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SIDIC Periodical XIV - 1981/1
Jewish and Christian Marriage Liturgies (Pages 20 - 25)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Perspective: The Efect of the Holocaust on Christian Mission to Jews
Rolf Rendtorff


Something has happened to Christians. A few years ago, a new word appeared in Christian theological discussions: Holocaust. More than thirty years, one whole human generation had to pass since the gas chambers of Auschwitz stopped their horrible work before Christians began to reflect upon what really happened. Possibly they were not able to do so before because they did not dare to realize what human beings had inflicted upon fellow human beings, and, in particular, what part Christians had played in this tragedy. At the opening of the first international symposium on the Holocaust held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in June 1974, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, the Right Reverend Paul Moore, said: "I hesitate to speak tonight about the subject of the symposium. It is one of such horror that, despite the fact that it happened so many years ago, I believe that we still turn away from it in horror, not only from what happened then, but because if we look into our own souls, we know that we too were there at Auschwitz, that any one of us could, under certain circumstances, have committed those atrocities."

I believe that the most important point is that Christians are beginning to realize what happened to themselves, that they are beginning to ask the question: what does the Holocaust mean for Christianity, for the credibility of Christian faith and Christian doctrine? How was it possible that, after almost two thousand years of Christian history based upon the Gospel of love and of salvation, those incredible crimes could be perpetrated in the midst of a Christian people?

Theological Questions

One aspect of this question is a general one: does Christian faith alter a person so that he or she is able to perform good instead of evil? Christians have to rethink this question in the light of the Holocaust. In particular they have to ask whether the preponderance of dogmatic questions over ethical is possibly one of the main weaknesses of Christian theological tradition as well as of the ecclesiastical and spiritual life of Christianity.

The other aspect concerns the Christian attitude towards Jews: is there a specific Christian contribution to anti-semitism which finally led to the Holocaust? If so, how are these anti-Jewish elements in Christian theology related to the main dogmas of Christian doctrine? Are they merely marginal phenomena or even wrong paths departing from true Christian tradition, or do they belong to the essence of Christianity; are they connected with any of the main themes of Christian belief? These questions have been discussed in recent years, chiefly by some American Christian theologians. I mention only two books: those of Franklyn H. Littell: The Crucifixion of the Jews and Rosemary Ruether: Faith and Fratricide The Theological Roots of Antisemitism. Both of these authors are convinced that Christian anti-Judaism is closely related to the essence of Christian faith itself, in particular to the doctrine of the Church, its ecclesiology and to the doctrine of Christ and his mission: Christology. The Holocaust therefore is not only an accident in the history of Western civilization but must be understood as a crisis of Christianity itself.

I agree in principle with these positions. I feel that there is an urgent need for the Christian Church to re-examine its whole theological tradition in order to scrutinize its anti-Jewish implications and to reconstruct a Christian theology without anti-Judaism.

One of the most crucial points seems to me to be the question of the mission to Jews. At a first glance it could appear as a rather marginal question or even as an obsolete or anachronistic one. Today indeed there are very few Christian missionary activities towards Jews and since Vatican II, Christians have begun to describe their relations with the Jewish people in terms different from those used for relations with other religions.

Nevertheless this question continues to be a crucial point. It is, possibly, a specific problem of the Protestant Church and theology, but in any case I wish to outline some observations and experiences I have made in this field.

Theory Follows Practice

At the aforementioned symposium on the Holocaust in 1974, Gregory Baum read a paper entitled: "Rethinking the Church's Mission after Auschwitz." In this paper he said:

"The major churches have come to repudiate the mission to Jews even though they have not justified this by adequate doctrinal explanations. We have here a case frequently found in church history where a practical decision on the part of the churches in response to a significant event precedes dogmatic reflection and in fact becomes the guide to future doctrinal development."

But a few pages later on he says:

"While these changes have taken place on the highest ecclesiastical level, in official circles and among Christians intensely involved in the problems of contemporary life, the effect of the new policy on the great majority of Christians is negligible. Most Christians have not even begun to reflect on these issues."

