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Calvin and Judaism

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Pastor Vincent Schmid's speech at the Oratoire Chapel during the March of Life on May 7, 2023.

The origins of the Church were marked by a divorce that went very badly. The separation between Jews and Christians was extremely painful. Gradually, we moved from theological controversy (admissible) to anti-Semitism (inadmissible).

Three central themes structure the confrontation between Christians and Jews:

  1. Is Jesus Israel's Messiah or not?

  2. Who is the Verus Israel (the theory of substitution and rejection of the Jews)?

  3. The accusation of deicide (Meliton of Sardinia around 170).

This is not the place to tell you about the end of Antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages, an immense period that would require nuance and complexity to be fair. On the whole, the situation of Jews in Christian lands depended entirely on the goodwill of popes, bishops, kings and princes. In the blink of an eye, relative tolerance could give way to persecution and deportation. I'm thinking, for example, of Philip the Fair, who, in order to create what was to become the kingdom of France, did not hesitate to devastate the brilliant Jewish communities of Languedoc, in which the mysticism of the Kabbalah flourished and which had previously developed in relative tranquility, which does not yet mean without discrimination. The main conclusion to be drawn from this very long period is that the Church played a major role in establishing a deep-seated anti-Semitism in European society.

According to Léon Poliakov, a turning point came with the Reformation.

It is a little-known fact that the Lutheran Reformation in sixteenth-century Germany began with a vast polemic surrounding the Talmud. The controversy arose within the Dominican order, which was then divided between a conservative current and a current of new ideas, namely humanism.

The former wanted to ban all editions of the Talmud, accused of spreading anti-Christian ideas, while the latter, including Jean Reuchlin, a humanist and friend of Erasmus, were opposed. The latter believed that the priority was to develop serious learning of the Hebrew language among Christians.

The young Martin Luther took Reuchlin's side, and consequently that of the Jews, pleading their cause and calling theologians who excused hatred of the Jews liars and backward. In Jesus, a Jew by birth, written in 1523, Luther spoke out categorically against the persecution of the Jews.

In the wake of this, Hebrew study circles were formed. The result was Luther's German translation of the Bible in 1522.

But if Luther started out well, his end was much darker. He made two mistakes. One was his misjudgment that the Jews would convert en masse to the Reformation, which he hoped would happen, but did not. And a major theological error, that of the complete rejection of the Law, which he saw as a curse to which he contrasted the cross, accentuating what Saint Augustine had already said (Luther was originally an Augustinian monk). The theme of the curse of the Law recurs frequently in his writings.

Twenty years later, this led him to turn virulently anti-Semitic with his pamphlet Des juifs et de leurs mensonges (1543). This unbearable text recycled every cliché of medieval anti-Semitism, and was taken up in its entirety by the propaganda of the Third Reich and the Deutsche Christen.

The second generation of the Reformation, led by John Calvin, took a very different approach. Calvin, who had trained as a jurist, was passionate about the Law, which he commented on at length, integrating the rabbinical contributions at his disposal. He reinscribed the Gospel in its original Hebraic soil. When he preached at Saint Peter's on a book of the Jewish Bible, he had the Hebrew text in front of him. It was the Hebrew that was authoritative, not his translation, which in his eyes was never more than an attempt. In his major work, L'Institution de la Religion Chrétienne (The Institution of Christian Religion), which has been constantly enriched in successive editions, a number of key points stand out in this respect.

  1. Calvin clearly affirms the unity of the two Testaments (there are not two covenants, but only one). His argument is that it is not possible for God to suddenly start cursing the people he has blessed until Christ. This is contrary to the right that God himself laid down in the covenant narratives. Since this right is God's right, it is absolutely secure. A point of view not unlike the fundamentals of Talmudic law.

  2. Calvin rehabilitates and upholds the Law for Christians (with the exception of what he calls the ceremonial aspects) in the form of the famous three uses of the Law. First use of the Law: knowledge of God's will and self-knowledge; second use: the Law is the source of civil and political jurisdiction; third use: the Law is the rule of good living for everyone.

  3. Calvin begins to teach respect: "Those who slander the Jewish religion and the books of Moses are scoundrels", he writes. "All Jesus is in Moses", he also says. Let's understand that anyone who doesn't go through Moses has no chance of understanding Jesus.

  4. Unlike Luther, he was not at all concerned with converting the Jews. The reason, of course, is the double predestination that runs through Jews and Christians alike. Beyond the historical people of Israel mentioned in the Bible, there is an invisible people of God, whose borders only He knows. One thing is certain, however: this people includes both Jews and Christians.

  5. In his public action, Calvin wanted to build a "Hebrew Lacedemon" (Napoléon Peyrat) in Geneva, i.e. a model of a virtuous, believing city-church governed by the Law of Moses. The people of Geneva appreciated this...

  6. We also know that his closest lieutenant, Théodore de Bèze, supported the rebirth of the "Republic of Israel", as it was called at the time, and the return of the Jews to their historic homeland.

There are important limits to Calvin's attitude. We don't know what the status of Jews would have been in Geneva under his authority, since Jews were no longer present there long before he took office. In this respect, the cities of Strasbourg with Bucer and Basel with Oecolampade were more advanced than Geneva.

Calvin was also a formidable theological fighter, and he was not afraid of anti-Jewish controversy (not to be confused with anti-Semitism!), as evidenced by his Responses to Certain Jews, in which he scolds rabbis who, in his opinion, should agree with him... "I confess well," he writes, "that I am not a Jew, but a rabbi. I confess," he writes, "that the rabbis are sometimes right, but not all the time...".

As a result, his knowledge of Judaism is essentially biblical and bookish.

Nevertheless, Calvin initiated a Copernican revolution in Christian thinking. Calvinist posterity cultivated a principled respect for the people of the Bible. One of the most venomous modern anti-Semites, Drumont, wrote: "Every Protestant (Calvinist, this is France) is half-Jewish...".

To conclude, I'd like to quote two notorious 17th-century Calvinists: "At the time, French Protestants were undergoing terrible persecution (the Cévennes War) and readily identified with the persecuted Jewish people, who had taken refuge in Holland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Pastor Jean Jacques Basnage completed his monumental "L'Histoire et la Religion des Juifs depuis Jésus Christ jusqu'à présent".

And above all, Pierre Jurieu, pastor, orthodox Calvinist and Hebrew teacher, who wrote a thesis on the Kabbalah and maintained close relations with the Jewish communities of Holland. He can be considered the first explicit Christian Zionist. He developed a very bold conception of biblical prophecy that went much further than Calvin.

In this way, the Reformer sowed seeds that have borne fruit to this day. Let's hope they continue to do so in the future.

Pasteur Vincent Schmid

Chapelle de l'Oratoire

7 mais 2023

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