I’ve started reading R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology, which is an attempt to rethink the foundational narrative of Christianity within a “post-supersessionist” context. Christian theology has traditionally held that the church replaces Israel in God’s covenant. However, the realization, post-Holocaust, of how Christian theology has contributed to anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews has led many Christian churches to renounce any supersessionist claims. While this is an important step, Soulen argues that simply renouncing supersessionism isn’t enough–we need to attend to the “deep grammar” in the traditional Christian story that makes supersessionism not only possible, but virtually inevitable.
Soulen introduces the concept of a “canonical narrative” or “canonical construal” of scripture–the overarching story of how the diverse collection of texts that constitute the Bible “hangs together.” In particular, this narrative construal allows us to see how the Old and New Testaments (or, as Soulen sometimes refers to them, the Scriptures and the Apostolic Witness) constitute one canon. This provides a prism for reading the texts as a story about God’s relation to the world.
In Soulen’s view, the traditional Christian narrative construal is one of “creation-for-consummation, fall, redemption in Christ, and final consummation” (p. 16). God creates humanity with intention of ultimately consummating human existence with eternal life. Tragically, because of the fall into sin, this project of consummation is derailed, and God must resort to “plan B.” This, of course, is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection. This redemptive act restores humanity and allows God’s plans for consummation to proceed.
The problem with the standard view, from a post-supersessionist perspective, is that it views the role of Israel as temporary and inessential to God’s greater purposes. Or as Soulen puts it “it makes God’s identity as the God of Israel largely indecisive for shaping theological conclusions about God’s enduring purposes for creation” (p. 16). It allows God’s acts of salvation to be seen as individualistic and ahistorical–as dealing with the “universal” problem of sin rather than as part of the story of God binding Godself to one particular people. This is why the church has typically erased any religiously significant distinction between Jew and Gentile.
What’s needed, Soulen argues, is a new narrative construal that sees the election of Israel of lasting significance. For such a construal to be faithful to the Christian gospel it must maintain the core evangelical conviction that the God of Israel has acted in Jesus Christ for all, to use Soulen’s summary. But it must do so without treating the election of Israel as a temporary detour in salvation history.