Many Christian and Jewish groups accept a teaching today, first taught by Franz Rosenzweig earlier this century, that there are two separate but equal covenants or ways to God. The New Testament rejects this, asserting that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people. The apostle Paul summarized this in his letter to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). The quintessential form of anti-Semitism is refusing to share the gospel with Jewish people.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans the apostle paints for us a graphic visual picture. Imagine for a moment seeing millions and millions of people, standing in a long line. They are of different ages, male and female, some very young and others very old.
As we look at them, we see that they are all carrying Bibles under their arms or in their hands. Many of these Bibles evidently are well read, marked and worn from usage. In fact, an incalculable number of these people have large portions of their Bibles memorized, some entire sections or books.
Imagine also that these people are very faithful in attending church, worshiping regularly and tithing, and are active not only in their churches but also in their communities. Many, if not most of these individuals, live exemplary lives. And then, imagine seeing all these people — in a line that goes on and on as far as the eye can see — walking into the eternal flames of hell with Bibles in their hands!
This image conveys an idea of what Paul was experiencing as he wrote to the church in Rome. In an extremely personal and moving section, he spoke of his fellow Israelites, the Jewish people, in these words: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel…Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Rom. 9:2–4; 10:1).
QUESTIONS RELATING TO PAUL’S MESSAGE
Numerous questions exist today in the field of comparative religions and missiology. This is especially true when it comes to discussions concerning Christianity and Judaism.
Many Christian theologians today, as well as many different and disparate Christian denominations, question the need to share the gospel with Jewish people. In fact, many consider attempts at Jewish evangelization to be insensitive and judgmental. For example, in a publication of the Lutheran Council in the USA, distributed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Eric Gritsch states:
There really is no need for any Christian mission to the Jews. They are and remain the people of God, even if they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Why this is so only God knows. Christians should concentrate their missionary activities on those who do not yet belong to the people of God, and they should court them with a holistic witness in word and deed rather than with polemical argument and cultural legislation. The long history of Christian anti-Semitism calls for repentance, not triumphalist claims of spiritual superiority.1
The claim that the Jewish people do not need to know and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, as their Messiah, is an extraordinary one that invites a critical response. Yet, before criticizing those who make such a claim, we should at least be conversant with what they are saying and why they are saying it. Thus, while the purpose of this article is to present the biblical basis for sharing the gospel with the Jewish people, we will begin with an overview of what this “two covenant” theology is, its historical roots, and the reasons why many Jewish and Christian groups accept this view today.
Franz Rosenzweig and the Origins of Two Covenant Theology
In virtually every historical work examining the factors that have influenced modern Jewish-Christian relations, the person of Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) is prominent. Rosenzweig’s tenets were like the proverbial boulder that began an avalanche. The boulder was an idea, a hypothesis, that has created an avalanche in the history of ideas, particularly in the history of religion. Just as avalanches begin slowly, picking up speed, energy, and mass — so too with Rosenzweig’s “two covenant” theory of atonement.
Franz Rosenzweig first put forth the two covenant theory, as it is commonly referred to, shortly after the First World War in a work entitled The Star of Redemption. His theology of the two covenants came about through a long series of discussions with a friend of his, a Hebrew Christian philosopher of religion, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
At one point, Rosenzweig was on the verge of becoming a convert to Christianity. Raised in Cassel, Germany in a largely assimilated Jewish household, he decided to attend a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service in Berlin first, determining that “he would enter Christianity through Judaism. Like the earliest Christians, he would only enter as a Jew and not as a pagan.”2
Instead of becoming a Christian, Rosenzweig became fascinated with his religious roots. Concerning this, Nahum Glatzer writes: “What the day [Yom Kippur] conveyed to him was that essential as a mediator may be in the Christian experience, the Jew stands in no need of mediation. God is near to man and desires his undeviated devotion.”3
The two covenant theory of salvation, which Rosenzweig would subsequently develop, basically states that God has established two different but equally valid covenants, one with His people Israel and the other with the Gentiles. The Covenant in Moses and the Covenant in Jesus are complementary to each other. Glatzer quotes Rosenzweig on this as follows:
Christianity acknowledges the God of the Jews, not as God but as “the Father of Jesus Christ.” Christianity itself cleaves to the “Lord” because it knows that the Father can be reached only through him….We are all wholly agreed as to what Christ and his church mean to the world: no one can reach the Father save through him. No one can reach the Father! But the situation is quite different for one who does not have to reach the Father because he is already with him. And this is true of the people of Israel (though not of individual Jews).4
And so there are two ways of salvation, one for the Jewish people and another one for the Gentiles.