This is an exact description of the situation. There is a gap between the actual practice of the churches and the theological reflection or even doctrinal elaboration of the problems.

This leads to the fact that at the very moment when there is question as to whether Christians should or even are allowed to continue with their mission to Jews, a vehement discussion arises. I wish to give two examples. The first one happened a few years ago. I was a member of a commission of the Protestant Church of Western Germany which had to produce a study on Christian-Jewish relations. We reached agreement on all questions except that of the mission to Jews. So we decided to describe the two opposite positions in order to show that we had here an unsolved problem. But then the following happened: when we handed our draft over to the Executive Board of our church they told us that they would not agree to any paper mentioning even the possibility of renouncing the mission to Jews. On the other hand, Jewish friends told us that a paper even mentioning the possibility of continuing the mission to Jews would not be accepted by any Jew as a basis for any further dialogue, despite the rest of its contents. So we had no other choice but to rewrite this chapter and to limit ourselves to describing the problems without formulating any position. But because we tried to show that mission and dialogue are not necessarily opposed to each other, Jewish reviewers accused us of having conceded that dialogue is only another kind of mission. It was only a few years later that we had the opportunity, in a more detailed commentary on this study, to explain our different positions.

The second example comes from the present discussion going on in my country. Two months ago the Synod of the Protestant Church of the Rhineland passed a resolution on the renewal of relations between Christians and Jews. It was a very important event based on the very intensive preparatory work of numerous people, Christians and Jews. This declaration contains paragraphs on Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, on the relations between the Old and New Testaments, on Jesus as a Jew, on the abiding election of the Jewish people and so on. The public discussion, however, concentrated almost exclusively on one point: "We are therefore convinced that the Church cannot fulfil her witness towards the Jewish people in the same way as she fulfils her mission to the nations of the world.' This sentence raised a storm of reactions by the declarations, articles and letters published in the newspapers, discussions over the radio and so on. I myself gave a very short statement on a radio program and immediately received a number of very indignant letters.

Self-understanding of the Church

The question is not whether Christians actually undertake a mission to Jews but whether the doctrine is maintained. To understand this phenomenon we have to examine the inter-relations between the call for a mission to Jews and Christian dogmatics. The main point is the self-understanding of the Church. Let me begin with an important document of the World Council of Churches, the so-called Bristol paper. This is the report of a study group of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at Bristol, England in 1967. Let me add that this paper never reached the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, obviously as the result of the situation in the Near East after the Six Day war of 1967. But the paper was published with the material of the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Upsala in 1968.

In this paper we read that the study group reached an agreement on several points but was divided "when the question is raised of the theological identity of Israel with the Jewish people of today." It added that the members of the study group "realize that with this question the entire self-understanding of the Church is at stake." This is a very important and interesting point: the self-understanding of the Church is at stake with regard to the question of whether the Jewish people of today have a theological identity with Biblical Israel.

One position is described as follows:

"The Church alone is, theologically speaking, the continuation of Israel as the People of God to which now all nations belong. Election and vocation are solely in Christ and are to be grasped in faith. To speak otherwise is to deny that the one people of God, the Church, is the Body of Christ which cannot be broken."

The other position runs this way:

"Others of us are of the opinion that it is not enough merely to assert some kind of continuity between present day Jews whether religious or not and ancient Israel, but that they actually are still Israel, that they are still God's chosen people. These would stress that after Christ the one people of God is broken asunder, one part being the Church which accepts Christ, the other part Israel outside the Church which rejects him but which even in this rejection remains in a special sense beloved by God."

In the next chapter of the paper the consequences of the different positions for the witness towards Jews are described:

"If the main emphasis is put on the concept of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Jewish people are seen as being outside. The Christian attitude to them is considered to be in principle the same as to men of other faiths and the mission of the Church is to bring them either individually or corporately to the acceptance of Christ so that they become members of this body
If on the other hand the Church is primarily seen as the People of God, it is possible to regard the Church and the Jewish people together as forming the one People of God separated from one another for the time being, yet with the promise that they will ultimately become one. Those who follow this line of thinking would say that the Church should consider her attitude towards Jews theologically and in principle as being different from the attitude she has to all other men who do not believe in Christ. It should be thought of more in terms of ecumenical engagement in order to heal the breach than of missionary witness in which she hopes for conversion."

