New Vatican Document on Jews, Salvation, and Evangelization

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Other Religions, Theology

vatican-document-jewish-religionThe Holy See has released a new document dealing with the Jewish people, salvation, and evangelization.

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .

 

1) What is the new document?

It’s titled The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable (GCGI), and it was released by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

The title is a quotation from St. Paul, who refers to how the Jewish people “are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29).

The document itself commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II’s decree Nostra Aetate, which dealt with the Church’s relations with other religions and, in particular, with Judaism.

 

2) What authority does the new document have?

The preface to the document states:

The text is not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, but is a reflection prepared by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews on current theological questions that have developed since the Second Vatican Council.

It therefore does not carry magisterial authority. Of course, when it repeats existing magisterial teaching, that is authoritative.

When it doesn’t, it offers insights into the Holy See’s current thinking. That includes the thinking of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was involved in the drafting of the document and approved it before publication (as made clear at he press conference where the document was released).

 

3) What does the document contain?

It contains seven sections. The first surveys the history of Jewish-Catholic relations in the last fifty years, and the last deals with goals for the dialogue between the two communities (e.g., deeper understanding of each other, practical cooperation on social problems).

The middle sections deal with various theological questions.

Section 2 deals with the unique status of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. It makes the point that Christianity is rooted in Judaism, that Jesus and the first Christians were Jews, and that this means that the Church relates differently to Judaism than to any other world religion.

Section 3 deals with God’s revelation in the course of history and how it is viewed by the two communities. It notes, in particular, that for Jews the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is fundamental, while for Christians Jesus Christ is fundamental.

Section 4 deals with the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

Section 5 deals with the universality of salvation in Christ and God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel.

Finally, section 6 deals with the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.

In each of these sections there are a number of positive and encouraging points.

 

4) What are some of the positive and encouraging points?

There is too much material to unpack in detail, but some particular points of note deal with:

  • Supersessionism
  • The Old Covenant
  • Salvation
  • Evangelization

 

5) What is supersessionism, and what does the document say about it?

Supersessionism is the view that the Church has completely taken over the promises of God regarding Israel, so that today the Jewish people have no special status whatsoever.

The document notes that, although this view has been common in some periods of Church history, it is not the teaching of the Church.

In fact, the title of the document itself indicates a rejection of supersessionism: St. Paul’s point is that God still loves the Jewish people and they still have a special status before him, for he gave them gifts and a calling which are irrevocable.

Thus the document states:

The Church is called the new people of God (cf. “Nostra aetate”, No.4) but not in the sense that the people of God of Israel has ceased to exist (GCGI 23).

 

6) What does the document say about the Old Covenant?

It repeats established Church teaching that the covenant God made with Israel remains valid and has not been revoked.

Interestingly, it points out that this teaching was not articulated by Nostra Aetate but was first taught explicitly by St. John Paul II in 1980 (GCGI 39).

The document thus quotes the Catechism when it says:

The Old Covenant has never been revoked (CCC 121).

What, precisely, this means is something that the document does not explore fully. However, here is a helpful discussion by Cardinal Avery Dulles.

 

7) What does the document say about salvation?

In the last few years a view has been proposed that there are two paths to salvation, one for Jews and one for Christians. We each have a covenant with God, the reasoning goes, so these are means of saving grace for both of us. There is no need for Jews to become Christians or for Christians to proclaim Jesus to Jews. They have their own arrangements with God, which are quite sufficient for them.

As attractive as this view might be for letting one off the hook with respect to evangelization, particularly in light of the historical persecution of Jews by Christians in many places, it is utterly inconsistent with the biblical data.

Jesus wasn’t a gentile, and he did not die just for the sins of gentiles. He was a Jew, he died to redeem the Jewish people as well, and he made sure that the gospel was proclaimed first and foremost to the Jewish people in his own day. His first followers were Jews, and he told them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Correspondingly, his Jewish followers understood that “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).

The “two paths” view proceeds from a fundamentally mistaken understanding of the Christian message, made possible in part by severing Christianity from its Jewish roots and treating it in an ahistorical manner, as if it were purely a gentile phenomenon.

The good news is that the new document rejects the two paths view, both forcefully and repeatedly:

Therefore there are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ.” Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind. God’s word is one single and undivided reality which takes concrete form in each respective historical context. . . .

Since God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation. The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith. Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith. . . . [T]he Church and Judaism cannot be represented as “two parallel ways to salvation” . . .

[T]he Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation . . .

There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles (GCGI 25, 35, 36, 37).

One gets the sense that the authors of the document really wanted to nail the coffin shut on the two paths view, and this is heartening, for they are correct: The unique role of Jesus as the Savior of all mankind—Jews included—is fundamental to the Christian faith.

 

8) Does the document imply that non-Christian Jews cannot be saved?

No, and one would not expect it to. The Church acknowledges that salvation is possible for people who, through no fault of their own, do not embrace the Christian faith in this life. Thus Vatican II stated:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (Lumen Gentium 16).

In such cases, because Christ is the Savior of all men, it is still through Jesus that these people are saved. They simply do not realize that in this life.

