Supersessionism

Last time I talked about the New Testament.  This post is a slight, but necessary tangent, since it deals with some issues that will be implicit in my discussion of the Old Testament.

Supersessionism is a complicated and fraught issue in Christian theology.  Simply put, it is the theological doctrine that in some way or other the New Covenant in Christ has superseded–replaced, fulfilled, augmented, gone beyond–the Old Covenant, that is, the covenant between God and the Jewish people, recorded in the Old Testament.

To refine and clarify what we’re talking about here, the Wikipedia article linked to above is worth quoting at some length.

  • Economic supersessionism does not refer to money, rather it is used in the technical theological sense of function (see economic Trinity). It is the view that the practical purpose of the nation of Israel in God’s plans is replaced by the role of the Church. It is represented by writers such as Justin MartyrAugustine, and Barth.
  • Structural supersessionism is Soulen’s term for the de facto marginalization of the Old Testament as normative for Christian thought. In his words, “Structural supersessionism refers to the narrative logic of the standard model whereby it renders the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about how God’s works as Consummator and Redeemer engage humankind in universal and enduring ways.”[5] Soulen’s terminology is used by Craig A. Blaising, in ‘The Future of Israel as a Theological Question’.[6] See also Biblical law in ChristianityAntinomianismProgressive revelation (Christian), and Marcionism.

I certainly reject the first of these views.  There are aspects of the second that seem possible, and I am most in line with the third.  An additional classification of the types of supersessionism is discussed later in the article, my emphasis:

Jewish theologian and rabbinic scholar David Novak suggests that there are three options:[7]

  1. The new covenant is an extension of the old covenant.
  2. The new covenant is an addition to the old covenant.
  3. The new covenant is a replacement for the old covenant.

He observes, “In the early Church, it seems, the new covenant presented by the New Testament was either taken to be an addition to the old covenant (the religion of the Torah and the Jewish Pharisaic tradition, summarized in the Ten Commandments), or it was taken to be a replacement for the old covenant.”[7]

Novak considers both understandings to be supersessionist. He designates the first as “soft supersessionism” and the second as “hard supersessionism”. The former “does not assert that God terminated the covenant of Exodus-Sinai with the Jewish people. Rather, it asserts that Jesus came to fulfill the promise of the old covenant, first for those Jews already initiated into the covenant, who then accepted his messiahhood as that covenant’s fulfillment. And, it asserts that Jesus came to both initiate and fulfill the promise of the covenant for those Gentiles whose sole connection to the covenant is through him. Hence, in this kind of supersessionism, those Jews who do not accept Jesus’ messiahhood are still part of the covenant in the sense of ‘what God has put together let no man put asunder’ [emphasis original].”[7] See also Dual-covenant theology.

Hard supersessionism, on the other hand, asserts that “[t]he old covenant is dead. The Jews by their sins, most prominently of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, have forfeited any covenantal status.”[7] See alsoAntinomianism.

This classification provides mutually exclusive options. Hard supersessionism implies both punitive and economic supersessionism; soft supersessionism does not fall into any of the three classes recognized as supersessionist by Christian theologians, instead it is associated with Jewish Christianity.

I certainly reject hard supersessionism, as described here.

The reason this is relevant is that it has obvious implications for one’s view of the Old Testament.  What parts of it, if any, are relevant to a Christian, and in what way?  Marcion, as we’ve seen, rejected the Old Testament tout court, excising it and large parts of the New Testament, as well.  Ancient groups such as the Ebionites, and some modern groups, such as the Worldwide Church of God (at one time) have taken all or most of the Old Testament to be still binding on Christians.  I reject this view as well, and I think there are good grounds for doing so.  The so-called Council of Jerusalem explicitly dispensed with certain requirements of Halakhah (Jewish Law) for converts, such as circumcision.  Later on, the Church moved the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday and abolished the various ceremonial requirements of the Jewish Law.

