Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People by Mark S. Kinzer (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, forthcoming November 2005).
In this book, Mark Kinzer is writing largely to the Church, asking Christians to consider a radical new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel. Kinzer is concerned with the problem of supersessionism—the view that the Church has replaced Israel in the purposes and plan of God and is now heir to the covenants and promises. He reasons that if we reject supersessionism, we are left with the question of how the Church and Israel can both be God’s people. Kinzer’s own answer to this question unveils a theology that is profoundly defective and indeed, unbiblical.
First, a quick survey of the contents: Chapter 1 is an introduction to principles of interpretation, while the next two chapters demonstrate how the New Testament affirms continued Jewish practice on the part of the apostles and the early believers, as well as the ongoing place of the Jewish people in God’s purposes. Chapters 2 and 3 are the best part of the book. One might contest Kinzer’s interpretations of several passages, but on the whole he paints a correct picture of the New Testament as a book that is positive towards the Jewish people. However, one problem does surface that influences all else: the assumption that the practices of the apostles should remain normative for us today, and that those who question this are supersessionist in their thinking.
With the fourth chapter, Kinzer begins to propose his new ecclesiology” (doctrine of God’s people1). He presents a series of if-then statements, paraphrased as follows:
(1) if Israel still plays a role in the purposes of God, then the people of Israel—and especially the remnant of Jewish believers—must live according to the distinct Jewish practices that identify Israel (i.e. the practice of the apostles and early believers)
(2) if Jews are to observe Jewish practices, then they must do so corporately (since Israel is a nation, not just individuals)
(3) if they are to do so corporately, then there must be a distinct Jewish subcommunity within the ekklesia2 with its own congregations and community (because how else can Jews live in a way that identifies them corporately as Jews?) . Each statement is open to question—but it is typical of the book’s approach that questionable conclusions serve as the basis for further conclusions.
However, there is more. After covering a history of supersessionism in Chapter 5, there comes (in Chapters 6 and 7) what many will see as the most radical departure the book makes from biblical theology. Kinzer asks what we should make of the past 2,000 years of Jewish traditions. He concludes that Israel’s “no” to Yeshua is really a “hidden participation in the obedience of Israel’s Messiah” (p. 225). He believes that though Israel has rejected Yeshua, He (Yeshua) “continues to live among them—though in a hidden, obscure fashion” (p. 233). Some readers will find Kinzer himself rather “hidden and obscure” in this section. But as he unpacks it, what he is really saying is that Jewish tradition is God’s way for the Jewish people at this time: “a divinely sanctioned religious tradition appointed for the purpose of preserving the Jewish people…” (p. 258).
Furthermore, Kinzer tells us that the New Testament upholds the validity of oral tradition, and he argues that according to the Bible, the entire people of Israel can confer “halakhic authority”; that is, they can determine the exact application of the Law of Moses to the situations of life. (“Halakhah” is the system of Jewish law.) He goes on to say that since the entire Jewish people recognized rabbinic tradition by the early Middle Ages, that tradition actually carries more weight than the traditions of the Pharisees in the first century. Though Kinzer is not saying that the Oral Law is divinely inspired, he is saying that it is God’s intended way for the Jewish people and His means of preserving them, and that indeed, to live as a Jew therefore means living according to this rabbinic tradition.
The final two chapters give a history of Jewish missions and Messianic Judaism, and then Kinzer lays out practical steps the Church should take to advance his ideas.
So much for the summary. Kinzer’s book is the most sophisticated theological treatment from the Messianic movement in recent years. It is stimulating, generally clearly written, and in the earlier chapters particularly, there is a great deal of thoughtful and valuable material on the practices of early Jewish believers and the New Testament’s high view of the place of Israel in the purposes of God.
The book is so full of serious problems, however, as to make this an unsatisfactory and indeed unbiblical solution to the problem of supersessionism.
