Messianic Judaism and Christian Confessionalism – Schism or Unity Through Diversity

By: David Zadok

Presented on LCJE, Europe, Berlin, 2017.

 

© David Zadok

 

Introduction

Confessions and creeds are not only biblical but also Jewish. While we may think that Confessionalism is a Christian “invention” and especially that they sprouted like mushrooms during and after the Reformation, I believe that the facts argue otherwise. All of the doctrines of the New Testament are based and rooted in the Old Testament and are not new in and of themselves, but rather find their new and fresh fulfilment in Jesus, who was promised in every   book of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi, and as Jesus testified of himself after his resurrection in Luke 24: 44, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are written of him. In the same way, the ideas of creeds and confessions are also rooted in the Old Testament and in Jewish theology and thought. After presenting the cases of confessions and creeds in Scripture, I would like to deal with the Jewish perspective, and then the Christian perspective, and only then address the issues and the questions of the schism or unity through diversity.

 

The Biblical Idea of Confession

The idea of confessing our faith is biblical, but it is important first to define what confession of faith is. We confess our faith by our mouth and believe it by our heart – that is what Romans 10:9 tells us. The meaning of the Greek word ὁμολογέω is “to say the same thing,” or repeat a certain truth.  Confession is basically repeating the Scripture with our mouth as to what we believe in our heart. We find several places in the Scriptures which can be considered confessions of faith. The first being the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. Though they are commandments, they tell us who God is, how to worship him, and how to live in relation to the creator and his creatures. However, the most famous confession in the Old Testament is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, The Shema. In it, there is a simple confession of the existence of only one God, who is the Lord. It is the repetition of a simple truth that there is but one God. This confession was very important for the Israelites who were living among the pagans who had many gods and idols. More than that, this confession became a trademark of the Jewish confession. We know that many Jews who were killed in the Holocaust cited this short and simple confession as the last words they uttered. In addition, the Israelites were called to confess their sins. In Leviticus 26:40 they were called not only to confess their own sins but also the sins of their fathers. That was exactly what King Solomon and Nehemiah did.

 

In the New Testament, we see a similar idea, although the focus is on confessing the Lord Jesus. In Philippians 2:11 we read and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV)

That is a confession. And when Jesus asked His disciples who He was in Matthew 16:13, it was Peter who confessed Him as the Christ, the Messiah.

His confession separated the followers of Jesus from all others who did not confess Him as “Christ, the Son of the living God.” So confession separates or sets apart the truth from false teachings and misunderstandings of God’s Word. In II Timothy 2:11- 12 there is a confession as well as it begins with the words: The saying is trustworthy[1]. In Ephesians 2: 8 -9 we have a statement about our salvation and how we are saved – by grace and through faith, and not by works. Paul, in II Timothy 3:16, tells us about the source of the Scriptures and that is a brief confession about the book that we hold in our hands and confidently call the Word of God.

 

So we see that in the Old and the New Testament, there are confessions that are given on specific subjects. So, confessions and creeds are biblical.

 

A Right Balance

Our faith is a balanced faith. In every aspect of our faith and life, there is a balance, and often when the balance is broken, it leads to heresy at worst and an unbalanced and unhealthy Christian life at best. We have to live within the tension of a balanced life. A balance between law and grace – one of the many things that Luther brought out and emphasized, is the right balance between prayer and work, and a thoughtful balance in saying yes and no to the demands of life and ministry. In our day, we often see churches, ministries and individuals who have lost their balance and swing from one side of the pendulum to the other, especially in the area of doctrine. We live in a time when unfortunately the sound truth of the Word of God is often lost even in churches that claim to be the true “followers” of Christ and His Word. Too often what is taught and practiced is in complete disagreement with the basic understanding of the Scriptures.

 

Creeds and confessions are often written not only to help summarize the essential teaching of the Word of God but also to bring out a balanced truth of Scripture in a brief and concise way. Creeds also keep us from falling into unbiblical traps that the enemy lay on every side of our path. In fact, many of the creeds and confessions were written in response to some kind of heresy in the church.[2]  And In this age, people and certainly the millennials are less and less prone to reading large books, or even thin ones. The confession can help in the understanding of their faith.

 

The Jewish Tradition

In Jewish tradition, we find some confession of faith, though not as elaborate as in Christianity. The question of Judaism being a creedal religion or not is a controversial issue – no surprise, two Jews and three opinions. Judaism in a strict sense emphasizes action, keeping of the Law (the 613 Mitzvoth), over creeds. However, while the use of “confession” in the Jewish tradition is somewhat different, yet the idea is still there. Earlier we mentioned the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 as a monotheistic confession of faith, a very popular one, as any Jew whether religious (Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed) or secular recite it on different occasions.

