Keith Ward on concepts of God

Following on the previous post, this video of theologian Keith Ward talking with Robert Wright has a good discussion–mostly at the beginning–of how we might talk about different religions promoting worship of the same God. Ward goes beyond the Western monotheistic faiths and offers reasons for thinking that the ultimate reality of some Eastern religions is not necessarily distinct from the theistic God.

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I think we have to respect the fact that there are genuine differences between traditions, and I reject a too-simple pluralism that irons out all the interesting differences among them. At the same time, we often treat some differences as absolute when in fact they may be different aspects, or partial apprehensions, of a single truth. For instance, Christians often contrast the “personal” God of theism with the “impersonal” ultimate reality affirmed in some Indian traditions. But, of course, sophisticated theologians know that God can’t simply be described as a “person” in the same way that an individual human being can–God is personal but also “beyond personality,” to borrow an expression from C.S. Lewis. Likewise, many Indian traditions affirm that the ultimate reality has a personal aspect, or that it relates to humans in a way that is analogous to personal relationships. So what looks at first glance like an irreconcilable difference may turn out to be a set of complementary insights.

What does it mean to ask whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God”?

Occasionally controversy arises as to whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” (See here for an example.) I don’t find this to be a particularly helpful way of putting the issue: presumably there is, at most, one God, so asking whether two groups of people worship the “same God” must be shorthand for something else. With all due respect to polytheism, it’s not like there are multiple gods and the question is which god one’s worship is directed at.

What I think is really being asked is to what extent the two religions understand God in the same way. For example, Muslims deny the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity as Christians understand them. This doesn’t mean that there are two different “gods” but rather two different understandings of what the one God who exists is like. The object of the understanding is the same, but the manner in which that object is understood differs.

So given this difference, what should Christians’ attitude toward Muslims be? Should they be trying to convert them to (what Christians believe to be) a better understanding of God? Do Christians think that a person’s worship can only be “true” or that they can only be saved if they have a flawless understanding of God? That seems to be setting the bar too high. To be specific, do Christians deny that someone can worship God if one denies the Incarnation and the Trinity? Well, that would mean that all Jews, including most of the great figures of the Bible, worship a “false god.” It would also go against a longstanding Christian tradition that “virtuous pagans” could attain true (if incomplete) knowledge of God. Moreover, the Bible suggests that knowledge of God is available to all people–often outsiders to Israel’s history are depicted as worshiping God, and Paul notes that God’s existence and wisdom are evident to the Gentiles. Not to mention that Christians have long recognized that God exceeds the grasp of our understanding. So even if Christians believe they have a “truer” or more complete understanding of God than non-Christians, they should acknowledge that God transcends their comprehension. There thus seems to be no good reason to deny that Muslims are acquainted with God and worship God according to their lights.

What Christians should focus on, I think, is confessing the revelation they believe they have received. As the Anglican bishop John V. Taylor once said, for Christians, “whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love.” That is the central truth Christians are called to witness to. In their dialogue with people of other traditions, Christians should–humbly and vulnerably!–uphold this insight. It may be that other traditions obscure or even deny this insight; but it may equally be possible that adherents of other traditions can absorb this insight without abandoning their tradition. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to “become Christian” but for everyone to hear and respond to the gospel of God’s unlimited love.

From religious diversity to “confessional pluralism”

In the final chapter of The Many Faces of Christology, Tyron Inbody looks at the issue of religious diversity. He considers the standard responses–exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism–but finds them wanting for familiar reasons. Exclusivism, in addition to resting on a questionable and selective interpretation of the biblical witness, greatly exacerbates the problem of evil by implying that the vast majority of the human race will be denied even the possibility of salvation. Inclusivism, while appearing to be more open-minded, is in the end a kinder, gentler form of Christian exclusivism, implying that the exclusive basis of salvation is still the Christian revelation. Finally, pluralism, in insisting on an essential similarity among religions, tends to smuggle in particularist assumptions. For instance, John Hick’s pluralism makes a number of assumptions that are really theistic in nature and not neutral between the various religious traditions.

