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Dr Edward Kessler and Prof Gavin D'Costa: Jews, Christians and Mission

25 October 2011


Dr Edward Kessler and Prof Gavin D'Costa delivered papers and engaged in a public dialogue on the place of mission in Christian-Jewish Relations at the Department of Theology, Bristol University. Approximately 50 attended the seminar, the highest attendance in many years. Both Kessler and D'Costa agreed that mission is one of the most contentious and sensitive areas in Jewish-Christian relations.

Prof D'Costa outlined contemporary Christian understandings of mission (in relation to Jews) which remained ambiguous but can be placed in three main categories: first, those who particularly target Jews for conversion; second, those who witness to faith in Christ, without targeting Jews specifically, and believe in sharing the Christian faith with all people; and third, those who have no conversionary outlook towards Jews, where mission is understood as shared, a 'common mission' in an unredeemed world. Whilst D'Costa proposed the second option, Kessler held to the third but discussed whether there was some ground for a conversation between options 2 and 3.

Dr Kessler explored the tension, demonstrated by Nostra Aetate, which on the one hand, states that "the church is the new people of God" while, on the other, "the Jews remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (cf. Romans 11:28-29)". The tension between the two statements is based on the identity of the people of God - both Jews and Christians have traditionally claimed exclusively to be Verus Israel, the true Israel. The claim to be Israel is regarded by Jews as the very core of their self-understanding, yet for nearly two millennia the Church also saw itself as the True Israel and the heir of all the biblical promises towards Israel.

Both Kessler and D'Costa agreed that replacement theology was inadequate, partly because it formed the linchpin of the Christian teaching of contempt of Jews and Judaism but also because it is based on a relationship of negation, (in other words, negating Jews and Judaism). However, there was less agreement about what replaces replacement theology. D'Costa suggested fulfilment theology, but Kessler questioned, in practice, there was little between them. 'Is not 'replacement' one small step from 'fulfilment'' he asked.

Positively, the rejection of replacement theology entails some affirmation by Christians of the continuing validity of God's covenant with the Jewish people and of Jews continuing in a covenantal relationship. Constructing a new theology of the Church and the Jewish people remains an unresolved and formidable undertaking, perhaps because, as Johann-Baptist Metz argued, the restatement of the church's relationship with the Jewish people is a fundamental revision of Christian theology.

Both papers will be published in due course - further details to follow.

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