concern against Hebrew Roots is not motivated by opposition to a specific people; rather, against unwarranted ethnocentrism that clings to “types and shadows” (Col 2:17) instead of their Realization in Christ and his Church. Further, Hebrew Roots seeks to “Judaize” its adherents by forcing a burden onto people who have been set free from the yoke of the law (Rom 7:1-6). A few discursive explorations will help us see the error of this mode of thinking.
Humans Are Not Able to Keep the Law
“For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” –Romans 3:22b-24
Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 profoundly clarifies his anthropology. In 1:18-32, Paul explains how the Gentiles have the testimony to God revealed in the natural world but suppress this witness in order to sin; there is no pleading ignorance. Yet at the start of chapter 2, Paul turns on Jewish people who may have been tempted to self-righteously turn their noses up at the pagan behavior listed in the previous section. He speaks of circumcision: it is only of value to the individual if they obey the law. Breaking the law means “your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Rom 2:26). Paul sets the threshold for holiness impossibly high, even for a member of the Jewish people. In 3:1-20, Paul summarizes the implication of his arguments by listing off a litany of Old Testament quotations disparaging humanity.
There are two important considerations here: equality and universality. Humans are equally condemned before God on account of sin; ethnicity is of no importance. “What then?” Paul asks in 3:9, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” Similarly, because depravity knows no ethnic bounds, Paul’s categorical statement in Romans 3:23 rings true, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Elsewhere, Paul makes similar arguments. For instance, Romans 8:7-8 indicates that the natural flesh is incapable at submitting to God’s law or pleasing him.
Of course, the beauty of Paul’s epistle (and the Gospel itself) is that just when things seem utterly hopeless, God provides hope. The same sinners who fall short of God’s glory “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24-25a). Paul shatters all of our abilities to trust in our own self-righteousness. he more pessimistic he is about our natural state, the more optimistic he is regarding the power of God.
Keeping the Law is Not Good Enough
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” –Romans 8:3-5
For the sake of argument, let us put aside the previous point that people do not possess the capacity to keep the law. Even if some form of Pelagianism were true and we found ourselves able to keep the law, we cannot assume that even that would constitute righteousness before God.
Now, of course, the Law does come from God; it reflects his nature. Yet the Law cannot produce righteousness in a person. The Law is impotent to effect ontological change and ameliorate original sin. Even if one can match the rigor of the Law’s demand in terms of external performativity, the Law has no regenerative capacity. This is not a deficiency; it does what it was designed to do. So even those who have the Law, Galatians 3:10 pessimistically says, “are under a curse.” This is obvious from the history of Israel. Besides a few “righteous people” who stand out, the Deuteronomistic history proves Paul to be correct. Turning to the Law, in light of the heights and depths of our depravity, is folly— putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Stephen Westerholm summarizes the Christian hope, “The righteousness of God revealed in Christ Jesus is operative apart from the law.” Subsequently, “Those who continue to pursue the righteousness of the law mistakenly attribute to the works of their unredeemed flesh a role in securing divine approval. A law that accentuates but cannot overcome human sinfulness can play no role in humanity’s redemption.”
Baptismal Identity and Membership in the Church
“But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” –Romans 6:8
Given that the work of Christ is the basis upon which justification and regeneration rest, Judaizing tendencies must be rejected. Salvation, as brought about by Christ, is an intensely corporate reality. The divinely appointed locus of salvation is not the law or modern-day Israel, but the Church. This is the reality proclaimed by Paul in Galatians 3:25-29:
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
In the Church, our tribal, national, and cultural particularities fall away in the washing of baptism. This is not to say those elements lack formative power or that they should be ignored entirely. They merely serve to remind Christians that their primary identity is in Christ, “the end [culmination] of the Law” (Rom 10:4). Further, by joining the community of faith that is the Church, one becomes a descendant of Abraham and thereby a recipient of covenantal blessing. This is true whether or not one is ethnically Jewish (Gal 3:29; Rom 9:8).
“the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.” –Galatians 3:24
Vernon Staley concisely summarizes the relationship between Israel and the Church:
The prophecies, types, and figures of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Christ himself, and the Christian church. The revelation of the Old Testament is completed in that of the New Testament. The old sacrifices are fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Calvary and its continual application in the Holy Eucharist. The moral law in the ten commandments is perfected and raised to a higher meaning by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, and made binding upon Christian people. The priesthood is summed up and perfected in Christ, the great high priest and continued in the Christian ministry; the hereditary descent of the sons of Aaron finding its counterpart in the spiritual descent of the apostolic succession. The royal priesthood of the Jewish nation finds it expression in the lay priesthood of the Christian Church. The sacrament of Holy Baptism takes the place of the rite of Circumcision, and the Holy Eucharist of the Jewish Passover. The fasts and festivals of the Jewish Church make way for those of the Christian Church, whilst the Jewish Sabbath passes into the Christian Sunday. In short, the old Church was absorbed in the new; and the Jewish religion, filled with new meaning and endowed with new powers through the coming of God in the flesh and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, passed into the Catholic Religion.
With such a reality in view, “Judaizing” tendencies—like those of the Hebrew Roots Movement—must be rejected. Everyone needs the Gospel, found through the kerygma and sacraments of the Church. In the Church, we find the Messiah, the “paschal lamb” sacrificed for us. The realization of God’s ancient promises is here.