A Case for 'Soft Supersessionism'
A longer version of this article will appear in the journal Pro Ecclesia and then in the author's forthcoming book Conversational Theology (T&T Clark, 2015). Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Since its inception, Christianity has been beset by a troubling and fundamental question: Can the faith exist without some animus against the Jews? While the long and unseemly history of Christian anti-Semitism might suggest a grim answer, I take a hopeful view. In fact, I would argue that Christianity enters into profound self-contradiction whenever it is anti-Judaic; indeed, that when Christianity does not love the Jews, it corrupts its love of Jesus Christ at the very core. In this view, loving Christ is inseparable from loving the Jews—and where the Jews are not loved, Christ himself is dishonored. What I would like to advocate is a form of philo-Semitism or Judaeophilia rooted in Christ.
Anyone proposing such an idea faces a problem—namely, that this same christocentrism requires a form of supersessionism, which traditionally held that in refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Jews have forfeited their covenantal status as the chosen people of God. (See “Getting Past Supersessionism,” Steven Englund, et al., February 21, 2014.) An almost universal conviction in contemporary theology holds that supersessionism is an inevitable cause of anti-Judaism and its repellent cousin anti-Semitism, and thus that any form of supersessionism is unacceptable. And yet in my opinion the inner logic of the Christian faith necessitates supersessionism in some form. The form I will advocate is the one that David Novak, in his 2004 essay “The Covenant in Rabbinic Thought,” called “soft supersessionism.”
This approach asserts that the new covenant does not replace the old covenant, but rather fulfills, extends, supplements, and fundamentally confirms it. There is only one covenant, and thus only one people of God, and yet there are also two faiths. The presence of two faiths—in some ways diametrically opposed—represents a festering wound in the one people of God. Neither Christians nor Jews know how to heal this wound; only God does. Certainly the day is long since past when Christians might hope to heal this wound by adopting St. Paul’s strategy of “making Israel jealous.” Today any such strategy smolders in the ruins of the Shoah—for which Christian history supplied the dreadful background, if not the direct cause.
It would be a major step if Christianity were to commit itself not to making the Jews jealous, but to entering fully into solidarity with them. Yet even such solidarity is not enough; nor are contrition, confession, or (insofar as possible) reparations. Beyond such things, what the Gospel requires of Christians is love. Christ must be loved and honored in the Jews, because the Jews must be loved and honored in Christ. They must be loved and honored in Christ precisely because he has made them his own.
While there are precious few examples of what this solidarity and love might look like, here is at least one. During the Nazi occupation of France, the lives of as many as two thousand Jewish children were saved in the southern mountain village of Le Chambon, under the leadership of a Reformed pastor named André Trocmé, who urged members of his congregation to shelter the children in safe houses, often under assumed names. Le Chambon stands as an emblem of Christian solidarity and of a love toward the Jews grounded in love for Christ. Significantly, the people of Le Chambon did not try to convert the children. They simply tried to help them by taking the necessary risks of love.
Love for Christ is also the ground for the “soft supersessionism” I am advocating. Love for Christ, according to Nicene Christianity, is tantamount to love for God, because Christ is God with us in human flesh. He encounters us as God’s self-revelation, as the reconciliation of the world with God and as the proper object of our worship. He himself is the savior of the world. According to Christian faith, however, he is the world’s savior only because he is also Israel’s long-awaited messiah. The universality of his saving significance is grounded in the particularity of Israel.
It was one of the signal achievements of Karl Barth—the great Swiss Protestant theologian whose influence pervaded the twentieth century—to insist that God’s covenant with Israel is irrevocable. Barth repudiated, and helped invalidate, the “strong supersessionism” that insisted that Israel is replaced by the church in God’s covenant. But Barth arguably kept too much anti-Judaic baggage in his theology, and what needs to be worked out today is a soft supersessionism purged of every anti-Judaic element.
