Supersessionism and the flight from history

R. Kendall Soulen brings the first, critical part of his God of Israel and Christian Theology to a close with two chapters on early modern and 20th-century theology, respectively.

In chapter 3 he examines the thought of two influential thinkers who tried to reconcile the core of Christian belief with the worldview of the Englightenment–Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Both of these thinkers, in Soulen’s evaluation, did this at the cost of severing Christianity more profoundly from its Jewish roots than the traditional canonical narrative they inherited. This is because both emphasized, in different ways, the universal, ahistorical “foreground” of the canonical narrative–the arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation–to such a degree that the Jewish matrix of Christian faith becomes something to discard. For Kant, religion is to be understood “within the limits of reason alone”–which for him means the demands of morality understood as a rational, universal law. Jesus is an exemplar of perfect humanity because of his moral perfection, not because of anything having to do with his role in the ongoing story of God’s history with Israel. Similarly, Schleiermacher sees religion as an expression of a universal human consciousness of dependence. Jesus is the redeemer because he had a perfect “God-consciousness” that is transmitted to others through the community he founded, the church.

In both cases, Soulen argues, the drama of redemption has been removed from public history to inner realm of experience–whether it be moral experience or religious experience. The result is that both Kant and Schleiermacher view Christianity as the universal, “spiritual” alternative to the particularistic, “carnal” Judaism. (Schleiermacher even goes so far as to suggest that the OT be relegated to a “historical appendix” to the NT!) For Soulen, supersessionism goes hand in hand with a semi-gnostic “flight from history.” God’s action is not defined by what God does in historical relationship with particular people; rather it’s shaped by an ahistorical template of providing a solution to a universal human problem (moral frailty or lack of God-consciousness). By transposing the divine-human relationship to this inner, ashistorical realm, Kant and Schleiermacher pry open the fissure that already existed in the traditional narrative between the “foreground” of creation-fall-redemption-consummation and the “background” of God’s dealing with Israel. Their God is a “Christian divinity without Jewish flesh.”

Soulen then turns in chapter 4 to the two great “Karls” of 20th-century theology: Barth and Rahner. In different ways both theologians worked to ground God’s acts of redemption and consummation more firmly in history (both were influenced by and reacting to Schleiermacher). For Barth, forming a covenant relationship with humanity just is the point of creation. And God’s covenant with Israel is part of his work to consummate this relationship with creation; thus God’s very being is, in a sense, shaped by history. Rahner takes a very different approach, but tries to arrive at a similar conclusion. God’s self-bestowal on creatures is the point of creation, but this takes place in and through the medium of what Rahner calls humanity’s “supernatural existential.” This refers to a certain inner dynamism toward relationship with God that is a universal–although contingent–feature of the human condition–it is bestowed by God’s grace, not an inherent feature of human nature as such. Thus history is for both Karls the medium of God’s consummating activity in a way that it wasn’t for Kant and Schleiermacher.

However, Soulen sees in both Barth and Rahner problems that recapitulate the supersessionist tendencies of their predecessors. In Barth’s thought, he says, God’s history with Israel is “collapsed” into the person of Jesus Christ. This is part and parcel of Barth’s effort to retrieve the “ec-centric” or “extra nos” aspect of the Reformer’s thought–everything is accomplished in Jesus and we benefit from it in virtue of its universal efficacy. History effectively “ends” with the resurrection and thus the ongoing history of Israel has no particular significance as part of God’s consummating work. For Rahner, the problem is that while formally his “supernatural existential” is a historical phenomenon, in practice it is utterly detached from historical events. It serves as a clever solution to an intellectual problem of reconciling grace and nature, but Rahner doesn’t tie this abstract historicity to the concrete history of God’s dealings with Israel. In both cases, covenant history is collapsed to a single point (the person of Jesus or the dynamism of the human creature), relegating God’s covenant-history with Israel to insignificance. What’s needed instead, Soulen says, is a view that sees God’s work as Consummator engag[ing] creation in the total, open-ended, and still ongoing history that unfolds between the Lord, Israel, and the nations” (p. 106). Outlining such a view will be the task of the second part of the book.

Previous posts on Soulen’s book:

Reading the Bible after supersessionism

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

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6 thoughts on “Supersessionism and the flight from history

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