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The Dream of Isaiah: On Supersessionism

Another Jewish Christian here, circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, a Hebrew of Hebrews, under the law, a Pharisee, who got a B in fourth-grade Hebrew School and a C in Hebrew class in seminary, joining the discussion here in the Episcopal Church. With resolutions concerning the Jewish people and the Jewish state, with somewhat conflicting messaging, it is all the more important to have these difficult conversations.

While we should be ever mindful of the historic and contemporary sin of antisemitism in the church, we should also agree on a shared theological language in discussing these issues. There are ways that we can be sensitive to other religions and ethnicities, while still engaging in the unique theological language and tools of the Christian church. As a Jewish Christian, I hope that my voice on this issue can be heard as it is meant: with charity and love to my blood kin, with no hate or enmity, but all with welcome and grace.

If you go into a room of zealous Christians and ask them if we should evangelize Muslims, the answer will be a rousing “yes!” If you ask the same group if we should evangelize Jews, you’ll see a lot of shoe-gazing and looking around the room nervously. I get it; this is a post-Holocaust world with post-Holocaust Christians. There is understandable anxiety about the discussion. I will give some concession to those schools of thought on this matter that hold to the idea of covenant irrevocability and the possibility of a Jewish Sonderweg. Though, by my very being a Jewish Christian, thoroughly convinced of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and my giving my whole life and work to this gospel as a priest, it should be plain that I remain unconvinced of the efficacy of the law for any person, both in light of the person of Jesus and as revealed to us by the corporate and consistent failure to abide by the law as revealed to us in the Old Testament.

First, I’d like to give a definition of terms, and trace some of this history of thinking on the issue. I’ll do this through encyclicals and pastoral letters of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not to say that Vatican thinking is definitive on this issue, but rather that Protestant thinking is far more scattered and harder to nail down.

There are degrees of supersessionism. One type says that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s covenant people. We’ll call this hard supersessionism, to use the term coined by David Novak, a scholar of antisemitism in the Catholic Church. There is another, one adopted more widely post-Vatican II, and more importantly, post-Holocaust, which we’ll call “soft” supersessionism.

Hard supersessionism is what we probably find most familiar. It’s the kind that makes our skin crawl. This would be the stereotypical Chrystostomian understanding of the place of Israel — a sort of husk from which the newer rite of the Christian religion emerged more fully fledged, grown, and developed. This is the “replacement” idea of supersessionism, more in line with the literal etymology of the word rooted in the term supercede, or “to take the seat of.”

This idea held on for a very long time, especially in Roman Catholicism. As recently as 1943 Pope Pius XII promulgated his encyclical Mystici corporis Christi, which fleshes out the classic proof text of supersessionist theology in Hebrews 8:13: “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (RSV). Pope Pius expounds on this passage:

By the death of our Redeemer, the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished; then the Law of Christ together with its mysteries, enactments, institutions, and sacred rites was ratified for the whole world in the blood of Jesus Christ … on the gibbet of His death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees and fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race.

The timing for the promulgation of that encyclical was unfortunate, with 1943 being the height of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. The language is difficult to swallow.

A little less than 20 years after this encyclical, Vatican II was convened, and we see a monumental shift in the Roman Church’s understanding of Jews and Judaism. With the promulgation in 1965 of Nostra aetate, Rome took a step away from hard supersessionism, shifting toward the soft approach. Here is a portion of a letter written by Pope John XXIII just before his death and only a few months before the promulgation of Nostra aetate:

We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer either see the beauty of Thy Chosen People nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in the blood which we drew or shed the tears we caused by forgetting Thy Love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we knew not what we did.

Nostra Aetate acknowledges a “certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history,“ referencing a sort of general revelation received in other world religions, but later asserts plainly:

This She [the church] regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. (Emphasis added.)

This soft supersessionism as promulgated by Rome has ebbed and flowed. Pope St. John Paul II heartily affirmed the statements of his predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI seemed to reaffirm the hard supersessionism of his pre-conciliar predecessors stating that ““the Mosaic Covenant is indeed superseded”, and the current Catechism of the Roman Church still includes a section referring to a future repentance of the Jews for their unbelief in the risen Lord.

In the Protestant tradition, the approach is a little more scattershot, with a less clear throughline pointing us to some of our modern thinking on the issue. We see contrasting ideas: the covenantal theology of the continental reformed traditions, more often attached with supersessionist theology, as well as dispensationalism, typically opposed to supersessionism. Your average liberal Protestant thinker opposes the very idea of supersessionism, typically on the grounds that it is racist or anti-semitic.

Some supersessionist theologies are racist and anti-semitic. Yet depending on what we mean by the term, the core affirmation is not necessarily racist or anti-semitic. When thought of rightly, guided by Scripture and eschewing racial hatred, it is just Christianity. Can one be saved outside of the work of Jesus Christ? Surely not. Can one ever be justified under the law? Paul seems to not think so. Do our Scriptures leave another door, another advocate, another way to the Godhead, other than through the person of Jesus Christ? No. Does that minimize or abrogate the Jewish flesh of Jesus Christ? No. Do the sons of Gentiles need to receive circumcision to share in the promises of God? No. Does this mean the Jews are no longer a chosen people of God? No. For the gifts and call of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).

