At a recent meeting of Knox Presbytery (CREC), we adopted two short statements on ethnic issues. These statements reflect the position of our presbytery, and were entered accordingly into our minutes. The first passed unanimously, and the second with one dissenting vote—and that was only because he believed the second one was redundant, having already been covered by the first statement.
The second thing our presbytery did with these statements is that we recommended them to the Council of the CREC for consideration as memorials for our entire denomination. But as we think through that process, it is to be hoped that we have a good bit of discussion beforehand, and hence this post.
Here are the two statements:
On Ethnic BalanceKnox Presbytery, December 1, 2022
We believe the human tendency to congregate around shared affections is natural and can be good—it creates the blessing of cultures and subcultures, for example. But as with all natural goods in a fallen world, there is a temptation to exalt it to a position of unbiblical importance, thus making it an idol. While an ethnic heritage is something to be grateful for, and which may be preserved in any way consistent with the law of God, it is important to reject every form of identity politics, including kinism—whether malicious, vainglorious, or ideologically separatist/segregationist.
The second one was on a particular form of ethnic sin.
On Anti-SemitismKnox Presbytery, December 1, 2022
We believe the conversion of the Jews is key to the success of Christ’s Great Commission, and it is incumbent upon us to pray and labor toward that end. While, apart from Christ, the Jews are as all others—alienated from God—they have remained an object of God’s care because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. God’s plan for converting them is for them to see Gentile nations under the blessings of Christ’s lordship, thus leading them to long for the same. Hence, the cancerous sin of anti-Semitism has no place in God’s plan.
Even though Dave Chappelle recently cautioned us to be very careful, saying that two words should never go together, those words being the and Jews, we are going to hazard it anyway for the sake of your blessing and edification. What are Christians to make of the Jews?
So Then, to the Glossary
This glossary is arranged in alphabetical order, so if you want to make any systematic sense of it, you may have to read through it twice. And some of the definitions and explanations will overlap. This is not meant to irritate you, but rather to enrich your experience, and you are most welcome.
Some of these definitions are not controversial, while others require more detailed argument than I can provide here. Hopefully, that argumentation will be forthcoming, but today is not the day, and you will have to be content with bare assertions.
This is a common way of referring to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as though the fact that we are all “people of the book” minimizes the differences between us. While it is true that there are numerous historical connections, and a shared history at many points, this could also be said of Israel, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. The fact that we all have a book doesn’t mean that the books say the same things.
Anti-Semitism is the idea that Jews are uniquely malevolent and destructive in their cultural, economic, and political influence in the world. As defined elsewhere, ethnic sin is either malicious, vainglorious, or separatist, but the anti-Semitic forms of it usually tend toward the malicious.
Jews worldwide can be divided into three major groupings. There are the Middle Eastern Jews, Sephardic Jews (Spain, Portugal), and Ashkenazi Jews (Central and Eastern Europe). A common assertion among anti-Semites is that the Ashkenazi Jews converted to Judaism a number of centuries after Christ, and thus there is not a drop of Abraham’s blood in their veins. This matters to them because over 90% of American Jews are Ashkenazi and around 50% of Israeli Jews are. A lot of what we identify as Jewish is actually Yiddish (Ashkenazi). There are two responses to this. One is that genetic research indicates that Jews worldwide all have a blood connection. The second reply is that it doesn’t really matter if the Ashkenazi are all descended from some Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism centuries ago. When Abraham was circumcised, his whole household (with hundreds of men in it, including his slaves) were also circumcised (Gen. 17:23). This means that a bunch of the first generation Jews—plank owners—did not have Abraham’s DNA in them either. It has always been a matter of covenant, not blood. So for Christians what this question should amount to is whether a tribe of people could bind themselves by covenant to the line of Hagar (Gal. 4:25). And the answer is yes.
The fact that Jews do not accept that Jesus was their Messiah has not robbed them of their ability to contribute significantly to biblical scholarship. From the time of the Reformation on, Christians have been noted for their willingness to learn particular things from the rabbis, including Hebrew. The fact that scholars (like Robert Alter) do not see their Christ in the text does not mean they see nothing in the text.
In these discussions, I use the word Christian in two senses. The first refers to someone who accepts the truth of the Apostles Creed, and who has been baptized in the triune name. This means that the individual concerned is not a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc. The second use of the word Christian refers to someone who has the root of the matter in him, and who has been born again to new life in Christ. This means that the individual concerned is not going to Hell when he dies.
