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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 229–232 

Book Review

We The People: Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus

Tommy Givens. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014. 442 pages.

Reviewed by Zacharie Klassen

At once a work of political theory, theology, and biblical exegesis, Tommy Givens’s We the People is an important book. The question at its heart, “What it means to be the people of God as determined by God’s election of Israel” (108), is addressed through seven chapters. In the first chapter, Givens begins with an analysis of John Howard Yoder’s account of Christian peoplehood as gleaned from his The Politics of Jesus. Givens appreciates Yoder’s emphasis on the Christian life as “the ongoing political life of a people . . . [with] a particular set of open-ended practices faithful to Jesus” (35). Turning to Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Givens also appreciatively notes how Yoder describes the Christian political life in continuity with the “developing faith of Judaism” (39). Givens critiques Yoder in the second chapter, however, for what he sees as Yoder’s reduction of Judaism to a typology of a “pure theopolitical identity” established through an account of the people’s “voluntarist self-constitution” (99). Yoder, according to Givens, finally sees Jewish and Christian peoplehood as established by the obedience of the people rather than through the faithfulness of the electing God who, in Jesus, demonstrates the solidarity with which God holds “faithfulness and unfaithfulness together with remembrance and forgiveness” (100). According to Givens, Yoder’s voluntarist account of Christian peoplehood retains elements of modern, supersessionist accounts of peoplehood as evident in the violent colonial and racist policies of nation-states.

What exactly are these modern accounts of peoplehood? In the third chapter, Givens appeals to the work of French philosopher Étienne {230} Balibar in order to disclose the violent roots of these modern accounts of peoplehood, locating them in the history of Christian supersessionism (the teaching that Israel has been superseded by the Church as the new chosen people of God). Supersessionism funds modern secularized narratives of “We the people,” severed, however, from any link to its original basis in the election of Israel and Israel’s God. As a result of this, what the modern world leaves us with is a “secular messianism,” an account of election that is grounded in a voluntarist distortion of Israel’s irrevocable election by God (111). God’s election of Israel, argues Givens, was not predicated on Israel’s faithful covenant response but was unconditional, holding together both unfaithful and faithful Israel throughout its history as a diverse people established by the call of God. Modern peoplehood, in contrast, became the basis for conditional accounts of inclusion in “the people,” policed through humanly constructed identity borders. These borders decide who counts as the “pure” people and who counts as the “impure.” The result of this colonial and racist imaginary is far reaching, negatively impacting many forms of modern theology and biblical exegesis. Givens argues that a different theological and exegetical account of Israel’s election is thus necessary.

In chapter 4, Givens seeks help from theologian Karl Barth, arguing that God’s election is the basis of Israel and the Church’s peoplehood and not the other way around. Furthermore, Givens argues that for Barth, God’s election of Israel and the Church means not only good news for the elect but also their judgment. God’s election of Israel is not predicated on an election of some for judgment (the “impure”) and some for salvation (the “pure”). Rather, God’s election of Israel is the basis upon which Israel and the Church of the past, present, and future are held together in God’s promise. Christ is the elect of God, for Barth, precisely as he is the excluded and the “impure.” Barth’s emphasis on Jesus’s solidarity with the sinner and the “enemy” (what Givens calls the catholicity of Jesus) is the basis upon which to overcome the modern discourse of peoplehood which imagines a pure people over against an impure people.

Yet, Givens also argues that Barth gives in to modern temptations. For Barth, while Israel and the church together are the one elect community, within that community Israel comes to represent only the failure of the people of God and the church only the salvation of the people of God. Thus, in the fifth chapter, Givens argues that Barth’s formal account of divine election replays Christian supersessionism and must be resisted. For Givens, this resistance is possible by avoiding formal accounts of election like Barth’s, opting instead for telling the messy {231} history of Israel in the flesh (284ff). This history is full of many minutiae that “add up to its particular existence” as an “unfolding political reality that is being shaped across time concretely in the flesh rather than one of many abstract realms of identities and statuses.” “God’s election,” says Givens, is “in such minutiae” (285). Israel cannot be represented, therefore, as the community that is totally unfaithful or disobedient any more than the church can be represented as totally faithful. To demonstrate this latter point, Givens draws his argument to a close in two dense exegetical chapters.

In the sixth chapter, Givens performs a theological exegesis of the Gospel of Matthew through the lens of the election of Israel. Givens treats exegetes who see Matthew as portraying a “shift” in Jesus’s mission away from “the lost sheep of Israel” and toward the Gentiles. Against this reading, Givens argues that the mission to the lost sheep of Israel, a mission achieved in the forgiveness of Israel’s sins in Christ’s death and resurrection, is the beginning of Israel’s mission to the Gentiles.

In the seventh chapter, Givens turns to a similar performance of exegesis, this time through a fresh reading of Paul’s famous discourse in Romans 9–11. Against exegetes such as N. T. Wright who argue that Paul divides those who are truly “of Israel” against those in Israel who are falsely claiming a superiority grounded in ethnic identity, Givens argues that Paul knows nothing of an ethnic Israel. Rather, Paul is simply telling Israel’s story as a people both of the flesh and of the promise, both finally held together by the mercy of God who, in the Messiah, brings together both Jew and Gentile.

Givens’s book is a major contribution to the increasing chorus of non-supersessionist Christian theological treatments of Israel’s election and should be read by scholars of the Bible and theology alike. Givens’s charitable, but ultimately critical, treatment of Yoder should be welcome among Mennonite readers who have wondered how or whether to carry forward Yoder’s work in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. Yoder’s account of Christian peoplehood should be built upon where it challenges the church to a radical ethic of nonviolence in conformity to the life of the Jewish Jesus, but should be challenged where such an ethic is violently idealized (by Yoder or his inheritors), with the effect of excluding too readily those in the church who do not conform precisely to that ideal and including only those who hold the power to name the ideal.

Overall, Givens’s book holds together well, even as it treats many different authors and significant themes across multiple disciplines. While the final two exegetical chapters get quite technical at points, a close reading contributes to the overall force of Givens’s argument {232} and should be attended to. With this latter point in mind, my only complaint is that some of the more problematic New Testament texts (such as Hebrews 8:13) that have traditionally made difficult an exegetical argument for a non-supersessionist Christian theology were not directly addressed. I register this not as a major complaint, but in the hope that Givens will address this and related texts in his future work.

Zacharie Klassen
Graduate Student in Religious Studies
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

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