Inter-action of Jews and Christians

The inter-relations between the self-understanding of the Church and the question of the mission to Jews is obvious. But even here we meet with the fact that it is not the actual practice of the mission to Jews that is under discussion but only the formulation of dogmatic positions. This is explicitly stated:

"We are all basically of one mind about the actual form which, in practice, the Christian encounter with the Jewish people has to take. Of ten the best and sometimes perhaps the only way in which Christians today can testify to the Jewish people about their faith in Christ may be not so much in explicit words but rather by service."

I could continue to quote many similar declarations which show this interdependence between Christian self-understanding and the question of the mission to Jews. The question arises as to why Christian self-understanding is at stake at this point. Apparently people arguing like this feel it to be dangerous for the Church if the Jewish people is still considered to be the People of God. This is clearly expressed in a declaration of the German Lutheran Central Association for Mission under Israel from 1971. Here we read:

"Jewry understands itself as the legitimate successor of the People of God of the Old Testament. This fact even calls the Church in question. She has to ask herself how it stands with her own legitimacy. There cannot be two People of God. The Church can learn to understand her own nature only by discussion with Jewry."

(German texts of this kind usually speak of Judentum which can mean Judaism as well as Jewry, but they avoid speaking of the Jewish people.) This is a clear-cut alternative: there can be only one People of God and that is the Church. If there were another one the legitimacy of the Church would be questioned. What is expressed here very bluntly is often implied in many similar utterances.

The great difficulty of the whole question is the fact that there is almost no explicit theological discussion of these problems. In the usual works of dogmatics or systematic theology of Christian confessions, we do not find a chapter or scarcely even one paragraph on the relevance of Judaism or the Jewish people for Christian theology. So we have only ad hoc declarations of certain study groups or commissions which deal with this very difficult and complex problem without having a substantial basis in a well thought out theological reflection. We have to demand of our theologians therefore a thorough examination and explanation of the theological relevance of Judaism for Christian theology and the Church and of the role that Christian-Jewish relations play theologically speaking. Otherwise the whole discussion remains without any solid theological basis.

But why is the situation like this? What are the reasons for the fact that on the one hand there is no theological reflection about these questions and on the other hand there are very rigid declarations of Christian bodies?

Let me again quote Gregory Baum:

"The reason why new policies adopted by the Church have so little power and influence among Christians is that the negation of Judaism and other religions seems to be built into central Christian symbols. Corrections made in the margin hardly affect the central teaching."

This is, in fact, the point: the Christian attitude towards Jews belongs to the fundamental and unquestioned presuppositions of Christian doctrine so that it seems unnecessary to discuss it at all. But it only seems to be so. I have often made the following test:

I would ask a colleague of mine, let us say a professor of systematic theology, where, in his dogmatic concept, could I find a chapter on Judaism. The answer is always the same: silence mostly, I must admit, a kind of compounded silence because my partner feels that there should be a chapter on this theme. But then sometimes the answer follows: I have no idea where this chapter could find its adequate place within the dogmatic concept.

Christian Theology must find an Answer

The importance of the question of the mission to Jews is obviously not the actual and practical problem as to whether and how Christians should give witness of their faith to Jews nor whether Christians are allowed to accept the conversion of a Jew to Christianity should this occur. The importance lies in the fact that at this point it becomes clear that Christian theology has no sufficient answer as to how, theologically, the present day relations between Christians and Jews should be described. This leads to a very important point of the situation of Christian theology they the Holocaust. Through all the centthies and even Mthenia oh Christian history, Christian theologians used to speak about the Jewish people only in terms of the past Jews before Christ in the Old Testament, Jews as the contemporaries and enemies of Jesus himself, Jews as those who rejected the Messiah and finally, the Jewish people as rejected by God. Since then Jews have only been a dogmatic phenomenon but not a really existing people of really existing human beings with a real history. The history of the Jewish people is counted only as the prehistory of the Christian Church and so it consequently ended with the foundation of the Church.

