Tag Archives: jewish theology

Clement Of Alexandria, Romans 11, And Interreligious Dialogue

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While reading Clement of Alexandria during a recent church service, I happened to read what good ole Clement thought of Romans 11, and, SURPRISE SURPRISE, he saw the language of engrafting as being very helpful too. I know, WHAT ARE THE ODDS!

This is a pretty extensive quote [Clement’s Stromata/The Carpets, Book 6, Chapter 15], so I am going to break it down, and mansplain this one:

Different modes of engrafting illustrative of different kinds of conversion.  They say that engrafting is effected in four modes: one, that in which   the graft must be fitted in between the wood and the bark; resembling   the way in which we instruct plain people belonging to the Gentiles,   who receive the word superficially.

First thing I would like to note by the first mode is that Clement makes use of the biblical category of GENTILE.  Our “conversion” to the faith is not the, ahem, one way to come to know the One True God that the prophets preached. In other words, the place where we Gentiles stands is one of incorporation.

Another is, when the wood is cleft,  and there is inserted in it the cultivated branch. And this applies to   the case of those who have studied philosophy; for on cutting through   their dogmas, the acknowledgment of the truth is produced in them. So  also in the case of the Jews, by opening up the Old Testament, the new  and noble plant of the olive is inserted.

The second mode is enlightenment, and this is primarily the place of where the Jews, God’s chosen ones stand.  Why do I say this? Because Clement argues that the philosophers stole or borrowed their best ideas (monotheism, ethics that line up with The Law), from the Jews.  On the hierarchy of philosophers, the ancient Hebrews are at the very top of the pyramid for Clement. While the language of enlightment brings its own set of problem, I think a limited use in this instance is valuable.

The third mode of engrafting   applies to rustics and heretics, who are brought by force to the truth.   For after smoothing off both suckers with a sharp pruning-hook, till   the pith is laid bare, but not wounded, they are bound together.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211/216).

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211/216). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the four modes, the third one is the most troubling for me. Even if Clement means in a not-so-PC fashion that verbal confrontation of heretics and pagans, I mean, rustics, will mean arrival at truth, there is something dominionist and violent about this approach to Christianity and other religions. A fellow Alexandrian, Cyril, years later, may have taken these words to heart, and lead mobs against Egyptian Jews. Of course, that would mean overlooking Clement’s second mode for engrafting.

And   the fourth is that form of engrafting called budding. For a bud (eye)   is cut out of a trunk of a good sort, a circle being drawn round in the   bark along with it, of the size of the palm. Then the trunk is   stripped, to suit the eye, over an equal circumference. And so the   graft is inserted, tied round, and daubed with clay, the bud being kept   uninjured and unstained. This is the style of gnostic teaching, which   is capable of looking into things themselves. This mode is, in truth,   of most service in the case of cultivated trees. And “the engrafting   into the good olive” mentioned by the apostle, may be [engrafting into]   Christ Himself; the uncultivated and unbelieving nature being   transplanted into Christ–that is, in the case of those who believe in   Christ. But it is better [to understand it] of the engrafting [3425] of   each one’s faith in the soul itself. For also the Holy Spirit is thus   somehow transplanted by distribution, according to the circumscribed   capacity of each one, but without being circumscribed.


Clement’s last mode is more about sanctification and perfection, what he referred to as assimilation, or the believer (gnostic) is participating in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This requires a Trinitarian understanding of personhood: an idea that all humanity has the potential to become involved in the divine life of YHWH.

I am just still trying to sort all of this out, but I think the implications of Clement’s use of engrafting are 75% helpful when it comes to discussing other religions, and possibly even mission work.  For Gentiles, our vocation is to approach other Gentiles, as Gentiles, in honesty, and not hiding (or denying this fact). To this effect, we can have a conversation about religion not on our terms, but on possibly others’ terms, and affirm the uniqueness of their experience, all the while, Christians can present the Good News of the Resurrection, and the truth about the person Christ Jesus. As for the problematic third mode, I would revise the budding language, and rather than aim it at the “rustics” as city slicker Clement would have us, but rather a verbal confrontation towards apostates and heretical Christians.  There’s good precedent set for this by the apostle Paul in his letters to the Corinthians.  So, the difference would be the “budding” as an interior critique that takes place inside the Body of Christ.