The first problem is that Kinzer’s starting point for addressing supersessionism is that of contemporary, non-evangelical scholars for whom Judaism is as “valid” as Christianity and missions to Jews are inappropriate. As Kinzer points out, we all approach the Bible from our own presuppositions and we have to take those into account. The presupposition of this book, however, is that the only coherent alternative to supersessionism is one based on prevailing Jewish and non-Jewish post- Holocaust scholars. This is evident in his initial description of what nonsupersessionism entails: that “the Jewish people remain in covenant with God, with their own distinct calling and way of life intact despite their apparent communal reject of Yeshua’s divine mediation” (p. 12). He begins with this description, and unpacks it according to the prevailing mainstream, post-Holocaust, theological agenda.
The second problem, and one of the most crucial, is that many of the exegetical arguments cannot hold the weight brought to bear on them. I will give just one example. Kinzer tells us (pp. 92-95) that the Book of Hebrews indicates that only certain parts of the Mosaic Law have been “changed” by the death of Yeshua: namely, the laws pertaining to the Temple, priesthood and sacrifices. All the other commandments that can be, and were, continued without the Temple remain. (He mentions particularly circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary laws.) But he does not explain how the Law, being an integral part of one covenant, can be broken up as he proposes. If it cannot, that invalidates his argument; if it can, the door is open to “changes” in other aspects of the Law. Surprisingly, Kinzer doesn’t treat Hebrews 8, which speaks of the covenant in a more comprehensive way.
The third criticism is that Kinzer’s conclusions ignore large swaths of biblical material, including:
(1) The nature and effect of sin. Kinzer would, of course, admit that Jews sin just as everyone else does. But there is no discussion at all of the effects of sin on religious systems (Judaism included). There is no discussion of Romans 1-3, which speaks to the subject of sin among Jews and Gentiles alike. And if we are saying that Israel is still in the covenant, one wonders where the discussion of covenant curses (and blessings) comes in—a discussion that is surely relevant even for those who believe passionately in the present purposes of Israel in the plan of God. Whether or not God has used rabbinic tradition to preserve the Jewish people, as Kinzer argues, does not determine whether that tradition should be challenged or contradicted. In God’s common grace He uses many things to preserve society; but simultaneously there is the prophetic call to repentance. Which brings us to:
(2) The entire prophetic aspect within the Old Testament itself. The prophets were, so to speak, “divine pests”; a continual voice from within Israel itself challenging the nation to turn back to God. One wants to know if Kinzer thinks that the Northern Kingdom’s “no” to the divinely ordained worship in Jerusalem somehow reflected Yahweh’s “yes” to that kingdom as He remained “hidden” in their midst.
(3) The missionary activity of Paul and the other apostles, not only among Gentiles but also among Jews. Kinzer does not like the term “missionary,” which he defines in terms of a message brought from outside, rather than from within. That is clearly not the biblical meaning of “mission,” but terminology aside, the apostles did proclaim Jesus as the only way of salvation among both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore we need to ask: If Kinzer believes that the apostolic practice of observantly keeping the Law is normative for all time, why does he not believe the same for the apostolic practice of mission? And while Kinzer rejects the missionary impulse as coming from “outside” Israel, did not the prophets bring an “other” word to Israel from God the Wholly Other, who only condescended to dwell among Israel?
(4) A biblical theology of covenants. It is interesting that Kinzer only speaks of “the” covenant by which he (and most other modern theologians) means the Sinai covenant. No discussion is offered of the relationship between the Abrahamic, Sinai, and New covenants. Surely one direction of overcoming supersessionism, without concluding that all is well in the Jewish community, is to consider the differences in the covenants with Moses and with Abraham.
Other criticisms can be offered, such as Kinzer largely ignores the contributions of evangelical scholars towards nonsupersessionism—which he has a responsibility to include, since he apparently accepts evangelical theology regarding the person of Yeshua and the nature of God. In addition, Kinzer’s view of the ekklesia effectively ignores the tens of thousands of Jewish believers who are in churches. They do not integrate well into his theology, even though he makes mention of them in his final few chapters.
What then does Kinzer suggest are the obligations of (predominantly Gentile) churches? He suggests three (pp. 308-309):
(1) “foster respect for Judaism and the Jewish people,” particularly, he says, in the light of Chapter 6 of his book: that is, Judaism as God’s ordained way for the Jewish people. Translation: Judaism is God’s way for the Jews, therefore it is not to be challenged as a belief-and-behavior system in any way, nor is the Church to conduct missionary work among the Jews.
