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The Oneness of God and the Uniqueness of Christ: Christian Witness and the Jewish People

Statement of the Third International Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People held by the Lutheran World Federation in Oslo, Norway, August 1975

A. The oneness of God

When we as Christians speak about God we refer to the God to whom Holy Scripture bears witness. He revealed himself to his chosen people of himself, and we are indebted to them for this witness. The conviction that God is one, claiming exclusive allegiance, matured in them from the beginning and they held to it through many periods of danger and suffering. In this, Israel was always different from the other nations, who acknowledged and worshipped a number of gods.

Together with the Jews, we confess the one God. The fundamental Jewish confession of faith the Shema Yisrael ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord", Deut 6:4), is the obvious background of the Christian creed. We also share the Jews' faith in God's creative power over the whole world and in his will to save all mankind as attested in the Old Testament.

B. The uniqueness of Christ

Christians make these statements only in conjunction with the affirmation that for them faith in the one God is indissolubly linked with confessing the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Thus they witness to and call upon the one God as the Father of Jesus Christ.

The conviction of the first Christians that the final realization of the Kingdom of God had begun in Jesus Christ was grounded in and strengthened by encounter with the risen Christ. That the crucified one is the Messiah through whom came salvation and redemption has always remained basic to the Christian faith and was exuberantly expressed in the statement of the early church: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

In this conviction, Christians began to discover and read the Scriptures in a new way. A variety of Old Testament affirmations on the way of salvation were brought into focus and related directly to Jesus in the attempt to describe the experience of his uniqueness. They thereby confessed Jesus as the way to the Father for all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles.

C. Judaism and Christianity: a mutual challenge

This statement of faith marked the parting of the ways for Jews and Christians. However, a relationship between Judaism and the church still remains. The fact that both move forward from the same Old Testament starting-point is a constant reciprocal challenge for Christians and Jews.

Paul was concerned with the special relationship between Christians and Jews in his Letter to the Romans. Chapters 9-11 bear witness to his grappling with this question. He emphasizes that God has not disowned his people. He warns the Gentile Christians against arrogance vis-à-vis the Jews, and expects a final gathering of all those who belong to God.

In the post-biblical age the Christian doctrine of the true God and the true humanity and divinity of Christ was developed on the basis of the rich store of New Testament statements about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is meant to express and preserve faith in the one God in light of the overwhelming experience of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence the Nicene Creed opens with the words, "We believe in one God . . . .”

But this doctrine has not always protected us against misunderstandings. For example, the experience of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the concentration of all statements of faith on him have not infrequently resulted in giving all attention to Jesus, thus tending to eclipse God. His will to be the way to the Father is thereby obscured, as is also his will to return his kingdom to the Father at the end (1 Cor 15:24-28).

The existence of Judaism poses a continuing question as to whether we as Christians keep our faith in the one God. Christian-Jewish conversation can help to avoid imprecise speech about God. This is important for all Christian language about him.

When Jews concern themselves with Jesus, he is seen as a man. This can help us as Christians to take Jesus' humanity completely seriously. In Judaism particular importance is attached to the obedience which is realized in just actions. Judaism thus reminds Christianity that the one God wants our witness to him not only in word, but also in deed.

D. Christian witness

1. The nature of Christian witness

Christians need to remember that their witness to the Jewish people is but part and parcel of their witness to all people. There has sometimes been the misperception that Jews are to be isolated in a class by themselves, and then either singled out for exclusive missionary attention or excluded from Christian mission altogether. But this would assume that Jews are qualitatively different from ourselves, and furthermore that it is something about ourselves – perhaps that we are the have's and others are the have-not's – that generates Christian witness. That would be to forget that Christian witness, whether to Judaism or to anyone else, is God's mission and not our own. Christians, no less than others, are sinners and share in the common crisis of all mankind under divine judgement. "We are beggars," said Luther, and all we have is pure gift.

Christians have always been witnessing to their faith. "As the Father sent me, so I send you" (John 22:21). But that very sending reminds us that salvation in Christ is an action of God embracing all mankind. It is God who saves the world. The Christians through their witness only share the benefits of this salvation and the good news about it. They know that in Christ Jesus God has already deeded these gifts to all mankind, and not only to those who happen already to be enjoying them.

