Commissioners to the 219th General Assembly will discuss the theological potency of these patterns, as two major papers get presented and discussed.
A two-pronged outcry arose at the 2004 GA over Philadelphia Presbytery’s formation of Avodat Yisrael, a messianic synagogue-style congregation, and over Israel’s blockade of Palestinian territories. That Assembly commissioned a re-examination of our relationship to the Jews.
Prompted by post-9-11 conflicts, the 2008 GA commissioned a report on the “theological understanding of our relationship” with Muslims.
As assigned, the research was conducted by inter-departmental groupings of General Assembly Mission Council staff in conversation with leaders from the other two religious traditions. The resulting papers were introduced recently to the GAMC by Joseph Small, director of the Office of Theology and Worship, and Jay Rock, coordinator of Interfaith Relations.
The paper “Christians and Jews: People of God” builds upon “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews” that was adopted by the 1987 GA.
That relationship has long been complicated by the idea of “super-sessessionism” — the belief that Christians have replaced Jews as the people of God – which is taught in some Christian communities. “This is contrary,” Small said, “to the core of the scriptural witness and certainly contrary to the core Reformed thought about the relationship between Christians and Jews.”
Rather, he claimed, Christians are depicted in Scripture as grafted into the vine of Israel’s faith. They worship the same God.
On the other hand, Rock highlighted the differences between the Jewish faith of the people Israel and the geo-political existence of national Israel. “In Scripture,” he said, “it’s not possible to deny that God gave the particular gift of this land to a particular people.” Then again, scripture does not define the geographical boundaries of that land. Accordingly, both Palestinians and Israelis can legitimately lay claim to the land as “recipients of God’s gift and responsibilities.”
Small assured that it is appropriate for Christians to share their faith with Jews but not to target them “in pointed strategies of proselytism.” They “are not spiritual vessels waiting to be filled up with Christian faith.”
Rock turned his attention to the paper, “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations.” This paper primarily aims to help Presbyterians understand the beliefs and practices of Islam.
The two faiths teach that people cannot understand God on their own, so God has granted a self-revelation through a particular holy book. Christians also believe that the fullness of revelation is found in Jesus Christ.
Both Christians and Muslims believe in one God, known to both as Allah, the Aramaic word for God, but Christians’ belief in the trinity is rejected by Muslims.
Both religions call people to live lives of virtue, but Christians believe that that is possible only by the power of Jesus’ redemption. Muslims reject the notion of a suffering prophet-savior.
Both traditions promote human rights and social justice. However, the rights of religious minorities is “an area in which conversation between the communities is needed,” Rock acknowledged.
The task force is asking the 2010 GA to approve the report and commend it to the church for study and guidance, to develop further learning opportunities, to speak out against bigotry toward Muslims, to promote religious freedom “including the right to change one’s religion,” and to strengthen interfaith relationships of all kinds.