(2) “urge Jews in its [the Church’s] midst to fulfill their covenantal responsibilities and live as observant Jews.” Kinzer recognizes that there are tens of thousands of Jewish believers currently in churches, with more to come. His recommendation is that ideally, churches should encourage such believers to align with healthy local Messianic congregations, where such congregations exist. But, he acknowledges, there may actually be no way for Jewish believers in churches to fulfill their obligations to live Jewishly—a less than ideal, but nevertheless realistic situation, he says. For Kinzer, the Jewish obligations include living in community with other Jews and according to rabbinic tradition. Thus, by his definition of living Jewishly, it would be impossible for Jewish believers to live in a fully Jewish manner apart from a Messianic congregation.
(3) “dialogue…with the Messianic Jewish movement” and “encourage development in a postmissionary direction.” Translation: encourage Messianic Jews to stop “missionary” work and live according to rabbinic tradition.
This three-pronged program is not something most Jewish believers, nor evangelical Bible scholars, would consider to reflect faithfulness to the Scripture. To be sure, supersessionism, especially where it has led to anti-Semitism, has been a blot on the Church (though also left out of discussion is the possibility that someone can sincerely believe that the Church has replaced Israel, and yet foster a genuine love for Jews). That so many scholars across the theological spectrum are continuing to rediscover the Jewishness of Yeshua and the positive views of the Jewish people as portrayed in the New Testament is welcome indeed.
However, that is not enough for Kinzer. On page 264, he summarizes his program along the lines of five principles. All of them could be interpreted in a wide variety of ways (“validity,” used in principles one to three, is a notoriously ambiguous word!); it takes the entire book to unpack what Kinzer really means by them. As he does so, he surveys the history of Jewish missions, Hebrew Christians, and Messianic Jews and concludes that to date, no Messianic movement has embodied all of his principles. For him, that is a deficiency; others will have another opinion.
Once the vagueness in terminology is unpacked, it’s quite clear what Kinzer’s proposals mean. They would not only put an end to any proclamation of the Good News among the Jewish people, but would proclaim that salvation, or divine acceptance, is readily available to all Jews through Yeshua regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about Yeshua. This kind of theology has been applied to world religions in general, so that some believe Yeshua saves Hindus, Buddhists, etc. through their religions. Kinzer may not articulate things quite that way, but he is close. Is this what the “mature Messianic Judaism” has come to? We hope not.
Postmissionary Messianic Judaism reminds us of critical issues that the Messianic movement has not dealt with in sufficient theological depth and should continue to address: issues of why Jewishness is important; how it is to be lived out and transmitted; how Israel and the Church relate to one another. But Kinzer’s final result is nothing more than modern theological trends that are influenced more by ecumenism and inclusivism than by biblical theology. Jewish and Gentile believers alike would be better served by voices that reject the bad fruits of supersessionism while simultaneously affirming the need for proclaiming the Good News to Jews and Gentiles—and in the context of a body of Jewish and Gentile believers that is far more unified in actual practice than Kinzer allows for. What is needed now are those Messianic Jewish voices that can address these theological issues in a more biblical manner.
I predict that this book will be warmly received among the ecumenical, dialogue- minded set and thoroughly critiqued by evangelicals who understand its full implications. My concern would be for those, whether in the Messianic movement or in the evangelical church, who may eagerly agree with the call for “validity,” seeing it as a simple affirmation of the Jewish people and Jewish believers, without understanding the full weight of Kinzer’s thinking.
Space prohibits us from printing Rich’s full review but you can find it online at: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/kinzer
- Traditionally, the “doctrine of the church.” But since Kinzer (and others who may not agree with him) sees Israel as also the people of God, it may be better to state it as the “doctrine of God’s people.”
- Ekklesia is the Greek word generally translated “church.” Kinzer prefers to use “church” of the Gentile wing of the Body in contrast with the Jewish wing. He reserves the term ekklesia to refer to both wings.