Wherefore also, though the wild olive be wild, it crowns the Olympic victors.

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Engrafted Into The Story: Romans 11 And Reconciliation


Image taken from Seattle Pacific University

Today, I would like to take the time to discuss my view of Romans 11, and the problem with historic approaches that I shall briefly allude to. The most infamous of approaches to Romans 9-11 is the allegorical reading of Romans 9-11. The Allegorical approach to reading Scripture has its strengths but when it come to these passages, its limits are exposed. Augustine of Hippo was one of the first Christians to apply this technique to these 3 chapters, and in the process, theological determinism was given birth. The debate starts with Romans 9:13, the oft quoted verse by Augustinians and Calvinists, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” In the context of the chapter, God’s election, God choosing special people over others, starts inside a woman’s womb, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, the daughter-in-law and relative of Abraham. Reading Romans 9:10-13 by privileging a Greek/Gentile literary reading strategy over and above unique revelation from YHWH (the Hebrew Bible)is problematic; it is a practical way in which supersessionism, the idea that Gentile-lead Christianity overtakes Judaism as the household of God, manifests itself. Augustine, and those who claim to be his heirs in Protestantism, the Reformed tradition with modern-day neo-Calvinists and the like do not in fact practice “Sola Scriptura” as they claim, or using Scripture to interpret Scripture first, but rather tradition and individualism to do so.

The implications from this interpretation are this: Jacob is the elect chosen before the creation, and Esau, in this ALLEGORY, is the reprobate, chosen by God before creation. Just when does God choose them to their fates, before or after the fall? Well that’s up to debate between our theological determinist friends. I’ll let them sort that out.

So, if we go by just the Reformation tradition, and its own standard of Sola Scriptura, there is conflict in the popular, predestination, individual election reading of Romans 9-11. The subsequent debate of Arminians proposing “corporate election” as opposed to “individual election” misses the point of my criticism. This isn’t about the nature of election; in the Hebrew Bible, there is both. This is about interpretation of Scripture, and the relationship of our Messianic Pharisee friend Paul’s writings with that of the canon. Using the Hebrew Bible/First Testament to understand the New/Second (biblical scholars call this practice intertextuality) is an important part in understanding God’s mission of to the world through God’s Son Jesus the Anointed One, and the Holy Spirit.

Supersessionism and its fellow heretical teaching, that of Marcionism (the belief that there is 2 God in the Christian canon, an evil violent God in the “Old” and a “peaceful”, loving God in the “New.” What perpetuates supersessionism is well meaning pastors and professors continually essentializing Judaism as a warmongering religion of revenge. Have you ever heard or read someone say that “the Jews were waiting for a violent messiah to overtake their enemies”? The idea that God evolved (that being God’s character) from violent to non-violent being taught by white Emergent Church leaders is just another form of this supersessionism, with a nice, smiling face. Amy Jill-Levine points out, for example, that the oft-cited Psalm of Solomon chapter 17, where Israel’s Messiah is supposed to have a “blitzkrieg” versus the Gentiles, verses often times get ignored. The nations are destroyed by “the words from his mouth.” Does this sound familiar? This is exactly the same concept that the author of Revelation says about Jesus, that a sword will come from Christ’s mouth in chapter 19, verse 15.

The example of Psalm of Solomon compared to Revelation is an example of just how dependent on Israel’s story Jewish and Gentile Christians alike really are. “Spiritualizing” Israel’s historic encounter with the One, True God is a supersessionist anti-Judaic practice. Let’s go back to Romans 9-11. It is my belief that the apostle Paul is utterly, hopelessly reliant on the words of the prophets, and in Romans, this is no different. Romans 9:10-13 cannot be understood apart from the stories of Jacob and Esau as well as Israel’s concrete relationship with Edom, the nation that descended from Esau. Malachi 1 for example addresses Israel implicitly as Jacob, and Edom (explicitly) as Esau:

“I have loved you,” says [YHWH].

