Brown theology lives?

israelBy Benjamin E. Williams

Special to The Layman

As the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meets in Detroit in June, it will – among other hot-button issues – be again considering its relations with Israel.  One of the most disturbing overtures concerns our hymnbooks and liturgical resources.

A Palestinian-American Presbyterian wrote to Chicago Presbytery to complain about the new Presbyterian hymnbook which had the offensive section heading of “God’s Covenant with Israel.”  In response, Chicago Presbytery penned and approved Overture 051: 07-01, “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy.”

The overture expressed concern that this heading, “God’s Covenant With Israel” is “inflammatory, misleading and hurtful.”  Its authors, including professors, call for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to distinguish sharply between Biblical Israel, as the recipient and bearer of the heritage of faith and promises of God, and the contemporary state of Israel.  At first, this is a liturgical distinction, but with the current highly-critical attitude toward modern Israel gaining momentum in the PCUSA, it could clearly have broader implications.

As they say, it’s déjà vu all over again.  In the 1930s, the theological faculty of the University of Erlangen, Germany, was an historic and respected institution, with a concern for shaping not so much academic theology, but theology for the church.  So in order to create a new spiritual movement within the German church, infused with the full dignity of the chosen people of God and equipped with all of the Biblical promises, the National Socialist Party asked several professors there to re-assess the relationship between Israel and the Church.

Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch and others complied and tried to demonstrate that the Christian Church had completely supplanted the place of Israel in God’s saving plan.  They made a careful and deliberate distinction between Israel as the Old Testament people of God, and modern Jews as their descendents.  Modern Judaism was no longer the chosen people of God, but simply one ethnic minority among others.

The Nazis were elated, adopted the Erlangen model as the theological framework for their auxiliary, Die Deutsche Christen (The German Christians).  This was “Brown Theology”, and Erlangen gained the reputation as “the Brownest University in Germany.”

Years later, Althaus, Hirsch and the others were shocked to discover they had unwittingly crafted the theological rationale to legitimize the Holocaust.  A half-century after that, when I completed my doctorate at Erlangen, the university was still burdened with its legacy of shame.

Back to Chicago: Once more professors and pastors are working to drive a wedge between the historic people of God and their present descendents.  Paul and the apostles, though, presumed their fundamental continuity.

The Gentile church had not supplanted historic Israel and the Jewish people, but was included under their aegis as, we might say, an adjunct people of God.  Paul still yearned for the day when, in the purpose and plan of God, “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11.11-12 + 25).

This is not to say that everything the modern state of Israel does is good and righteous, any more than much of what the ancient kingdom of Israel did was good and righteous.  But the unfaithfulness and imperfections of the political arm of Israel did not then, and therefore do not now, nullify the promise and covenant faithfulness of God.

For all its faults, Israel is a nation under siege, enduring daily barrages of mortar and rocket fire from enemies who are sworn to wipe it off the face of the earth.  This is a fact of life for many Israelis about which the General Assembly and its committees are conspicuously silent.  I hope the 2014 General Assembly will have the good theological sense to reject this ill-advised overture, lest one day the PCUSA is ashamed to discover it has become the architect for a second Holocaust.


The Rev. Dr. Benjamin E. Williams, lives in Reidsville, N.C.