I think, in fact, that this dispensation to alter the Old Covenant goes back to Jesus himself.  It is true that Jesus says he does not “come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17)  On the other hand, throughout the Sermon on the Mount, he repeatedly uses the antithesis, “you were told of old…but I tell  you” in which he in fact modifies the requirements of the Old Testament.  I think that a very subtle example of his view of the Old Testament comes in his well-known teaching on divorce.  The following is from Mark, Chapter 10, NIV, from here:

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

It’s interesting that Jesus asks the Pharisees what Moses taught them, not God.  Of course, “Moses” was, for pious Jews, shorthand for “the Law of God given though Moses”; but as the dialogue progresses it goes in a different direction.  The Pharisees correctly point out that the Torah permits divorce.  They expect Jesus to comment on this.  In fact, the teaching on divorce was an area of contention in the Judaism of that day.  Deuteronomy 24:1-2 says “When a man has married a wife, but she does not win his favor because he finds something shameful in her, and he writes her a note of divorce….” (NEB, my emphasis)  There was much debate about what, exactly, this meant.  One school of thought, later associated with the rabbi Shammai, construed this to mean that only something like adultery or similarly grave matters justified divorce.  Another, associated with Hillel (and the view that eventually won out), was that a man could divorce his wife for even something as trivial as making his dinner wrong.

In any case, Jesus says something surprising:  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.”  Then he proceeds to quote the Genesis narrative, and on the basis of it forbids divorce and remarriage in all cases.  What’s striking about this–and easy to miss–is the implication Jesus is making. Essentially, he’s saying “Look, we know God’s view of divorce–it’s right at the beginning of the Torah!  He had nothing to do with the law in Deuteronomy.  Moses stuck that in because he knew you weren’t able to live up to what God actually wanted.”  This is highly significant, because it implies that at least some of the Old Testament was not of Divine origin; or was, at best, permitted by God but not intended by Him.

This brings us back to supersessionism.  From the Jewish perspective, the Old Testament (or Tanakh, as it is referred to in Judaism), particularly the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), is an eternal, unbreakable covenant between God and the Jewish people.  The relationship of God to Gentiles in this context has never been spelled out in an official manner; but the Torah is eternally valid for the Jews.

For Christians, to reject the Old Testament, as Marcion did, is not really viable, since the whole life and ministry of Jesus is intelligible only in a Jewish context.  On the other hand, Christianity claims to be for all people in a way that normative Judaism does not.  Moreover, Jesus himself, the Apostles, and the Church over the centuries have dispensed Christians from the requirements of the Old Testament Law.  The only way any of this makes sense is if one adopts some form of supersessionist perspective.

Obviously punitive supersessionism–hard supersessionism–which considers the Jews cursed and abandoned by God is a non-starter.  Since God is faithful even when humans aren’t, I’m not quite prepared to argue that the Torah has been abrogated, either.  I don’t necessarily subscribe to Dual-Covenant theology (mentioned above), since that view raises more questions than it answers.  Still, I believe that God relates to all people–Jews, Christians, and everyone else–in various ways in which they can understand Him.  Thus, I’d say something to the effect that while the Law is no longer in force, God mercifully allows the Jews, who still follow it, to relate to Him through it (as he allows members of other religions to relate to Him in various ways).

I incline to the view that the Old Covenant was for the purpose of preparation of a people who would carry the concepts of ethical monotheism to the world at large.  This, and the nurturing of the background against which Christ would appear, was the ultimate purpose of the Old Law.  Since it had to work itself out in this imperfect world among imperfect people, a lot of other stuff got drawn into the mix that was not ultimately part of the purpose.  Other aspects (such as dietary laws and such) were there to separate the Jews from the nations sufficiently to allow their notion of God to develop without undue interference from other sources.  Finally, when Christ came, the Law was fulfilled–as a fruit is fulfilled when the seeds it harbors are released and grow into new plants–and it was therefore now possible for the non-essential parts to be abrogated.

I am aware that from a Jewish perspective, this could sound offensive (just as the Muslim claims that Islam has superseded Christianity could sound to Christians), but this is by no way intended to be anti-Jewish or antisemitic.  It is rather an attempt to develop a framework in which a Christian can study the Old Testament and assess its relevance and relationship to Christians.  Another way to put it is that modern Jews relate to the Tanakh through the medium of the Talmud and Halakhah; whereas Christians relate to it through Christ, the New Testament, Tradition, and the Church.  How this works, from my perspective, will be the subject of the next post.

Posted on 14/10/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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