Eschatology, Fulfillment, and Co-Covenanting Communities


Philip A. Cunningham

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College


As Rabbi Solomon and Cardinal Kasper demonstrated in their intriguing papers, the topic of “covenant” impinges on a broad range of theological topics for Jews and Catholics alike. Within the limits of a brief response, I would like to focus on some biblical issues, beginning with what Daniel Harrington has called the “negative elements in Paul's exploration of the mystery of Israel, … all the ‘unfriendly’ things that Paul said about Israel.”[1]

Paul used the olive tree metaphor to admonish certain Gentile members of the Church. He instructed them that they had no grounds for boasting over Jews who did not share their faith that the Crucified One had been raised to transcendent Lordship. As wild branches by nature, these Gentiles were fruitful only because of their having been grafted into the domesticated olive tree.

Paul also struggled with this question: How could God be faithful to the promise that all Israel would be “saved,” would enjoy the life of the Age to Come, if most of Israel was not recognizing what Paul perceived to be the fulfillment of that divine promise in Christ? Paul hypothesized that even though most of Israel had not experienced “Christ,” had not experienced Jesus crucified and raised, God had called forth a “remnant” of Israel (11:1-5, esp. v. 5).  He argued that it was through this faithful remnant, Jews in Christ such as Paul himself, that God’s promises to Israel were being realized. The pagan nations were coming to worship the God of Israel through Christ, thereby initiating the Age to Come. Israel that did not know Christ, in Paul’s metaphor, were branches temporarily broken off to make room for the Gentile branches (11:17-24). These broken branches, Paul believed, were irrevocably (11:29) destined to be regrafted in because “all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26). But until that eschatological day dawned, Israel that did not know Christ existed in a sort of “theological limbo”[2] in Paul’s understanding.

This solution was possible for Paul because for him “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29). With this imminent eschatological horizon, he could be comfortable imagining his unbaptized Jewish kinfolk to be in a sort of theological stasis.  During the transitory "ripple in time"[3] between the Present Age and the Age to Come, Paul reasoned that God had frozen Jewish hearts in order to catalyze the efforts of the apostles toward the saving of the Gentiles. 

Nostra Aetate did not use the olive tree metaphor in the same way that Paul himself did. The Council Fathers depicted the domesticated olive as Israel distinct from the Church, not as Jews-in-Christ as Paul had done. However, this conciliar actualization of the Pauline text is quite appropriate for several reasons. First, unlike in Paul’s era, the Church today is entirely Gentile. There are no present-day cognates to Jewish apostles like Paul who constituted a living Jewish heart in an increasingly Gentile Church. Second, after two thousand years the religious imaginations of most Christians today have postponed the eschaton into the indefinite future.

Third and most importantly, Catholics today are heirs to a two-millennia history that Paul did not dream would continue to unfold.  We read Paul's words today in a Christian community that is struggling to come to grips with the dreadful reality of the Shoah and that seeks to reform earlier anti-Jewish theologies. Present-day Catholics cannot relate to Paul's ideas about unbaptized Jews being in a theological limbo, waiting for the eschaton to be re-attached to the ongoing activity of God in the world.  Paul could imagine this very temporary state of affairs in his eschatological enthusiasm, but Catholics who two thousand years later have personally experienced the spiritual dynamism of present-day Jews, cannot agree that Judaism reposes in such a stasis.[4] We have a different effective history.

Fortunately, the Catholic tradition has never imparted to the Bible the sort of univocal and literalist authority that operates in some other Christian circles. This partially explains why Catholics have been able to make more progress in dismantling supersessionism than our evangelical Christian siblings. It also explains why the Catholic Church no longer desires to convert Jews, but more on that later.  

Our biblical hermeneutic has been well summarized by the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Sacred Scripture is in dialogue with communities of believers: It has come from their traditions of faith. ... Dialogue with Scripture in its entirety, which means dialogue with the understanding of the faith prevailing in earlier times, must be matched by a dialogue with the generation of today. Such dialogue will mean establishing a relationship of continuity. It will also involve acknowledging differences. Hence the interpretation of Scripture involves a work of sifting and setting aside; it stands in continuity with earlier exegetical traditions, many elements of which it preserves and makes its own; but in other matters it will go its own way, seeking to make further progress.[5]

Thus, the authors of Nostra Aetate engaged in a dialogue with Paul and his olive tree metaphor and applied it creatively in our very different historical and eschatological context. This different application faithfully actualized Paul’s original purpose of discouraging Gentiles in the Church from baseless boasting over Jews.