Glatzer continues, explaining Rosenzweig’s thought with the following quotation from him: “The synagogue, which is immortal but stands with broken staff and bound eyes, must renounce all this work in the world, and muster all her strength to preserve her life and keep herself untainted by life. And so she leaves the work in the world to the church and recognizes the church as the salvation for all heathens in all time.”5 Concerning this, Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski stated, “Rosenzweig conceded more than any Jew, while remaining a Jew, had conceded before him. He admitted the truth of John 14:6.” This is immediately qualified, though, by the assertion that “the Jew does not have to come to the Father. He has been with the Father ever since Sinai.”6
Jewish Writers on the Two Covenant Theory
Space will not allow for a thorough survey of Jewish writers on this. It is sufficient to say that this belief in two separate covenants is widely held by many Jewish people today. Arthur Gilbert states: “Judaism allows for religious pluralism and does not consider it scandalous….We do not believe that God’s plan for salvation requires your conversion to Judaism nor mine to Christianity. But it does require our cooperation, our concern for, our joint effort to repair the world.”7
Leon Klenicki, formerly the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Department of Interfaith Affairs, expands on this in an essay discussing Jewish-Christian dialogue: “The dialogue involves a process of meeting and recognition between two faith communities, two experiences of God: Christianity and Judaism. It is an encounter of subjects, not faith, not objects of contempt, two equal testimonies to God. For each partner it means the recognition of the other as a constituent in God’s design, the acceptance of a different approach to the Eternal, a different though not conflicting spirituality.”8
Renowned Orthodox rabbi Pinchas Lapide summarizes this new view of co-equal and complementary faiths, living side by side together: “We Jews and Christians are joined in brotherhood at the deepest level….We are brothers in a manifold ‘elective affinity.’”9
Christians and the Two Covenant Theory
Just as with Jewish writers, there are numerous Christians who believe in a theology of two covenants. Such views usually come from certain mainline denominations, none of which have retained belief in the full inerrancy and authority of the Bible. For example, Carl Braaten writes: “Christianity is the Judaizing of the pagans. The task of Christianity is to preach the gospel among the Gentiles….The task of Judaism meanwhile is to remind Christianity of its original biblical roots.”10
Similarly, many Roman Catholic theologians have taken the pronouncements of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio (1991) to their logical conclusion, viz., that religious dialogue with members of other religions is to replace actual missionary efforts: “Former Christian considerations of Judaism (as well as of other religions) encouraged proselytism. That is, Christians believed it not only legitimate but praiseworthy to exert economic, psychological, or spiritual pressure on non-Christians in order to gain new members for the Church. The dialogical position, however, is one in which the parties accept one another as mutually equal partners.”11
This position, however, is also increasingly being found among Christians who accept and believe in the Bible as the Word of God. For example, George Sheridan, who at the time was the East Coast Regional Director for the Southern Baptist department of Interfaith Witness, asserted that God’s bond with the Jewish people was never superseded with the coming of Jesus: “The Jews of today, as ever, receive salvation through their having been chosen by God in covenant with Abraham, Moses, and the prophets….My position is that the Jews do not require evangelization.”12
A BIBLICAL ANALYSIS
At this point, it is essential to return to Scripture and see if there is any biblical foundation for a theology of two separate but equal covenants. I believe even a brief examination will show us that there is not. In doing this, we will look at Jesus’ example, the practice of the apostles, and the practice of Paul.
Before looking at these, however, perhaps the best place to begin our examination of two covenant theology is with Paul’s opening declaration in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”
Many wonder why Paul would begin his message with an assertion that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Different answers have been given, the most cogent, in my opinion, being that proposed by former Concordia Seminary professor Martin H. Franzmann: “Why should Paul speak, even negatively, of being ashamed of the Gospel, which gives his life its content, purpose and direction? He is probably recalling Jesus’ words of warning, ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in glory’ (Luke 9:26).”13 Concerning this, in his letter to young Timothy the apostle Paul writes: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner” (2 Tim. 1:7–8).
