Philip A. Cunningham

A Story of Shalom: The Calling of Christians and Jews by a Covenantal God 

(New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press / Stimulus Books, 2001).

ISBN 0-8091-4014-4   pbk   108 pp.  $11.95

Reviewed by John C. Merkle

The story of Christian faith—what Philip Cunningham calls "a master narrative that expresses what Christianity is all about"—has always been told with reference to Judaism and Jewish history. Indeed, many events in Jewish history have been appropriated as a part of the Christian story, at least as a part of the story that puts the emergence of Christianity into context. Moreover, the principal events upon which Christianity was founded—the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Galilee, often referred to summarily as "the Christ event"—were events within the matrix of Judaism. Unfortunately, while recounting the story of Christian faith, we Christians have usually made a number of serious mistakes about Jewish history. For example, we have paid little or no attention to post-biblical Jewish history; we have ignored Jewish interpretations of biblical events; we have claimed that the history of the Jews in biblical times had religious significance only as a preparation for Christ and Christianity; and we have viewed Christian faith in opposition to Judaism. This last mistake is particularly ironic since the faith of Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. Consequently, along with the truth it has contained, the classic story of Christian faith has, at crucial points, been erroneous. Despite its abundant contributions to human history, the Christian story has also distorted history.

But recently, in the light of a new encounter with Jews and Judaism, a number of Christians, including church authorities, have been rethinking and reversing the timeworn Christian teaching concerning Judaism. In the last four decades, ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches have affirmed the abiding validity of Judaism. To a large extent, this affirmation has been the result of a more accurate understanding of Judaism and Jewish history. In the light of this new affirmation, it is imperative that the story of Christian faith be told differently than in the past. To be coherent now, it must be told in such a way as to affirm the validity of Judaism rather than denigrate Jewish faith.

This is precisely what Cunningham accomplishes in this book. On the basis of a more accurate portrait of Judaism than has been traditionally presented in Christian literature, he offers a new way of telling the story of Christian faith in relation to Judaism. In this revised story, Judaism is no longer viewed as an outmoded and replaced predecessor of Christianity but as an ongoing, spiritually dynamic tradition that may serve as a source of inspiration for Christians. While Cunningham is not the first Christian thinker to present such a revised story, his presentation is perhaps the most succinct and accessible to a lay audience. This small book has had a huge impact on my college students, and I strongly recommend it as an ideal text for courses dealing with Christianity in relation to Judaism.

The book is comprised of three parts: 1) a "prelude" (pp. 1-16) in which Cunningham summarizes "the classic foundational Christian story" with its "anti-Jewish theological superstructure" and explains why the Christian story must be told in a new way, free of anti-Judaism; 2) the main part that shares the book’s title, "A Story of Shalom" (pp. 17-61), in which Cunningham offers a pro-Jewish way of articulating Christian faith as an alternative to the traditional anti-Jewish way of telling the Christian story; and 3) a "postlude" (pp. 63-80) focusing on "theologies that promote shalom" between Christians and Jews, in contrast to the more popular theologies that foster interfaith rivalry. As an appendix (pp. 81-83), Cunningham includes a helpful outline of A Story of Shalom.

To be sure, the history Christian-Jewish relations has not been "a story of shalom," and Cunningham’s retelling of the Christian story is in no way an exercise in revisionist history. His brief account of the history of Christian-Jewish relations is "a tale of contention" rather than a story of shalom. But given the new interfaith climate in our time, the account of the shared journey of Christians and Jews "could be transformed from a tale of contention into a story of shalom" (p. 59). This book makes a significant contribution in the direction of that transformation.

Throughout the book, Cunningham acknowledges the permanent validity of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Often Christians who do the same find it difficult, even impossible, to reconcile this acknowledgement with christological convictions. This is understandable since Christians traditionally have believed that Jesus initiated a "new covenant" to replace the "old covenant" between God and the Jews. But Cunningham claims that "both Jews and Christians are sharing in a similar covenanting life with the one God" (p. 75). Explaining how Christians might understand Christ’s relation to "Israel’s historically earlier revelatory experiences of God" (p. 71), he writes: "The covenanting life expressed and guided by the Tanakh [the Jewish Bible] is that same way of living with a relational God that later historically came to human life in Jesus of Galilee. . . . The relationship of Jesus Christ to Israel’s witness is one of fulfillment, not in the sense of replacing or terminating, but in the sense of confirming, supporting, and furthering" (p. 73).

