Sunday, October 3, 2004

Abraham and The "Old" & "New" Covenants - Response to Jeff Culbreath (continued)

A response to Jeff Culbreath's comments, on the topic of the Jewish covenant:

[Fr. Echert] "Thereafter, Judaism cannot fulfill its obligations of worship ..."

Jeff Culbreath: Is this not true? Or do you hold that Judaism has its own separate, Christ-less covenant with God?

Cardinal Ratzinger has written on the topic in Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, The Church and The World (Ignatius, 1999), in which he discusses how to approach the antithesis between the Old and the New Covenants. It's a good book on the subject, small but substantial; I'm going to present, with reliance and heavy quotation of, the middle chapter, 'On the Theology of Covenant in the New Testament.'

Introductory note: Christians typically divide the scriptures into the "Old" and "New Testaments", the two stages of God's revelation of Himself to the world. "Testament" is derived from the Latin testamentum, a translation of the Greek diatheke. Says Ratzinger:

The old Latin version says testamentum, but Jerome opted for foedus or pactum. The term "testament" won out as a title for the book, but when considering what it contains, we follow Jerome and speak of the Old and New "Covenants," both in theology and in the liturgy." [p. 48].

Ratzinger on the antithesis of "Old" and "New" covenant

To understand the difference between the "Old" and "New" Covenants, Ratzinger turns to the apostle Paul -- specifically 2 Corinthians 3: 4-18 and Galations 4: 21-31. Paul makes a distinction between the Mosaic ("Old") Covenant and the covenant in Christ ("New Covenant"), speaking of its essential limitations:

. . . the former is transitory; the latter abides perpetually. Transcience is characteristic of the Mosaic covenant; Paul sees this symbolized by the stone Tables of the Law. Stone signifies what is dead; anyone who remains exclusively in the realm of the Law written in stone remains in the realm of death.

Here Paul was no doubt thinking of Jeremiah's promise that, in the New Covenant, the Law would be engraved on people's hearts; also, he may have been thinking of Ezekiel, who had said that the heart of stone would be replaced by a heart of flesh.

However, Ratzinger sees something more contained within Paul's meditation, a new perspective on the Law itself:

"Anyone who turns to the Lord will find that the veil is taken away from his heart, and he will see the Law's inner radiance, its pneumatic light, so he will be able to read it correctly. . . . [T]he image of the removal of the veil indicates a modification of the idea of the Law's transitory nature: when the veil is removed from the heart, what is substantial and ultimate about the Law comes into focus. Thus the Law becomes Spirit, identical with the new order of life in the Spirit."

According to Ratzinger, while Christian thought is marked (perhaps preoccupied) with the strict antithesis between the two Covenants, "the subtle interplay between 'the letter' and 'the spirit' -- expressed in the image of the 'veil' -- has been hardly noticed. Most importantly, it has been forgotten that other Pauline texts portray the drama of God's history in a much more nuanced way." (I think this is a very important observation on Ratzinger's part, and will assist in discovering the reasoning behind the Church's reappraisal of its relationship with Israel).

Moving beyond -- a look at the eternal covenant of Abraham

In Chapter 9 of Romans, Paul sings the praises of Israel; among God's gifts to his people are "the covenants", and according to the Wisdom tradition they are a plurality. Indeed, the Old Testament speaks of three signs of the covenant: the sabbath, the rainbow, and circumcision; these correspond to three stages of the covenant, or three covenants. The Old Testament relates the Covenant with Noah, with Abraham, and with Jacob-Israel, the Sinai Covenant and God's Covenant with David. [pp. 54-55]

This is important: in speaking of "the Old Covenant" there is often a great deal of confusion (especially in some of the exchanges that take place in Jewish-Christian dialogue). As Ratzinger says, the "Old Covenant" speaks of a plurality of covenants, and we cannot speak exclusively of the Sinai Covenant as "The Old Covenant"; we must place it, as Paul does, in context with the others. Ratzinger now clarifies St. Paul's perspective on the covenants in Romans: Each of the covenants has a specific nature. Of these plural covenants, Paul selects two particularly: the covenant with Abraham, and the covenant with Moses, and sets them in mutual opposition, referring both to to the covenant with Christ.

"[Paul] sees the covenant with Abraham as the real, fundamental, and abiding covenant; according to Paul, the covenant made with Moses . . . could not abrogate the covenant with Abraham, but constituted only an intermediary stage in God's providential plan. . . .

The covenant with Moses is incorporated into the covenant with Abraham, and the Law becomes a mediator of the promise. Thus Paul distinguishes very sharply between two kinds of covenant that consists of legal prescriptions [the Mosaic covenant] and the covenant [with Abraham] that is essentially a promise, the gift of friendship, bestowed without conditions." [pp. 55-56]

According to Ratzinger, Paul's distinction between the covenant with Moses (a covenant of legal prescriptions, which can be broken, as is evident in Israel's history) and the covenant with Abraham (unconditional, everlasting) supercedes the strict opposition between "Old" and "New" covenants: "the one Covenant is realized in the plurality of covenants:

. . . there can be no question of setting the Old and the New Testaments against each other as two different religions; there is only one will of God for men, only one historical activity of God with and for men, though this activity employs interventions that are diverse and even in part contradictory -- yet in truth they belong together."

