Harvey, Richard. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009. 316 pp.
Note: I submitted this review to the editors of Mishkan (of whom Harvey is one) in April 2010. I never received any reply.
Abstract: A useful book, but infused with an excessive bias toward systematization. The author pushes MJ thinkers in a direction that inevitably leads to distorting Truth.
Richard Harvey's new book organizes and outlines a wide variety of "Messianic Jewish" theological perspectives. It is therefore a very useful reference work. The reader can see at a glance what people as varied as David Stern, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Mark Kinzer, Baruch Maoz, Tzvi Sadan, John Fischer, Elazar Brandt, and other current "practitioners" have to say about Torah in theory and in practice, the deity of Messiah, and other important topics. Harvey's "Conclusion" furnishes a helpful "typology of eight major streams of thought within Messianic Jewish Theology." [262, 267-277] Readers already familiar with the wide spectrum of Messianic Judaism(s) will not be greatly surprised by this final summation. Nonetheless, even the most experienced can appreciate the way he brings coherence to the sometimes chaotic jumble of contradictory views making up "the movement." This book is one that I would like to keep on my bookshelf as a kind of mini-encyclopedia of selected MJ viewpoints.
In 2008, the journal Mishkan devoted most of Issue 57 to the earlier version of Harvey's work, his Ph.D. dissertation completed at the University of Wales under the direction of Rabbi Dr. Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Excerpts by the author and review articles by others elucidated the main content, questions, and arguments of Mapping Messianic Judaism. Rather than covering the same ground, I'd like to express some additional thoughts stimulated by Harvey's book. My hope is to offer a balancing perspective on some broad, underlying issues regarding how we ought to approach Scripture and our faith.
Mapping comes accompanied by promotional blurbs asserting its "fairness." To a significant degree, they are accurate. In the descriptive part of his book, Harvey treats each school of thought academically, even clinically, without passing judgment. His concern is to present a range of MJ perspectives, from extremely pro-Christian to enthusiastically pro-rabbinic, rather than to push one or another point of view. This apparent objectivity is commendable.
His goal is the systematization of MJ theology. Mapping continually promotes the "development," formalization, and "maturation" of MJ "ecclesiology," "soteriology," "Christology," "Israelology," "pneumatology," "eschatology," and the like. [137-139, 280-281, passim] In the first sentence of page one, Harvey defines MJ as a "religion," and he consistently analyzes it as such. He wants to study MJ theology in the same way that seminarians study Christian theology, by categorizing the different systems devised by prominent authors over time. This approach works less well with other religions, such as Judaism or Buddhism, demonstrating that Harvey's mindset is considerably influenced by Christian conceptions of what theology or religion is. Moreover, most of the categories informing his thinking are fundamentally Christian theological categories (such as the -ologies listed above). A few others are rabbinic (e.g., halakha). Thus, his approach leans heavily toward traditional, institutionalized religion and especially Christian systematic theology.
This predisposition toward systematization saturates Mapping from beginning to end. Harvey frequently comments that a given author, or the movement in general, "has yet to produce a systematic theology," or to "formulate a theological system," or to "systematize his views." [45, 48, 183, 271, 277-278, passim] He clearly regards systematization as a prerequisite and key ingredient of what he describes as "theological maturity." His goal for MJ seems to be that it become an established religion, with clearly defined theological dogmata and respected systematic theologians who have told people what to believe. While appreciating Harvey's urging to think clearly and logically about questions of Scripture and practical life, some readers may disagree strongly with this vision for the future development of MJ. To put it mildly: what the world needs is not another "religion"!
For me, a tragicomic example of Harvey's leanings came at the beginning of Chapter 4, "The Doctrine of God in Messianic Jewish Theology." Harvey argues, as if to give a justification for writing about the topic: "In both Judaism and Christianity the doctrine of God is central."  One would have thought that this point should be obvious. In fact, it is not. One could easily imagine a form of Judaism or Christianity in which God Himself -- let alone "the doctrine of God" -- is not central. And in fact many such varieties exist within both religions today. Perhaps they even predominate. Yet the main problem with Harvey's statement is that it reduces God to a position of only tertiary importance. The thing to study is "religion" -- Judaism, Christianity, Messianic Judaism. Then, because we are studying a (supposedly Christian-like) religion, we have to consider its "central doctrines." Now, one of those "central doctrines" happens to concern God; so in that case, yes, we must also consider God. Yet if the "doctrine of God" were not considered central to Messianic Judaism -- and maybe it isn't for many people, even if they think it is -- then there would be no real need to include God in this book. As the author repeatedly asserts, Mapping is a book about theology. That is not the same thing as a book about God or faith or the Tanakh. It is related, but one or two generations removed.