Instead of adopting one of the familiar perspectives, Inbody argues for what he calls “confessional pluralism.” This form of pluralism makes two key affirmations. First, it insists that all religious traditions are irreducibly contextual. That is to say, none can claim to have a neutral, “god’s-eye” view of things. It entails “a lack of finality and absoluteness” and an affirmation of “modesty about theological claims” (p. 209). In other words, we can only speak about other religions from the perspective of our own particular viewpoint; we should therefore not claim to possess a “view from nowhere.”

Second, confessional pluralism, in its Christian form, affirms the universal significance of Christ and interprets the plurality of religions from an explicitly Christian point of view. For instance, Inbody suggest that, arguing analogously from the triune nature of God, we can posit plurality as an irreducible fact about the world. The world is characterized by pluralism–including religious pluralism–because unity-in-difference is the character of the divine life itself. God is the Creator of all, the Wisdom that can be manifested in a multiplicity of religious traditions, and the Spirit that is at work in the world and in all cultures to bring creation to fulfillment.

This perspective strikes me as very similar to the one developed by Marjorie Suchocki in her Divinity and Diversity (which I blogged about here and here), as well as the “confessionalism” of H. Richard Niebuhr. Inbody is arguing for an appreciation of pluralism, not from purportedly “universal” premises, but from explicitly Christian ones. Confessionalism as Inbody understands it can be pluralist in affirming that no one tradition possesses the unvarnished and complete truth, but that all the “great ways” embody part of that truth; it can also be particularist in claiming universal significance for the revelation of God in Jesus.

Perhaps a good way to think about it is offered by John V. Taylor, the Anglican bishop and theologian. In his book The Christlike God, Taylor writes the following:

The different ‘faces’ of God which are set forth [in the various world religions] will seem in some respects to be mutually contradictory, and for a long time we may not be ready to guess how, if at all, they will be reconciled. I believe we can confidently leave that in the hands of the future if we will only persevere in the agenda for today. And for us who are Christians this is, quite simply, in reverent appreciation of the beliefs and prayers of others, to affirm that, whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love–and that we have found in that revelation the salvation that all peoples look for. (p. 5)

This seems to strike the kind of balance Inbody is talking about–neither surrendering our loyalty to the revelation we have received nor presuming to be in possession of the entire truth.

“Are you the one who is to come?”

Tyron Inbody has a very interesting chapter on Christianity and Judaism in his Many Faces of Christology. With “post-Holocaust” theologies, he notes that the contention between Judaism and Christianity isn’t over Jesus’s teachings–which scholars now believe fell largely within the parameters of 1st-century Pharisaic Judaism. Nor is it over his death–which was not the fault of “the Jews” but of the Jerusalem politico-religious establishment and the Roman occupying government. It’s not, he contends, even necessarily over Jesus’s resurrection–resurrection was a core belief of the Pharisees, and Inbody cites the contemporary Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide, who actually accepts that Jesus was resurrected. While this is obviously a minority view, Inbody argues that it shows that the resurrection as such is not incompatible with Judaism.

But this also highlights where the true point of contention lies–in the messiahship of Jesus. Inbody points out that the resurrection does not per se prove that Jesus was the Messiah. Jews can, in principle, accept the fact of the resurrection. What faithful Jews deny, however, is that the world has been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This isn’t, as Christians sometimes like to think, because Jews wanted a “political-military” Messiah and thus couldn’t accept a “spiritual,” nonviolent one. While this view is self-flattering for Christians, it misses the point. That is, for Jews, the advent of the Messiah is inextricably linked with the redemption of the world–that is, the end of violence and suffering and the establishment of God’s universal kingdom. 1st-century Judaism had a variety of concepts of what the Messiah would be like, and even varied on whether the Messiah should be indentified with a specific individual at all. But the consistent theme was that the messianic age would user in peace, justice, and wholeness for God’s creation. Jewish rejection of the messianic status of Jesus isn’t due to “stubbornness” or “blindness” as much Christian tradition has had it, but can in fact be seen as a faithful response to God’s promises as they were revealed through the Torah and Prophets.