Claims of the Messiah
Jesus is either the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, or He is not. There is no real way to split the difference on such a question. If the claim is false, then Christians are guilty of perpetuating the most preposterous fraud. If the claim is true, then pious Jews studying the Old Testament are like Shakespeare scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of Hamlet, but who have failed to recognize the prince of Denmark. As just mentioned, it is not possible to have Jesus be the Messiah “for the Christians” and not the Messiah “for the Jews.” That might seem a mild form of relativism, but relativism always metastasizes.
Conversion of the Jews
In classical Reformation theology, the conversion of the Jews was the long hoped for, long prayed for event that was to usher in the evangelization of the entire world. Andrew Marvell refers to it in his poem about his coy mistress, and the Westminster divines included it in their Larger Catechism. Question 191 asks what we pray for when we pray for the kingdom to come. Among other things, we pray for “the gospel [to be] propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fulness of the Gentiles brought in.” This was held because of their broadly shared interpretation of Romans 11, see below.
A covenant is a solemn bond, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses. This is the structure of all covenants, including the covenants that bind people in their unbelief. The apostle Paul teaches that unbelieving Jews are in covenant with Hagar, not Sarah (Gal. 4:25), and that whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart (2 Cor. 3:15).
When previously stable societies start to disintegrate, as ours is currently doing, it is easy for distressed individuals to start looking for easy answers, and readily identifiable scapegoats. When such a situation arises, hostility to the Jews frequently presents itself as a viable option. For Christians, it is not.
The apostle Paul taught that the blessings to an obedient Israel in Deuteronomy are promises that are available to Gentiles through Christ (Eph. 6:2). This reality is the hinge upon which his argument in Romans 11 turns.
The apostle Paul wants the Gentiles to live under the Deuteronomic blessing of God’s covenant kindness. This will result in high achievement by grace, as opposed to the high achievement by dint of raw human effort. The pattern for this is the great contrast set up in the magnificent movie Chariots of Fire. There the Jewish runner, Harold Abrams, is a wonderful runner, but he is under the law. He is driven, and eaten up with ambition. His counterpart, Eric Liddel, the Christian, is also fast, but not driven—rather carried. When he runs, he feels “His pleasure.” High achievement by grace is something that would provoke the Jews under the law to envy. Paul wants to provoke them to envy—Paul knows his people. He knows that this is a people upon whom this strategy will work. Living under Deuteronomic blessing is not a matter of merit, but rather is all of grace. Because it is gift, this makes it all look so easy. In contrast to this, the anti-Semite envies the Jew and resents his success. This is not anti-Semite so much as it is anti-Pauline—and at the end of the day, anti-gospel. So the Jews must envy us, not the other way around. And the only way this will happen is by grace, only by grace.
It is recognized that there are various strains of dispensationalism, and that what is said here does not apply to all of them. But a common form of dispensationalism holds that God has two peoples, Jews and Christians, and that when the Jews rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices will resume there, and God will receive those sacrifices, the book of Hebrews notwithstanding. The net result of this theology has been a form of Christian Zionism—and see Zionism below. Under the Z’s.
Egalitarianism is a leveling impulse, and resents anyone who through hard work, grit, perseverance, and talent, makes them feel small and insignificant. See the next entry on envy.
Because the Jews are a high-achieving people, they have a tendency to awaken envy among those who feel left behind or excluded. Tension between ethnic groups is frequently a competitive tension, and this should always be remembered.
The modern secular world has made racism the ultimate sin, but it is a sin against their catalog of sins. But the Scriptures do not teach us to group people by skin color—whether to praise or to blame. The Bible does teach us quite a bit about tribes, languages, empires, peoples, and more, and the theme of this teaching is that in Christ all such distinctions are back-grounded—but back-grounded does not mean annihilated or vaporized. As Christians interact with people from ethnic groupings distinct from theirs, they must not give way to animosity, or to patronizing vainglory, or to separatist avoidance.
The gospel is the message that through Christ—through His sinless life, His death, burial, and resurrection—Israel finally got it right. Because of Christ, and through faith in Him, the incident with the golden calf can be forgotten forever.
High Performance People
For many reasons, too variegated to go into here, the Jews are a high performance people. This means that when they are bad, they are high performance bad. And when they are productive contributing members of society, they are high performance fruitful and good. Anti-Semites frequently point to the high preponderance of Jews among the Bolsheviks, say, or pornographers, or the Frankfurt School. What they don’t do is point to the counterpart phenomenon when we are talking about violin masters, or patent holders, or Nobel Prize winners, or the Austrian School of economics.
In talking about the Holocaust, we need to be careful to define terms. Our language has been so corrupted that we now take any form of disagreement as a denial of “undisputed” facts. Thus, we now have climate denial, and election denial, and so forth. If a historian decided, after exhaustive research, that the number of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust was actually closer to 4.9 million than to 6 million, he would be risking his livelihood and career because of how easy it would be for him to be tagged as a Holocaust denier. But he is denying nothing, just disagreeing with others about the math. So I want to reserve the phrase Holocaust denier to someone who just flat claims that the entire thing was a Russian slander on the German people, that there was no “final solution,” and that the stories about the gas chambers were greatly exaggerated.
