Jews, Muslims, Christians

Jews, Muslims, Christians December 24, 2015

In his Washington Post piece about the Wheaton College controversy, Miroslav Volf equates Christian positions on Islam to Christian views of Judaism: “Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.” 

He asks, “Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial?” The only reason he can find to distinguish the two issues is, again, animus toward Muslims.

But the two questions must be distinguished. My arguments about incarnation and Trinity would seem to apply as much to Judaism as to Islam. But in the case of Judaism, there are countervailing factors. Christianity is not related to Judaism in the same way that it is to Islam. 

The God of Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David is without question the God of Jesus and Paul and Peter and John. Robert Jenson has made a career saying “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first brought Israel from Egypt.” 

To put a finer point on it: The God of the Pharisees and other Jewish opponents is the God of Jesus and Paul. Paul says this explicitly when he bears witness that his Jewish enemies “have a zeal for God but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Though some first-century Jews were “enemies” from the standpoint of the gospel, yet “from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28). The zeal of Paul’s contemporaries is zeal for God, and the choice that makes them beloved is God’s choice. Obviously, we have nothing similar about Islam in the Bible, and there is no biblical reason to extend this sort of claim to Muslims.

Of course, the New Testament says much more about non-Christian Jews, many of which are not reassuring. John records Jesus’ messages to churches in which He denies that those who calls themselves Jews are not Jews but constitute “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). The New Testament everywhere treats Jesus and His body as the fulfillment of Old Testament promise. The baptized are sons of Abraham, the Israel of God, a new royal priesthood. However we might work through those texts, we cannot wish them out of the canon. And they force us to ask questions like: If Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, are those who refuse to follow Jesus still in the Abrahamic family? 

These few notes have a simple aim, not to develop a biblical theology of Judaism but simply to indicate that the New Testament presents a complex picture of the early church’s evaluation of Judaism, its faith, and worship. Despite the popularity of the “three Abrahamic faiths” paradigm, it’s not as easy to slide from Christian-Jewish to Christian-Muslim relations as Volf suggests.

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between various forms of unbelief. Some unbelievers are strictly pagan, having never heard the gospel. Some are heretics, having embraced the truth but distorted it, or apostates who join themselves to Christ and then defect from Him. Jews receive the faith in figura, and resist the fulfillment of the figures in Christ and the new covenant. The unbelief of heretics is the worst because it “resist faith” rather than merely failing to hold the faith. Many medieval theologians viewed Islam as a heresy or as a schism (cf. Dante), and thus as a more serious form of unbelief than that of Jews. 

Thomas’s analysis doesn’t deal with the question of whether Christians and Jews worship the same God, but it does indicate that there are reasons to distinguish among forms of non-Christianity. Not all forms of unbelief are equivalent, even those that may seem as closely linked as Judaism and Islam.

As before, I don’t pretend to answer these complicated issues in a blog post; only to gesture toward some possible pathways to answers. My sole purpose is to divide the question that Volf wants to unite: We must consider Jewish-Christian relations separately from Islamic-Christian relations. 

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