Inbody argues that Christians were able to identify Jesus as the Messiah only by reinterpreting the meaning of messiahship. Christians, if they’re being honest, must admit that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus did not establish God’s kingdom. Rather, Jesus provides a “foretaste” of the kingdom, which will only be established in its fullness at the end of time. Somewhat paradoxically, this shows that Christians and Jews may be closer together than it at first seems. If Christians view Jesus’s messiahship in terms of prolepsis and promise, then they have much in common with Jews who still await the coming of the Messiah. Both are awaiting the same Kingdom–God’s universal reign of shalom. Whether or not Jesus is the one who will reign as Messiah in that kingdom is ultimately an eschatological question that we can’t definitively settle now–even if we agree that Jesus was resurrected!

Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:

What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.

An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.

Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:

What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)

A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.

Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.

When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).

What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).

Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)

That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.

The story so far…

In the eighth and final chapter of The God of Israel and Christian Theology, R. Kendall Soulen provides a helpful summary of the argument thus far, which I’m going to quote at length:

The gospel is the story of the God of Israel’s victory in Jesus over powers that destroy. Just so, God’s victory in Jesus is the center but not the totality of Christian faith. Faith in the gospel presupposes the God of Israel’s antecedent purpose for creation, a purpose threatened by destructive powers but vindicated by God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Christians have almost universally assented to the truth of the previous paragraph. But, as we saw in Part One, they have commonly accounted for its truth by means of a construal of the Bible’s narrative unity that–paradoxically enough–renders God’s identity as the God of Israel and the center of the Hebrew Scriptures almost wholly indecisive for grasping God’s antecedent purpose for human creation. As an alternative to the standard construal, I have sketched in the previous chapters one way in which God’s identity as the God of Israel becomes decisive for grasping God’s antecedent purpose for creation. I have argued that God’s work as the Consummator of creation promises life and the fullness of life to creation and to the human family in and through earthly economies of difference and mutual dependence. In the context of God’s six-days’ blessing, God’s economy is embodied in the distinction and mutual relation of the natural world and the human family, of female and male, of parent and child, of one generation and the next. In the context of God’s crowning Sabbath blessing, God’s economy is irrevocably embodied in the carnal election of the Jewish people and in the consequent distinction between Jew and Gentile, between Israel and the nations. Furthermore, I have argued that God’s work as Consummator is oriented from the outset toward God’s eschatological shalom, where God intends to fulfill the economies of difference and reciprocity…in unsurpassable fashion to the mutual blessing of all in a reign of wholeness, righteousness, and peace. (pp. 156-7)

In the next post I’ll look at how Soulen thinks the story of Jesus fits into this.

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

Redemption for the sake of blessing

If the great theme of the Bible is one of blessing, it can’t be denied that sin, or curse, and redemption is an important sub-theme. The God who is Consummator is also Redeemer and Deliverer. So how should this theme fit into the canonical narrative that Soulen is proposing as an alternative to the traditional one?

Soulen notes that

the primeval history (Gen 1-11) knows nothing of a single catastrophic fall that introduces a major turning point into the biblical story. On the contrary…the central theme of the primeval history and of Genesis as a whole is the continuity, resilience, and growth of God’s work as the Consummator of creation. Nevertheless, the creation sagas are nothing if not utterly unsentimental about the seriousness of human sin and dreadful weight of the divine curse. The creation sagas trace the human family’s readiness to receive God’s blessing through a series of social pairs: male and female (Gen 2-3), brother and brother (Gen 4), comrade and comrade (Gen 11). In each case, the result is distressingly negative. (p. 142)

Seen in this light, Soulen understands sin to be the refusal to receive God’s blessing as mediated through the other. This can refer to the divine Other, as in Adam and Eve’s failure to trust God as the source of their fullness, or it can refer to the human other, as in Cain’s refusal to accept blessing through his brother Abel. Instead of receiving God’s blessing “through economies of difference and mutual dependence” (p. 143), we try to secure our own blessing on our own terms. “Sin assaults the link that joins blessing and otherness. Sin seeks blessing apart from its source in the divine Other and apart from life with the human other” (p. 144).

When humanity rejects the divinely ordained economy of mutual dependence, it invites the divine curse. In the story of the Exodus we learn of Egypt’s rejection of the mutually beneficial relationship it had established with the family of Jacob, turning instead to exploitation. In turn, God’s curse falls upon the Egyptians and God delivers the people that would become Israel. But lest this seem to be just national egoism on Israel’s part, the Scriptures speak just as if not more often of God’s judgment on Israel. “Like the nations, Israel is prone to forget that God’s covenant is the only trustworthy source of benediction for Israel and for creation” (p. 146).

