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Yesterday’s Children

by Vincent J. Donovan, Mar 7, 2004

[This is a reprint from chapter one of The Church in the Midst of Creation. Posted with permission of Bimillennial Press.]

1The Catholic church of yesterday had a texture to it, a feel: the smudge of ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday, the cool candle against your throat on St. Blaise’s day, the waferlike sensation on your tongue in Communion. It had a look: the oddly elegant sight of the silky vestments on the back of the priest as he went about his mysterious rites facing the sanctuary wall in the parish church; the monstrance with its solar radial brilliance surrounding the stark white host of the tabernacle; the indelible impression of the blue-and-white Virgin and the shocking red image of the Sacred Heart. It even had a smell, an odor: the pungent incense, the extinguished candles with their beeswax aroma floating ceilingward and filling your nostrils, the smell of olive oil and sacramental balm. It had the taste of fish on Friday and unleavened bread and hot-cross buns. It had the sound of unearthly Gregorian chant and flectamus genua and mournful Dies Irae. The church had a way of capturing all your senses, keeping your senses and your being enthralled.[1]

All this certainly separated us from our Protestant colleagues, who seemed to distrust all the senses except one, as far as worship of God was concerned. The one sense they trusted was hearing, and in this they copied faithfully our common ancestors in the faith, the Jewish people. In their abhorrence of idolatry the Jewish people believed there was only one way to experience God and that was to hear him. No statues, no images, no sexual representations of the deity. You could not see him, touch him, taste him, smell him. Just hear him and listen to him. “The Lord has said…”; “Hear the word of Yahweh….” A daring poet or artist or psalmist would, on occasion and in seemingly idolatrous fashion, attempt to break out of this biblical straitjacket with thoughts like, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” but by and large one avoided such sensual outbursts and remained within the confines of one’s religious fears and apprehensions, and thus the Jews became the greatest hearers and listeners in the history of the world. They became people of the Word, and when they wrote down that Word, people of the Book.[2]

The classical Protestant Reformers seemed to have inherited the Jews’ perceptions and fears. The Reformed liturgy, performed in stripped-down assembly halls bereft of any dangers of idolatrous images or representations, consisted in reading the Word, praying the Word, preaching the Word, singing the Word—and then considering the worship complete. Catholics have never been satisfied with this seemingly inchoate liturgy and have always tried to fill the remainder of their Sunday worship with elements to appeal to all the senses. The body was made to take part in the worship by standing, sitting, kneeling, genuflecting, bowing, and striking the breast. And, of course, at every Catholic liturgy there had to be eating. You could do more than hear God. You could see God, feel God, smell God, taste God.[3] This deep involvement of the senses in Christian worship, often carried out by a church unaware of its profound psychological and theological significance, has nevertheless left a mark in the consciousness, in the memory, and sometimes in the longings of the people formed in their values in the times before Vatican Council II, those people of the past—yesterday’s children.

Whatever mixed feelings those people had about the church of yesterday, doubt was not one of them. There was a sense of security, an amazing assurance of what they were about. There was no doubt about confession, the certitude that if they recited the proper description and number of their sins, they became as innocent as newborns; that if they fulfilled all the conditions at Communion time, at the moment of reception, they had on their tongues and in their stomachs, before the fifteen minutes of chemical digestion took over, the baby Jesus, or the Good Shepherd, or the miracle worker of Galilee, or the suffering Savior, or the risen Lord, depending on the time of the liturgical year. They had no doubt about the power and the glory and the omnipotence and omniscience of those fortunate enough to be among the chosen, ordained priests of the church of God.

There was an assurance about doctrine, so neatly and completely formulated in the Baltimore Catechism. They did not question the central position of the Catholic school as the gem and treasure of the whole Catholic church. It was the “pearl of great price” for which every parish church went out and sold everything it had. The only doubt they had was about the salvation of those young people bold enough and contumacious enough to attend public schools.

And there was no doubt about the bishops, mysteriously and infallibly chosen by the Holy Spirit through a process completely divorced from every political or economic consideration, chosen out of that group of privileged, joyless, nonpastoral, prudent, chancery-trained, businesslike human beings, preordained from all time, born to rule, born to the purple—successors of the apostles.

This system, before Vatican II, was not only accepted but unquestioned—a vast complex of unanalyzed assumptions. Any critique of this system, pro or con, was rare. Elements that could have been encouraged to live and to be fulfilled were left barely understood, such as the five-dimensional approach of the senses in worship as an authentic response to the incarnational basis of the Christian message, and to the sacramental vision of the gospel.

