Thursday, November 10, 2011
I recently read Susannah Heschel's The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. In fact when I finished reading the book I read it again in its entirety and have marked it up pretty well.
Susannah, the daughter of the late Jewish rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, has written a very important volume that American Christians need to read and wrestle with. As I was reading, over and over I found myself distressed by the familiarity of the rhetoric employed by Nazi Christians. The attitudes toward the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, Judaism as a whole and the merging of nationalism/patriotism with "Christianity" are disturbingly common themes in my experience. I plan on doing at least two posts in response to Heschel's Aryan Jesus: one on the OT/Judaism and the other on nationalism.
Early on in Heschel's study of the German Christian sponsored "Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life" she made this, to me, shocking statement. "In the writings of the Institute's theologians, Nazism became a symbol for Christianity, specifically for the pure and pristine original Christianity that they claimed they were recovering from the distortions of history" (p. 16). It was a "restoration" movement!! In order to restore pure Christianity as these theologians understood it, the eradication of the influence of the Old Testament with its Jewish worldview had to be curtailed. Indeed in order to separate Jesus from the Jewish people it was necessary to to separate him first from the Hebrew Bible. Nazism is, my friends, the end result of rejecting the Old Testament.
The last statement is true. When the church looses the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible it looses its most basic teaching concerning God's relationship to the world and opens the door to the naturalistic understanding of god in Nazi pantheism and much American piety. It is not unusual to hear of people, even conservative Christians, seeking God in the world of nature and supposedly finding him in the beauty of the trees and mountains and to "feel closer to God" in that rustic setting. But it follows, my friends, that if the American countryside "reveals" deity to us in a superior way then it follows that the same is true for the ancient Canaanites or the Nazi's.
If God is accessible through the depths of such experiences to all who have such experiences then there really is no need for the work of God in Jesus Christ. There is no gulf of sin, separating humans from deity that needs to be bridged by the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. The loss of the theological (i.e. doctrinal) content of the Hebrew Scriptures is deadly poison. The New Testament connects (as does the Hebrew Bible) the Redeeming God to the Creator God! Paganism and Gnosticism have gutted that truth upon which every other truth in the Bible is erected upon. The Old Testament is in fact our inoculation against paganism!
Corresponding to the Hebraic doctrine of God in the Old Testament is the doctrine of humanity ... which is essential to biblical faith. When human life is cut loose from its moorings in history and humanity is no longer understood to be a creature WHOLLY dependent on the Creator God then the inevitable temptation is to see ourselves almost as semi-divine. We have an "immortal soul" with a "divine spark" one who claims permanence and absolute rights. Practically speaking this leads to a loss of the New Testament faith itself. Many conservative Christians hold the belief that every person has an immortal soul and after death the soul lives on in communion with deity. Therefore the proclamation of the resurrection of the body is "spiritualized" (paganized) into an affirmation of the immortal nature of humanity. In short the very heart of the New Testament proclamation is simply ... unnecessary! The very nature of "salvation" is redefined.
I am convinced that we need the Hebrew Bible. It is not background to the Christian faith but the very marrow of the faith. I am not suggesting that we do more character studies on a few select people (Joseph and David the good guys and Ruth and Esther the good girls! None of these are presented in Scripture as "examples" btw!). What I mean is sustained engagement from the pulpit in Genesis, the Exodus, the Prophets. What does it mean to speak of "creation" ... and that is not simply a denial of Darwinism. How does Gen 12.1-3 function as a sort of thesis statement for the whole mission of Israel, Jesus and the church? What is the Exodus and how is it a paradigmatic moment of the Gospel of Grace? We need to see in the Story of Israel our own story with God. Thus when I say we need to embrace the OT I do not mean simply making a pious confession that it is inspired rather we need to embrace the OT to understand what it means to be the People of God!We need it to understand GOD
As I pointed out earlier the removal of the Hebrew Scriptures lead to the separating of Jesus from Judaism and seriously distorts what we mean by the word "Christianity." The Institute wanted to "dejudiaze" Christianity ... how do we unknowingly join such an unholy project? Here are some brief reasons that we can work on in our own lives and our congregations.