I feel that a fundamental change is taking place through the rethinking of the history of the Christian Church in the light of the Holocaust, that Christians are becoming aware that there is a living Jewish people and that speaking of Jews in theological terms does concern the Jewish people of today, whether Christians like it or not. If for instance we speak of the Church as being the true Israel, this implies the question of the theological appreciation of the Jewish people of today. It is obvious this people understands itself as Israel in an uninterrupted continuity with the Israel of the Bible. Can we, as Christians, deny this Jewish self-understanding? Must we do so? Are we entitled to do so? Or have we to re-consider our theological tradition in order to describe the relations between the Church and the Jewish people in new terms?

Epistle to the Romans New Thinking

I think we can find some guidance for this through the explanations that Paul gives in his letter to the Romans. In the past few years there has been something like a rediscovery of chapters 9-11 of this letter. These chapters have been almost forgotten in Christian theology and the interpretation of the letter often thought of as reaching its culmination in chapter 8 while thefollowing chapters were considered only as a kind of appendix. Recently some scholars have shown that chapters 9-11 are the true culmination of the letter. In these chapters Paul has to argue with other Christians who maintain that God has rejected Israel. Paul's answer is quite clear: 'Did God cast off his people? God forbid!" In opposition to this emphatic negation, the doctrine of Israel's rejection by God was developed in Christian theological tradition. Of course Paul urgently desired that Israel should accept Jesus as the Messiah and it remained a mystery to him why they did not. But even after saying that, he repeated emphatically that the election of Israel was unchanged:

"As regards the Gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards the election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." Rona. 11:28 f

Paul expected the end of this world and the return of Christ in the very near future "and then all Israel will be saveL' (Rom. 11..26) hut then things changed. This wotld Ssd not Mt as expected but Instead the Chinch was established. it was only in this altered situation that a hostility between the Church and the Jewish people developed. The Church was no longer composed of Jews and Gentiles but consisted almost exclusively of Gentiles. Thus the polemics against Jews turned from being an inner Jewish discussion to a hostile critique from the outside. Jesus, his disciples and the apostles were Jews themselves and their criticism towards their fellow Jews was spoken in a spirit of solidarity with their own people. There could not be an opposition between Christians and Jews because the Christians were Jews themselves so that there was only a difference and even a strong dispute between those Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and those who did not.

We have to keep in mind this fundamental change from an inner Jewish messianic group to a non-Jewish Church. One of the new questions we have to learn to ask after the Holocaust is whether non-Jewish Christians are entitled to use the originally inner Jewish polemics of Paul and others, because they cannot do so in the same solidarity with the Jewish people.

The second question, closely related to the first one, is how Christians should assess the continuous existence of the Jewish people alongside the Christian Church. The Church chose to struggle against the Jewish people and to deny its theological right to exist. She did so, as I mentioned before, because she felt an incompatible alternative between her own existence and that of the Jewish people. Obviously she was unable to follow the line shown her by Paul: to accept the unbroken validity of Israel's election by God and of the covenant God had concluded with her.

It was this thinking in alternatives which misled the Christian Church in her attitude towards Jews. Since the time of Constantine this thinking was combined with the triumphalism of the Church closely bound up with political power. From that time on the theological anti-Judaism of the Church became fatal for Jews. Often their only alternative was a choice between baptism and death.