 

But in Jewish history, the most famous confession are the 13 principles of Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, (Maimonides or Rambam), who compiled the “Thirteen Fundamental Principles” of the Jewish Faith.[3] He referred to them as the fundamental truths of our religion and its very foundations.[4] From Rambam’s point of view, every Jewish person should know these principles, and the one who does not “confess” them is an epicurean or infidel and has no part in the world to come.

 

It is interesting to note that the Jewish confession was not written until Rambam, who lived in the twelfth century, in a time when Jews were living in the vicinity of Muslims and Christians. I believe that they were written as a way of distinguishing and clarifying Judaism mainly from Christianity, but also Islam. We know that Islam is also monotheistic, and there is a confession, called the Shahadah. It is a simple confession about one God and Mohamad is his prophet.[5] In addition, a six-article confession of faith does exist in Islam called Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar.[6] It was also drafted against the heresies of the time.

 

So in both of the cases of Judaism and Islam, though they do not have elaborate confessions of faith, they do exist and have been written to differentiate themselves from what they considered to be heresies.

 

The Creeds, and the Reformation

One of first and earliest known confession is the Apostle’s Creed. Though it was not written by the 12 apostles (though it has 12 articles), it is truly apostolic. It is a short and concise summary of the apostolic doctrines and contains the fundamental truths of the gospel as preached by Peter, Paul, John, and the other apostles.  The origin of the Apostolic Creed can be found in the great commission which the Lord Jesus gave to His disciples just before His ascension: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Before people were baptized in the days of the early church, they were asked whether they believed in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Upon that confession, they were baptized. The Apostolic Creed began with the doctrine of the Trinity, but with time other doctrines were added and arranged under these three headings.  The final form of it was already in circulation in 500 A.D. in its current form. The Apostle’s Creed has been translated into many languages and is the foundation of a large number of denominations and churches throughout the world. Although other confessions have since been added, the Apostle’s Creed in its simplicity unites the church of Jesus Christ from the four corners of the world.

 

As we celebrate the 500th year of Luther and the Reformation, it is important to make mention of the confessions during and after the Reformation. The protest-ant that was a protest against the church in Rome and the Catholic religion, faithfully distinguished itself from other so-called “Christianity” through the writing of the confessions and creeds. We don’t have to elaborate on the issue, but it is sufficient to briefly make mention of some of the reformed creeds that have been written. The first well-known reformed confession is the Belgic Confession written in 1561, followed by the Heidelberg Catechism written in 1563, not very far from here. We just visited Heidelberg on our way to Berlin. The next known ones were the Canons of Dordt written in 1618 and after that the English Westminster Confession of Faith that was written by the Westminster Assembly in England in 1646. As a reformed Baptist, the last one that should be mentioned is the 1689 Second London Confession of Faith. The number of these confessions written on the continent in different years and later in England, shows that the reformers not only saw an importance in them, but they wanted to keep the purity of the doctrine in their hard and long fight to maintain the purity and unity of the faith.

 

Many of these confessions have been translated into other languages and form the basis of many churches and denominations in various parts of the world. While their purpose is to be a confession of faith, a summary of belief, yet they also provide a unity across church denominations that subscribe to it. For sure it can also cause separation from others who do not subscribe to it, but it strengthens the unity within countries and beyond.

 

The Heidelberg Confession of Faith has been translated into Modern Hebrew and published by HaGefen Publishing.[7] A second edition is being worked on, as the first edition is sold out. In addition, HaGefen has published the Children’s Catechism, known in Scotland as the Mother’s Catechism. Last year, for the first time, the Westminster Confession of Faith was translated into Hebrew.

 

There are two important facts that need to be mentioned about the Heidelberg Catechism. The first is that in 1890 it was translated into Hebrew in St. Petersburg by a Jewish man named L’. His full name was not mentioned, and it was published by Berman and Rabinowitch Publishing Company. Back in those days Jewish Believers in Yeshua saw the importance in the catechism and translated it into Hebrew. The second interesting fact about the catechism written in Heidelberg is the name Immanuel Tremellius. Immanuel was born as a Jew in the Italian town of Ferrera in 1510, and he was well acquainted with the Hebrew language from his childhood. In 1540 he was baptized, and the year after received his first job as a Hebrew teacher in a monastery. The Inquisition caused him to escape to Strasbourg. Later on, he went to Switzerland and England where he contributed to The Book of Common Prayer.  He eventually ended up in Heidelberg and helped in the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. Tremellius even translated a few other reformed writings into Hebrew, including Calvin’s catechism.

