In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, Aslan the lion—who stands for Jesus—talks about “the deeper magic” behind his death and resurrection that powers his victory over witch-darkness and brings the final redemption of Narnia.
It could be said that the Christian church has sought from its beginning the “deeper magic” that connects creation and Israel to the messiah and his redemptive work. In other words, it has tried to figure out why 77% of the Protestant Bible is made up of the story of creation and Israel.
Perhaps we too have wondered. Why does God burden us with so much else before we get to Jesus in the New Testament? What is the connection—the deeper magic—between the two Testaments?
Or, to ask it another way, Is the DNA—the genetic structure—of each Testament fundamentally different?
Most Christians have assumed that Yes is the answer to this question. This has been the dominant assumption for most of the last sixteen hundred years. It is the presumption at the heart of what is called “replacement theology,” the conviction that the gentile church has replaced Jewish Israel in God’s affections. Theologians call it “supersessionism” because it believes that the Church has superseded Israel, and that God no longer has any concern for Israel except for those Jews who have recognized their messiah in Jesus.
Let’s ask another question to help understand this. Does Israel—together with its election and promises—leave God’s stage through a side door, when Jesus appears on stage? Does a changing of roles take place, within a different story? Does the Messiah function within it as a “black hole” in which the eternal election and calling of Israel disappear?
The Holocaust made many scholars and ordinary Christians realize that our de-Jew-ized reading and preaching of Scripture contributed to this catastrophe. So perhaps we need to ask a further question: How does the narrative of the Bible look when the whole of Scripture plays a decisive role, and the faithfulness of God toward Israel stays in the center?
Edjan Westerman’s Learning Messiah: Israel and the Nations: Learning to Read God’s Way Anew is a careful answer to these questions. Westerman, a Dutch Reformed pastor who has been wrestling with these questions since he was a teenager in Holland, calls us in this book to learn to read God’s way anew and then to walk in that way. It compares the “genetic structure” of the traditional canonical narrative to the “genetic structure” of the Scriptures as they were meant to be read.
Westerman writes in the preface that he is building on the foundation laid by R. Kendall Soulen in his 1996 monograph, The God of Israel and Christian Theology. In that volume Soulen narrates the story of Scripture in which the faithfulness of God is central. The story no longer traces the path of replacement theology, where the Jewish people no longer matter to God unless they accept Jesus.
Westerman’s own narration of the biblical story makes central the calling that Israel received at Sinai. as mentioned in Exodus 19:5-6:
“ ‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ ” (Exod. 19:5-6 NIV)
Westerman’s story is not one of dual covenants. The coming of the messiah in Yeshua (Jesus) is still God’s way to join Israel and the nations, and to call out a people within the nations. But the usual omission of Israel after 30 AD is replaced by a more biblical story in which God still reaches the world through Israel and her perfect Israelite. After all, Jesus said “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
Westerman raises systematic theological questions. He challenges the Christian community to learn to read in a new manner the ways of the God of Israel, and to reconsider our long-held beliefs about how God has walked and still walks. It suggests one continuing story in which God through Israel and her Messiah has always been reaching the nations.
The book is not just for scholars. Westerman works hard to make things accessible to non-theologically trained readers.
Learning Messiah was originally published in Dutch. Its English translation appeared in 2018.