It was necessary to keep that sacramental vision alive—the vision that impels us to see beyond the signs and symbols to the reality toward which they all point, to the Creator behind the creatures of beeswax and incense and ointments, to the whole spiritual world they signify and to which they lead us: the presence of God and God’s Christ in the world beyond the shining host. It was necessary because in that very same pre-Vatican II time our culture was insisting to us that there was nothing beyond what we see and hear and smell and touch, nothing beyond what is perceived through the sense organs; that the only true reality is sensory, empirical, secular, this-worldly. Pitirim Sorokin has pointed out that we were in the midst of what he calls the Sensate age, where the only reality was what we could see and feel and measure and count.[4] We needed that sacramental vision to keep the spiritual side of us from being destroyed.

And as for those other elements—that assurance, that being satisfied and no longer searching and questioning and doubting, that unchallenged structure of the church and its ministry that we considered as sacred and unchanging as the gospel—we needed prophecy in the midst of all that, to see what should live and what should die in order to give birth to new forms able to enshrine old values.

We should have asked some hard questions about the parochial schools: whether or not they had become a too willing and subservient ally of business and industry and commerce—and segregation; whether or not they were leading the church away from its task of prophecy. We should have prophesied against the excessive concern for money and goods and things and consumerism that was drowning our world and our church.

We should have prophesied against the colonialism that was crippling our world. Instead, we of the church became part of it. The whole modern missionary movement was born out of colonialism and became part of the colonial structure that was so necessary to industry with its needs for raw materials and world markets. It is no coincidence that the prime example of a modern missionary was David Livingstone, who was from England, the greatest colonial power on earth and the prime instigator of the Industrial Revolution. Missionary theology was profoundly influenced by colonialism, with missions set up as foreign colonies and the gospel considered a European export. The church should have prophesied, but it remained a silent church.

Finances continued to mesmerize the church. It was difficult to find traces of the New Testament community of Jesus in a modern institution that continued to judge the suitability of its pastors, episcopal and otherwise, on the basis of their financial, administrative, and building abilities. There were financial needs in the original community of Jesus of Nazareth, but they did not constitute the top priority of that community. Judas Iscariot, with his whining shrewdness and manipulative skills, was the one assigned to look after those needs. But he could hardly be considered the model for the church community of our day. At least, one would hope not.

But why should we begin to question and analyze this system now? Is this the time to ask questions about the sacraments, the ministry, the priesthood, the church? Why is this time so special? Perhaps we are attributing too much importance to the time in which we live. Are we making too much of our age? Just because the church is having problems getting men to enter the seminary? Or because so many priests and nuns and brothers are leaving? Or because church attendance has dropped to a scandalous low in the Western world? Because the young in increasing numbers are having nothing to do with the church? Because the last few remaining years of the twentieth century are dwindling away? Because the church is in the midst of a crisis the like of which it has never seen before?

The truth is that for none of these reasons must we look at the church and Christianity in a fresh, new way but, rather, because of something much more profound and disturbing and challenging than any of them.


Just when we thought that every possible commentary and explanation of Vatican Council II had already been submitted and digested, Karl Rahner came along and offered an interpretation of the council that was possibly more far-reaching in its implications than anything that had gone before. He was not calling our attention to any particular document that came out of the Vatican Council, or to the intentions of Pope John XXIII in calling the council, or to the conscious plan of the fathers who attended the council. He was interested, not in the interpretation imposed on the council by these figures or by outside agents, but in that interpretation that flowed from the very meaning of the council. He called it a “fundamental theological interpretation of Vatican II.”[5]

Sometimes the meaning of important events is not consciously or explicitly intended or even understood by the organizers or agents of those events. Many times during the course of Vatican Council II there were press conferences set up to explain the meaning and significance of the council in general and of certain documents in particular. It was thought that such conferences and press releases would add importance to the documents or sessions of the council in question, or perhaps even make them important. But when has a press conference or planned fanfare ever inaugurated any great event in history? Or predicted it, or foreseen the tremendous implications of it, or its meaning for history? The meaning of such events is usually seen long after. And so with the Vatican Council. There was no press conference to announce that Vatican Council II was in fact the church’s first official self-actualization as a world church.[6] That is what Karl Rahner sees as an important fundamental theological interpretation of Vatican II—that the church acted in a real way, for the first time in its two-thousand-year history, as a world church.[7] And we, whether we want to be or not, are now members of a world church—for the first time in our history.

This emergence of the church as a world church can be detected in many aspects of Vatican Council II. In the council the church appeared for the first time as a world church in a full official way, as a council with a worldwide episcopate including indigenous bishops from Asia and Africa. In Vatican I the representatives of Asia and Africa were foreign-missionary bishops of European or North American origin. The acceptance of the vernacular in place of Latin as the language for worship was a signal victory for the world church. Latin might be a language of unity for the Western world, but it could never be the language of a world church. Only arrogance could make such a claim when 80 percent of the world’s peoples speak languages that have nothing to do with Latin. The acceptance of the vernacular was a recognition of the importance of the many cultures of the world, a recognition long in coming to the Roman Catholic Church. The meaning of culture is perhaps one of the most important discoveries of our time, and Vatican Council II aided in that discovery.

The Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) begins with one of the most magnificent opening statements a church document has ever had: “The joys and hopes, the fears and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are the very same joys and hopes, fears and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” If there could be any more striking identification of the mission of the church, of those who call themselves Christians, with the world and the people of the world, where could it be found or what might it be?

For the first time in the church’s two-thousand-year doctrinal history, the Vatican Council initiated a truly positive evaluation of the world’s great religions, something that had been disastrously lacking until that time and that had made missionary work and missionary dialogue among the people of these religions virtually impossible. The council’s statements about the universal salvific will of God, that is, that God truly wills the salvation of all human beings, and that salvation is limited only by the evil decision of human conscience and nothing else, throw forever into the trash bin of history the narrow, paralyzing thoughts that have always swirled around the oft-repeated dictum, “Outside the church, no salvation.” The implications are stunning: there is a revelation, and a faith that responds to that revelation, which can lead to salvation beyond the Christian Word of revelation—a revelation out there in the world, among Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and people of traditional religions, for them and for us.

Because of Vatican Council II the church has become conscious of its responsibility for the dawning history of humanity. The council has sensitized the Catholic church to its world responsibility. If we have any political theory at all, it is that responsibility. We have taken a qualitative leap. We are no longer a church of the West. The basic presuppositions for a world mission of the world church are now available for the first time.[8]

Karl Rahner sees in Vatican Council II not only the first self-actualization of the world church, but the beginning of a new age, a new epoch in the history of the church. It is a break with the past, a transition from one historical and theological situation to an entirely new one. He sees that, even though the church is nearly two thousand years old, such a radical break with the past has happened only once before in church history and in Christianity, and that was in the very earliest days of the church, when it changed from Jewish Christianity to Gentile Christianity. He calls the first period, or stage, of church history the period of Jewish Christianity. The second stage he calls the period of Gentile, Hellenistic, European Christianity. The third stage, which has just begun, is the period in which the sphere of the church’s life is, in fact, the entire world.[9] The second stage, the Gentile, European stage, was certainly the longest, and there are subdivisions in it, but not one division radical enough or decisive enough to constitute a cultural, historical, theological break with the past in the way that the Vatican Council’s world church heralds the birth of a new epoch.

If we are indeed at the beginning of a new epoch in church history, that places us in an essentially and basically different situation for the understanding and preaching of Christianity, for the ministry of the church, for the understanding and meaning of the church itself—an understanding as different from that of the pre-Vatican II church as was that of the Gentile, European church from the Jewish church of the first century. What theological conviction guided so unerringly and so unhesitatingly that transition from Jewish Christianity to Gentile Christianity? If we could isolate and identify that theology, that conviction, what would happen if we applied that theology to the transition through which we are living today?

It would be immensely helpful if, now, in the midst of the crisis in our church, in the midst of the fears about the future, in the midst of the doubts and divisions and bitterness, we could look calmly at the early church as it faced its first crisis, a crisis that almost destroyed it, to see how it acted in that crisis. But we would not want to look at the early church in a sentimental or nostalgic way, or in a simply pious and edifying way. It would be of little use to do so. It will be of value only if we look at it as openly and honestly as we can, letting the story speak for itself, as we make our way along the road that leads out from Jerusalem.


We like to imagine that after Pentecost the apostles burst forth from Jerusalem across the world. It did not happen in exactly that way. The Hellenistic deacons were the first ones to go out from Jerusalem to Samaria and Antioch, and to baptize the first non-Jew, the eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. The apostles were told that, after waiting in Jerusalem for the power of the Spirit from on high, they were to go out from Jerusalem and Samaria to the ends of the earth. They did not do so. They stayed in Jerusalem and a church grew up there. They continued to be faithful observers of the law and of worship in the Temple, and a kind of Jewish sect emerged there from. They regarded themselves as being a true Israel, the community of the New Testament. Remarkable is the person selected to lead that church. All the Gospels take great pains to point out that the person to head the church of Christ in the world was Simon bar Jona, called Peter. Two other apostles, the sons of Zebedee, were also chosen by Jesus, as recounted in the Gospel stories, to stand with Peter, to witness with him certain cures as well as the glory of the mountaintop and the agony of the garden. Yet when it came time for someone to be chosen to lead the first and only Christian church in existence, it was not Peter or James or John, or any of the apostles who was chosen. Who emerged as the head of the first local church that came to be? It was James, the brother of the Lord. Did Peter, James, and John voluntarily give up the obvious claims they had to leadership and turn it over to the one who came to be called “James the Just”? The historical Eusebius seems to think so.[10] And Clement of Rome stated that the apostles regarded themselves as being responsible for the universal church and placed local churches in the care of prominent men.[11]

