Thomas Aquinas on the Jews

Posted by T on October 31, 2009

The book of this title is by Steven Boguslawski (see biblio. info at end of this post). From the title, one might expect a book full of “quotes on jews,” but actually, it is a theological exposition of certain texts of Aquinas — especially his comments ad Rom 9-11 — which the author thinks provide a positive pre-Reformational view of jews and their place in ongoing history, as a contribution, so the publisher writes, to an ongoing series of books “to further the mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.” The Romans commentary is set forth as a decisive key to understanding Aquinas’ statements on jews in other places, as well as for contrasting his position from the received, chiefly Augustinian view. The positive depiction of jews is highlighted as significant in view of the anti-Talmud actions taken by Europe around the time of Aquinas’ work. The author identifies several aspects of Aquinas’ exegesis that he finds decisive, of which I summarize a subset:

1. The central issue addressed by Romans is not personal salvation, justification by faith, but rather, the problem of integrating jew and gentile into the people of God.

Thomas substantially excludes several of the chief premises of Augustine…namely: that the primary purpose of the letter is a theological articulation of the relationship between works and grace (Thomas understands it to be the instruction and coalescence of Jews and Gentiles in Rome, not a dispute about grace and free will)  (p. 106)

2. In consequence, the focus shifts from salvation of individuals. The rejected view had put everyone — specifically, jew and gentile — on the same plane.

Practical theological corollaries derive from these speculative, exegetical determinations. Theologians who assert justification sola fide as the thrust of Romans generally emphasize God’s impartiality and relativize the distinctive status of Jews and Gentiles because only one way exists in the personal economy of salvation: faith in Christ. If faith in Christ alone warrants salvation, no ongoing rationale exists for the Jews’ historical prerogatives nor for the maintenance of Jewish rites of worship. In other words, the historical priority of the Jews as the covenant people no longer assures priority in the present offer of salvation: usually it is expressed that the favored status of Jews has been superseded altogether by the “new Israel,” the Christian Church. (p. 124)

3. Consequently, election and predestination in chapters 9-11 are expounded in a corporate fashion, such that the election of Israel in the old covenant must continue to stand due to the faithfulness of God; their current falling away is part of the predestinating plan involving the admission of the Nations (e.g. p. 98). The ordinances and “dignity” of jews continue unabated.

Aquinas is presented as a course-correction to the then-dominating Augustinian position of supersessionism, i.e. that the church has replaced Israel, the continued existence of the jews being a scarecrow to the nations to show the fearful consequence of falling from grace.

Once corporate Israel has been redefined as the remnant Israel who believed in the Lord, historical Israel is replaced by a metaphorical, not an eschatological, Israel of Jews observing covenantal obligations. In turn, there is no need to preserve historical Israel except as an indirect or unwitting witness to the truths of Christianity. Therefore, when Paul states in Romans 11.26 that “all Israel will be saved,” Augustine must reconfigure who constitutes Israel in order to maintain a doctrine of election, reprobation, and, ultimately, divine salvation in accord with divine justice as he construes it. Paul’s teaching on these matters is thereby (consciously or unconsciously) subordinated to that of Augustine. However tolerant Augustine is alleged to be, he significantly denigrates the Jews’ function and dignity as articulated by Paul in Romans 9-11.  (p. 72)

The expositions of election and grace differ between the A’s in a surprising way: Augustine’s, apparently from an early period, posits election in terms of foreseen faith (though not foreseen merit), while Aquinas’ language is strikingly imbued by the freedom of God in unconditioned choice. The way this difference becomes significant to the subject at hand, is that Augustine’s approach pushed him in the direction of faith as decisive, with the apostasy from faith being consistent with rejection; thus the jews forfeited their prior position by apostasy and this ends things for them. For Aquinas, election rooted in the inscrutable purpose of God opens the way to view the jewish apostasy as a temporary phase within predestinated history that continues. Thus, the author suggests, the jews are still part of “salvation history” and enjoy a dignity therefore that should be respected.

In evaluating the argument of the book, several observations can be made.

1. The quotes from Aquinas on the subject of election and predestination are interesting in their own right, apart from the jewish question. Some themes may be part of the inheritance of our Westminster standards. For example, Predestination is distinguished from Providence in general, as “Predestination should be said properly only of those things which are above nature, in which the rational creature is ordered.” (p. 9) The “certain and definite” number that appears in WCF 3.4 has a long history: Aquinas “agrees with Augustine that ‘the number of those predestined is fixed, and can be neither increased nor diminished.'” (p. 106)

2. The failure to interact with Augustine’s more mature thought on election renders the connection to his solution of the jewish problem tentative at best. That is, when Augustine matured to see election based entirely on God’s freedom, apart from foreseen faith as well as works, would this alter his solution to the question of elect Israel?

3. It is interesting to note on the basis of information in this book that the “new perspective on Paul” is actually not a new perspective.

4. The author’s desired end of achieving a position favorable to jews is a scarcely concealed motive, so that the theological reflections bent to this end do not have the ring of seeking the truth at any cost.