As we saw with blessing, redemption is ultimately oriented to the advent of God’s eschatological shalom. Both persecution by the nations and Israel’s own sin “threat[en] God’s intentions to bring Israel to final consummation” (p. 147). The Scriptures are ambivalent about whether this means simply judgment of the nations and vindication for Israel, or whether it means a restoration and final fulfillment of the economy of mutual blessing God always intended. This is a question Soulen returns to when considering the meaning of Jesus in the next chapter.

For the time being, the key point is that redemption or deliverance is for the sake of consummation. In the Pentateuch, the story of deliverance is framed by stories of God’s blessing (in Genesis and Deuteronomy). There are hints in the Exodus story itself that Israel will be blessed in the company of the nations (Moses delivered by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s house, Moses’ marriage into a gentile household, and the “mixed crowd” that escapes Egypt with the Hebrews). The institution of the Jubilee is another instance of redemption (forgiveness of debts) for the sake of blessing (a restored relationship with land and community), and the Scriptures’ eschatological hope is not just for deliverance from evil, but for the positive blessings of life and wholeness.

[L]iberation from the powers that destroy is a matter of utmost urgency precisely because these powers threaten to cut off the human family from the arena in which God’s blessings are bestowed. The antithesis of sin and redemption is misunderstood if it is torn from its context in God’s work as Consummator and from the economies of mutual blessing that God establishes and sustains. (p. 52)

It should be clear at this point that from this perspective redemption does not mean erasing the distinction between Jew and Gentile, as the church has maintained for most of its history. Rather it means forging a new community in which Jew and Gentile exist in a relationship of mutual blessing without ceasing to be Jew and Gentile.

Previous posts:

Reading the Bible after supersessionism

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

Supersessionism and the flight from history

Blessing and difference

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

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

I want to continue my summary of R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology (see previous post here). In chapter 2 Soulen looks at the traditional “canonical narrative” of Christian theology as it was formulated in the early centuries of the church and argues that it “inscribes the logic of supersessionism [i.e., replacement theology] into the deep grammar of Christian theology” (p. 49).

Let’s recall that, for Soulen, a canonical narrative is a kind of high-order story that serves to construe the collection of books that make up the Bible as a single overarching narrative. Soulen examines the thought of two pivotal figures in the early church–Justin Martyr and Irenaeus–who were key in establishing the traditional narrative of Christian theology. In Soulen’s shorthand, the traditional canonical narrative is the story of “creation-for consummation, fall, redemption, and final consummation.”

Justin Martyr, as an early Christian apologist, was eager to make the gospel intelligible for a largely pagan audience. Consequently, he emphasized the “cosmic” dimenions of the Christian story, portraying Jesus as the incarnate logos or wisdom of God. This “cosmic” version of the Christian story, however, has the unfortunate side-effect of “circumvent[ing] God’s identity as the God of Israel and God’s history with the Jewish people as related by the Hebrew Scriptures” (p. 36). For Justin, the Hebrew Scriptrues (which were, for him, simply the Scriptures since the NT canon hadn’t yet been established) are important primarily because they foretell the coming of Christ. He certainly saw the Christian God as the same as the Jewish God, but “God’s history with the carnal community of the Jews is merely a passing episode within God’s more encompassing purposes for creation, which are universal and spiritual in nature” (p. 37). The church–the “true,” “spiritual” Israel, replaces the “carnal” Israel in God’s plan for creation, and there is no positive religious significance to the ongoing history of the Jewish people.