One has to wonder if the apostles made such distinctions between local churches and the universal church when the only church in existence was the church in Jerusalem. It seems that soon the preeminence of James was not restricted to the local church in Jerusalem. When Gentiles began to come into the church and conflicts arose, the Council of Jerusalem was called to settle those conflicts. According to the Acts of the Apostles, after Peter and Paul and Barnabas had spoken at the council, “it was James who spoke.” “I rule then,” said James, sending out a ruling that was to direct the churches outside Jerusalem. The “I” resonates: “I rule, not Peter or James or John, but I, the brother of the Lord, rule that the following prescriptions be carried out in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia…” (see Acts 15:19-23). It looks very much as if the leadership of James extended far beyond the local church of Jerusalem. Despite Eusebius’ disclaimer to the contrary, he later quotes Hegesippus as saying, “Those who were called the brothers of the Savior governed the entire church, in virtue of their being relatives of the Lord.”[12] I think we have to face the unpalatable fact that after Pentecost the family of Jesus took over the church of Christ.

The successor to James, who was to become the second bishop of Jerusalem, was a man named Simeon, son of Cleopas, also a cousin of the Lord. The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were men of pure Hebrew stock. Eusebius calls them bishops of the circumcision. Their reign has been described as the Caliphate of Jerusalem.[13]

It did not, apparently, seem strange to the first Christians that the brother of the Lord should be head of the church of Jerusalem. There was a Semitic tradition of such family succession in religious leadership. When Judas Maccabaeus, the great Jewish freedom fighter, was struck down in battle several centuries before Christ, his brother Jonathan accepted the leadership of the Jewish people, was anointed high priest, and took over the command from his brother, beginning the Maccabaean dynasty. The process was still in effect centuries later when another great Semite, Muhammad, died and was succeeded by his brothers and sons in a caliphate that reaches even until our time.

There are indications in the Gospels that Jesus foresaw this very danger of Semitic succession among his own followers and tried to eliminate it. Never once does he allow anyone to lay claim to closeness to him or discipleship merely on the grounds of a relationship of blood. Three evangelists tell the story of the time Jesus’ mother and brothers (James among them?) came to see him to take him home, and sent in a message requesting a visit: “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you,” Jesus was told. “And Jesus replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:31-35; Mt. 12:46-50; Lk. 8:19-21).

Luke records an incident in which a woman declares the mother of Jesus blessed for giving birth to him and nursing him. Jesus once again puts aside this biological relationship with him as a basis for blessedness and discipleship: “Yea, rather, more blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” he tells the woman (Lk. 11:27-28). I think this caution of Jesus about the basis of relationship with him might explain the apparent harshness he shows to his mother in public, as at the wedding of Cana: “Woman, what is it to me and to thee?”

Who was this James, brother of the Lord? He is obviously not James, son of Zebedee, who was martyred by Herod in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2). Was he James, son of Alphaeus, one of the twelve apostles mentioned in Matthew 10:3? Early writers in the church and most modern Scripture scholars reject such a notion. It is most probable he was not an apostle at all, not one of those whom Jesus deliberately chose, but simply one of his relatives. Mark, in relating a visit of Jesus to his hometown of Nazareth, shows Jesus being rejected by his fellow townspeople as a prophet because of his very ordinary family origins: “Surely this is the carpenter’s son. Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude?” (Mk. 6:1-6).

John, too, mentions the brothers of Jesus, but not in the neutral way that Mark does:

As the Jewish feast of Passover drew near, his brothers said to him, “Why not leave this place and go to Judea and let your disciples see the works you are doing. If a man wants to be known he does not do things in secret. Since you are doing all this you should let the world see.” Not even his brothers, in fact, had faith in him [Jn. 7:1-5].

In this passage, John makes a clear distinction between the disciples of Jesus and his brothers. His brothers, presumably including James, did not believe in him, and were urging Jesus to go to Jerusalem, knowing that Jews of Jerusalem were out to kill him. Strange brothers. Jesus’ disdainful answer indicates this lack of faith, and hostility: “The right time for me has not come yet, but any time is the right time for you. The world cannot hate you, but it does hate me, because I give evidence that its ways are evil. Go to the festival yourselves: I am not going…” (Jn. 7:6-8).

As Mark ends his description of Jesus’ visit to his hometown, he seems to agree with John’s appraisal, not only of his fellow townspeople, but of his brothers as well: “Jesus said to them, ‘No prophet is without honor except in his native place, among his own kindred, in his own house’” (Mk. 6:4-6). It is difficult to conceive of any of these brothers coming to head the church of Christ in Jerusalem. But several of them did.

