A Tale of Two Covenants, Part One

The relationship between the Old and New Covenants has been a hot topic for 2000 years. Not long ago, Ann Coulter caused a media row by announcing that Christians are “perfected Jews”. A few years before that, a document called Reflections on Covenant and Mission made headlines by apparently saying that Jews did not need Jesus. What do we make of it all?

The Reflections document is as good a place to start as any, since so many people still think it is “what the Church teaches”. In fact, it was released without episcopal permission, had no magisterial authority and was immediately pulled from circulation by the bishops.

The subject of the document was the Church's relationship with the Jewish people and the most easily misread passage was this:

God's grace, which is the grace of Jesus Christ according to our faith, is available to all. Therefore, the Church believes that Judaism, i.e. the faithful response of the Jewish people to God's irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises.

Contrary to the headlines, this does not mean “Christians are saved by Jesus, Jews don’t need him.” Rather, it means that everybody who is saved—including Jews—will find that they have been saved by Jesus Christ at work in the light they have received in their own particular situation. That’s not new. It’s biblical. Here’s how:

In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the sheep are described as surprised at finding themselves saved:

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:37-40)

Romans 2:14-16 explains why they are surprised:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The basic principle here is that those who are cut off from conscious reliance on Christ through no fault of their own can nonetheless be obedient to the light of his Spirit at work in their own particular religious background and so be saved.

In that sense only, "Judaism… is salvific" particularly since Israel is the one religion specifically ordained by God to usher in Messiah.

But what many people very predictably heard—with the help of the theologically ignorant press—was, "Christians get saved by Jesus and Jews get saved by Judaism and not Jesus." Progressive Dissenters, drunk on the single truth “God wills to save all” promptly applauded the way in which the Church had "grown" (by which they meant “denied one of its own fundamental dogmatic truths about the necessity of Jesus Christ to our salvation”).

The reality, however, is that the Reflections document was immediately and rightly pulled from circulation by the bishops. That’s because, despite the wishes of Progressive Dissenters intoxicated by the single idea of indifferentist egalitarianism, the fact remains that actual magisterial teaching like Dominus Iesus makes it abundantly clear that the Church has not backed off one inch from the words of our Lord, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). That is not going to change—ever. We can, as Pope Benedict has done, speak of the fact that Israel “still has a mission to accomplish today”. We can acknowledge of the Chosen People who were made to seek the Messiah that “even this standing at the door fulfills a mission, one that is important to the world.” We can agree with the Pope that “In that way this people still has a special place in God’s plans.” But we cannot pretend that there is a second salvific covenant that does not ultimately have Jesus at the center.

The trouble is, not a few Reactionary Dissenters protest Benedict’s teaching about the Jewish people just as Progressive Dissenters protest “No one comes to the Father but by Jesus.” In parts two, three and four of this series we will look at some of the various false teachings about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants—and at the Church’s sober sanity.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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