In recent conversations with a dear friend and pastor, we discussed how theology is a conversation. Now I’m not saying that doctrine is a conversation. Doctrine is clearly taught in the Scriptures - but that doctrine has to be understood by real people in real situations, and that causes certain truths of Scripture to be highlighted in certain ways at certain times by certain individuals. For example, very few of the reformers honestly studied the doctrine of Israel during the Reformation because their battle and main concern were with the Catholic Church over the doctrines of grace. That concern molded their theology, and different circumstances may have altered what the reformers decided to focus on and ultimately hand down to us. So we see that theology is a continuous conversation between God’s people and the challenges of the world.
Often rabbinical Judaism and Christian belief are both treated as if they are static as opposed to being formed by an elongated dialogue throughout history. Most Jews assume that the Judaism of the rabbis which exists today is the same Judaism that has existed since the Torah was given at Sinai. Nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to being molded by the rabbis in general, the Judaism of today was also deeply influenced by a Jewish thinker named Moses Maimonides. Several articles in his systematic statement of Orthodox Jewish belief are very contrary to the thinking of Christianity, yet they also do not even represent the consensus of Judaism in general, much less rabbinical Judaism throughout history.
In an excellent book by Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, he points out through a reappraisal of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith that there are distinct differences between the articles of Maimonides and historic Jewish thought. These same areas of differentiation also exist between Christianity and modern Judaism. In other words, the doctrines of Christian belief are far closer to some ways of Jewish thinking then are acknowledged today. In addressing the main disagreement, Shapiro says, “The third principle teaches God’s incorporeality — that God is without image or form (Shapiro, 45).” This would, of course, preclude the possibility of the incarnation of Messiah Jesus.
However, it has not always been a Jewish belief that God could not take on a form. As Shapiro notes, “Returning to the principal, it must be stressed that, contrary to popular belief, the notion that God is incorporeal was not always a unanimously accepted Jewish (or Christian or Muslim) view (Shapiro, 47).” He goes on further to point out, “Maimonides is correct in asserting that the targumim often shy away from anthropomorphism, but this is hardly the case with Talmud and Midrashic literature. In this literature, there are numerous descriptions of God as a corporeal being, one of the most famous being the Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 6A, which describes God is wearing a tefillin (Shapiro 49).” There is much in Jewish thought and Scripture which allows for the incarnation of Messiah, so modern Jewish objections to the incarnation of Messiah are based more on Maimonides’ understanding of Judaism than on Jewish thought throughout history.
The shoe also fits on the other foot. Christianity has had to define its doctrines through an understanding of biblical doctrine in real time and space as expounded by people. The Replacement Theology which widely exists in Christianity today is a historic result of the Anti-semitism held by many of the church fathers. To act as though replacement theology within the reformed camp is a result of biblical doctrine would be an utter farce. In Acts 1:6-7 the disciples asked when the Lord would return the kingdom to Israel. Jesus responded that it was not for them to know the times or seasons in which the Father would do so. This conversation between modern Christian belief and historic Antisemitism is certainly worth reexamining. While I don’t have time in this specific blog to trace replacement theology, I may take it up in another blog post. But for now, I feel a brief mention here fits in well with Hanukkah and Advent. And with this, I conclude that whether Jew or Christian, those who treat theology as if it were a static thing, unmolded by the times, neither truly understand history nor theology.
Until the next blog “Making Much of Messiah”,
Shapiro, Marc B, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), 47-49.