The Jewish Indictment
S. M. Hutchens on the Gospel of Christ & the Law of the Lord
For a long while I thought the many defects of Christianity were occasioned mostly by its reception of sinners. In reading the work of Jewish critics like Klausner and Rieff, however, I have come to admit it morally defective because one must labor harder than Christians have been willing to make St. Paul into something other than an antinomian, given the impression of the law he conveys against those who would make it equal to the gospel. The Psalms say, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving [or converting] the soul,” and “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord,” which Paul must be read very closely to exempt from denying.
The Most Difficult Paradox
The greatest weakness of Christianity as we know it is its ethical inferiority to orthodox Judaism. In general it treats the law as though Christ expunged it, when Christ himself denied he came to do any such thing. But here’s the rub—an absolute scandal to the Jew—Christ himself also seemed to set the law at naught.
It is a terrible leap of faith for the Jew (and for me) to see Christ as the Lord of the law in such a way that he could both annul and confirm it. This, for me, is Christianity’s most difficult paradox, and while I accept it for Christ’s sake through a kind of Kierkegaardian suspension, I have the greatest sympathy for those who cannot overfloat the Rock of Offense. The blindness of the ethically serious Jew often looks to me more like clear-sightedness, and I don’t blame him for keeping his children away from Christians.
So much of what typically seems to eventuate in Christianity follows the pattern of two very religious women who worked at a place I also was employed and had to listen to them talk—sort of the experiential equivalent of kibitzing liberal Jews. Both had spawned large families of bastards through numerous sexual liaisons, and their children were following suit as soon as they became fertile—but they were churchwomen, chock-full of very sincere talk about Jesus. Dieu pardonnera—c’est son metier.
Christianity, which looks to me awfully like those women, will not be healed until believing Jews bring the Torah back into it, and begin to make it clear to Christians how Christ is the telos of the law for all who believe, an end that wholly incorporates the law without destroying a jot or tittle. At present Christianity is a Gentile institution, strongly marked by Gentile uncleanness, where those who attempt to live in accordance with the Word of God in the law (which abides forever) have always been susceptible to the charge of sub-Christianity.
The Jew first. There are very good reasons for that. May the Lord haste the day when the superior branch is grafted back in, when the Jews accept the gospel of Christ which is theirs by prior right, and the Christians accept the law as the Word of God.
From the March/April issue of Touchstone.
My Answer to "Jewish Indictment" Mail
The View "The Jewish Indictment" in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone has generated far more comment than we are able to print. I hope to answer the better criticism here. For the rest I can only emphasize the necessity of not deciding what someone is saying by identifying it prematurely with ideas for which one has ready-made criticism.
The Church, that great mystical body which is the mother and teacher of us all, has always understood and never doubted the law of the Lord, for she has always believed what he said in John 5:46, "If you believed Moses you would believe me, for he wrote of me," and the Emmaus Discourse in Luke 24, where he interpreted to his disciples all that was written of him in what we call the Old Testament. What the Church has always believed on these matters is summarized in the maxim Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet, and what is meant by Vetus Testamentum is "Moses and all the prophets . . . all the Scriptures." (To one writer I add, this by no means excludes the Kethuvim.)
Given the Lord's teaching on these writings and his assurance that he did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, the early Christians, from the days before the New Testament came together, read the law, through the gospel, as the gospel. This tradition, strong in the ancient Church, continues in its best representatives to the present day. Even the complex law of sacrifice, perfected in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and the various codes for the conduct of life, as difficult as they may be to understand in a Christian sense, and however strange they may sound to the modern ear, are taken by the Church as pertaining to the gospel of Christ, even if their exact meaning and pertinence is difficult, or unsatisfactory speculation is all we can manage. By what rule, indeed, can we divide evangelical law from non-evangelical, even if the illuminations we seek are obscure to us?
One of the areas in which this happens is in the difference between law and gospel, which are both the Word of God, and as such abide forever, but are also distinct, one having superseded the other without destroying it. This is a very difficult idea to wrap the mind around, and with many Christians the wrapping has been done very ill. Some wish to revive elements of the law that, while still present and valid, are understood and expressed differently in the life of Christ's Church than they are among the Jews. At the other end of the spectrum are those, the children of the old heretic Marcion, who regard the law as destroyed, or at least radically diminished, in the gospel, and who imagine a solid black line instead of a sophisticated, permeable membrane between them.
The Church's living Truth, which controls that "membrane," would seem to be doing something quite different than either of these approaches entails. The study of the Church's doings in this regard is a good and useful occupation for Christians—one might consider the law of the Sabbath, for example—but doing it is not the work of a few magazine paragraphs.
That is my answer to those who wonder how the law should be embraced by the Church—that whatever the particulars involved may be, we must begin by understanding that it is and has been fully embraced, but in the Church's own way. I do not perceive, however, that this embrace is the same as that of "Christianity," where there is confusion, and in which the general approach has all too often, and I think characteristically, been to rid itself of the law in the name of a good news that has expunged the dreary and killing letter—the essential error of Eve, who met the arbitrary and oppressive legalism of "Thou shalt not" with a more open, humane, fulfilling, and altogether improved option.
This is what makes for the ethical superiority of orthodox Judaism over what I think of as common Christianity, for the orthodox Jew recognizes the Law as the Word of God and regards himself as obliged to follow it as best he can (even when he doesn't), whereas the Christian all too often has, and is perceived by perceptive Jews to have, abandoned the law that is properly a part of his gospel. The Jew who does not have the gospel has the law, whereas the Christian who for evangelical reasons has in effect placed the law to the side has neither.
Rieff describes the mechanism: "The sacred [Jewish] writings . . . were concluded under a condition that was itself unredeemed. . . . Sacred order was not only not enough but actually excluded the revelation of that faith which is the fusion of Christ's self into every believing human self." Can the Jew be blamed for seeing things this way? This also explains his proclivity for naming Christians (Christian Nazis, for example) as his persecutors when we might protest that those who persecute Jews aren't real Christians, or are not acting according to Christian precepts. A "Christian Nazi" is the homologue of the "Christian harlot." Both have managed to overcome the law in the name of the gospel, and thus effectively eradicated both.
Surely these things were not written by the Apostle against the Church, the edifice built by Christ against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. But they are written against Christians and their religion, a religion traced by an acute Jew to a presumption (whether sacramental or enthusiastic, I would add) of "the fusion of Christ's self into every believing human self" upon which the errorists in Corinth were depending for their rejection of Mosaic law and counting upon for their acceptance by God. God is not mocked, and that is not the way things work: while no one is justified by the works of the law, whoever rejects them in the name of the gospel rejects the Son of God in whom they are fulfilled and superseded without destruction.
Even an ethically failed Judaism still has and owns the law—if it did not, it could not fail ethically, nor, indeed, could it be Judaism. The history of Israel is a complex of aspiration and failure with regard to the law. A Christianity, however, that claims to be a religion of gospel but has in fact rejected the law, has also rejected the gospel of the Christ in whom it is carried to fulfillment.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Jewish Indictment” first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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