2. Christian witness and the Jewish people

The Christian witness is directed toward all our fellow men, including the Jewish people. In witnessing to Jews, however, we must be mindful of the unique historical and spiritual relationship we have with them, both in continuity and discontinuity.

Among Jewish people, no Christian witness would suffice which does not gratefully affirm and live out what they and we have in common. Yet it is that very continuity between us which intensifies the discontinuity. To minimize this unique discontinuity, therefore, would likewise be evasive and artificial. The coming of Christ and the challenge of his gospel place Judaism in a situation of crisis. No Christian witness can be unsympathetic with that, seeing how Christians themselves face a similar crisis before the same Christ. Having done so as Christians, however, they cannot abandon the New Testament proclamation even though they must recognize that that proclamation continues to put contemporary Judaism under the same original challenge. Yet there is only one way for Christian witness to share in that ordeal, namely, in the same compassion and solidarity with the hearers that Christ has displayed towards Christians themselves, and with the same concern he has for every aspect of the hearer's entire well-being.

E. Jewish-Christian relations: repentance and hope

This topic has been studied carefully in the past and has been described in several documents previously issued by the Lutheran World Federation, its member churches, and other Christian bodies. In what follows we intend to offer some suggestions which will serve as addenda to these statements.

When we speak of the guilt and responsibility of Lutherans and other Christians in having fostered and allowed antisemitism, we should not give the impression that Christianity is simply identified with the old "Western" (and "Eastern") churches. The arrogant habit of describing Western experience as if it were global must be discontinued. The churches of Asia and Africa have not had the same part in this sordid history. We urge them, however, to define and expose the potential or actual forms of antisemitism that may be theirs.

We Lutherans must be aware of our peculiar forms of potential and actual antisemitism. An undiscriminating disparagement of the Law in our theology, preaching, instruction, and piety frequently has as its tragic result a caricaturing of the Jew as the epitome of hypocrisy and self-righteousness to the point of putting the label of “Judaizing” upon the common human tendency towards legalism. This fact emphasizes the need to study this problem and to invite Jewish scholars to examine our materials for this kind of antisemitism.

Jesus said: "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you . . ." (Matt 5:23). Not least in Jewish-Christian relations is this word an important one. For here the question is not only about our feelings of love and our rights to witness, but also of whether others have something against us. That is why we must listen to the Jewish community. We must sense their pain and hear their voice on the question of the threat and reality of antisemitism and of how to improve Jewish-Christian relations. Christian documents are by now rich in admissions of guilt for past sins. Some of our Jewish friends will tell us that our guilt feelings do them little good. They may benefit us even less. Our repentance is worthy of the name only if it leads to change, to renewed hope, to prayer and work for a better future. An essential step is to ask our Jewish neighbours what hurts them. A rabbinic story tells of the excited student who said to his teacher, "Rabbi, I love you." The rabbi replied, "Do you know what hurts me?" The student answered, "No." The rabbi asked, "How then can you say that you love me?"

The conflict in the Middle East raises difficult questions about the future of the Jewish people, the rights of Palestinian Arabs and the problems of all refugees. Lutherans and other Christians are painfully aware of the fact that Christianity has for 19 centuries been a source of antisemitic thought and action. We cannot confess our guilty involvement in the Holocaust of the 1940s without committing ourselves to action that will prevent the repetition of such a tragedy. We must say, "Never Again! "We know that the right to live cannot be securely enjoyed unless peace is achieved. We therefore call upon Lutheran churches to make responsible contributions toward the achievement of peace and reconciliation, justice and dignity, among all the peoples of the Middle East.

F. Prospectus for the future

It has been the practice of Lutherans to approach their responsibilities by giving careful attention to the biblical and theological aspects of problems. The topic of Lutheran-Jewish relationships for example has been studied over a long period of time by individual scholars, and during the past decade several significant statements have been issued by Lutheran churches in various countries and by Lutheran World Federation conferences. These statements do not constitute a final or complete treatment of the topic, but they have spoken to the important questions and indicate a growing concern among Lutherans.