But what did Paul mean when he stated that the gospel was the power of God “for the salvation of everyone who believes”? Perhaps an illustration will help us understand more fully. A number of years ago an evangelical attempt at piquing people’s curiosity, and thus enabling Christians to share the gospel message with non-Christians, was developed by putting bumper stickers on cars that said, “I Found It!” When people saw this, they were supposed to ask what it was the driver had “found.” In response to this, some Jewish groups countered with their own bumper sticker, which stated, “We Never Lost It!”
This is the crux of the problem. Who is Jesus, and how is one “saved”? I believe for many, if not most, Christians today the entire concept of salvation has dulled. It is almost as if we take salvation for granted. The urgency of our salvation and the unspeakable eternal consequences of being cut off from God are obscurred in our minds.
This was not so with Paul’s readers, as Franzmann makes clear: “The word ‘salvation’ is for us a worn coin; for Paul and his readers, fresh from their Old Testament, it still had a sharp image and a clear superscription. It meant radical deliverance out of a desperate situation. What Israel had experienced at the Red Sea, when all help was cut off before and behind and only a vertical miracle from on high could save, that was salvation.”14
The apostle tells us that this salvation message was “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). There have been two main understandings or interpretations of what Paul meant here by the term proton (English: first). The first understanding or interpretation is that Paul was merely referring to first in a chronological sense. Concerning the usage of first and whether this meant that the Jews have a “special preference in salvation,” Swedish theologian Anders Nygren writes, “Does this after all mean that the Jew has special preference in salvation? That cannot be what Paul means. The word may refer to Israel’s special history. In that case their priority is now abolished with the coming of Christ. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek.’ All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28)….Thus the priority of the Jew is abolished.”15
The great theologian Charles Hodge echoes this, saying that Paul’s usage of first in this verse “must have reference to time, ‘To the Jew in the first instance, and then to the Greek.’”16
The second understanding or interpretation of what Paul means here is that first has reference not only chronologically but also in the sense of a priority. C. E. B. Cranfield’s commentary on Romans explains this as a tension between the equality all Christians have in common, and yet a special calling or place for the Jew in God’s church: “The word te…is suggestive of the fundamental equality of Jew and Gentile in the face of the gospel (the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for believing Jew and believing Gentile alike), while the word proton indicates that within the framework of this basic equality there is a certain undeniable priority of the Jew. In view of chapters nine to eleven it is hardly admissible to explain this proton as referring merely to the historical fact that the gospel was preached to the Jews before it was preached to the Gentiles.”17 Of great import here, Cranfield asserts, is Romans 11:29: “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
Along with this verse, the theologians who believe that proton refers to a priority will usually cite two other passages, Romans 2:9 and Acts 13:46. In Romans 2:9, Paul was referring to the coming judgment, stating, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first [proton] for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” I do not know of any commentators who exegete first here in a temporal sense.
This exegesis is supported further when one looks at a number of passages, especially Acts 13:13–52. In this account, Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, where Paul eloquently shared the gospel with the people gathered there (13:13ff.). When the Jewish people eventually rejected the gospel, Paul and Barnabas responded very forthrightly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (v. 46; here and in subsequent Scripture quotations, the emphases are added).
As the entire New Testament demonstrates, Christianity is — at its very core — a missionary faith. The Christian’s command from the very beginning was to go and “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Indeed, this is seen in Jesus’ very last words to His disciples, as He departed into heaven: “And you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
After Pentecost this command was taken literally, as the early church turned Jerusalem upside-down. Concerning this, David Bosch writes, “Mass conversions of the Jews are again and again reported, particularly of Jews in Jerusalem…in Acts 2:41, three thousand Jews are converted; in 4:4 there are five thousand; in 5:14 ‘multitudes of both men and women’ are added; in 6:7 the number of the disciples in Jerusalem has ‘multiplied greatly’; in 21:20 Paul is informed about ‘many thousands’…of believing Jews.”18
Jesus and the Jewish People
In Jesus’ ministry we see numerous situations in which He came “to the Jew first.” At the very beginning of John’s Gospel account, we are told that Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). He ministered to and among the Jewish people (e.g., Matt. 4:23–25; 9:35).
It was only in unusual circumstances that Jesus ministered to non-Jewish people (e.g., the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 and the Roman centurion’s servant in Matthew 8). The primary principle was to go first to the people of Israel. Thus, when Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, He told them, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6).
This command to go to the Jewish people is seen likewise in our Lord’s commands after His resurrection. As before, the apostles are to go out among the Jewish people with the message of salvation in Jesus the Messiah. But a new note is added; that is, they also are to spread this message beyond the confines of the Jewish people and take it to the Gentiles as well. Their command was, “beginning at Jerusalem” to take the message out to all people and to all nations, both to the Jew and to the Greek (i.e., the Gentiles; cf., Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–47; Acts 1:8).
The Apostles and the Jewish People
I believe we see in the practice of the apostles a paradigm of missions for the entire church. In the very first preaching of the gospel after Jesus’ departure, we find the apostle Peter boldly proclaiming the good news of salvation in the midst of a Jewish audience. Acts 2:5 tells us that there were “Jews from every nation” present. In fact, he addressed his message specifically to the Jewish people: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem…” and “Men of Israel, listen to this” (2:14, 22). Furthermore, he concluded his message with the bold and challenging words: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (2:36). Apparently, according to our modern sensitivities, Peter was unaware that he was being offensive to some of the Jewish people by telling them that they needed to repent and receive Jesus as their Lord and Messiah.
This same pattern of preaching to the Jewish people is followed consistently throughout the Book of Acts (e.g., the apostles with Jewish people in the Temple in 3:11–26; the apostles before the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” in 4:5ff., with a special emphasis on vv. 10–12 [cf., John 14:6]; the apostles before the full Sanhedrin in 5:27ff.; Stephen before the Sanhedrin in ch. 7). It is not until Acts 10 that we find any attempt to begin taking the gospel to anyone other than Jewish people, and this took several miraculous interventions from God before it occurred. In fact, immediately after Peter brought the gospel to Cornelius and his household, he was criticized for sharing the message of salvation with Gentiles (Acts 11:1–2)!
It was only very slowly and reluctantly that the early church began fulfilling Jesus’ command to bring the gospel to people other than Jews. Finally, after the great council of Jerusalem reported in Acts 15, Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas were sent out with instructions for the Gentile believers (vv. 19–21).
Paul and the Jewish People
Ironically, perhaps the supreme New Testament example of an apostle bringing the news of Jesus Christ to Jewish people is from the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul (Rom. 11:13). We saw above the account of Paul and Barnabas entering into the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch and sharing the gospel with the Jewish people there (Acts 13). As we noted, the Jews rejected Jesus, not considering themselves “worthy of eternal life” (13:46).
Yet it remained the apostle’s normal methodology to bring the gospel to the Jewish people first, before continuing on with the Gentiles. Thus we find in Acts 14:1 that “at Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual to the Jewish synagogue.” Moreover, we are told that they “spent considerable time there” (v.3).
From the very beginning Paul did take the gospel to the Jewish people first (e.g., Acts 9:20–22, 26–29). This pattern continued throughout his lifetime of ministry.
This is evident throughout Paul’s writings. First, he emphasized that apart from knowing their Messiah, the Jewish people were cut off from God and from their covenant with Him. For example, in his second letter to the Corinthians, he writes:
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13–16)
Second, Paul continually asked that prayers be offered up for the Jewish people, that they might repent and be brought back into a relationship with God — that is, that they might receive Jesus as their Lord and God, as their long-awaited Messiah.
This is especially evident in Romans 9–11. In Romans 9:1–5, Paul eloquently wrote of how the Jewish people were elected by God in the past, and yet the adoption, the covenants, the Law, the temple worship, and the promises were all to no avail — for they rejected their own Messiah.
Apparently unaware of any “two covenant” theory, Paul again urged that prayers be made for them: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom. 10:1–2).
He concluded that although the Jewish people are cut off for now, God has not totally rejected them. God still has plans for them, and they would yet receive Jesus (Rom. 11).
Much more could be said concerning this, but it is sufficient for our purposes to see that throughout the New Testament the Jewish people are always referred to as people who need to know and receive Jesus Christ. In this concern they are no different than any of the Gentiles.