Change Required of Christians

In the light of the Holocaust we must learn that this was not only a perversion of a theological axiom which was right in principle, but that it was the consequence of a wrong path the Church had taken. We have to learn anew to understand God's way with mankind. This way began with Israel. The foundations of the knowledge of the one true God are found in this people. They continued to keep this knowledge and faith and to live according to the Torah given to them by Moses. Later on Gentiles were added to this people of God and a new step was made towards the development of knowledge and faith, but the first step was never revoked. Christians claiming that the Church is the only people of God are wrong. To speak thus is to deny the very history of God because the people he had first chosen continued to exist and to believe in him, to pray to him and to live according to his Torah. Christians should no longer try to interpret God's history with mankind according to their own ideas but should learn to pay attention to the realities of God's history. Christians have been blind for too long to the real history of God because they considered their own dogmas as being more important.

If we begin to learn this we shall no longer feel obliged to convert Jews to our own way of faith and life. On the contrary, we shall learn to understand the Jewish way as a very important and valuable one independent of our own and we shall learn what both of us, Christians and Jews, have in common.

There are some hopeful signs that Christians are beginning to learn their new lesson. Let me conclude by referring to recent examples that have come from Germany. The first one has been mentioned already: the resolution of the Synod of the Protestant Church of the Rhineland. It is the first time that such an ecclesiastical body has dealt in an official declaration with the relations of Christians and Jews. I quote some passages from this declaration, at the same time trying to explain the inner structure of two texts:

The first paragraph reads as follows:
"We confess, being confounded, the co-responsi. bility and guilt of German Christianity for the Holocaust"

This shows the fundamental role of the Holocaust as a starting point for re-thinking the Christian attitude towards Jews.

The second paragraph acknowledges the Scriptures,
"the Old Testament, as a common basis for the faith and actions of Jews and Christians."

Then Jesus Christ is named as the Jew who, as Israel's Messiah, is the saviour of the world and joins the nations of the world to the people of God. Therelations of Israel and the Church are described as follows:
"We believe in the continuing election of the Jewish people as the people of God and we recognize that the Church was brought through Jesus Christ into the covenant of God with his People."

Finally it is said:
"We believe that Jews and Christians in their respective vocations are witnesses to the world and to each other."

This means the equality of both religions; hence the conclusion that follows in the statement I quoted previously:
"We are therefore convinced that the Church cannot fulfil her witness to the Jewish people in the same way as she fulfils her mission to the nations of the world."

This declaration contains a quite clear and consistent argument explaining as it does that the Holocaust has opened the way for a new understanding of the importance of Judaism for the Christian Churches. It stresses the common basis of the Jewish and Christian faith. It speaks of the addition of the Gentiles to the people of God without annulling the election of the Jewish people and therefore shows the impossibility of a Christian mission to Jews. This is the line that must be followed for a new understanding of Christian attitudes towards Jews.

The second paper I wish to quote comes from a Roman Catholic body. The Central Committee of German Catholics established a Jewish-Christian dialogue in April, 1979 which published a paper on central points in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I shall quote from one paragraph only which deals with mutual witness:

.. it is fundamentally prohibited to Jews and to Christians to seek to move the other to become disloyal to the call of God which he has received.. . . Christians, on the basis of their own understanding of the faith, cannot forego to testify to Jesus as the Christ also vis-a-vis the Jews Jews, on the basis of their self-understanding, cannot refrain from stressing the non-abrogation of the Torah also vis--vis the Christians. In either case, this includes the hope that, by means of this testimony, the other's loyalty to the call he has received from God might increase, and that the mutual understanding might be deepened. On the other hand, the expectation should not be included that the other may renege on his yes to his call or weaken it."

As far as I can see this is the first time that an official ecclesiastical paper, signed by a Catholic bishop, has described the Jewish and Christian positions in such an equal manner. Christians cannot... and Jews cannot ... and both of them have the same incontestable right to these positions; neither of them should try to convert the other.


I feel it to be of great theological importance that Christian theologians agree to say that the Torah isas indispensable to Jews as Jesus Christ is to Christians. This mutual acknowledgement of Christians and Jews could be the most decisive step in overcoming the hostility of two millenia.

It is quite clear that under such altered conditions any Christian mission to Jews becomes anachronistic. I hope that Christians wilt be able to go step by step in this direction. It will take a lot of time, but the first steps have been taken.


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