It is possible to hold that the Jewish people remain a covenant people with God, but we also must accept that the Gentile Christian is also included in the chosen covenant people with God by engrafting, “contrary to nature” into the olive tree of Israel. God has not abrogated his word to Abraham, but has fulfilled his plan for salvation in the person of Jesus that through Israel all nations will be brought to the knowledge, love, and fear of the Lord of Sinai. The Jewish people remain “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Rom. 11:28b).

It is only through Israel that the promises of Israel are opened to the nations. The sons and daughters of Abraham are the roots, the Gentiles have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17-24), and can make the same claim on those Abrahamic promises as a Hebrew born of Hebrews, albeit by adoption. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the historical Christian role in anti-semitism, supersessionism understandably makes us uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean that it is wrong — not properly understood.

There are degrees of supersessionism, some of which are incompatible with Christianity. The blood libel’s accusation of a Jewish deicide that brought upon their nation a curse and severed their covenant with God is bad theology and is antisemitic. This medieval antisemitism still rears its ugly head in our modern world.

However, we cannot affirm, even in our discomfort with the idea, that there is a way other than Jesus. The temple of Solomon is torn down, her altar rubble, so where can a person now make propitiation and satisfaction to God for sins? Only upon the altars of the church Catholic, still offering that fragrant incense of offering and praise to the God of Israel, the all-consuming fire of Moses, the wrathful God of the waters of Meribah, the God of the cross, and God incarnate.

Having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:14-15)

In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Heb. 8:13)

If we believe the Bible to be true (and I pray that we do, and that we will repent daily and return to God’s word to renew, refresh, and reform our lives, both private and corporate), then we will be left with a difficult conclusion: the new covenant has superseded the old. Not only that, but this supersession was necessary to our perfection. For “If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?” (Heb. 7:11).

The Gentile has been grafted into the tree. This means the limb that is grafted is part of the tree, taking nutrients from the same roots, from the same soil and water. This means the Gentiles can take their claim on the promises of Israel, for those promises are theirs too, and were always meant to be theirs. The Gentile is called son and daughter, as much as the Jew is called son and daughter. And so we seek our Lord in the Old Testament, searching for him where he is hidden among the types and shadows, whispering to us between the lines of our psalters, prefigured for us in Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David.

The difficult and uncomfortable conclusion that the new covenant has superseded the old, that we are people under grace, no longer under the law, through which no one can be made perfect, means that evangelism to all people is our obligation. This means, for the Gentile Christian, taking a full share in God’s kingdom and in the ceremonies and sacraments of God, there is no shame in a full-throated amen to the evangelism of all peoples. Further, I would urge gentile Christian thinkers to lay aside their discomfort and lay a solid claim on the promises of Israel, whether you are grafted in or have grown from the root. There is not a unique claim on the God of Israel for a specific people anymore. The God of Israel is in Jewish flesh, but has done this so that he can fulfill his promises in Isaiah 2:2 that all nations will draw near before him.


[1]  John XXIII, “Our Eyes Have Been Cloaked,” Catholic Herald, May 14, 1965.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 674.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this. As you noted, “supersessionism” is such a loaded term that it is not always clear what one even means by it. Your approach here is very sound in terms of theology and biblical interpretation, while also acknowledging the real problems of Christian antisemitism.

  2. Nice work. I have struggled with the suspicion that I am a “closet” supersessionist–closeted because of the opprobrium that is attached to any version of it in today’s environment. I am emboldened, perhaps, to “come out” a bit.

    That said, and for the sake of your thesis, I’m wondering if the range of your argument should include not only the question of how “one” can be saved, but the media through God himself pursues the “missio dei.” Does the Church supersede “blood” Israel as the spearhead of God’s redemptive activity and the witness-bearer to the inbreaking of the Kingdom?

    • My thought is that the Church hasn’t superseded blood Israel as the media for God’s work. The person of Jesus Christ, who is of the blood of Israel, is Himself the media through which God works in the world, through the Holy Spirit and the church catholic. So, I would think that God’s redemptive activity as being more cooperative between blood Israel and the church Israel, and that this partnership is through the ‘jewishness’ of Jesus Christ. Functionally, the church is the witness-bearer, as they are the ones who have glimpsed “what no eye as seen” through Christ. The church doesn’t deal in typologies, but rather through sacramental realities. The Christ that is seen in the most holy sacrament of the altar, that Body which we reverence there, is a Jewish body. It seems to be God’s will for this cooperation between the two Israels to persist for the missio dei. For what is the mission of God other than making Christ known, bringing sheep back into His fold, and feeding them with his own flesh for their growth, health, and absolution? That work is done with (mostly) gentilic hands elevating Jewish flesh above the altars of the God of Israel.

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