A Jewish Engagement with Christian Postliberalism
|A Brief Review of
There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when it seemed that the Barthian impact on theology was beginning to wane. Liberation theologies and even a resurgent liberal impulse dominated many mainline seminaries. A resurgent political evangelicalism captivated the right. In the midst of this, Yale was producing a new group of scholars, influenced by Barth and the ecumenical movements. Hans Frei and David Lindbeck were the leading edge of this wave soon dubbed postliberalism. A similar movement was burgeoning on the other side of the Atlantic at Cambridge.
Today names like Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Robert Jenson, David Ford and John Howard Yoder are all identified with this general stream of thought which is marked by a concern for moving beyond the stale arguments of modernity that pitted a liberal humanism against reactionary restatements of orthodoxy. Postliberalism sought to return to the Bible and to classical Christian doctrine to repair the wounds of the modern world. As Peter Ochs puts it, “its primary question is how to rearticulate the rationality that emerges from out of the scriptural traditions” (5).
Ochs may seem a strange guide for an exploration of this movement. As a practicing Jew and professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia, he comes to the subject out of his own commitments and his extensive grounding in the work of the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. But there are many reasons why Ochs is the perfect candidate for this study. He has been engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue for many years through his leadership in the Society for Textual Reasoning and the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, networks that encourage joint reading of scriptures. Secondly, he is focusing his study on the subject of supersessionism, claiming that the the traditional argument that God replaced Israel with the Church is a deformation of Christian theology, something that many postliberal thinkers have posited. Finally, he knows all the principals here, having worked with many of them as colleagues at Yale or Virginia.
Ochs is an exuberant, expansive, relentless thinker. This book crackles with his energy and erudition. He devotes chapters to deep dialogue with individual theologians like those named above. While there are parts that will be intriguing to general readers, it will be most helpful to those who have spent some time with postliberal texts and postmodern philosophy and who know the terrain. Peter Ochs is convincing as he argues his central point that nonsupersessionism is a distinctive feature of every truly postliberal theology. He is also hopeful that theological trends in which Christians adopt a high Christology and Jews claim their own identity do not have to lead to division. Perhaps, he says, “they may affirm the particularity of their scriptural and liturgical traditions without at the same time delegitimating the other tradition of the One God” (20).
Alex Joyner teaches at the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is the author of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon, 2010].