Reading the Bible after supersessionism

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.

22 thoughts on “Reading the Bible after supersessionism

  1. To oversimplify, it sounds like Soulen is suggesting that we need to decide that God made a particular eternal decision so that men would make better decisions.

    I am not altogether sure that a continued calling for Israel can’t be argued from the New Testament. Romans 11:29 is sometimes argued that way. But the reason for holding such a view then will be textual rather than consequential.

    Bad enough consequences might get me to reject a theory. And I can easily see being persuaded to rethink things. But radical reworkings only work if what is jettisoned is not central. Or if you find that the system still runs quite nicely without the missing piece. There are hints in your summary that suggest that Soulen has rethought authority in such a way that he’s not arbitrarily scissoring out troubling passages. But do you get the sense that the bad consequences of the old theory are the reason for his conclusions themselves, or were they just the starting point for his quest?

  2. Well, I’m not that far into the book, but I take it his argument goes something like this: The churches (by which he means mainly the RCC and the mainline Protestant churches) have rejected “replacement theology” in various official pronouncements. But this rejection has theological implications that the churches have only begun to work out and which may be more radical than we suppose. That’s really the heart of his critical argument–that supersessionism is baked into the cake of traditional theology rather than just being an ancillary feature that’s easily removed. So, it seems to me that if one wanted to take issue with his argument one would either have to (1) reject anti-supersessionism or (2) argue that the theological consequences of anti-supersessionism aren’t as radical as Soulen thinks. For what it’s worth, his expressed intention in the constructive phase of his argument is to recast the “canonical narrative” in a way that’s faithful to the core of the gospel.

    1. Kendall Soulen

      Thanks for taking time to read my book in such a careful way. Whatever you ultimately think of it, I hope you will also take the time to look at a new book I’ve just published called The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity (vol 1). It carries forward some concerns from the earlier book but is focused on tthe Trinity and christology. Peace, Kendall Soulen

  3. Lee

    Dear Professor Soulen–thanks for commenting! I hope I’ve represented your argument accurately so far.

    The new book looks fascinating–I definitely intend to check it out.

  4. Thanks, Lee.

    “But this rejection has theological implications that the churches have only begun to work out and which may be more radical than we suppose.”

    That awareness seems to be lacking in the popular expressions of the position that I’ve heard in the past. A lot of my wariness was based on exactly that fact. But if Soulen is aware of that, the book becomes more promising.

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  6. Gene Callahan

    “What’s needed, Soulen argues, is a new narrative construal that sees the election of Israel of lasting significance.”

    Because otherwise how would one justify wiping out the Palestinians?

    1. Gene Callahan

      Lee, I don’t know: look at how many Protestant churches are so very enthusiastic about any wars that promote the interests of Israel.

  7. That’s true. But Soulen is writing, as far as I can tell, for a mainline Protestant milieu that has a very different relationship with Israel/Palestine issues. In any event, wouldn’t you agree that the issue of theological supersessionism is logically distinct from that conflict and worth disucssing in its own terms?

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