Volume 17 - Issue 1

Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

by Marvin R. Wilson

A challenging book by Marvin Wilson pointedly reminds the church that her roots and background are in its Jewish origins. The roots of our faith are what really enable us to understand the OT as well as a good portion of the NT. Wilson asks repeatedly that the Christian should once more be reminded from the ‘theology of the olive tree’ that Christians have an olive tree connection with Israel. The root of the olive tree is what supports the engrafted branches of Gentile believers, and the author deplores the fact that after the ad 300s, ‘the church arrogated to itself the very position of the olive tree’ (p. 16).

In the chapter on the ‘Contour of Hebrew Thought’, Hebrew is discussed as an extremely descriptive language. Word usages provide verbal pictures to communicate spiritual truth. Greek thought is obviously different from Hebrew thought: the people in the OT did not ‘think truth—they experienced truth’. ‘Everything is theological’, meaning that there was no separation of religion on the Sabbath day and the other days of the week. The NT reflects much of this viewpoint. In three other chapters Wilson demonstrates that both the Hebrew Scriptures and NT reflect Jewish ideas in marriage and family, worship and education.

Lest some Christians feel that seeking out the Jewish roots of NT faith will become an exercise in Judaizing, Wilson challenges the non-Jew that when he ‘adopts moral and ethical values, social and spiritual ideas and an overall orientation toward life in the world that is Hebraic, this is not Judaizing’ (p. 25). Rather, the danger lies in de-Judaizing, which takes us away from our roots and, consequently, which warps the faith.

One area of interest today is how the church contextualizes its faith and lifestyle when moving from one culture to another. Christians must learn how to take the biblical message into the culture in which they live. The best example of cross-cultural communication is Paul’s ministry, in which he carried a biblical message from its Jewish source into the Greek culture. Paul was uniquely prepared to do so: (1) he knew how to select passages from the Greek poets which are also biblically substantiated; (2) there is no doubt Paul had an understanding of Greek philosophy, knowing how to relate to certain points on the Greek cultural grid but also preserving the biblical position.

Obviously, features of Platonic thought are contrary to biblical world-views: the unseen world is better and more important than the visible world; the heavenly is better than the earthly; and far better is it for the soul to escape from the body as its prison so as to be utterly free in the unseen world. Contextualization means that we have to know where to draw the line between what can be accepted and what has to be set aside, and in special cases we have to take features of belief from the biblical world-view in its Jewish setting to a new culture, as Paul had to do when he introduced the concept of resurrection into the arena of interchange with the Platonic philosophers.

A second portion of Wilson’s position asks us to relate to Judaism as the root of our faith: the Gentiles who become believers ‘are now infused with full life and vigour through the Jewish people’ (p. 14). He also cites Heschel approvingly: the church needs to ‘consider itself an extension of Judaism’ (p. 16). Elsewhere the Hasidic lifestyle of today is regarded with approval because people have such an intense devotion to God.

But to ask the church to consider itself as an extension of Judaism raises serious questions. Which Judaism? Traditional? Conservative? Reform? Reconstructionist? Any other? Wilson himself admits that such a variety of thinking and lifestyle exists among Jewish people and that many even in the modern sense have turned their backs on any such expression from their own backgrounds. What then is the church to emulate?

When considering the ‘theology of the olive tree’ (Rom. 11:17–18), should we not realize that the roots actually represent the revelation provided by God to Israel and that it is this revelation to which the church needs to relate? While there was always a remnant in Israel which was responsive to and lived in accordance with God’s revelation, nevertheless, many in the Jewish ranks do not believe in or live what God has revealed. Even the religious Jewish people do not exactly believe what biblical revelation declares to be a substitute atonement and an authentic Messiah. No, it is best to realize that the OT and NT revelation and that which can be found in the Jewish writings which reflect the Scriptures can certainly become the root to which the church needs to relate rather than any specific form of Judaism.

There is no doubt that Wilson has produced a book to involve the Christian in dialogue with Jewish people. In his last chapter he seeks to enlist today’s church to establish sensitive and lasting links with the Jewish community. There is no doubt that this is a noble objective.

While he points out that one area of concern between the Jewish community and the church in dialogue is Jesus of Nazareth, nowhere is the full distinct message of the church spelled out: (1) Where is the proclamation that Jesus is the only way to God? (2) Where is the distinctive that the church has a message of love for all peoples, including Jewish people, that atonement can only be accomplished on the basis of substitute atonement and not through self-effort? Wilson says that conversion can be accomplished only by God, but he does not mention that the church is the instrument by which Jesus is shared, even with Jewish people. While the Jesus issue is certainly a hard truth, the church cannot escape from its God-given mandate to disciple the nations, including the household of Israel.

Wilson has provided us with a necessary emphasis that the root of our faith is in God’s revelation to a chosen people. At the same time, however, we need to be aware and not afraid of our distinct message which unfortunately remains undeclared in Our Father Abraham.

Louis Goldberg

Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL