‘In the womb of Israel’ with special reference to the theology of Thomas Torrance

It seems apropos to repost this post that I wrote awhile ago, given the current and ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. My post starts talking about geo-political realities, but breaks off into the proper theological realities that I believe ought to fund any real discussion about Israel, God, Christians, and the Nations. Here’s the post:

Israel is and always has been at the center of the storm, in world history, so to speak. Whether we are doing biblical studies or watching world news, Israel, one way or the other makes its way into the cycle of discussion. For some (Christians) the nation of Israel is the whole point of human history; Israel, for them, is the orientation and purpose for all of the biblical covenants. We might be able to go so far as to say that for some (Christians), Jesus Christ himself is subordinate to the nation of Israel, when, at least, it comes to understanding the point and trajectory of world history. For others (both Christians and non-Christians) the nation of Israel really isn’t that important —especially geopolitically— in fact for others, the nation of Israel (contemporaneously) is an oppressive regime who function as the taskmasters of the Palestinians. No matter how Israel is understood, whether biblically, theologically, politically, historically, or currently; Israel always seems to be able to wiggle itself into the cross hairs of almost any other group’s thought who is not Israel.

This phenomenon is not something that has happened by chance; in fact, I would argue that the primary reason Israel, to one degree or another, is at the center point of much consideration is a spiritual theological one. Indeed, for the Christian, and thus the world (because the Christian is for the world, in a particular way), Israel’s life is highlighted because they have a critical role to play in mediating the real purpose and point of history into the world. Because God covenanted with them, by grace, the nation of Israel became the particular humanity through which God’s Son, Jesus Christ would come (and has) to be the Savior of the world. Without Israel, because God chose such, we would not have the proper categories or antennae to know God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is this point that Thomas Torrance hammers home in a way that simply won’t let you not appreciate the nation of Israel in a properly formed understanding of their place in relation to God in Christ. Torrance writes:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all bound up inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures of the New Testament church, the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour. Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God; apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognise Jesus as the Son of God; apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we could not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus. The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work our from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 53-4.]

So without the nation of Israel, the world would be in trouble. But without Christ, the nation of Israel is just as lost as the rest of the nations who make up the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, in Christ. The only “pass” the nation of Israel gets is the same “pass” that we have all gotten in and through the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ as penultimately established in the cross work of his active life for all of us. The nation of Israel will always have a special place at the right hand of God, but ultimately that place gives way to its reality in Jesus Christ himself. What’s at the center of this whole discussion, at the end, really has nothing to do with ethnos, or nationality; instead, it has to do with the person of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ, the servant from Israel. It is in Christ’s life “as” Israel, that Israel, and the rest of humanity is made one in the new humanity of Jesus Christ; and the dividing wall between the two is no more. So while Jesus would not be Jesus, by his gracious choice, without Israel; Israel and the Gentiles have the same standing in God through Christ, there is no distinction. It is through the new exalted humanity in Christ that Jew and Gentile alike has access to God by the same Spirit.

What does this do to all of the various emphases and ways in to thinking about Israel today? It radicalizes them, such that the nation of Israel, as particuarlized in Christ, is not something that we can fight over politically, it is not something that can be subordinated to the whims of our interpretive schemas; but instead, the nation of Israel, in Christ, is a personal someone who transcends all of our claims, and transcends in the concrete particularity of God’s life in the Jewish man from Nazareth. It radicalizes Israel, because it understands new Israel as the singular ‘seed’ of Abraham, distinct from, but inseparably related to the nation of Israel. It radicalizes the concept of Israel, because, in Christ, the new humanity, the point of Israel has provided the context for God in Christ to be revealed as Lord.

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