Against Anti-Supercessionism Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 22 September 2010 18:55

In recent years, mainstream theology has begun to recognize the disaster that followed from the Marcionism of classical liberalism.  R. Kendall Soulen is a leading figure in efforts to restore the importance of the Old Testament to Christian theology.  In his book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, Soulen recognizes that the “standard model” of dismissing the Old Testament fosters a “double impoverishment for Christian theology”:

“On the one hand, the standard model has led to a loss of biblical orientation for Christian theology, especially with regard to the Scriptures of Israel.  On the other, it has led to a loss of creative theological engagement with the hard edges of human history.  As a result, the standard model has fostered and supported a damaging dislocation of the gospel about Jesus Christ.  Estranged from its proper context in the Scriptures of Israel and in public history, the gospel has been resettled in very different contexts.  Alienated from the Hebrew Scriptures, the gospel has been interpreted in the context of accounts of human religiosity more or less foreign to the theological idiom of the Bible.  Disconnected from the sweep of public history, the gospel has been contextualized one-sidedly in the realm of the personal and private.”

Unfortunately, the target of Soulen’s attack includes most of what has counted as orthodox Christianity throughout its history.  In Soulen’s telling, it is not only modern theology that has wrongly rejected the Old Testament; Christian theology as such is marred by the same “flaw in the heart of the crystal.”  According to Soulen, Christian theology has always taught a doctrine of “supercessionism,” that is, the belief that

“God chose the Jewish people after the fall of Adam in order to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior.  After Christ came, however, the special role of the Jewish people came to an end and its place was taken by the church, the new Israel.  The church, unlike the Jewish people, is a spiritual community in which the carnal distinction between Jew and Gentile is overcome. . . . the Jews failed to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah and refused to enter the new spiritual Israel.  God therefore rejected the Jews and scattered them over the earth, where God will preserve them until the end of time.”

By contrast, Soulen endorses the view summarized in a statement of the Presbyterian Church (USA): “The church has not ‘replaced’ the Jewish people . . . . Hence, when speaking with Jews about matters of faith, we must always acknowledge that Jews are already in a covenantal relationship with God.”

There are many problems with Soulen’s analysis, but I will reserve myself to three criticisms.  First, he is simply wrong in his understanding of the covenant with Abraham.  Citing the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod, he claims that the “mystery” of the election of Israel is that it “concerns a natural human family.”  Rather than choosing His people according to faith or moral excellence, “God chose the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a human family neither better nor worse than others.”  Thus, the election of Israel is a “corporeal election,” and even observance of Torah is subordinate to the “fundamental reality of Judaism,” which is “the corporeal election of Abraham’s children.”

Soulen’s point contains a profound truth, namely, that when God acts in the world to save mankind, He works “with the grain” of human life as He created it.  His grace flows through the created channels of family and descent, through speech and food.  But Soulen is arguing that blood descent from Abraham was the backbone of the covenantal arrangements with Israel, and this point that is simply false.  Right from the beginning, the covenant embraced many who were not in any way related to Abraham by blood.  All the male members of Abraham’s household were circumcised (Genesis 17:12-14), and in a household that included 318 men of fighting age (Genesis 14:14), this must have been a sizable number of men -- far more than the blood descendants of Abraham, which at the time included only Ishmael!

When Israel came from Egypt, they came out as a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38), including thousands of Egyptians who did not want to hang around Egypt after it had been nearly destroyed by plagues.  It was never the case that “the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” was the foundation of the faith of Israel.  That is perhaps the modern Jewish view, but it is not the view of the Bible. This fundamental error leads Soulen off in the wrong direction from the start.  He maintains that the Jews continue to have a covenantal identity because they are descended from Abraham, when in fact descent from Abraham was never the criterion of covenantal identity.  Within the covenant, those who are not blood descendants of Abraham have always outnumbered those who are.

Second, though Soulen thinks he is attacking those who separate Christian theology from the Old Testament, he perpetuates that same error.  He is still working within the liberal framework that regards the religion of Israel as a different kind of religion from the religion of the church.  Take, for example, his understanding of “redemption.”  Supercessionism, which Soulen rejects, teaches that the covenant with Israel is part of a larger story that begins with Adam’s fall in the garden of Eden; the covenant with Israel is a means for achieving redemption from the effects of Adam’s sin.  Soulen, however, wants to give Israel’s covenant with God an independent standing, as a permanent structure in God’s dealings with the world.  As he writes:

“[Within the supercessionist framework] the vast panorama of the Hebrew Scriptures is made to unfold within the basic antithesis of Adam’s sin and redemption in Christ.  This soteriological framework foreshortens the Hebrew Scriptures both thematically and temporally.  Thematically, because the Scriptures are thought to relate a story whose fundamental presupposition is the catastrophe of sin and whose goal is therefore deliverance from the negative conditions of existence.  This perspective obscures the possibility that the Hebrew Scriptures are not solely or even primarily concerned with the antithesis of sin and redemption but much rather with the God of Israel’s passionate engagement with the mundane affairs of Israel and the nations. . . . the standard model also foreshortens the Hebrew Scriptures in a temporal sense.  As perceived through the lens of the standard model, the Hebrew Scriptures do not relate a story that extends indefinitely into the future.”

