Blessing and difference

In the second part of The God of Israel and Christian Theology, R. Kendall Soulen provides the outline of an alternative framework for reading the Bible that, he argues, avoids the supersessionism inherent to the traditional canonical narrative.

Key to this is a reorientation of the narrative away from the drama of sin and redemption. Quoting Bonhoeffer, Soulen notes that the religion of the Old Testament is not primarily a religion of redemption. Rather, he says, it is a religion of blessing. Specifically, God’s work as Consummator takes precedence over God’s work as Redeemer. The work that God is about is blessing through difference.

In contrast to God’s work as Redeemer, God’s work as Consummator concerns not God’s power to deliver the creature from sin, evil, and oppression, but rather the ultimate good that God intends for human creation antecedent and subsequent to the calamity of sin. As represented in the Scriptures, God’s work as Consummator revolves around God’s blessing and its power to communicate life, wholeness, well-being, and joy to that which is other than God. (p. 115)

This ultimate good is life and well-being in its most comprehensive sense, which entails difference and mutual dependence. In the act of creation, God brings into being that which is not God. This provides the occasion for mutual blessing between God and creation as creatures bless God through praise and thanksgiving. Further, the differentiation inherent in creation itself–between male and female, between humanity and nature, between the generations–provides further opportunities for mutual blessing-in-difference. “Economies of difference and mutual dependence” provide the form that blessing takes in God’s world.

In this view, God’s historical covenantal acts are part and parcel of this mode of mutual blessing-in-difference. “Contrary to a common Christian assumption,” the calling of Abraham is not a response to the problem of sin. “To the contrary, God’s motive seems chiefly to be the sheer fecundity and capaciousness of the divine good pleasure” (p. 120). In establishing the covenant with Abraham and his posterity, God is establishing a new way of blessing the world. Hereafter, humanity is divided into Jew and Gentile, but this is not a division of conflict or opposition, where one benefits at the expense of another. Rather it is to be another differentiation of mutual dependence and blessing. “[T]he Scriptures view the distinction between Israel and the nations as a part of the abiding constitution of reality in God, anticipated from the beginning and present at the end of all things (p. 121).”

In this scheme, Israel is blessed by being made a people and by receiving the Torah and the land. And Israel in return blesses God by praising God’s name before the nations. But this is not to be a blessing at the expense of the nations, but for their sake as well. “To be a Gentile is to be the other of Israel and as such an indispensable partner in a single economy of blessing that embraces the whole human family” (p. 126). Gentiles have a distinct, but still positive, role to play in God’s economy of blessing. This is symbolized by the story of Joseph in which Egypt and Joseph’s family are mutually blessed and enriched through their relationship, without ceasing to be distinct.

This economy of mutual blessing is ordered to an eschatological end: the reign of God’s shalom in all creation. The Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) make it clear that this eschatological peace includes the well-being of both Israel and the nations (Gentiles). “God’s history with Israel and the nations is ordered from the outset toward a final reign of shalom in which the distinction between Israel and the nations is not abrogated and overcome but affirmed within a single economy of mutual blessing” (p. 132).

The eschatological blessing has both a “historical” and a “cosmic” dimension: one referring to the climax of history (what we might call a this-worldly utopia) and the other to the establishment of the “new heaven and new earth” wherein God will dwell in glory with God’s people. This is the consummation of God’s work to bless creation precisely through the creation of fruitful difference rather than its abrogation.

The next chapter puts the drama of sin and redemption into this framework, and the final one focuses on the work of Jesus Christ as the promissory note of God’s consummating work.

Previous posts:

Reading the Bible after supersessionism

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

Supersessionism and the flight from history

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5 thoughts on “Blessing and difference

  1. Pingback: Redemption for the sake of blessing | A Thinking Reed

  2. Pingback: The story so far… | A Thinking Reed

  3. Pingback: Jesus and the gospel of God’s coming reign | A Thinking Reed

  4. Pingback: “There is neither Jew nor Greek…” | A Thinking Reed

  5. Pingback: God of Israel and Christian Theology: Wrap up | A Thinking Reed

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