The books of the New Testament were written in Greek and are part of the Hellenistic Christianity that came to dominate in the church after A.D. 70. They refer only passingly to the terrible difficulties the church went through when, in its beginnings in a Semitic milieu, it was deeply involved sociologically and culturally in the Jewish world. Christianity belonged to the Jewish world because its founder did. Jesus was born of a Jewish mother, was circumcised on the eighth day, observed the Sabbath, went to worship in the Temple, spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and used the rabbinical method of teaching.[14] Jesus was a Jew and remained a Jew until his last breath. He was a product of Jewish culture. Every word of ethical or moral counsel he pronounced has a parallel in Jewish writings. The concept of Jesus as son of man, son of David, as Messiah and prophet is completely Jewish in character. The ethic of the love of God that he preached, of the love of neighbor, and even of enemies, his predilection for the poor in spirit—all are Hebrew in essence and have counterparts in Jewish writings, as has been often demonstrated, if not in the Scriptures themselves, then in the books of the Essenes and the Qumran documents. Even the idea of resurrection was prepared for by the stories of Enoch, of Melchizedek, and of Elijah in the Old Testament, and by the expectations of the return from the dead of John the Baptist in the time of Jesus himself.

One did not have to give up one’s Jewish religion or culture to become a follower of Christ. In fact, the Jewish apostles saw, in the resurrection of Christ, the “Last Things” proclaimed by the prophets of Israel, and called upon all Jews to recognize this epoch-making event. They continued worshiping daily in the Temple and were in no hurry to leave Jerusalem.

The undisputed head of the Hebrew Christian community was James, brother of the Lord, who, standing with the apostles, was the most important personality in the Christian community at Jerusalem.

There was no difficulty, of course, until converts from the non-Jewish world began to join themselves to the Christian community. Paul of Tarsus became spokesman for the Gentile converts, and James, brother of the Lord, the advocate of the Hebrew Christian community. We should not be wrong in seeing in James the founder of Judeo-Christianity, who as such remained deliberately committed to Judaism, in confrontation with Pauline Christianity. In some of the early Judeo-Christian documents still extant, Paul is seen as the enemy and is even accused of duplicity.[15] A rift grew up between Judeo-Christians led by James and Gentile Christians led by Paul, and it was never closed. From the vantage point of the twentieth century it is somewhat surprising to realize that until A.D. 70 the Judeo-Christian wing of the church was the dominant majority, and Paul, in his lifetime, knew only the isolation and pain of the minority. He was triumphant only posthumously.

In the New Testament, written by Hellenists, we have mainly the record of the Pauline missionary expansion of the church. The Judeo-Christian missionary endeavor was just as spectacular. The Judeo-Christian missionaries preceded or followed Paul everywhere he went—Antioch, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, even Rome. This is the explanation of the repeated references to conflict in Paul’s epistles. From the coasts of Palestine and Syria to Asia Minor and Phrygia; from Greece even to Rome there is evidence of conflict and confrontation of the Pauline mission with the Judeo-Christian mission. So strong was the latter’s presence that the Roman historians simply looked on Christianity as a Jewish sect. And it is possible that Paul may have become a fatal victim of the Judeo-Christians’ enmity in Rome.[16]

When we consider the history of the early church we tend to overlook the tremendous presence and activity of the Jewish Christians who were the first members of the church, and so we miss the extent of the struggle and crisis in the church at the time of Paul. Evidence seems to suggest that the missionary effort that brought Christianity to Africa was Judeo-Christian. When Paul complains that there is no more missionary work to be done (Rom. 15:19, 22, 23), he is curiously silent about missionary work to a place that was to become an important part of the church—Egypt. One thing is certain: Egypt lay outside the field of Paul’s mission.[17] Someone else must have evangelized Egypt.

Paul recognized the importance of James in the Judeo-Christian community. In justifying his own apostolate, he mentions that when he went to Jerusalem (A.D. 41) he met with Peter and James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:18-19), and that James, Peter, and John, “these leaders, these pillars of the church,” shook hands with Barnabas and himself as a sign of partnership—Paul and Barnabas to work among Gentiles, James and the others among the circumcised (Gal. 2:9-10).

But there were serious conflicts. Paul writes:

When Cephas came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong. His custom had been to eat with the pagans, but after certain friends of James arrived, he stopped doing this and kept away from them altogether for fear of the group that insisted on circumcision…. When I saw they were not respecting the true meaning of the Good News, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “In spite of being a Jew, you live like the pagans and not like the Jews, so you have no right to make the pagans copy Jewish ways” [Gal. 2:11-14].