Supersessionism in some form remains unavoidable because there is only one covenant and only one people of God. It is impossible to read Holy Scripture in any other way; there simply is no other covenant than the one established by God with Israel, and thus no other people could possibly be the elect people of God. By virtue of this divine election, Israel’s unique status as God’s elect is irrevocable and eternal, and nothing Israel can do, whether in obedience or disobedience, can revoke it. Let me hasten to add that Christians, including Karl Barth, have said far too much about Israel’s disobedience in rejecting Jesus Christ and far too little about their own disobedience—especially their historic disobedience in the form of anti-Semitism, mass persecution of Jews, and the teaching of contempt. Every possibility of Christian triumphalism was consumed in the fires of Auschwitz.
Nevertheless, according to apostolic authority, God’s covenant with Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ—for Jews, for Christians, and for the world. Just as there is only one covenant, so also is there only one people of God, and here Barth’s doctrine of the unitary-but-twofold people of God is another key contribution. I want to suggest that Jews and Christians cannot undo their divine election as the one indivisible people of God. In a way that passes all understanding, Jews and Christians together are one in Christ, now and until the end of history. Sub specie aeternitatis, what is true de iure in Christ overrides all that exists to the contrary in history, and what is not yet true in history will be judged and forgiven, transcended and overcome, at the end of all things.
NO DOUBT JEWS WILL fear at least two things about this turn in my argument: their coercion by Christians and their disappearance as Jews. If these understandable fears cannot be convincingly addressed, then my argument for a soft supersessionism will turn out to be anti-Judaic after all, despite my best intentions. I must therefore explain why I think my argument supports neither the dreaded coercion nor the feared disappearance.
As is well known, Karl Barth discouraged all Christian missions to the Jews, insisting that the Christian community can never presume to proclaim the one true God to Jews—since, as the people of the covenant, they already worship and serve the one true God, even after rejecting Jesus Christ. In their very Jewishness, the Jews are witnesses in the world to God’s love; and their preservation as a people despite all that has assailed them throughout history attests, Barth argued, to the covenant faithfulness of the God who will not let them go. On these grounds, my own argument would rule out any Christian coercion of Jews to convert and any proselytizing efforts specifically targeting them. Theologically, in any case, there are good reasons for believing that God wills the continued existence of Israel. It is hard to see how the Jewish people could retain their Jewish identity apart from their ongoing Torah observance—and so, as Bruce Marshall has argued, “in permanently electing Israel, it seems that God has also permanently willed the practice of Judaism.”
If Marshall is correct, as I believe he is, how would that comport with the soft supersessionism I am advocating? The matter is delicate and complex. A narrow path must be charted between anti-Judaism, on the one hand, and anti-Evangelicalism on the other, by which I mean a position contrary to the Gospel. A position would be anti-Judaic if it led to the coercion of the Jews, while it would be anti-Evangelical if it compromised on the imperative that Jesus Christ be recognized for who he is, as confessed by faith. This imperative is incumbent upon all peoples: the Jew first, as Paul put it, and then also the Greek. At this point I would invoke the Pauline theme of the hardening of Israel, though again, this needs to be done in a careful way.
The mystery of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah remains, from a Christian standpoint, a painful one. When Paul pondered this mystery in his own historical moment, he could not do so without anguish. This was in part surely the anguish of love. The monumental failure of Christianity toward the Jews in the subsequent history of the church can largely be traced, I believe, to a loss of the empathic bond that Paul felt toward his fellow Jews, as expressed in his cry of anguish. The Christian loss of empathy was accompanied by a progressive loss of love, as attitudes twisted over time into contempt.
With regard to the rejection of Jesus Christ by the Jews, and then the rejection of the Jews by Christians, I would take solace in the words of Augustine, who wrote that “in a strange and ineffable way, nothing is done without the will of God, even that which is done contrary to it.” From the standpoint of soft supersessionism, both Jews and Christians have done something contrary to the will of God. If Augustine is right, however, neither the one rejection nor the other can finally escape the overruling providence of God. The Pauline theme of the hardening of Israel in order that Gentiles might be grafted in, and so join the people of God, was arguably a beginning in this direction. Paul was trying to make sense of God’s strange and dreadful providence.
