God of Israel and Christian Theology: Wrap up

Soulen is, in my view, largely persuasive in recasting of the scriptual meta-narrative as one of blessing and consummation, wherein sin and redemption plays a subordinate, though still important, role. Further, I think he’s right to avoid a certain kind of “Christocentric” reading of the Bible. If the churches are serious about overcoming supersessionism, then something like Soulen’s project seems to be necessary. He has demonstrated, to my satisfaction, that supersessionism isn’t simply an appendage that can easily be lopped off the main body of Christian tradition, but is more like a structural flaw in the foundation of the mainstream theological tradition. Of course, I’d already been largely convinced of that by Clark Williamson and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Soulen’s perspective also seems consistent with other recent trends in theology that have tried to emphasize God’s work as consummator of all creation and only secondarily God’s redemptive work. (I’m thinking of eco-theologies and some feminist theology.)

Supersessionist readings of the Bible are deeply entrenched in the church, though, even among those who consciously reject supersessionism. It will take a good bit of detailed exegetical work, I think, to flesh this alternative narrative out and make it compelling. For instance, it requires a virtual paradigm shift in how churches have historically, and in many cases still do, read Paul on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. (Although, if I’m not mistaken, some of themes of the “new perspective” on Paul seem like they might provide support to this kind of project.)

More challengingly, perhaps, I wonder whether Soulen’s proposed reading of the canon is consistent with the church’s christological and trinitarian dogmas, at least as those have been classicly expressed. Does the canonical narrative as Soulen has presented it demand a “high” Christology in the way that the traditional sin-redemption schema seemed to? I gather that this may be addressed in his new book, but I think it presents a potentially thorny issue for any Christian theology that seeks to be “post-supersessionist.” In what sense is Jesus unique and uniquely indispensable to God’s economy of blessing? Can Christians affirm Jesus’ unique role in God’s plan of consummation-salvation without, implicitly at least, courting supersessionism and exclusivism?

This brings me to another point. I wonder if the theme of mutual blessing-in-difference is portrayed too one-sidedly here? Although Soulen emphasizes that the blessing between Israel and the nations is mutual, his narrative assigns the Gentiles to a distinctly secondary role, religiously speaking. They seem to be little more than second-hand beneficiaries of God’s revelation to and covenant with Israel. But if God really creates for mutual blessing, might gentile religious wisdom not also contribute to the faith of Israel? In fact, historically we know that wisdom from Greek and other cultures was assimilated into biblical religion. This opens the possibility of a greater appreciation of broader religious pluralism. (I’m thinking along the lines proposed by Marjorie Suchocki.) An appreciation of pluralism need not entail a naively “universalist” standpoint but can be rooted in an affirmation of particularity.

As far as church practice goes, it’s hard to imagine what a church that was open to Jews as Jews would look like in the 21st century. Even granting that most Jews will continue to decline the Christian invitation to join the church, how would church life be affected if we took seriously Soulen’s contention that Jews could (should?) continue to observe the tenets of Judaism as members of the church? There are “messianic” Jews who to do this, but this seems like something that would make most mainline churches deeply uncomfortable. And should churches require continued Torah-observance of prospective Jewish members or simply permit it? What would that look like? How might such a “mixed” congregation be reflected in worship? The concept of a truly mixed Gentile-Jewish congregation raises a host of interesting and potentially difficult issues, I think.

All that notwithstanding, Soulen has written a fascinating and important book. Hopefully more Christians will start to grapple with these issues.

Previous posts:

Redemption for the sake of blessing

Reading the Bible after supersessionism

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

Supersessionism and the flight from history

Blessing and difference

The story so far

Jesus and the gospel of God’s coming reign

“There is neither Jew nor Greek…”

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