The Acts of the Apostles makes reference to this incident and expands on it:

Some men came down [to Antioch] from Judea [sent by James according to the allusion in Gal. 2:12] and taught the brothers, “Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses, you cannot be saved.” This led to disagreement, and after Paul and Barnabas had had a long argument with these men it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and others of the church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the apostles and elders [Acts 15:1-2].

In the Council of Jerusalem that ensued, certain members of the Pharisees’ party, who had become believers, insisted that the Gentile Christians should be circumcised and instructed to keep the law of Moses. Peter and Barnabas and Paul intervened on behalf of the freedom of non-Jewish Christians. Then James came forth with his famous “I rule then,” “and it has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by us” (see Acts 15:19, 28), and agreed that the call of the Gentiles was entirely in keeping with the promises of Scripture. Without mentioning circumcision by name, he stated that non-Jews who accepted Christ should not be burdened by anything except essentials. The essentials he listed just happened to be Jewish kosher rules of eating. It is almost certain that, later, Paul ignored these prescriptions as binding on non-Jewish Christians.

For James, to agree that circumcision was not necessary for Gentile Christians was one thing. To agree that it was no longer necessary even for Jewish Christians was something else again. Once, when Paul came to Jerusalem, he went to visit the brothers and, at first, everything went well. Then,

the next day Paul went to visit James, and all the elders were present. He gave a detailed account of all that God had done among the pagans. They gave glory to God when they heard this. “But you see, brother,” they said, “how thousands of Jews now have become believers, all of them staunch upholders of the Law, and they have heard that you instruct all Jews living among the pagans to break away from Moses, authorizing them not to circumcise their children or to follow the customary practices. What is to be done? …Do as we suggest. We have four men here who are under a vow; take these men along and be purified with them and pay all the expenses connected with the shaving of their heads. This will let everyone know there is no truth in the reports they have heard about you and that you still regularly observe the Law” [Acts 21:17-24].

There is James again, broodingly present in the background, agreeing to all the proceedings, letting others speak for him, notifying Paul that they have heard reports about him, reports undoubtedly true, that he is saying circumcision is no longer necessary for salvation even for Jews, and then sending him to perform a strictly Jewish ritual of binding himself to the Temple by a Nazarite vow. This was an extraordinary and even humiliating ordeal to which to subject the apostle of the Gentiles.

The animosity of his Jewish brethren was a distress and agony for Paul until his dying day. He spoke about it often in his letters, and sometimes he felt constrained to burst out in bitter and sorrowful words: “these arch-apostles…are they Hebrews? Well, so am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? So am I, and even more so than they are” (2 Cor. 11:5, 22-23).

Paul, in his letters, several times praises James, the brother of the Lord. And James, in the Acts of the Apostles, several times mentions that Paul is a man he highly respects and praises for dedicating his life to Jesus Christ. Both James and Paul agree that the saint who has been made holy by grace must show his faith by actually loving, and in this way obeying the law and the commandment of love. But Paul’s main interest lies in the meaning of the crucified and risen Christ for those who reside outside the law of Moses, the non-Jews of the world; and James’s focus is on the people of the circumcision, his brothers not only in the faith of Jesus but in the faith of Abraham, his brothers in blood and in culture. The differences between these two great and strong men cannot be lightly dismissed, and were in fact never really reconciled. The conflict between them and what they stood for is interwoven with the history of the infant church. But because of their respective writings, we can still catch a glimpse of that painful conflict across the spaces that separated them, across the Christian communities that were divided along with them, across the ages.

PAUL: “No one can be justified in the sight of God by keeping the law” [Rom. 3:20].
JAMES: “But the man who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom, …actively putting it into practice, will be happy in all that he does” [Jas. 1:25].
PAUL: “As we see it, a man is justified by faith and not by doing something the law tells him to do [Rom. 3:28]. We acknowledge that what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the law, but faith in Jesus Christ…. We hold that faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the law is what justifies us, and no one can be justified by keeping the law” [Gal. 2:16].
JAMES: “You believe in the one God; that is creditable enough, but the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear [Jas. 2:19]. You see now that it is by doing something good, and not only by believing, that a man is justified” [Jas. 2:24].
PAUL: “There is only one God, and he is the one who will justify the circumcised because of their faith and justify the uncircumcised through their faith” [Rom. 3:30].
JAMES: “Take the case, my brother, of someone who has never done a single good act but claims that he has faith. Will that faith save him?” [Jas. 2:14].
PAUL: “If a man has work to show, his wages are not considered a favor but as his due, but when a man has nothing to show except faith in the one who justifies sinners then his faith is considered as justifying him. And David says the same: a man is happy if God considers him righteous, irrespective of good deeds” [Rom. 4:4-6].
JAMES: “This is the way to talk to people of that kind. You say you have faith and I have good deeds. I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds. Now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show [Jas. 2:18]. Faith is like that; if good deeds do not go with it, it is quite dead” [Jas. 2:17].
PAUL: “Has someone put a spell on you, in spite of the plain explanation you have had of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Let me ask you one question: Was it because you practiced the law that you received the Spirit, or because you believed what was preached to you? Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances what you began in the Spirit?” [Gal. 3:1-3].
JAMES: “Do you realize, you senseless man, that faith without good deeds is useless…. A body dies when it is separated from the spirit, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good deeds” [Jas. 2:26].

