Last week I was privileged to be able to attend this year’s installments of the ongoing Gershom Lecture Series at Hillsdale College. Made possible through a generous donation by Rabbi Bob Chenoweth, the lectures this year focused on the book Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church by Mark Kinzer, an eminent Messianic Jewish rabbi and scholar.
Alongside Dr. Kinzer stood Dr. Gary Anderson, Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues, a priest from Toulouse who collaborated with Cardinal Schönborn in authoring the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Fr. Garrigues’ influence on the Catechism may be felt at several points; where the Catechism discusses Israel, it often unashamedly reflects a post-supersessionist theology, as Dr. Kinzer pointed out in his lecture:
Israel is the priestly people of God. (CCC 63, emphasis his)
Note, as Dr. Kinzer did, the juxtaposition of verses from Romans 9 and 11 in the last part of this section, making the latter totally unambiguous as it relates to the role and calling of Israel:
When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, “the first to hear the Word of God.” The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,” “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (CCC 839)
Some of my Protestant-minded readers will nonetheless be surprised at Dr. Kinzer’s choice of dialogue partners. To be sure, not having much experience with Roman Catholicism, I didn’t know what to expect from the other two speakers. But I was more than pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to hear Fr. Garrigues, a Catholic priest, use the word “evil” to describe past and present evangelistic efforts toward Jewish people that suppress their Jewish identity and calling. It was riveting to hear someone so committed to the church and to Christianity teach that Jewish people entering the church should be presented with a wholly different conversion process reflecting their status as people of God and their eternal priestly vocation.
It is as rare as hens’ teeth to find a Protestant who would support these conclusions; they go farther even than many dispensationalists have gone. Yet this is the direction in which the Catholic Church has been moving since the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.
Dr. Kinzer’s introductory lecture helped explain just why Fr. Garrigues, Dr. Anderson, and many other Roman Catholics have emerged as seemingly unlikely friends to the Jewish people and to Messianic Judaism. In his lecture, Dr. Kinzer outlined three convictions that distinguish Messianic Judaism: (1) the universal redemptive work of Messiah for Jew and Gentile, (2) the identity of the Jewish people as the people of God, and (3) that Jewish identity encompasses a currently active priestly vocation. On these three convictions Dr. Kinzer and many Roman Catholics—in fact, the official teaching of the Catholic Church—have found consensus. In its dialogue with Protestantism, however, Messianic Judaism always seems to find itself on the defensive; liberal Protestants often have difficulty with the first conviction, while conservatives trip over the last.
As a result, while Protestant-Messianic dialogue always seems to find its way back to those foundational difficulties, Catholic-Messianic dialogue moved past them long ago and is now dealing with more subtle issues—those that need to be addressed in order to resolve the tension between the first conviction and the latter two.
Dr. Kinzer’s collaboration with Fr. Garrigues and their regular mutual participation in broader Catholic-Messianic dialogue is having an impact that will continue to be felt for decades, as future generations of Catholics reflect on the ramifications of their own Catechism. It even has the potential to inform Messianic Jewish theology, as both faith traditions now grapple with the significance of the eternal calling of the Jewish people on one hand and the universal redemptive work of Messiah, the King they have yet to corporately enthrone, on the other.
Dr. Anderson’s lecture was also meaningful. Echoing Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck, he argued that the church cannot be properly considered an antitype or “fulfillment” of the Jewish people. It would be better considered an ectype, from the Greek ek (out): that is, a body that extends out from the Jewish people. It gave me great joy to hear a highly esteemed Notre Dame professor describe an ecclesiology so similar to that espoused by Messianic Jewish rabbi and scholar Dr. David Rudolph, who has called the church a “multinational extension of Israel.”
Many Messianic Jews and Gentiles who grew up in Protestantism have inherited the belief that Roman Catholicism is the great enemy. The 2015 Gershom Lectures have demonstrated yet again that it is far past time to discard that caricature and take a more genuine approach to Catholics and to Catholicism. While the one-billion-strong movement still embraces some positions I can’t accept (what kind of Protestant would I be if I didn’t protest anything?), it has also become one of the strongest and most vocal proponents of post-supersessionist theology. I get the impression that some Messianics are waiting to see even more growth and change on the Catholic side before they will consent to enter into dialogue, but to think so is to fail to realize that the change we seek will come only through that very dialogue.
Besides, what does it say about us if we’re not even willing to sit at the table and talk?