Irenaeus was the scourge of gnostics who probably deserves as much credit as anyone for firmly establishing the Jewish scriptures as part of the Christian canon. So you might expect that he’d take a more positive stance toward Judaism. However, Irenaeus vindicates his anti-gnostic argument “by building on Justin’s supersessionist reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, and indeed by extending it in order to provide a framework for reading the church’s twofold canon” (p. 41). Irenaeus follows Justin in organizing the Bible in light of four key events (creation-for-consummation, fall, redemption, and final consummation) and he also interprets the covenant with the Jews primarily as a perfiguration of redemption in Christ. According to Soulen, Irenaeus does modify Justin’s account of salvation history by making the election of the Jews more integral, but paradoxically inscribes supersessionism even deeper into the Christian story. For Irenaeus, the covenant with Israel is more central to salvation history than it is in Justin’s cosmic-logos account of redemption, and there is greater continuity in substance between the two “dispensations.” However, precisely because the covenant with Israel is a prefiguration or preparation, it is, by definition, obsolete when Christ comes on the scene. “The Old Covenant is fulfilled by the New Covenant according to its inner christological substance but superseded and displaced according to its outward and carnal form. Hence the whole economy of salvation is inwardly ordered to the eventual dissolution of Israel’s corporate life into the life of the church” (p. 47).

The template established by Justin and Irenaeus went largely unquestioned for most of Christian history. The result, according to Soulen, is that the Christian tradition has downplayed or denied the significance of Israel and God’s history with Israel for shaping its theological commitments. In short, the Christian gospel as it is often presented is completely “detachable” from the Hebrew Scriptures and Israel. This leads to an ahistorical and individualistic reading of salvation that pays insufficient attention to public history and the “middle range” dimensions of life such as politics and economics, which are so important to the Hebrew Scriptures.

One question in the back of my mind as I’m reading this (and this is only chapter 2) is how Soulen thinks we should hold together or relate the “particularist” and “universalist” poles of the Christian story. He is eager to recover the decisive role of God’s covenant with the particular people Israel for shaping Christian theology, but at the same time I take it that he still thinks Christianity has a universal and “cosmic” message that goes beyond the bounds of one people’s particular history. It’s not yet clear to me how you maintain particularism without sacrificing universal relevance. Hopefully he’ll address this at some point.

UPDATE: Partly in response to Marvin’s comment, I wanted to add a little more about Soulen’s critique of Irenaeus, because it’s a somewhat subtle point that may not have come out clearly enough in my post. Here’s Soulen:

In sum, Irenaeus sees God’s history with Israel as an episode within the larger story whereby God prepares a fallen humanity for the incarnation. Coming between Adam’s fall on one side and the incarnation on the other, Israel serves as a training ground for salvation.

One of the most significan aspects of Irenaeus’ solution is the lucid account it permits of the Bible’s unity. On the one hand, a single economy of redemption underlies the biblical narrative as a whole from the fall to the end of time. On the other hand, this single economy is bodied forth in two asymmetrical forms, one temporary and prophetic, the other permanent and definitive. The Old and New Covenants … are one because they come from the same God and embody God’s one plan to redeem fallen humanity in Christ. They are distinct because they present the economy of salvation under different outward forms…. When the new comes, therefore, the old is done away with, not with respect to substance but with respect to outer form.


Curiously, Irenaeus’ solution to the unity of the canon reinforces the logic of economic supersessionism at the same time that it underscores the continuity of divine purpose that unites Israel and the church, Old Covenant and New. Just as maturity is the goal of childhood training, so Christ and the church are the goals of Israel’s history from the beginning. The Old Covenant is fulfilled by the New Covenant according to its inner christological substance but superseded and displaced according to its outer carnal form. Hence the whole economy of salvation is inwardly ordered to the eventual dissolution of Israel’s corporate life into the life of the church. (pp. 46-47)

Soulen refers to this as a double movement of “fulfillment and cancellation”: Israel is “obsolete” because its purpose was chiefly background preparation for redemption in Christ. The irony is that this obsolescence is a result of Irenaeus’ efforts to more deeply integrate Israel’s history into the Christian account of God’s plan of salvation.

Friday links

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Moby-Dick.

–Amy-Jill Levine: “A Critique of Recent Christian Statements on Israel

–From Jeremy at Don’t Be Hasty: Why the church can’t take the place of the welfare state.

–A discussion of “summer spirituality” with Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

–A review of Keith Ward’s recent book More than Matter?

Lady Gaga: “Iron Maiden changed my life.”

–Grist’s David Roberts has been writing a series on “great places” as a reorienting focus for progressive politics: see the first installments here, here, and here. Also see this reflection from Ned Resnikoff.

–Four different demo versions of Metallica’s early tune “Hit the Lights” (with some, ahem, interesting vocal experimentation by a young James Hetfield).