So what's wrong with writing a book about theology? Nothing whatsoever. Harvey's bias does not consist in his choice of subject, but rather in his insistent promotion of the development and "maturation" of MJ after the pattern of Christian systematic theology. He terms this a "constructive approach." [5-6] Yet Noah, Abraham, and Moses had no systematic theology. Alas, they never really developed their understanding of soteriology. They woefully neglected ecclesiology. The "Israelology" of Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets was immature and unsophisticated at best; some would use much harsher terms. Yeshua of Nazareth liked to ask questions and tell stories instead of writing "needed" theological treatises. The shaliakh Shaul would certainly have failed pneumatology. Each of these great examples of ours expressed Truth without theological systematization. The post-biblical tradition of Jewish commentary has usually been less than systematic as well. In other words, I find no a priori reason to agree with Harvey that MJ "must" develop a "systematic theology" in order to "mature."
Cognitive psychology teaches us that humans have an (almost) irresistible drive, desire, tendency, and need to systematize reality. We like to put things into categories, into order; we must somehow make sense of our confusing world. Yet cognitive studies also demonstrate very clearly that this necessary human tendency is at the same time a severe handicap when it comes to perceiving and understanding truth, even very simple and everyday truths. We humans will twist and pound and smash truth -- usually unconsciously -- until it finally seems to fit into our cognitive framework, our mental mold. Changing the mold, opening one's mind, accepting a lack of understanding -- these things are very, very rare.
The Christian writer G. K. Chesterton mused:
"The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong. It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything." [Orthodoxy (2001 ed.), 81-82; emphasis added]
The Greek philosopher Socrates claimed that an oracle once told him he was the wisest of men. He struggled to understand what this could possibly mean, as he didn't consider himself very wise. So he set out to question the wise people of Athens from all walks of life. Soon he discovered something. They weren't wise, except in their own estimation. They thought they knew a lot -- and in a way they did -- but really they knew nothing. Socrates concluded, in the "Apology" that got him sentenced to death: "Perhaps I am wiser in this: that what I do not know, I do not even think I know."
The Jew Shaul, a disciple of Rabbi Yeshua, agreed with Socrates. (Wait a minute! say the systematizers. Aren't Hebraic and Hellenic thought diametric opposites?) In one of his letters, he wrote: "If any man thinks he knows something, he has not yet known as it is necessary to know." [1 Cor. 8:2] We know and we don't know, because reality is a bit (or a lot) beyond us. We can't quantify everything in this life. When we insist on trying, we reduce beauty to ashes. Even the best scientific theories can only describe a part of physical reality, and that imperfectly. Thankfully, no puny, human, theological system can ever capture The Truth. To paraphrase Isaiah 55:8-9, that would be like trying to make the earth contain the highest heavens. Or putting the One who is inconceivably greater than billions of light years into a filing cabinet.
Systematization is a good and beneficial tool. A systematic approach, as opposed to a disorganized one, is what makes Harvey's book such a useful reference work. Yet when systematizing becomes an end in itself, it distorts Life and damages Truth. Developing a "systematic theology" is not at all the same thing as gaining a mature understanding of dvar Adonai. The two may even be mutually exclusive. Which one should we choose? Personally, my goal is not a "developed soteriology." I long instead to understand yeshuah as it is presented in the Tanakh -- even though God never "systematized" His views in that set of books. More than a sophisticated pneumatology, I need to live the irreducibly complex faith that consumed Abraham, Job, and Jeremiah. I'll follow Moshe, Yeshayahu, and Shaul, and take my chances with a seemingly "immature" Israelology. That should give me a better shot at a truly mature understanding of Israel.