5. There is the assumption throughout that a view that does not hold the jews up on a platform of dignity with respect to the plan of God will have the consequence of desiring their persecution.

Jews are tolerated as a pool of potential converts. In extreme form, such theological deconstruction of Israel’s dignity fomented the most virulent anti-Judaism historically, and abets contemporary anti-Semitism. (p. 125)

But substitute any other nation to test the thesis: obviously, it is false, unless there is something so obnoxious about jews that something overwhelmingly and theologically positive would always be needed to restrain the nations’ natural desire to eliminate such undesirables. But if that is so, it would contribute to honesty to state it plainly. Otherwise, the impression is sometimes given that this is, apart from what we might have learned from the Bible, just another tribe like many others, and their persecution something simply irrational and inexplicable, which could only be accounted for by a theology of “supersessionism” somehow — even though such an account makes no sense in the case of other tribes.

6. Building further on this point, even apart from the status of jews in “salvation history,” the political norms at stake are never addressed in this book. It is almost as though, if jews have a claim on God’s promises to Abraham, then the nations are obligated to carve out a place in their national life for jews. But what is the theory of politics and the life of nations that underlies such a conclusion? We get this even from people that see no connection between church and state in any other matter, though I am not suggesting this is the case with Boguslawski.

7. The use of the term “salvation history” (e.g. pp. 3, 66f, 127) is an unfortunate one for human history in which redemption, already accomplished, continues to be applied. He speaks of a continuing specifically jewish role in salvation history (e.g. p. 8).  But this would seem to contradict the finality of redemptive history in God the Son incarnate, as suggested in the book of Hebrews. Historia and ordo need to be distinguished.

8. Specifically, John G. Gager is quoted saying

Paul never explicitly equates Israel’s salvation with conversion to Christianity, but even more… he uses faith (pistis) not just of Christians but of Jews as well. Rom 3.30 asserts that God ‘will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised because of their faith.’ …Paul uses faith here not as the equivalent of faith in Christ but as a designation of the proper response to God’s righteousness, whether for Israel in the Torah or for Gentiles in Christ.  (pp. 125f., citing Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, pp. 261f.)

Boguslawski himself hedges Gager’s outlook in as “the extreme form of this position,” but he really gives no other way that the “ongoing role of Israel in salvation history,” preserving their “dignities” and so forth, could take place.  He is not exactly proposing a faith in faith: there is specific content to the faith that is essential in each case. A little bit of reflection should have instructed him that such a position is impossible, however.

i. The idea that faith in the sense of fidelity and trust toward Jehovah would be compatible with contemptuous loathing and hatred when confronted with Jehovah incarnate is simply untenable. “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.” (John 8:42). “Every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already.” (I John 4:3)

ii. Gal. 3:21, “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” If salvation could have been through the law, then it would have been. It could not; and so it wasn’t. Nothing could be more clearly taught in the book of Galatians.

iii. Bare election apart from propitiation is a mohammedan, not biblical concept. A jew that rests in being “elect” but with no expiatory content, is resting on an illusion. That the sacrificial system is everything in the Torah, and yet has been snatched from him in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 should fill a jew with immortal terror. Instead, we find pride and arrogance — attitudes quite incompatible with saving faith as presented in either OT or NT.

iv. The author does not grapple with the fact that jews since their corporate rejection of Messiah are not a people of the Torah, but a people of the Talmud, of the Kaballah, of atheism, or indeed of whatever of man’s religious fevers each should choose. Only Christianity is excluded in fact, unless it should be explicit polytheism as well. Honest jews like Wex admit this candidly when their hair is down.  What does the Kaballah have to do with Abraham, or the books of Moses?

v. A difficulty that flows immediately from (iv) is whether blood or faith is the essence of “being a jew.” Can a gentile find God by converting to judaism without Christ? If so, why the gospel at all? and if not, where does this scheme put, for example, the Khazars and their descendants?

9. The Talmud controversy of the thirteenth century is glossed over in a rather superficial way (pp. 25-28). Indeed, on p. 128 it is identified as “anti-Judaism.”  Strictly speaking, this is true, but justifiably so. The newly-discovered Talmud was “full of blasphemies — claiming, among other things, that Christ was being cooked in boiling excrement in hell and that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier and a whore named Mary.” (E. Michael Jones, Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 118). But the impression left by Boguslawski, in contrast, is that the Talmud controversy was born of Christian bigotry.

This book is, however, suggestive of themes that call for further pondering. While it does seem as though our Lord dealt a one-punch knockout assertion of supersessionism in Matt 21:43 (“The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”), all would be clear except for Romans 11. One problem is the relation between collective and individual. That a subset of individuals within the collective are the intended object of the promises seems clear enough: but then why does Paul see a necessity to include “all Israel” eschatologically? And even if a substantial number of jews come to God through Christ at some future time, how is that any kind of consolation to jews today? Obviously, it is not. But it makes us reflect on what the genius of Paul’s thought progression is. Is it that the promises not only apply to a mere subset of the collective, but are also generation-hopping? Where does that place the subjective appropriation of election? How is covenantal inter-generational continuity preserved through such a gap? In my opinion, the “final solution” to these riddles has not yet been presented.