Understanding the covenant in light of the Last Supper

If we want to understand how to think of the New Covenant, says Ratzinger, we have to examine the Last Supper. He notes several differences in the Markan-Matthean accounts (Mt. 26: 26-29; Mk. 14:22-25) and those found in Paul (1 Corinth. 11: 23-26) and Luke (22: 17-20):

Matthew and Mark refer to the cup as "the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for manny" (Matthew adds, "for the forgiveness of sins"); Paul and Luke refer to the cup as "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke adds, "which is shed for you"). In Matthew-Mark the gift of the cup is "the blood", further defined as "the blood of the covenant"; in Paul-Luke the cup is "the new covenant", described as ratified "in the blood." Only Luke & Paul speak of the new covenant, and only Matthew and Mark give us the words "for many." "Both strands of tradition are grounded in the Old Testament covenant traditions, howbeit by different reference points. [pp. 58-59]

In Exodus 24:8, Moses sprinkles the sacrificial blood on the alter (representing the hidden God) and the on the people, saying: "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." Just as God in that moment entered into a relationship with Israel, binding Himself to them and they to Him, so in Jesus' offering of the cup to his disciples are "the words of Sinai heightened to a staggering realism," instituting "a blood relationship with God" such that "those who accept it [are brought into] an utterly concrete -- and corporeal -- community with this incarnate human being, Jesus, and hence his divine mystery." [p. 60]

At this point we can present Ratzinger's observations regarding the relationship between the Covenant of Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, and the New Covenant with Christ:

  • "The Last Supper sees itself as a prolongation of the Sinai Covenant, which is not abrogated, but renewed" -- Renewal of the covenant was an essential element in Israel's history and liturgy. "We should see the Last Supper as one further renewal of the covenant," says Ratzinger, "but one in which what heretofore was performed ritually is now given depth and density -- by the sovereign power of Jesus -- which could not possibly have been envisaged." Furthermore, Ratzinger notes several scholars who see in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John (in Jesus high priestly prayer) a connection with the Day of Atonement and the liturgy of Yom Kippur.
  • "The New Covenant established by God is present in the faith of biblical Israel" -- Despite Israel's disobedience and breaking of the covenant, the broken tablets at Sinai, the suspension of the Temple cult during the exile and the loss of the restored tablets after the Exile, "Israel knew, however, that God had not withdrawn his love . . . that the promise of the covenant was not merely in the future; because of God's unfailing love, the covenant was present in the promise."
  • The covenant with Abraham unites in itself universality and free gift -- Ratzinger calls the covenant with Abraham the "fundamentally "new" covenant. "Right from the beginning," he says, "the promise to Abraham guarantees salvation history's inner continuity from the Patriarchs of Israel down to Christ and to the Church of Jews and Gentiles."

There is much more one could draw from Ratzinger's work, and I encourage you to read it if you haven't already. However, the above should be sufficient to clarify the issues being discussed. Two other figures, past and present, have reflected on the opposition between the Old and New Covenant and the eternal and irrevocable promises of Abraham. The first is Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher (1904-1993), one of the artichects of Nostra Aetate, who in The New Encounter Between Christians and Jews, says:

Holy Scripture tells again and again that the Lord concluded his covenant with Abraham and Abraham's descendents le 'olam, forever. Nowhere it is said that the Covenant is tied to a brief span, that it is given on credit. No doubt, the Chosen People must give account of its fidelity to the Covenant, but God's love in no way depends on Israel's righteousness; in no way is it determined by the people's conduct. . . .

In his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle makes clear that the Lord is not so fickle as to revoke what He gave out of the fullness and freedom of his heart. Since He drew Israel to Himself, not because of its virtue or might, but because of His love -- that love which has no other reason or explanation than itself -- Israel, once chosen, remains chosen for all time. Vatican II made St. Paul's vision its own, declaring: "Now as before, God holds them most dear, for the sake of the Patriarchs, He has not withdrawn His Gifts or calling. Such is the witness of the Apostle."

. . . I believe there is ultimately one, all-embracing Covenant, whose suns shines through the ages. There is One Universal Covenant since a divine-human covenant is but an articulation of God's majestic love affair with the whole of humanity. The special covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, the people at Sinai, or David, the various convenant renewals in the history of Israel, and of course the New Covenant with all mankind in and through Jesus, are manifestations of His lasting embrace of the whole earth and thus, interrelated."