I have spent time unpacking Nostra Aetate’s affirmation that Paul believed Jews were in an irrevocable covenant with God because of its implications for how we should understand the New Testament’s claims about Israel’s covenant being “fulfilled.”

In various ways all the New Testament authors interpreted contemporary historical events in the light of their revelatory experience of the Crucified One as Raised. With the notable exception of the Gospel of John, all the major New Testament books in diverse ways convey the sentiment that the present age is in the process of giving way to the New Age of God’s Kingdom.[6] The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, for example, understood the first covenant to be obsolete and disappearing (Heb 8:13) as the eschatological “Day” approached (10:25). This attitude may have been historically confirmed for the writer if he was writing as the Roman armies were gathering to besiege and ultimately destroy the Jerusalem Temple, an event that would also shape his way of understanding Christ as the perfect priestly mediator. 

It is very noteworthy that Hebrews’ assertion of the first covenant’s obsolescence has been explicitly contradicted in recent magisterial Roman Catholic teaching. Again, this is possible because of our different eschatological horizons, our different effective history, and because of the creative freedom enabled by Catholic principles of biblical interpretation.

Is it not inevitable, then, that the New Testament’s eschatologically enthusiastic understanding of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of divine promises to Israel must also be actualized differently in the world of today; a world that is all too painfully aware that the lion does not yet lay down with the lamb and that swords have not yet been beaten into plowshares? Like yeast in the dough, like the tiny mustard seed, we Catholics need to see our role as continuing Jesus’ mission of establishing God’s Reign. We do this, in the words of the often-overlooked Acts 3:32, since Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets."

Not surprisingly, the Catholic-Jewish dialogue has catalyzed some magisterial thinking along these lines. The 1985 Vatican Notes e.g., stressed the significance of a futurist eschatology in this way:

This holds true also for the Church which, realized already in Christ, yet awaits its definitive perfecting as the Body of Christ. The fact that the Body of Christ is still tending towards its full stature (Eph. 4:12-19) takes nothing from the value of being a Christian. So also the calling of the patriarchs and Exodus from Egypt do not lose their importance and value in God's design from being at the same time intermediate stages.[7]

Similarly, guidelines for preaching during Advent from the U.S. Bishops’ Liturgy Committee observe that, “While the biblical prophecies of an age of universal shalom are ‘fulfilled’ (i.e., irreversibly inaugurated) in Christ's coming, that fulfillment is not yet completely worked out in each person's life or perfected in the world at large.”[8] I suspect this understanding of “fulfilled” as “irreversibly inaugurated” is not the usual way the word would be defined by a typical Catholic.

There is another dimension that needs mention, even if too briefly and simply. In the centuries after the New Testament, the Church became more distinct from Judaism and the Hellenistic philosophical categories of its overwhelmingly Gentile membership necessarily shaped its articulation of Christian doctrine. In addition, the non-occurrence of the eschaton gave rise to more realized eschatological and soteriological perspectives. This pattern is evident in what is arguably the most Hellenistic of all the New Testament books, the Gospel of John.[9]  Christian ideas about fulfillment and salvation were no longer driven by imminent eschatological expectations but became ontological confessions of transcendent and supra-historical verities.

Just as the Church today does not share the imminent eschatology of most of the New Testament, neither does the Western world think in the ontological categories that conditioned the patristic formulation of foundational Christian doctrines. Thus, Catholic theologians today are challenged not only by the magisterial affirmation of the permanence of God’s covenant with Israel, they also need to grapple with the consequences for traditional doctrinal expressions of the historical consciousness that characterizes Western culture today.  For myself, narrative theological approaches offer the greatest promise.

Let me bring these remarks to an end with some brief narrative themes that might prove useful. Since I will be dealing here with internal Christian theological reflection, the helpful role that interested Jewish friends might play is to ensure that Israel’s experience of God is not caricatured.

As Rabbi Solomon reminded us, “‘Covenant’ is a metaphor for a relationship, not the name of a unique metaphysical object.”[10] Therefore, it is preferable for Catholics to understand that Jews and Christians both live in relationship with the same God, and so share certain patterns of experience that resonate in both Israel’s and the Church’s histories. These resonances include God’s faithfulness, human weakness, and divine restoration of the human partners after times of calamity. Covenant should be conceived as a continuing action of covenanting. Such an approach renders the question of whether there are one or two covenants meaningless.[11]

Moreover, if we Catholics understand that Israel down through the ages until today has been covenanting with God, then, from a Christian perspective, Israel abides in relationship with that One whom Christian tradition knows as Father, Son, and Spirit. This must be true in Christian frames of reference even if Israel doesn’t relate to God in the same way. 