If you, the reader, think it is unfair to compare the writings of two men who were not really speaking to each other in their separate letters, then I ask you to look at one final comparison, and make your own judgment on whether they were addressing one another, or not:

PAUL: “Apply this to Abraham, the ancestor from whom we are all descended. If Abraham was justified as a reward for doing something, he would really have had something to boast about, though not in God’s sight because Scripture says: Abraham put his faith in God, and this faith was considered as justifying him…. Think of Abraham again: his faith, we say, was considered as justifying him, but when was this done? When he was already circumcised or before he had been circumcised? It was before he was circumcised, not after; and when he was circumcised later it was only as a sign and guarantee that the faith he had before his circumcision justified him…. This was the faith that was considered as justifying him” [Rom. 4:1-3, 9-11, 22].
JAMES: “You surely know that Abraham our father was justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? There you see it: faith and deeds were working together; his faith became perfect by what he did. This is what Scripture really means when it says: ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as justifying him’; and that is why he was called ‘the friend of God’” [Jas. 2:21-23].


The Jewish Christians, led by James, believed in the necessity of circumcision for themselves and, until the Council of Jerusalem, even for Gentile Christians. They believed the Temple was the true place for worship and, like James, they were bound in loyalty to it by a Nazarite vow. They believed the Scriptures were closed and revelation was finished. They felt obligated to the Sabbath, to the laws of Moses and all the kosher rules of eating, and they saw the Gentile Christians as having the same obligations.

The faith of the Jewish Christians was short on doctrine, long on symbols, images, strange esoteric drawings, numbers, secret rites, signs, and angels. Apocalyptic thought is the distinguishing characteristic of Judeo-Christians. They believed in Jesus as the risen One, son of man, son of David, Messiah, and prophet.[18] What they did not come to, and probably could not come to, as Hebrews, was the deepest and fullest meaning of the incarnation and the Trinity.

These Judeo-Christians, who were the dominant force in the original, or Jewish, stage of Christianity, were in a unique position. They had no precedents to follow, since they were the first. The Hellenistic, or Pauline, minority was a nuisance group without power. The Judeo-Christians thought they could convert the world of the pagan Roman empire on their own terms. If any people agreed to join them, let these people, in effect, come to Jerusalem. They were the possessors of the truth and they would dispense it to the world. There was no truth, only darkness, in the Gentile world, and they had nothing to learn from it. There was no revelation waiting for them there. They were reluctant to put their truth, their knowledge of God, their concept of religion, their Christ unconditionally into the hands of the Gentiles. The nations and cultures of the Roman empire were not fit to receive an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, without their mediating it. They saw no reason to look upon those unclean Gentile nations as sacred recipients of God’s grace and truth.

Therefore they felt no necessity to reach out to those nations and cultures as equals in the sight of God, no need for searching out, together with those cultures, the meaning of Christ for all of them. In more modern terms, they saw no need for cross-culturation. They were blinded to the fact that they had trapped Christ in their culture.

It must be remembered that we are not talking about the Jewish people in general, but only about the Jewish Christians of apostolic times. These latter felt that they had a monopoly on the truth. They imagined that they could discover the inexhaustible meaning of Christ for all the peoples of the world from the vantage point of their culture alone. They did not see the absolute necessity of mutual fecundation and interpenetration of their culture with others, toward understanding the meaning of a universal Savior. Christ is the universal Savior only when he is free from the cultural bondage of any one ethnic group. Christ, shackled by the narrowness of one culture, becomes a stumbling block for the Holy Spirit, making the attainment of fuller truth impossible.[19] They did not see how necessary cross-culturation was for the understanding of a truth that was universal in its dimensions. They were not ready to undertake the “second exodus” that was required of them. And quite simply, because they made no efforts at cross-culturation, they died. After A.D. 140 there is not a trace of them left in the world of living human beings.

They are not the ones responsible for the transmission of the Christian message in a permanent way to the Roman empire and Europe. It was others who performed the task of leading the church into the second stage of Christianity. The Judeo-Christians stand as a sad and mournful warning to all of us in the church who need such a warning about cultural blindness and arrogance.