Fr. Neuhaus comes to similar conclusions in his article "Salvation is from the Jews" (First Things 117 November 2001):

Our distinct traditions reflect differences within the one tradition of witness to the God of Israel and his one plan of salvation. It is misleading, I believe, to speak of two peoples of God, or of two covenants, never mind to speak of two religions. While it was not specifically addressed to Jewish-Christian relations, this was the truth underscored also by the statement in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus. It is not Christian imperialism but fidelity to revealed truth that requires Christians to say that Christ is Lord of all or he is not Lord at all. . . .

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace. The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politesse of mutual respect for positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend. It is the story that begins with Abraham who in the eucharistic canon we call "our father in faith."

There is no avoiding the much vexed question of whether this means that Jews should enter into the further fulfillment of the salvation story by becoming Christians. Christians cannot, out of a desire to be polite, answer that question in the negative. We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion; we can and must say that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing in a way that demeans the other; we can and must say that Jews and Christians need one another in many public tasks imposed upon us by a culture that is, in large part, in manifest rebellion against the God of Israel; we can and must say that there are theological, philosophical, and moral questions to be explored together, despite our differences regarding Messianic promise; we can and must say that friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in shared love for the God of Israel; we can and must say that the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which—for both Jew and Christian—conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship is deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God -- a people of God for which there is no plural.

Concluding thoughts

Responding to the criticisms of Jeff Culbreath, I would agree that it would be wrong to assert -- as Reflections on Covenant and Mission did -- that Jews enjoy their own separate covenant (that of Moses) that is sufficient unto itself, such that they have no need of Christ, or which would compel the Church to exempt the Jews from any attempt at evangelization.

No doubt people do refer to various statements made by the Holy Father as to the irrevocability of God's covenant with Israel -- I would say that these statements, ambiguous as they are, call for greater clarification of what is meant by the "Old Covenant", such as Ratzinger does in Many Religions, One Covenant. Cardinal Ratzinger's explication of St. Paul clarifies what is meant, with his appeal to the Covenant of Abraham as irrevocable, incorporating and fulfilling the Mosaic covenant in Christ; the 'New Covenant' is thus a continuation and realization of the Abrahamic Covenant, God's promise to the Jews: Christ is a light to the nations, incorporating the Gentiles and all nations into "the Children of Abraham."

While Fr. Echart is technically correct in his appraisal of the Sinai covenant, he neglects -- deliberately omits? -- to mention the positive reappraisal of the Christian-Jewish relationship in Vatican II, affirming God's promises to and eternal bond with them in light of the covenant with Abraham. This neglect, and his summary of the Jewish people as even to this day "misled by proud and wicked shepherds", a people who rejected Christ (and in turn are presumably rejected), is rightfully criticized by Bill Cork and those who responded directly on the EWTN Q&A board.

Thus I would see the criticism of the Pontifical Biblical Commission as applicable to Fr. Echert: "On the part of Christians, the main condition for progress along these lines lies in avoiding a one-sided reading of biblical texts, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and making instead a better effort to appreciate the whole dynamism that animates them, which is precisely a dynamism of love."

By studying Cardinal Ratzinger's explication of St. Paul and covenant theology in Many Religions, One Covenant, we see better the relationship between the covenant of Abraham, the covenant of Moses, and the New Covenant of Christ (which itself is a fulfillment of the Covenant of Sinai, and the realization of God's promise to Abraham). This is a vision more substantial and more profound, in my opinion, then the simple opposition of the 'Old' and 'New' Covenants; Jews and Christians in an inherently antagonistic relationship, which was characteristic of the "teaching of contempt."

In so doing, we can better understand the meaning of the positive appraisal of the Jewish people today -- in Nostra Aetate, as also in various remarks by the Holy Father and Cardinal Ratzinger -- "to whom belong "the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29)."

And it is by reading Fr. Flannery's Anguish of the Jews or a similar history of Christian-Jewish relations that one sees how essential it was to recover and reassert the positive evaluation of the Jews, in light of the covenant of Abraham, by Vatican II.

* * *

It is fitting, then, that I'll close by citing one of the participating fathers at Vatican II -- Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna (as quoted in Msgr. Oesterreicher's history of Nostra Aetate):

In the eyes of the Church, the Jewish people has a dignity that has supernatural roots and a corresponding value, not only in thepast, at the time of the Church's beginnings, but also in the present day. This is particularly true of the basic elements of her daily life. . . . Here is the culminating point of her action and the source of her strength. These are the gifts on which the Church is fed daily and lives, the Holy Scripture, as proclaimed in the Service of the Word, and the Lamb of God offered in sacrifice. But these two blessings, this precious inheritance of the Church, come from the heritage of Israel, not only scripture, as is obvious, but also the Eucharist. . . . In addition, the Word of God and the Eucharist effect even now a certain union between the liturgical assembly of the Church, at the moment of of her supreme action on earth, and the holy Kahal, the assembly of the children of Israel. Likewise, they keep alive, at the deepest level, the exchange of word and life, so that at the most exalted moment of the divine liturgy, we can righty call Abraham our Patriarch, that is, the Father of our people."

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