 

The Messianic Community and Creeds

In the spring of 1939, just before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Warsaw Hebrew Christian Community published articles of faith that were formulated as a credo in the Hebrew language. It had thirteen articles and was formulated similarly to Moses’ Maimonides Credo.[8] For

 

Also, some years ago the Kenes haArtzi, the national pastors and elders in Israel, adopted a brief statement of faith. The statement came as the result of some pastors and congregations who would not publically announce the Trinity or the Divinity of Christ. The statement of faith was accepted by the majority of the members of the Kenes HaArtzi. This was in a way the first Israeli Messianic Community confession of faith.

 

So the Messianic Community in Israel in a small way maintained the purity of doctrine adopted through this simple statement of faith.

 

Schism or Unity Through Diversity

Now we need to address the question if creeds are a cause for schism or unity. I believe that despite our diversity creeds can bring unity.

 

A creature with two heads is a monster, but a creature with two legs is a normal human being. As a Jewish Christian or as a Messianic Jew, I have two legs, but only one head. My one leg is Jewish. It is my ethnicity, my heritage and my culture and upbringing. My other leg is actually the Christian heritage that although I was not born into physically, was adopted into it by my Jewish Messiah. So the 2,000-year history of the Christian faith is in a sense mine as well. Unfortunately, that history is marred too often with the acts and sayings of which I am ashamed, and which make my work of evangelism to my people very difficult. My parents disowned me because they could not understand how I could believe in such a man who in his name so many of our people were killed and persecuted and forced to be converted. But at the same time, I am not willing to cut off my Christian leg. Just as I am not willing to cut off my Jewish leg. I am ashamed of, namely that we as a people rejected our Messiah, and that our spiritual leaders did not recognize him as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. But in both cases, I want to have both legs so I can walk and run with them both. This is how God made me and who I am.

 

Therefore, I believe that we need to find ways to maintain both our Jewish-Messianic identify and at the same time our Christian identity. We belong to both, and we need both. Confessions and creeds were drafted in the course of the history of the Christian church in order to maintain unity and to protect against false teaching. The church of Christ today needs both confessions and creeds. While not all of us may adopt a particular confession, yet we should be able to accept the Apostles Creed, even though it is not considered Jewish. A few congregations in Israel are working on writing a Reformed confession of faith for the Israeli congregations that would include statements about the place of Jewish people in the redemptive plan of God for his church.

 

My hope and prayers are that we can take advantage of the many confessions that have been written and have stood the test of time. It is time for Jewish believers in the Messiah to leave behind the baggage of the past and become open to the use of confessions of faith written by Godly men who have gone before us. By standing on their shoulders, we will be taller and stronger.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself. Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.

2 Tim. 2:11-14 ESV

[2] Arius from Alexandria began to teach that Jesus Christ was not truly divine. He claimed that Christ was the highest creature, but not the eternal Son of God. As the result in 325 A.D. the church Synod in Nicaea conveyed and there the Nicaean Creed was formulated that “confessed” the Divine nature of Jesus. Later on, an issue with the little “i” came up! In trying to express the relationship between God and Christ, the Council of Nicaea had stated that the Son of God is homo-ousios, that is, of the same nature, with the Father.  The Greek word homo means “the same,” while ousios means “nature” or “being.”  The followers of Arius said that Christ is homoi-ousios with the Father.  In other words, He does not have the same divine nature as God the Father; He merely has something similar. It was a slight difference of only one letter, but this difference was very crucial. In 381 another church council was held in Constantinople, and this time there was nothing vague in the words that were spoken and written. The Nicaea Creed was not only confirmed, but also clarified and elaborated upon the nature of Christ (He is of one Substance with the Father), and added that the Holy Spirit is also of the same substance.

 

[3] In Hebrew: Shloshah Asar Ikkarim.

[4] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/332555/jewish/Maimonides-13-Principles-of-Faith.htm

[5] The full Shahada is: There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.

[6] Belief in: 1) God, 2) angels, 3) Divine books, 4) the Prophets, 5) Day of Judgment and

6) Predestination.

[7] The first edition of the Heidelberg Catechism was translated by David Zadok, who is also the director of HaGefen Publishing. On the work by HaGefen publishing is also an edition of the HC for the younger generation.

[8] Miskhan, Issue 34 – 2001, Creeds among Jewish Believers in Yeshua Between the World Wars, by Gershon Nerel