1) The old canard that the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath and the god of the New Testament is a god of love. It is not only incorrect but also heretical for Christians to distinguish between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus. There is no personality shift in deity from Malachi to Matthew. Such a belief betrays a serious lack of reading ... and understanding ... of both Testaments.
2) Closely related to the first heresy is the one that is frequently asserted that the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, was a covenant of LAW and the New Testament or New Covenant is of grace. In this scenario the word "law" is basically equivalent to the word "legalism." This one is nearly as hard to grasp as the first heresy. The old covenant contained law but it is not law. Here "law" means what it does in the Hebrew Scriptures: torah. Yet how anyone can read Genesis and think Abraham's relationship with Yahweh is a matter of "law" is difficult to see. Or how Israel's relationship with Yahweh is a matter of "law keeping." The Ten Words/Commandments are not soteric in nature. The Bible calls the Old Covenant a "Covenant of Love" (Deut 7.9, 12, NIV) not law or legalism. There are no legalists in the Hebrew Bible ...
3) Again closely related to the first two heresies is the caricature of the Old Testament as "fleshy" and the New Testament as "spiritual." Of the Old Testament as a matter of externals and the New Testament a matter of the heart. The word "heart" occurs in the "heart of the torah" ... the book of Deuteronomy at least 25x. "And now O Israel what does the LORD your God ask of you ..." the answer is "love him with all your heart." To "serve him with all your heart." In fact Moses calls upon the Israelites, in view of God's incredible grace, to "circumcise your hearts" (Deut 10.16, see 30.6). May these heresies DIE never to be resurrected again.
4) Let me offer a note of observation on the origin of the above three heresies. They arise in most of our churches from a faulty hermeneutical approach. Christians tend to the read the Hebrew Scriptures in the bad manner they read the New Testament Scriptures ... piecemeal!! Reading bits and pieces does an injustice to both. "The Torah" is a nothing less than the STORY of the Creator God becoming the Redeeming God ... of that God bringing his "Adams" back into fellowship with him. Yes, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy can be spliced apart to be individual books. But only in the same sense that the Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King are individual books. None are complete without the others because they are all part of the same story. The Torah tells a single unified STORY. A story of intimacy with God in his Temple Garden, to violation of the sanctity of that temple, to the deity in the Temple reaching out to live with his created "Adams" once again. This is the story of Genesis to Deuteronomy! Leviticus is not an end to itself. It functions in the context of the Story. Leviticus is given both chronologically and theologically AFTER the Creator God has become the Redeemer God in the Exodus event.
Jews around the world read the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy over and over ... I have never met a Jew that imagined Yahweh was a God of wrath and the covenant was anything but the love of God Exodus comes before Sinai ... just as Calvary comes before Pentecost.
5) My post has grown long so let me wrap this up. The loss of the Old Testament means a loss of what the New Testament actually teaches. The loss of the Old Testament results in gross anti-Semitic characterizations of Jesus own teaching, the Judaism of his day, and even of early Christian history. Elders need to demand, yes DEMAND, solid (and faithful) instruction from the pulpit and other means to protect the church from the kind of paganism, masked in the garb of Christian faith, that results, honestly, in Nazism. Susannah Heschel has published a great book. We in the church who claim to follow the Nazarene need to take the lesson of history to heart and ask just how it all happened. The answers may be a bit disturbing to those of us who were taught all our lives some of the grossest of errors in the name of restoring first century Christianity. But the Bible of the first century church was none other than what became called the Old Testament.
Jesus of Nazareth and his work have meaning, according to the New Testament documents, only in relation to Israel, and unless the modern teacher makes that relation clear, I suggest he cannot preach Jesus Christ as the New Testament writers knew him and understood him.