It is this first stage of Christianity to which Karl Rahner calls our attention. We can find no other parallel in all church history to which to compare our time. The people of pre-Vatican II formation and instruction are in precisely the same situation as the Jewish Christians of the first age of the church. Those formed in their faith and values before Vatican Council II, that is, yesterday’s children, will be tempted to look at the church in the way Jewish Christians did. Yet we, who are yesterday’s children, will do so at our own peril, because whether we want to be or not, we are now members of a world church, the sphere of whose life and activity is in fact the entire world.

We can imagine that we are the sole possessors of the truth, that we have a monopoly on the truth, that we have no need of dialogue, no need of mutual fecundation and interpenetration with the non-Christian cultures that surround us, the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, traditional-religious, Marxist, scientific-technological cultures that make up our world.

We can pretend that the people of this age do not realize, in an empirical way, in a manner never experienced before by people of any age, that we are indeed adrift in space like all other heavenly bodies, a realization that changes forever our perception of ourselves—as children of the universe, in the midst of creation. We can pretend we do not know that the only possible horizon to give meaning and understanding and evaluation to the Christian message is the planetary horizon of a worldwide experience. We can ignore the fact that Christ will be the universal Savior only when he is free from the cultural bondage of Western Christianity. We can deny that Christ is shackled and trapped in the narrowness of our culture; deny that Western Christ of ours is a stumbling block for the Holy Spirit.

We can refuse to put our Christ and his message into the questionable hands of the anti-Western, anti-Christian people of the world, expecting no revelation from them. We can refuse to enter into dialogue with these people about the meaning of our world, or refuse to be open to conversion if we do. We can refuse to budge from our comfortable view of business as usual in the church, with perhaps a few concessions to the modern world, such as the computerizing of our records and financial figures and communications. We can refuse to admit that we must commit ourselves to an exploration and discovery of a form of the church and its ministry and sacraments, a form of Christianity and of Christ, that we have not known.

We can refuse to do all this, of course, but if we do refuse, we have to ask whether we, the current bearers of the Christian message, will not die and pass from history, just as surely as did the Judeo-Christians, or, later, the African Christians of Augustine’s time. They, too, had their day in the sun.


1. In what sense does Donovan see pre-Vatican Council II Catholics as “Yesterday’s Children”?

2. What are Karl Rahner’s three stages of church history?

3. What two cultures, typified by James and Paul, sought to define the church’s first transition?

4. How did the Council of Jerusalem seek to resolve that first crisis? Why does Donovan feel it went unresolved until A.D. 140?

5. What does Donovan mean by “cross-culturation” in understanding Christ?

6. In what ways have we trapped Christ in our culture as a national or Western savior, like the original Judeo-Christians trapped him in their Mosaic traditions?



[1] Gary Wills, Bare Ruined Choirs (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), pp. 15-37. Gary Wills captured, as well as anyone, the multifa­ceted spirit of the times, the all-embracing reality of growing up a Catholic before the time of Vatican Council II. It was a state of mind and attitude much easier to share than to describe.

[2] See Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 103-4.

[3] Ibid., pp. 114ff. The fundamentalist churches have taken up the crusade against idolatry, especially as they detect it in the Catholic church, an effort resulting in a virulent anti-Catholicism.

[4] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age (New York: E. P, button, 1941), pp. 19-20.

[5] Karl Rahner, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpre­tation of Vatican II,” Theological Studies 40, no. 47 (December 1979): 716-27.

[6] The very positive steps toward ecumenism taken by Vatican Council II are absolutely necessary steps for the dream of a world church. Talk of a world church is only partially accurate as long as the Protestant-Catholic scandal endures. The present age and the future age will afford less time and even less credibility to a sectarian and divided church that is becoming more of a minority in the world with every passing day.

[7] Rahner, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation,” pp. 717ff.

[8] Ibid., pp. 718-19.

[9] Ibid., p. 721.

[10] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 11.1.3, as quoted by Jean Danielou in “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” The Crucible of Christianity, ed. Arnold Toynbee (New York: World Publishing Co., 1969), p. 262.

[11] Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 262.

[12] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 111.32.5-6

[13] Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 262. See Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London, 1964), for the only treat­ment of the doctrines and customs of Judeo-Christians in their entirety.

[14] Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 275.

[15] Ibid., p. 276.

[16] Oscar Cullmann, Saint Pierre (Paris, 1952), as quoted by Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 276.

[17] Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 277; Samuel George Frederick Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (London: SPCK, 1931), pp. 217-48; Hornschuh, Studien zur Epistula Apostolorum (Berlin, 1965), pp. 96-116.

[18] Danielou, “Christianity as a Jewish Sect,” p. 262.

[19] Raimundo Panikkar, The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973) p. 58.

This chapter is an excerpt from The Church in the Midst of Creation by Vincent Donovan, first published in 1989 by Orbis Books. This book is now republished with a study guide for small groups and is available from Christian Futures Books

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