United Church of Christ

Christian scholars say Jews can be saved without faith in Christ

An ecumenical group of Christian academicians announce radical departure from traditionally-held views of salvation.

Rejecting a centuries-old hall mark of Christian teaching on salvation, an ecumenical group of Christian scholars in September said Jews can be saved without coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

Claiming "Jews are in an eternal covenant with God," 21 members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations challenged the traditional Christian view of Jesus as savior for all humankind. Because faithful Jews are already in right relationship with God, they said, "We renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews."

"We know there has been a long tradition of anti-Judaism within that Christian tradition," says Joseph Tyson, chair of the scholars group and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University. "It's based on certain misperceptions of history, and it's theologically invalid ... We're convinced that a re-thinking of Christian attitudes toward Jews is central, indispensable and sacred."

The 10-point statement, "A Sacred Obligation," marks the latest in a series of attempts to bridge historic enmity and divisions between Christians and Jews. It comes in response to "Dabru Emet," a call from Jewish scholars in September 2000 for Jews to rethink their understanding of Christianity. It follows also on the heels of an Aug. 12, 2002, statement in which Jews and a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said attempts to convert Jews are "no longer theologically acceptable."

UCC reaction

In the United Church of Christ, despite general support for the sentiment expressed, UCC voices take issue with certain specifics.

Dale Bishop, Executive Minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, says that many in the church would not join the scholars in conferring special salvation status upon Jews in God's economy. Nor would many consent to tenet nine in the statement: "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people."

"We recognize it to be a part of their tradition," Bishop says, "but that doesn't mean we incorporate it into our theology or belief system."

The Rev. Martin Duffy, son of a Jewish mother and now a retired evangelical UCC pastor in Easton, Pa., agrees that Christians shouldn't target Jews for conversion, because such "pressure" has caused undue harm through history. But he refused to join scholars in asserting that "Jews are in a saving covenant with God."

"Everyone has to be spiritually reborn to enter the kingdom, and that's not something you get from your genes or your blood," Duffy said. "At some point, you have to make a personal decision for Christ ... That's what Jesus taught, and he was a good Jew. He's my rabbi."

Evangelicals bristle

September's statement advanced prior, more parochial efforts as this time thinkers from six denominations—Lutheran, Episcopal, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholic—joined the cause of questioning the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ alone.

Although Jews heralded the statement as a step forward for interfaith dialogue, evangelicals outside the UCC bristled at the apparent undercutting of a bedrock teaching.

"While that covenant [between God and Jews] is still in place, it in no way implies salvation," says James Sibley, Coordinator of Jewish Ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention. "If it did, why would God send his son to die this horrible death if it were not necessary?"

"Evangelical Christians cannot assent to a diminished universal significance of Jesus as both a Jewish and Gentile Messiah and Savior," says Gordon R. Lewis, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary. "The Jews were the ones who needed the atonement [because] there aren't any, Jew or Gentile, who live faithfully by the law. The law is fulfilled only in Christ, and only through the atonement can we who cannot keep the law be saved."

For centuries, Christians taught that God's covenant with the chosen, Jewish people had been replaced by a new covenant with the church, i.e., with all who believe Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior and Lord. Such an idea of one covenant "superceding" the other has faded from both Catholic and mainline Protestant teachings as Christians since the Holocaust have striven to argue that God has not abandoned the Jews. The recent statement unfolds that shift's potentially vast implications for Christian teachings on salvation.

Convert Jews?

In applauding the statement, two Jewish respondents focus on one of the 10 points: "Christians should not target Jews for conversion."

Renouncing conversion efforts "is absolutely critical to the Jewish stance" in interfaith dialogue with Christians, says Rabbi Ruth Langer of Boston College. "It is virtually impossible to dialogue with somebody who seeks to annihilate who you are."

"All areas of relations between Jews and Christians were in effect poisoned by that doctrine of supercessionism," says Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues. By contrast, this statement, "I think is very heartening to Jewish people and for relations between the two communities."

Other points in the statement further explored implications of affirming a valid covenant between God and Jews.

Scholars said, for instance, "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people," noting that land has never been key to a Christ-based covenant with God.

Signatories went on to say that "both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security in a homeland of their own."

Stimulate conversation

The purpose of the Aug. 12 statement is to stimulate conversation at local churches and seminaries, both nationwide and abroad. According to Mary Boys, Professor of Practical Theology at UCC-related Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the statement could spark long overdue conversations about what it means to be saved.

"The worst thing would be if this fell with a great thud and was never heard from again," says Boys. "I hope it doesn't go the way of one more boring religious thing."

"This is just the tip of a very huge iceberg," says Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "God chose the Jews to be God's people. We should respect God's choice and try to figure it out."

The 10 points of 'A Sacred Obligation'

1. God's covenant with the Jewish people endures forever.

2. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew.

3. Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.

4. Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development.

5. The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians.

6. Affirming God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understandings of salvation.

7. Christians should not target Jews for conversion.

8. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God.

9. We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people.

10. Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world.

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To read the statement in full, go to  www.bc.edu/cjlearning.

The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., just received the $3,500 first place Templeton Award for Religion Reporter of the Year

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