Therefore, the Logos of God, God’s constant self-disclosure that invites relationship, that Logos whom the Church experiences christomorphically (or in a Christ-shaped manner) in the birth, ministry, death, and continuing transcendent glory of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel must also know. In Christian terms it is impossible to be covenanting with the Triune One and relate to only one divine “person.” Israel’s covenanting with God is not christomorphic as the Church’s is, but can any Catholic doubt that God has been rightly praised as the Redeemer of Israel by Jews in biblical times, during the development of Talmudic Judaism in response to the loss of the Temple, and in more recent efforts to recover from the genocidal Shoah. throughout the ages until today?  Should we Catholics be surprised if Israel knows God as Redeemer as like us prays for the eschatological day when God’s Kingdom will fully come? Are not such resonances inevitable if Israel and the Church are indeed co-covenanting communities of faith, both in covenant with the same Holy One?

This is why, incidentally, the Catholic Church today has no interest in seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity. We now see that to attempt to convert Jews to Christianity would be to oppose the will of God who is covenanting with the Jewish people to bear witness to the sacred Name before the nations (ad gentes) in a distinctive way throughout historic time.[12]  To paraphrase Gamaliel in Acts 5:39, Christians seeking to convert Jews could be found to be “fighting against God!” 

It seems to me that Christian-Jewish relations in this country, and probably elsewhere, would be helped if an official Catholic statement set forth for the general public why the Catholic Church has no missions to convert Jews anymore. Such a theological explanation would counter public statements to the contrary made by such Christian groups as the Southern Baptist Convention.

I realize that these ruminations, triggered by Cardinal Kasper’s and Rabbi Solomon’s papers, have now arrived at some interesting soteriological questions. I hope the narrative themes I’ve just mentioned might provide some cues in addressing then. But since in our pre-eschatological reality, my time has now run out, I will end by repeating my thanks to them for their stimulating essays and by thanking all of you for your kind attention.


[1] Daniel J. Harrington, Paul on the Mystery of Israel (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1992), 90-91.

[2]  Harrington, Mystery of Israel, 55, 81.

[3] I am indebted to Paula Fredriksen for this phrase.

[4] The 1974 Vatican Guidelines stressed that "the history of Judaism did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem, but rather went on to develop a religious tradition . . . . rich in religious values.” [Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, 4" (1974), III.] The 1985 Notes went further and praised the Jewish Diaspora, "which allowed Israel to carry on to the whole world a witness - often heroic - of its fidelity to the one God and to ‘exalt God in the presence of all the living’ (Tb 13:4) [Idem, Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), VI, 25.

[5] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), III,A,3.

[6] We have already seen that Paul of Tarsus, the earliest NT writer, harbored imminent eschatological expectations. So did the writers of the Gospel of Mark (Mk 13:30) and Revelation (Rev 22:12). Luke and Matthew seem to have delayed eschatological expectations since Jesus is to be witnessed to to the end of the earth in Acts 1:8 and since Jesus’ commands are to be taught to all the Gentile nations in Mt 28:19-20. However, Luke’s saga of the Church concludes with Paul preaching freely at the end of the earth, the imperial capital of Rome (Acts 28:30-31), while the nations envisioned by Matthew are actually only a small fraction of the actual size of the planet.

[7] Vatican “Notes” (1985), II, 8.

[8] Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (1988), 11.

[9]The Gospel of John functions within a dualistic worldview in which there is a “world above” of light, life, truth, goodness, the realm of the Father from which the Son descends to a world below of humanity, darkness, death, falsehood, and sin. This cosmology does not so fundamentally ground any other New Testament book. It tends to characterize Greek culture more than the Jewish one.

[10] Norman Solomon, “Covenant” (unpublished paper): 3.

[11] Eugene J. Fisher, "Covenant Theology and Jewish-Christian Dialogue," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 9/1-2 (Jan-May, 1988): 36.

[12] In his speech at the Warsaw Ghetto on June 14, 1987, John Paul II discussed a Jewish “mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the church.”  Note also these comments by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a recent book entitled, Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999): “[T]his means that all nations, without the abolishment of the special mission of Israel, becomes brothers and receivers of the promises of the Chosen People; they become People of God with Israel through adherence to the will of God and through acceptance of the Davidic kingdom” [27-28]; and “[E]ven if Christians look for a day when Israel will recognize Christ as the Son of God and the rift that separates them will be healed, they should also acknowledge God’s providence, which has obviously given Israel a particular mission in this “time of the Gentiles’ [104 – emphases added].