As much as one might like to agree with those promulgating a theology of two covenants, it simply is not a biblical doctrine. Quite to the contrary, it goes against everything that we find in the New Testament relating to missions. In fact, this is the quintessential form of anti-Semitism, for in promoting this false doctrine the only way of salvation is closed to the Jewish person (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Nothing could be more dangerous, racist, or pernicious than this.
As we’ve seen, the apostle Paul boldly affirmed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). We are not to be ashamed of sharing the good news of the gospel with anyone. In that this good news came through the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in that “salvation is from the Jews” (John. 4:22), this message was “for the Jew first.”
It seems that this is almost completely forgotten today. The gospel of Jesus Christ was first and foremost to go to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. Christians owe a great debt to the Jews, for our entire spiritual heritage is derived from them. Indeed, we have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel, not the reverse (Rom. 11:11ff.).
Two Unanswered Questions: A Hypothesis
I close with two unanswered questions concerning the two covenant theory, at least unanswered for those who believe in the authority of God’s Word. I place them in the form of a hypothesis.
If the apostles and early church were called by God to bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to the people of Israel — to share the person and work of the Jewish Messiah with the Jews, then when was this call abrogated? And how do we know that it was abrogated; that is, by what authority was this call to preach and evangelize terminated?
As far as I know, these two questions remain unanswered by proponents of this theology, or at least unanswered from a biblical perspective. Stephen Neill eloquently sums up the task Christians face in reaching out to the Jewish people with the good news of Jesus Christ:
Franz Rosenzweig suggested that the church has need of the synagogue, if it is to be true to its vocation. The Christian must ask for liberty to suggest to the Jew that the synagogue has need of the church, if it is to find its own true fulfillment. The suggestion must be made with the utmost humility, with a full sense both of the wrongs for which the church has been responsible in the past, and of the admiration due to the amazing faithfulness with which the Jew has clung to the God who has chosen him. All that he dare ask is that the Jew will look again at Jesus Christ, without hate and without prejudice, and consider whether there may not be things in the picture that he has so far missed.19
Sanford Mills, a Hebrew believer, eloquently summarizes the other half of the problem we are facing today in attempting to reach Jewish people with the gospel. “The sad part of it is this, that many sincere Christians who do not believe that the Gospel is to the Jew first, do not believe that the Gospel is for the Jew at all!”20
Joseph P. Gudel is a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and is currently a doctoral candidate at Concordia Theological Seminary.
1Eric W. Gritsch, “Luther and the Jews: Toward a Judgment of History,” in Luther and the Jews (n.p.: Lutheran Council in the USA, 1995), 9.2Arnold Betz, “Franz Rosenzweig: Essay and Exhibit”(AOL:www.library.vanderbilt.edu/divinity/rosenzw/rosenbib.html: 1997), 3.3Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 162.4Franz Rosenzweig, in Glatzer, 341.5Ibid., 342.6Jakob J. Petuchowski, “The Christian-Jewish Dialog: A Jewish View,” Lutheran World, October 1963, 383.7Arthur Gilbert, “The Mission of the Jewish People in History and in the Modern World,” Lutheran World, July 1964, 308.8Leon Klenicki, “Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue, ed. Leon Klenicki and Geoffrey Wigoder (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 101-2.9Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), 2.10Carl E. Braaten, “The Resurrection in Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Lapide, 19.11Celia Deutsch, “Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Klenicki and Wigoder, 103.12George Sheridan, in Mitch Glasser, “Critique of the Two Covenant Theory,” Mishkan: A Theological Forum on Jewish Evangelism 11 (1989): 2, 45. Shortly after making this comment, Sheridan was removed from his position by Rev. Larry Lewis, the President of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board. Lewis explained Sheridan’s dismissal by saying, “We must believe in Jesus Christ and accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Someone who doesn’t hold that position shouldn’t be in an evangelistic position for the Home Mission Board” (Glasser, 68).13Martin H. Franzmann, Concordia Commentary: Romans (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 32.14Ibid., 33.15Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949), 73.16Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1882), 43.17C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 91.18David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991), 96.19Stephen Neill, Christian Faith and Other Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 55.20Sanford Mills, A Hebrew Christian Looks at Romans (New York: ABMJ Press, 1971), 37.