Here it is important to note that in early Christianity it was possible to become a Christian without ceasing to be Jew; indeed, the earliest Christians were predominantly Jews who remained law-observant. Paul did not reject this form of Christianity. His mission was to establish another form of Christianity alongside it, a form in which Gentiles could become Christians without needing also to become law-observant. Paul could not have known that the law-observant Christian community in Palestine would soon be decimated by the Romans, and that such communities would cease to survive past the first few centuries. He could not have anticipated (and in my opinion would surely have lamented) that the Gentile Christian communities he was establishing would soon lose their Jewish-Christian counterpart forever.
Where does all this leave us? Paul believed that in some sense all Israel would be saved, and that God desires all others to be saved along with them, by coming to a knowledge of the truth. In our own time, Karl Barth almost single-handedly revived the long-lost prospect of a universal hope by which the day will come when Jesus Christ is thanked and praised, without exception, for who he is. “At the name of Jesus,” we read, “every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
It is to the abiding shame of Christians that almost no Jew today can hear these words without revulsion, dismay, and even horror. As Barth once said in a slightly different connection, perhaps in the end the Lord God will have a little less trouble with them than he had with us. The emergence of messianic Judaism in our own day is an important and unexpected sign that it might still be possible for some Jews to become Christians without ceasing to be Torah-observant Jews. It would be quixotic, however, to expect this movement to catch on widely. For all practical purposes, it is the institutions and practices of Rabbinic Judaism that will continue to keep Judaism alive. In my version of “soft supersessionism,” every actually existing form of Judaism—whether secular, rabbinic, or baptized—has its own relative validity this side of the eschaton, and much the same would need to be said about every division of Christian existence in and among the churches.
In sum, then, it is in theory possible to conceive of a soft supersessionism that is neither anti-Judaic nor anti-Evangelical—one that eschews religious coercion, and respects the indispensability of a Torah-observant Judaism, while at the same time upholding the imperative that Jesus Christ should be acknowledged by all for who he is, and the hope that this imperative will one day be accomplished universally by the inscrutable grace of God.
I HAVE NOT YET developed the essential christocentric grounds that I see for philo-Semitism or Judaeophilia. Before doing so, however, I want to examine a little further the indivisible oneness of God’s people. I have argued that there is only one covenant and not (as some have urged) one for Christians and another for Jews. Rather, just as the Calvinistic tradition to which Barth belonged always insisted, one covenant exists in two forms—the old and the new. Similarly, there are not really two faiths but, again, only one faith in two forms, old and new. Today the old form is represented in various ways by Judaism, and the new form by various versions of Christianity. Those who adhere to the old form of faith may see the others as idolators, interlopers, or (at best) fellow-travelers. Those who adhere to the new form will—if they subscribe to my version of a soft supersessionism—look on their opposite numbers with empathy, respect, patience, contrition, and love. Gentile Christians in particular will need to find that godly grief that leads to repentance, as Paul described it, in order to reach at least a modicum of reconciliation with the long-suffering Jews. And Jews and Gentiles alike will call upon God for the grace that might heal their unhealable wound. For only God, as I noted before, can remove this pain.
From the standpoint of a soft supersessionism, how are the universality of Christ and the particularity of Israel related? Karl Barth offers a suggestion I consider seminal to his entire theology. “God,” he writes, “is he who [loves his Son Jesus Christ], in his Son Jesus Christ all his children, in his children all human beings, and in human beings the whole creation.” This proposition specifies the objects of God’s love by means of a gradated scheme that begins with particularity and ends in universality. We might picture it as a series of concentric circles, with Christ at the center. The first circle around him comprises “all God’s children,” by which Barth means Israel and the church. The second circle widens out to include “all human beings,” while the outermost embraces the whole creation. Thus all creation participates in God’s relationship to humanity, all humanity participates in God’s relationship to his children (Israel and the church), while all God’s children—the one, twofold people of God—participate in his unique relationship to Jesus Christ.