“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?”
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’

Throughout the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, if you pay attention to the details, Edom has a special place in God’s plan. Edom is a stand-in for the rest of us Gentiles and our stories. In Deuteronomy 23, YHWH orders the Israelites: “Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country.” In the time of Solomon’s reign, as punishment, YHWH raised up opposition, from guess where? Edom! So just as the Gentiles have historically been resistant to YHWH, so has Edom rebelled against the reign of Israel.

Fast forward to Romans 11, Israel’s story is one where the descendents of Abraham lived in a cycle of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and then exile and return. God is given credit with liberating the Israelites and Judeans time and time again with judges and kings, and even after God sends God’s people into exile, God makes a way for them to return, and even choose the empire that allows them to do so according to Ezra and Chronicles. Just as the imagery in Romans 9 about stressing God’s sovereign freedom and love, so is the image of God as a gardner, engrafting the Gentiles in to the roots and branches of Israel. Much like the author of Hebrews, Paul is arguing that the Gentiles have been included fully in the new plan. This is what makes the New Covenant better than the “old”: more people for God to call beloved. The election and call to service to YHWH as well as the gift of the Promise (which includes the Law) is irrevocable (Romans 11:28). The problem with supersessionism is that it is first and foremost, a rejection of God’s plan that includes the strategy of engraftment. Understanding our Gentile place is crucial part of understanding the mission of YHWH, the Word that YHWH sent went to Israel and Judah first, and then the Gentiles.

The Resurrection faith in Yeshua the Messiah does not permit us to ask, “who will go to heaven?” or “who will go down to the abyss?” (Romans 10:5-7). These questions are not what the covenantal relationship between God and humanity is about. The specific details of the afterlife are for God to know, and God is God’s own mystery and power decides alone (Romans 11:25-36). When it comes to living in fellowship with Jews, Jewish and Gentile Christians exist as a testimony that Israel’s covenant has been opened up, that God has reconciled Jew and Gentile.

“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”- Genesis 33:4 (NIV)

John Milbank's Use Of Patristic Theology: An Observation

I am over a quarter of a ways finished reading with Milbank’s Theology And Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. In seminary, I was warned not to read John Milbank’s work because the professor informed me that it would be too “dense” for my liking. I call bunk! I think through all the name dropping that Milbank does, he makes it quite clear what his project exactly is about, something I will blog on later, but for now, I leave you with this observation:

In the opening chapters of this work, Milbank very briefly highlights Logos Christology, and how important it was for early Christians in their view of how the world was organized. Milbank somehow manages to do this without citing any of Eastern Fathers (who have a differing view on the function of the Logos). Eusebian-Arian Christianity (a proto-liberal protestantism!), rejecting Trinitarian thought in favor of a view where the Logos is the unadulterated executive power of coercion from God (page 56). This view of God’s sovereignty gets transferred over the centuries to the power of the Western individual who wields the power of self-control, and therefore the potential for domination over others. The “liberal protestant metanarrative” as Milbank calls it sees Judaism as the predecessor to liberal protestantism, and an anti-thesis to Roman Catholic ritualism and mystery. Milbank correctly points to the problem of Orientalism and the Western gaze in this regard, but he does not turn this critque on himself, or his use of Augustine. “In Augustine for example, the background of anthropological persona is Christological and trinitarian rather than jurisprudential, so that he stresses the concrete, specific unity of the person, including both soul and body, a situated unity like the unity of God and man which occurs in the specific divine personhood of Christ–inseparable from its relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit” (96). Milbank is citing Drobner’s Persone-Exegese und Christologie bei Augustinus (1986).

This view of personhood however, still gets trapped in the Gentile nation-building project (witness Milbank’s latest proposals about military schools for the poor, etc). The uncritical use of Augustine in this case permits RadOx theologians to ignore his anti-Jewish allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Milbank, in the end, is arguing against Western triumphalism for the sake of promoting Western Triumphalism. Some of the Eastern Fathers (yes, Clement of Alexandria for example), freely engaged in dialogue with their Jewish contemporaries who viewed the Logos as YHWH’s creative agency. Because these thinkers understood that the Gentiles had been engrafted into the covenant, rather than replacing God’s people, the Eastern church saw Christianity as a religion of peace and reconciliation.