As far as supersessionism per se, a couple points can be made. It is not really necessary to model the church as superseding Israel, because it is not necessary to put Israel on such a pedestal to begin with. The nation of Israel only comprises about a fourth of the chronological history of the OT, but the succession of the people of God, the “sons of God,” is a steady one from Adam to the present.  So part of the answer may be that there has always been just one “church” in all ages. Israel itself was a late stage of it.  It is no more and no less accurate to speak of the church superseding Israel as to say that Israel superseded the patriarchs. The New Testament is not the only “surprising development” in redemptive history. Israel itself was a surprising development in its time.

But perhaps we should try to drill a little deeper. There is after all a finality in the revelation of Christ, who commissioned his apostles to found his church. It does seem like the church makes the curtain fall for Israel, not only in its apostasy, but because the finality of Christ ends the Israel story as type. We need to reflect anew on the whole of redemptive history. Why was not the Seed born immediately to Eve? Why did a lot of history, but not all history have to pass? In any case, given that passage of time, the Seed had to be born in some branch of genetic humanity, and in that branch the oracles of God were appropriately embedded — though believed by only a small remnant. What most Christians think of as “Israel” is an ideal type of humanity as it should be when redeemed; empirical Israel was something else. It is as if Israel was a story within a story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. Empirical Israel itself narrows down, like the line from Seth to Noah had, through the apostasies, the exiles, finally down to one tribe, then down to a remnant of that one tribe, and finally to a single man, Jesus Christ. The redemptive arc of history begins and ends with a single man. Not the story of all humanity, but the story for all humanity. Humanity as ideal Israel widens, while empirical Israel narrows and completes his story in the rejected Messiah, then vanishes, except as a horror exhibit for humanity. Empirical remnant Israel then makes more sense as the exploitative, greedy, seditious, sexually debased, vulgar, blasphemous, self-absorbed people such as we observe today — indeed, it could turn out that the husk left over from the “story within the story” turns out to be the very most debased of all the nations, to remind humanity of its natural state, and of God’s favor shown toward fallen humanity — really fallen, fallen indeed, utterly depraved. Pride is excluded, for every gentile can truly say when observing jews, “but for the grace of God, there go I.” Likewise, the jew might begin his reflection by thinking, “I am no better than those Canaanites that Jehovah required to be exterminated for their sins.” The jews become both reminder of the typological story, and exemplar of humanity in its worst depravity. That the “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6) so quickly became the kingdom of usurers, tricksters, and pornographers can serve as a warning to Christians; a reminder that “sanctification” that is not based on union with God through Christ will always prove to be a sham. Election should never be pondered except from the standpoint of humility.

Steven C. Boguslawski. Thomas Aquinas on the Jews (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2008). Lib. of Cong. BM535.B648 (2008)


5 Comments to Thomas Aquinas on the Jews

  • Something else that complicates passages like Romans 11 is the fact that many of today’s “Jews” might likely be Khazars rather than Israelites, a fact which I believe you have elsewhere acknowledged. So we should not hasten to assume that Abe Foxman, Wolfowitz, or the Coen brothers have their roots in the kingdom of priests.

  • Quite so. The philo-Semites play on this ambiguity shamelessly. Now it is blood, now it is faith, just as it suits their argument at the moment.

  • I’m glad Siegfried broached this subject before I did (I get weary of hate mail)…

    From my own study of the scripture and of history, I don’t believe that the Jews are Hebrews/Israelites in any sense of those terms. A careful re-reading of the OT is of course helpful, along with the question, “Was and is there any people group who matched and match the descriptions of the Israelites?”

    After such deliberation, you very well might not conclude that the kindred white races are the descendants of Israel, but likewise you certainly will NOT conclude that the repellent gang of hook-nosed kikes who have usurped this national status are Israel, either.

    Very fine post, T.

  • Well it reminds me of what my first engineering mentor told me: no one is responsible for the face he is born with, but everyone is responsible for the face he dies with.

  • Hi T,

    AS a sort of “food for thought” idea. It is curious how we find these things when we are not looking for them, by this I mean , that while reading Geoffrey Chaucer “The Canterbury Tales” I stumbled upon the “Prioress’s Tale”. This story is of a small young boy who sang “O Alma Redemptoris” while walking through a Jewish part of town. These Jews got tired of hearing this song and “bribed” someone to kill the young boy one day. It is very very important to remember that there is “nothing new under the Sun” and people groups will act as they always have under the “Estate of Sin and Misery”.When you point this out, the modern day defense is to shout “discrimination” or in this case Anti Semite. We would do well to look back to see what others have written and compare to today what is going on….

    There will be and always has been the spin machine tryng to make you forget the real truth behind what is going on as you see it.

    s. e. hoffmeister

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