Christian Conversion of Jews?

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"All Israel Will Be Saved"

The following appeared in a symposium published in the National Catholic Register, Oct. 6-12, 2002. It is noteworthy for its theological engagement with Reflections on Covenant and Mission. Rev. Dr. Francis Martin is a scholar at the John Paul Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.


The latest joint statement of the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB and the National Council of Synagogues has received much distorted attention in the media. Some of this was corrected by the remarks of Cardinal William H. Keeler to the effect that the statement was intended to encourage serious reflection on these matters by Jews and Catholics in the United States , and does not represent a formal position taken by the USCCB or the Bishops' Committee.

The imprecisions in the document and, to some extent, the confusion generated by the media reflect the present state of Catholic - Jewish dialogue stirred into motion as it is by the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate and the remarkable words and actions of John Paul II interpreting and giving flesh to that document. It must also be remembered that this dialogue, taking place in the shadow of the Shoah, and looking back over centuries of mutual antagonism, is still in its initial stages. There are good remarks concerning collaboration on ethical and humanitarian issues. Nevertheless, the lack of theological clarity, I refer particularly to the Catholic side of the "Reflections," is unfortunate.

I would like to consider here only one point, that of the irrevocability of the Covenant between God and Israel . The teaching is undoubtedly that of the New Testament; one found clearly in Romans 11:28-29: "In regard to the Gospel, they [the Jews] are enemies for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved because of the Fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable [literally "{are given} without regret")." This line teaches that there will always be an Israel , a people defined by a Covenant relation to God; the irrevocability of the gifts and the calling are due to God's love for his people (see also Rom 9:25 ). This calling, from a New Testament point of view, includes the call to the Gospel addressed to those who are always God's beloved people. As Paul goes on to explain, there will come a time, in God's inscrutable plan, when Israel "too may now be shown mercy as a result of the mercy shown to you [the Gentiles]." (Rom 11:31 ).

What is fulfilled, in the New Testament sense, is neither absorbed nor superseded: it is perfected. Christ is the "goal" of the Law, not as its termination but as that toward which it moves (see Rom 10:4). One way to understand how the Ancient Covenant continues to exist in the Christian dispensation is to consider it to be "sublated," that is, taken up into a greater context which needs it. Here is how Bernard Lonergan describes sublation which, as can be seen, is far from the Hegelian notion: "What sublates goes beyond what is sublated, introduces something new and distinct, yet so far from interfering with the sublated or destroying it, on the contrary needs it, includes it, preserves all its proper features and properties, and carries them forward to a fuller realization within a richer context." (Method in Theology, p. 241 italics added). It is in this sense that Christ fulfills the Covenant and "love (agape) is the fulfillment of the Law." (Rom 13:10 ).

Up to now, Israel , as a covenanted people still exists, but not as sublated into Christ. As God's plan has unfolded over the past two millennia we have always with us the actual, historical Jewish people, and this too is a sign that God's gifts and calling are irrevocable. The completion of God's plan as we Christians understand it has yet to take place, and this will somehow include both the perdurance of the Jewish people and their unique place within the Church. For, in the perspective of the New Testament, it is the Gentiles who are "co-heirs, co-bodied, co-sharers in the promise, in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (Eph 3:6). The word "somehow" above expresses our reverence toward the mystery of Israel . For our part, we Christians must witness in love to the fidelity of God to his people who has protected them from our sins against them, and we must strive to be worthy of bringing about that plan by which "all Israel will be saved." (Rom 11:26 ).