A Jew is someone who has a shared ethnic and cultural heritage with other Jews, going back to the time of Abraham. Proselytes have been grafted in during that time, but as mentioned above, this does not alter the covenantal connection. With this as their shared experience, Jews differ widely among themselves with regard to what they believe—there are secular Jews, Reformed Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews. Not to mention others.
One of the things that makes anti-Semitism such a difficult thing for me to understand is that I so appreciate the distinctive Jewish sense of humor. Okay, hands up, this is not my strongest argument, but I am still going to include it anyhow. One time, shortly before Hitler took power, one of his brown shirts was walking down the street and walked past a Jew going the other way. As they passed, the brown shirt sneered and said aloud, “Schwein.” The Jew just tipped his hat and said, “Cohen.”
Jews and Galileans
Within the pages of the New Testament, a clear distinction is made between two kinds of Jews—Galileans and Judeans. But the Greek word Ἰουδαῖος can be translated as either Jew or Judean. Given the way the New Testament highlights the differences between the two regions, I think it makes sense to render a number of the passages that are usually translated as “the Jews” differently. Thus: “And therefore did the Judeans persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (John 5:16).
I believe that this phrase is inaccurate at worst, and anachronistic at best. The Judeo part of the tradition comes from the fact that Christians never abandoned the Old Testament the way Marcion wanted them to. There is therefore commonality between the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition, but not a great deal of commonality. Not so much that we could call it one tradition. Again, the place of Jesus is not a detail.
Need for the Gospel
As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, the Jews, like all other human beings, are dead in their trespasses and sins. Apart from Christ, they are utterly lost, like all the rest of us, and need to be converted to God if they are going to live forever with Him.
In Paul’s illustration of the olive tree in Romans 11, he says that unbelieving Jews were cut out of the olive tree and that Gentile branches, wild olive branches, were grafted in (Rom. 11:17-29). This olive tree is the tree of the Abrahamic covenant. Paul’s argument is that if the excision of the unbelieving Jews was such a great blessing to the Gentile world, what will their reintroduction be for the Gentiles but “life from the dead”? Thus many Reformed and Puritan theologians have for centuries thought that the conversion of the Jews en masse was the linchpin for the future evangelization of the world.
Supercessionism is the belief that the Church is Israel now. All the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ, and only there (2 Cor. 1:20). This means that the promises given throughout the Old Testament are the present possession of Christians, not Jews. For the Jews to live under these blessings, it is necessary for them to grafted back into the olive tree. Having said this, there is a distinction to be made between hard supercessionism and soft supercessionism. Hard supercessionism believes that the prediction made by Paul here was fulfilled in the first or second centuries, and so there is no future “conversion of the Jews” to look forward to. Modern ethnic Jews have no unique standing with God at all, and must come to Christ the same way that Swedes, Tibetans, Japanese, and Argentinians must come. The soft supercessionists are the ones who believe that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, and that the natural olive branches, still detached from the tree two thousand years later, are yet to be grafted in again. Soft supercessionists believe that Jews are lost without Christ, but believe that as a people they still have a role to play in the history of redemption.
After the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., and the Christian faith was firmly established as a going concern by the second century A.D., the rabbis who had not turned to Jesus Christ had a problem. How were they to maintain their distinctiveness from the Christians when they no longer had a Temple, and hence could not practice the Judaism of the Old Testament? Their solution to the problem was the development of what we now describe as Talmudic Judaism. The thing to emphasize for Christians is that this is not the religion of the Old Testament. There are many connections to the Old Testament, but this was a faith that came into existence after the time of Christ.
Zionism is the belief that Jews have the right to live in their ancestral homeland, and that this homeland is roughly the territory of the modern state of Israel. Zionism as a movement began in the nineteenth century, when they had no territory, and their dream was realized in 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel. When Zionism was first establishing itself, the claim was a scriptural one. This was their ancestral land—and it was a de jure claim, with them saying they had a right to the land. Whatever you make of that claim, Zionism is now a de facto reality, with millions of people living there on the basis of the earlier Zionist movement. This means that someone might live in Tel Aviv and not be a Zionist, and someone could be a Zionist and live in Brooklyn. These things can be complicated. I don’t agree with Manifest Destiny, but I still live in Idaho. Suffice it to say that leftist anti-Semites are prepared to grant the claims to ancestral lands to pretty much anybody except the Jews.