At this point, it is easy to see that further study should be given to many topics. Some of these topics need to be clarified among Lutherans and others should be discussed with representatives of the Jewish community. We have in mind such themes as election, covenant, and the people of God; Judaism as a living religion; the relation of the Old Testament and the New; the significance of the law; sin, guilt, and suffering; Jewish and Christian anthropology; the goals, aims, and procedures of mission and dialogue; the historical and present dimensions and remedies of antisemitism; the theological and moral implications of the Holocaust; the meaning of Judaism for Christian self-understanding; the significance of the State of Israel in its Middle Eastern context; and the search for peace, justice, and human rights throughout the human community.

Such topics will always need further study and will no doubt continue to be examined by individuals and groups. Emphasis should now be placed upon the dissemination and use of studies and declarations that are our common possession. In the pursuit of this objective, European and American committees are now able to give more effective leadership in the collection, interpretation, and distribution of useful study documents.

Unless Lutheran position papers have some practical consequence on regional and local levels, the studies will have been made in vain. We believe that the process of study, publication, and interaction with other Lutherans and Jews should continue regionally and locally. But we also believe that the Lutheran World Federation can perform essential services for its member churches as all Lutherans work together to deepen their sense of solidarity with the sufferings of the Jewish people. We therefore urge the Lutheran World Federation, through its appropriate offices, to:

  1. Maintain contact between groups in several continents which are conducting studies and formulating policies with respect to Lutheran-Jewish relations. Commissions have already been formed in Europe and America which have the function of furthering the exchange of studies and information, and promoting engagement in common projects. This work is being carried out in the form of working parties, study conferences, and publications. These commissions will coordinate these tasks within the churches so far as it is desirable and possible.

  2. Cooperate in all possible ways with the World Council of Churches’ Committee on the Church and the Jewish People and with other ecumenical agencies, such as the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in the pursuit of objectives mentioned above. Cooperation should also occur at the local level between congregations and between inter-church agencies.

  3. Collect materials that have to do with Lutheran-Jewish relations, and serve as a channel for their distribution. Work has already been done on the development of materials for ministers and congregations. Information has been prepared, for example, which will help pastors approach such texts as those which have been assigned for the 10th Sunday after Trinity (i.e., dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). Close cooperation in this activity with the Lutheran World Federation and through the Lutheran World Federation with other churches is of highest importance. The Lutheran World Federation can serve as a clearing house of information about activities in member churches, studies conducted by theological faculties, educational materials, etc. We urge that theological faculties be regularly informed about such studies. It is important that Lutherans share with each other what they know about developments in this field of interest.

  4. Encourage and facilitate the production of good educational materials for practical use on the regional and local levels. We urge the Lutheran World Federation staff to develop a strategy for making contact with educational commissions and publishing houses of the churches.

  5. Remind all Lutheran agencies of the importance of consulting with representatives of the Jewish community when statements about Lutheran-Jewish relations are being prepared. Some churches have made, and continue to make, analyses of their literature with reference to explicit or implicit antisemitism. We urge those of our member churches that have not done so to begin this task immediately and that, if at all possible, Jews be drawn in as consultants. We also recommend that when Jews are invited to attend conferences as consultants, they be included in the planning stage.

  6. Hold occasional conferences for the purpose of facilitating new initiatives in study and action, to give a more adequate expression of a common mind among Lutherans, and to induct new persons into the field of study and work.

  7. Take steps to prevent the isolation of Lutheran-Jewish relations from the area of mission in general. We propose that Lutheran-Jewish activities be pursued in concert with the Lutheran World Federation Department of Church Cooperation.

  8. Provide suitable staff support for the international coordination of Lutheran efforts to approach Jews in a responsible manner. We are aware of financial problems, but we give such high priority to this work that we urge the establishment of a separate desk or office in the Lutheran World Federation to deal with Lutheran-Jewish relations. We also recommend that a small advisory group be established to work with the Department of Studies staff both in following up the recommendations of this consultation and in planning for additional work in the area of Lutheran-Jewish concerns.

  9. Recommend to member churches that in each country or church, where feasible, a central office or desk be established for responsibilities for Lutheran-Jewish concerns similar to those carried by the Lutheran World Federation.

  10. Give place to Lutheran-Jewish concerns both in the planning and on the agenda of the 1977 Lutheran World Federation Assembly.