Consequently, it is not a surprise when the new document states:

From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God (GCGI 36).

What is a bit surprising is that, instead of pointing to the Church’s established teaching that people who do not embrace the Christian faith through no fault of their own can be saved, the document points to elements in St. Paul’s thought in an attempt to show that he would have recognized the possibility of salvation for non-Christian Jews.

This part of the document is not repeating existing Church teaching, and so it is open to question. Personally, I need to think through the argument they make to see how well it works.

It also says:

That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.

The first part of that is true, but I am not sure what they mean by reference to it being an unfathomable mystery, unless they have in mind the mysterious way in which God applies his grace extra-sacramentally to all non-Christians who are saved.

 

9) What does the document say about evangelization?

It acknowledges that Christians have a duty to evangelize and that this includes Jewish people.

Many in the media and the blogosphere got this wrong (big surprise) and reported that the Holy See was saying that Christians should not evangelize Jews, but the document says otherwise.

The document did say that evangelizing Jewish people is a sensitive matter for multiple reasons, including the fact that for many Jews it seems to call into question their continued existence as a people and the fact that the history of Christian persecution of Jews, including the 20th century German Holocaust, hangs over the discussion.

It then draws a distinction between the Church supporting particular efforts directed to Jewish evangelization and the ordinary, organic efforts of individual Christians in sharing their faith with Jews.

Regarding the former, the document says:

In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews (GCGI 40).

The key word here is “institutional.” It’s saying that the Church doesn’t have a Pontifical Commission for the Conversion of Jews and that it does not provide support for independent institutions devoted to Jewish mission work (e.g., Catholic equivalents of Jews for Jesus).

The document goes on to say that “there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission.”

What principle they have in mind, I am not sure. One might understand why—for practical reasons—the Church does not have a dicastery of the Roman curia devoted to Jewish evangelization and not lend support to independent organizations doing this work.

For the Church to conduct or officially support institutional efforts at Jewish evangelization, in light of the history, could inflame Jewish sensibilities and serve as an impediment to the effective sharing of the gospel with Jewish individuals.

However, if they have something in mind beyond that, I am not sure what it is.

Despite the fact that the Church does not conduct institutional efforts directed to Jewish evangelization, the document acknowledges that Christians can and must share their faith with Jews, stating:

Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [i.e., the Holocaust] (GCGI 40).

And thus membership in the Church is for Jewish as well as gentile believers in Christ:

Jesus . . . calls his Church from both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-22) on the basis of faith in Christ and by means of baptism, through which there is incorporation into his Body which is the Church (GCGI 41).

It is and remains a qualitative definition of the Church of the New Covenant that it consists of Jews and Gentiles, even if the quantitative proportions of Jewish and Gentile Christians may initially give a different impression [GCGI 43]

Far from rejecting the idea that the gospel should be shared with Jesus’ own people, the new document calls for individuals Christians—Jewish and gentile—to share it with them, and in a loving and sensitive way.

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{ 4 comments }

John Rayner December 14, 2015 at 5:52 am

I have long puzzled over the matter of the old covenant being still a valid covenant. Jesus himself said “Unless a man be born again with water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” Now I also know that the Church has long taught that there are two other forms of Baptism as well as baptism by water and those two other ways are 1) Baptism by desire & 2) Baptism by blood. However I cannot see any kind of baptism by race (or circumcision)!

ADAM December 20, 2015 at 10:44 am

Isn’t the novel document on Jews a dubious attempt to revalidate the Old Covenant, as if nothing has changed since the Incarnation (“You have heard…but I say to you…” Mt 5), like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube?

Kenneth Heck December 14, 2015 at 6:34 am

“They that are whole have no need of a physician; but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke v.31, 32). This is one verse that justifies evangelization of Jews and others to Christianity.

Those of any religion that are not receiving the promised benefits of that religion would be much better off with Christianity. Today we see the sad spectacle of millions of Muslims turning into refugees in foreign countries. They really need the material and spiritual help that conversion to Christianity can provide. Those who are righteous and prospering according to their own religion should not be objects of evangelization according to Christ’s words above.These tend to be primarily the hierarchy and representatives of that religion.

ADAM December 17, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Isn’t to deny Jews the Gospel ANTISEMITIC? i.e.,”Israel failed to find what it was seeking; only those who were chosen found it, and THE REST WERE HARDENED, as it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of deep sleep, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.’ ” (Rom. 11:7,8).

The new document twice replays the refrain “The Old Covenant has never been revoked”. Sure. No more than the Psalms or the Prophets have ever been revoked. Else, why include the OT in our Bibles?

However, the LORD OF THE SABBATH has TRANSFIGURED or TRANSFORMED the Old Covenant, much as bread and wine are TRANSUBSTANTIATED in the Eucharist into what they were not before.

“How slow of heart to believe ALL that the prophets spoke!… Then beginning with Moses and ALL the prophets, JESUS INTERPRETED to them whatever REFERRED TO HIMSELF in ALL THE SCRIPTURES.” (Luke 24:25,27).

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