The Athanasian Creed Probably wasn’t Important, Right?

I was all set to teach about the Athanasian Creed at church this morning—before a badly pulled back muscle prevented me from teaching at all. One of the things I planned to note was the uses of the word “catholic” even in our Lutheran Service Book when protestants usually replace the same word with “Christian” in the other two ecumenical creeds. I was all set to explain how “catholic” means universal rather than specifically the Church of Rome, how Lutherans should have never let that word go, and so forth—you know, the usual (at least for protestants).

But as I couldn’t teach, I read instead and came across a story that was trending on Facebook: claims that the Church of Rome now says that Jews do not need to believe in Jesus to be saved, that Christians shouldn’t aim at their conversion, and similar assertions that fly in the face of the creed. After all, it says at one point, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” as well as “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.” Needless to say, those who practice pretty much any branch of Judaism do not believe these things. Claiming that Jesus is Yahweh is something of a sticking point—or a stumbling block, if you will.

So in addition to being broader than Roman Catholicism, is “catholic” now exclusive of it as well?

Of course, the media being the media, I suspected the headlines were more about grabbing attention than reporting the facts. This is common practice, particularly when it comes to the Papacy. And the quotes in the Christianity Today article that I read seemed to undermine its own headline as much as it supported it.  So I did my due diligence; I read the whole thing. Sadly, I think even with the best construction, the headlines were pretty accurate.

“The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable ” is a fairly tedious read—filled with a great deal of double-speak that the authors presumably considered nuance. There are the usual declarations of common heritage, which is certainly true, as well as mutual respect and admiration that are part-and-parcel of these kinds of dialogues. However, towards the end of the third section, I cannot help but conclude that it says what the headlines say it says. It explicitly rejects the view that Christianity and Judaism are two parallel paths to God, but does so in favor of the view that they are—in some mysterious sense—the same path to God.

God revealed himself in his Word, so that it may be understood by humanity in actual historical situations. This Word invites all people to respond. If their responses are in accord with the Word of God they stand in right relationship with him. For Jews this Word can be learned through the Torah and the traditions based on it. The Torah is the instruction for a successful life in right relationship with God. Whoever observes the Torah has life in its fullness (cf. Pirqe Avot II, 7). By observing the Torah the Jew receives a share in communion with God. In this regard, Pope Francis has stated: “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word. In seeking a right attitude towards God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life, and Jews to the teaching of the Torah.” (Address to members of the International Council of Christians and Jews, 30 June 2015). Judaism and the Christian faith as seen in the New Testament are two ways by which God’s people can make the Sacred Scriptures of Israel their own. The Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament is open therefore to both ways. A response to God’s word of salvation that accords with one or the other tradition can thus open up access to God, even if it is left up to his counsel of salvation to determine in what way he may intend to save mankind in each instance.

Now, this totally sounds like two parallel paths to God, and I guess the authors thought so too because they immediately deny it.

That his will for salvation is universally directed is testified by the Scriptures (cf. eg. Gen 12:1-3; Is 2:2-5; 1 Tim 2:4). Therefore there are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ”. Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind. God’s word is one single and undivided reality which takes concrete form in each respective historical context.

In this sense, Christians affirm that Jesus Christ can be considered as ‘the living Torah of God’. Torah and Christ are the Word of God, his revelation for us human beings as testimony of his boundless love. For Christians, the pre-existence of Christ as the Word and Son of the Father is a fundamental doctrine, and according to rabbinical tradition the Torah and the name of the Messiah exist already before creation (cf. Genesis Rabbah 1,1). Further, according to Jewish understanding God himself interprets the Torah in the Eschaton, while in Christian understanding everything is recapitulated in Christ in the end (cf. Eph 1:10; Col 1:20). In the gospel of Matthew Christ is seen as it were as the ‘new Moses’. Matthew 5:17-19 presents Jesus as the authoritative and authentic interpreter of the Torah (cf. Lk 24:27, 45-47). In the rabbinical literature, however, we find the identification of the Torah with Moses. Against this background, Christ as the ‘new Moses’ can be connected with the Torah. Torah and Christ are the locus of the presence of God in the world as this presence is experienced in the respective worship communities. The Hebrew dabar means word and event at the same time – and thus one may reach the conclusion that the word of the Torah may be open for the Christ event.

That is one twisted theological pretzel.  I don’t think the hairs its trying to split even exist. I’m trying to sum this part up fairly, and in all honesty, the best I can come up with is: 1) God wants everyone to be saved. 2) Christ is connected to the Torah. 3) Abracadabra. 4) Believing in the Torah is basically like believing in Christ as far as salvation is concerned. It’s almost a kind of modalism where Torah and Christ are different masks that God wears when interacting with different people.

Could you take all this in the sense that the Old Testament is all about Christ, so Christ can be found there by Jews? After all, Jesus told the other Jews of his day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…” The thing is, Jesus immediately continues, “…yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life,” which is what Judaism also continues to do today. Well, then what about a Jew reading the Old Testament and coming to Christ as a result? Well, that would typically be called conversion, and the Vatican document explicitly excludes that as a proper understanding God’s mission in this respect.

How is this reconciled with Christ’s opinion that no one comes to the Father except through him or Peter’s declaration that there is no other name by which we are saved? That’s a mystery. And by that, I mean the document says that it’s a mystery: “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” They just label it “a highly complex theological question” and move on. Again, I’m really trying to be fair, but it sounds to me like they can’t come up with any rationale given their restraints and just give up–but nevertheless cannot let go of their self-contradictory conclusion.

So are Christians to refrain from trying to convert Jews? Sort of… The only thing it’s really clear about is that there is not any organized effort by Rome to do so, nor can they support any such effort. Individual Christians can continue to “bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” though (which I must note does not necessarily aim at conversion.) But it’s completely different from evangelism to anyone else. Once again, they’re grappling with the evangelistic impulse at the center of the Christian faith—simultaneously knowing that their conclusion regarding salvation for the Jews changes everything about it, but not actually wanting to change anything about it.

I cannot help but observe that Jesus was not nearly so confused or confusing when he spent his entire earthly ministry evangelizing other Jews—he unquestionably thought that having Abraham as their father and keeping the Law were not identical with following him. The Vatican document tries to prop up the post-temple Jewish tradition—which it correctly and openly notes follows in the footsteps of the Pharisees—as a tradition that is just as legitimate as the Church. Jesus, however, was about as clear as he could possibly be that he was not on board with the Jews following in the footsteps of the Pharisees.  Jesus lamented that—gather them as he might—Jerusalem refused to come to him; he didn’t just shrug it off and say that they were basically following him anyway even if they didn’t know it.  If you want a clear explanation of salvation vis a vis the Jews, I’d suggest just reading the New Testament, because this document does nothing to clarify it.

Try as a I might, I can only find two reasonable conclusions to draw from this document:

  1. It departs from the catholic faith as expressed in the Athanasian Creed by claiming that Jews need not believe in Christ to be saved.
  2. It underhandedly retains that faith, but is egregiously condescending and patronizing towards the Jews—full of empty flattery that assures them of their place in life eternal while telling Christians in a hushed whisper that’s almost impossible to hear, “Boy, those guys are sooooo damned if they don’t come to Christ. We’re just too concerned about how we look to actually say it straight out.”

I came away from the document thinking that it’s #1, which is merely heretical.  However, if it’s actually #2… Well, Luther wrote some really nasty stuff about the Jews, but that would make this even more reprehensible. Either way, Rome needs to repent of it.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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