WITH THIS SCHEME in mind, I want to focus on the unity that governs how Jesus Christ is related to God’s children. The elect children of God, as conceived by Barth, constitute a single, twofold people. Within the one people of God, Israel would arguably have priority; the church would belong only as it was grafted into Israel. Israel would thus stand out as the original and proper object of God’s love—the object through which, along with the church, that love would be mediated to the world. In Barth’s scheme, God’s love for Israel is grounded in his love for Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s love for Jesus Christ would be inseparable from his love for Israel, and vice versa. This unity cannot be destroyed because it is grounded in divine election. The direct object of election, as Barth conceives of it, is of course Jesus Christ, but in Jesus—born a Jew—the original object of election would be Israel. The love of Jesus Christ has made the people of Israel his own by virtue of divine election. A kind of covenantal ontology of love binds Jesus Christ to the Jews.
This bond of Jesus Christ with the Jews in covenantal love, I would suggest, forms the ground of Christian philo--Semitism or Judaeophilia. Jesus Christ cannot be loved without the Jews also being loved; nor can one be held in contempt without the other being dishonored. Jesus Christ’s undying love for the Jews, regardless of whether it is acknowledged and reciprocated or not, means that loving Jesus Christ while holding the Jews in contempt is a contradiction in terms.
Barth did not make this logic of Christian philo-Semitism explicit—although I believe it is implicit in his theology. He did however assert, if not a robust union in love, at least a corresponding union in suffering. Jesus Christ suffers in the sufferings of the Jews, Barth claimed, and those who inflict suffering and abuse on them secretly inflict it on Christ himself. During the struggle against Nazism, he wrote:
Whoever rejects and persecutes the Jews rejects and persecutes him who died for the sins of the Jews—and then, and only thereby for our sins as well. Anyone who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.
Those who reject and persecute the Jews, Barth adamantly insisted, are rejecting and persecuting Jesus Christ; an inseparable union between them is clearly implied. As far as I know, however, Barth never explored the larger implications of this insight; he never quite perceived that the very logic of his Christ-centered rejection of anti-Semitism implied an equally Christ-centered affirmation of the Jews—that is to say, a philo-Semitism grounded in covenantal love. In the same period Barth also wrote:
In Israel the really suffering One who bears the wrath and judgment of God is not Israel itself but he to whose advent Israel looks forward and who furnishes the clue to the inner meaning of its existence: Israel’s Messiah in the one day of his passion. He and not Israel is also the One who really suffers in all that the Jews of today have to endure. He is the One who is intended, aimed at and smitten, hated and pushed aside.
According to Barth, Jesus Christ is the one who really suffers “in all that the Jews of today have to endure.” In this line of interpretation an obvious danger exists—namely, that the unspeakable sufferings of the Jews might be appropriated or eclipsed. Unfortunately, this danger is not entirely absent from the tenor of Barth’s remarks. Yet the preposition “in” could be understood in a different sense. It could be taken to imply a strong unity-in-distinction, pointing beyond solidarity to participatio Christi. In this view, Jesus Christ participates fully in the sufferings of the Jews: when they are despised and rejected, he himself is despised and rejected, not merely in solidarity, but by an ineffable union of covenantal love. He takes them into his wounded body that they might be given a share in his risen body. They are not without hope because through his sufferings he has overcome the world. If so, Jesus Christ has truly made the sufferings of the Shoah his own in order to establish a hope beyond hope.
God is the one whose suffering love triumphs in his son Jesus Christ. In him this suffering love triumphs in the sufferings of all his children. In his children it triumphs in the sufferings of all human beings, and in human beings it triumphs in the sufferings of the whole creation. The hope of resurrection ends in complete universality. But it begins, I contend, in the ineffability of God’s covenantal love for the Jews.