Thus, Cunningham’s "covenantal christology" (p. 68) in no way contradicts his acknowledgement of the validity of Jewish covenantal life guided by Israel’s foundational revelatory events as mediated through the Tanakh. To the contrary, this acknowledgement is a reflection of Cunningham’s christology. Since "the Christian experience of relationship with God is [by its very nature] christomorphic" (p. 70) it is important for Christians to relate all their theological assertions—including the claim that God abides in covenant with Jews—to their christological convictions. Cunningham does this admirably, but I wonder if his claim that "after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus . . . all of God’s divine activity throughout the created universe . . . now intrinsically involves [this] exalted Jew" (p. 72) doesn’t limit the theological room that he intends for Judaism in his covenantal christology.

Cunningham’s christology does make room for Judaism’s covenantal life rooted in Israel’s foundational revelatory events that precede "the Christ event." Nevertheless, his claim that all God’s activity since then involves Christ seems to suggest that, whether they acknowledge it or not, Jews are reached by God via Christ. It goes without saying that this is not how Jews experience God’s activity, and I am not convinced that just because our Christian experience of God is christomorphic that we need to conclude that all God’s activity now involves Christ.

Cunningham is careful to avoid violating the injunction of the Vatican document Dominus Iesus against introducing "any sort of separation between the Word and Jesus Christ" (p. 72). According to Dominus Iesus, "the theory which would attribute, after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos [Word] as such in his divinity, exercised ‘in addition to’ or ‘beyond’ the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith" (p. 72). But I would argue that we Christians, including we Catholics, can acknowledge that Jews do experience the salvific activity of God apart from Jesus Christ who, after all, is not a referent of Jewish faith. It is not enough to claim, as Cunningham does, that Jewish covenantal life is valid because it is rooted in revelatory events that occurred before God’s incarnation in Christ. God’s redemptive activity is ongoing. We Christians experience it through the resurrected Christ; Jews do not.

Am I introducing a "separation between the Word and Jesus Christ"? No. I am simply recognizing a distinction between the divine Word and the humanity of Christ, which was the locus of the Word’s incarnation. This is not a distinction foreign to the Catholic tradition. And without this distinction it is difficult to see how we can account for the distinctive integrity of Judaism, which is not only rooted in its foundational revelatory events but also in its post-biblical experiences and developments.

I am not suggesting that the redemptive activity of God experience by Jews in the context of their covenantal life is unlike the divine activity that Christians experience in and through Christ. But don’t we Christians who have experienced the integrity of Judaism want to say that the redemptive activity of God available through Christ is also available in the Jewish covenant apart from Christ? This is not a traditional Christian claim, but in the light of the Christian encounter with Jews and Judaism of the last several decades, many of us feel compelled to call into question certain traditional Christian claims. I believe that what we can salvage from the traditional claim that "salvation is through Christ alone" is the idea that salvation is through the Word and presence of God alone, which we Christians believe has been incarnated in Christ. The Word of God precedes its incarnation in Jesus Christ and has been and remains present to Jews in the context of their covenantal life apart from that incarnation. It would appropriate to say that salvation comes to Jews by way of God’s Word, which Christians believe has been embodied in Christ, but it seems inappropriate to say that salvation comes to Jews by way of Christ when, in fact, Christ is not the Jewish way to God.

Cunningham is well aware of that Judaism has its own distinctive integrity apart from Christianity: "Both [Jews and Christians] are covenanting with God because of the divine outreach for relationship, an invitation sustained and empowered by God, but each covenanting community has its own unique and distinctive traditions and way-of-walking with God" (p. 76). I am just concerned that the claim I have questioned undermines the affirmation of Judaism’s complete integrity.

Regardless, Cunningham’s retelling of the Christian story makes a significant contribution to Christian-Jewish relations, the sad history of which has been largely the result of the anti-Jewish ways that Christians have expressed their faith. If most Christians learn to express their faith like Philip Cunningham does in this book, the story of Christian-Jewish relations will indeed become "a story of shalom."