In this context, Soulen quotes Bonhoeffer to the effect that the Hebrew Bible is not a book about redemption from death, but rather about how Israel’s God delivers His people “so that it may live before God as God’s people on earth.”

Again, give Soulen his due.  It is true that the Old Testament is concerned with “God’s passionate engagement” with the real world of nations, and also true that ignorance of the Old Testament has led Christian theology to miss that crucial point.  As noted above, modern theology has treated Christianity as a religion of the inner man rather than an account of God’s works in history.

But to play God’s engagement with the nations off against “redemption,” as if the two were opposites, assumes an unbiblical definition of “redemption.”  For the Bible, delivering Israel from Egypt to live before God on earth is precisely an act of “redemption” (see Exodus 6:6).  Soulen has narrowed the scope of terms like “sin” and “redemption” so that they do not encompass God’s actions among the nations and in history.  Narrowing these biblical terms, however, is precisely the kind of thing that Soulen dislikes in supercessionism, because it detaches Scriptural teaching from the “hard edges” of history.  The fact that Soulen accepts such truncated meanings for key terms suggests that he is defining them without much reference to the Old Testament.

This is a perfect example of the kind of “gnosticism” that Soulen rightly deplores.  Will the real “historical gnostic” please stand up?

Finally, Soulen’s treatment of New Testament texts announcing the removal of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile is, to put it mildly, deeply unsatisfying.  The church, he claims, is not a place where the identities of Jew and Gentile are erased, but the place in which they are reconciled: “Reconciliation does not mean the imposition of sameness, but the unity of reciprocal blessing,” and this means that the church is “a particularized form in which the basic relation between Jew and Gentile is actualized.”

Soulen is clearly right that peoples incorporated into the church are not required, or at least not always required, to give up their distinct cultural identities.  Insofar as modern Jews form a subculture, they may join the church and maintain their own traditions, so long as these are consistent with the faith of the church.  It is also true, as Soulen says, that “what God has done in Jesus engages Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles.”

Soulen is wrong, however, to suggest that the union of Jews and Gentiles in the church does not produce a “third column of biblical ontology next to that of the Jews and that of the Greeks,” for clearly Paul envisions a new sort of human being emerging in the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:15).  More disturbingly, Soulen somehow moves (leaps?) from this recognition of the church as a place of reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to the notion that Christians in the church are in union with Jews who are not: “the church can only desire the faithful preservation of the distinctiveness and integrity of Jewish existence wherever this takes place, whether within or without the church.”

We are treading on delicate ground here.  Jews have suffered enormously in this century.  But sensitivity to Jewish suffering and abhorrence of horrific crimes against the Jews should not lead us to abandon the clear teaching of Jesus and Paul.  Absolutely nothing in Soulen’s argument supports the idea that Christians should strive to maintain Judaism outside the church.  Jew and Gentile are reconciled in Christ, in Christ’s body, but to suggest that Christians and Jews are reconciled whether or not Jews turn to Christ makes utter nonsense of the New Testament.  Perhaps Soulen would respond by saying that “Christ” is bigger than the church, saving some who never heard the gospel and joined the church, but this leaves him again dangling over the precipice of gnosticism.

Soulen’s book offers two challenges to evangelicals, one that we desperately need to heed, another that we need to reject in the strongest possible terms.  The positive lesson is that the Old Testament must be our book if we are to be fully Christian.  The modern tendency to demean the Old Testament has wrought untold falsehood, misery, incoherence, and oppression.  When the Old Testament is ignored, Christianity is conceived as a private “spiritual” religion with little to say to the world, and the world goes on its merry, bloody way.  But Soulen wants us to read the Old Testament as a book having an integrity of its own, without reference to the New Testament, and this we must, with the church in every age, reject utterly.  We must recover the medieval and Reformation reading the Old Testament, as the crucial early chapters of the single book that is the Bible.  We must recover the Old Testament as a book about Jesus.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 19:09