“Supersede” is a synonym for “replace”. Supersession is a Christian theological term referring to a specific replacement—namely, the replacement of God’s covenant with Israel by a new covenant (new “testament”) with the Church. Put differently, the Church of Christ is the new Israel. Supersessionism is the doctrine that this replacement has in fact occurred. Theologians like long words, especially if they derive from Greek or (in this case) Latin. If you like “supersessionism”, how about “anti-supersessionism”? Which, logically enough, means the rejection of the replacement doctrine.Supersession has been part of the Christian narrative of salvation for a very long time. There was some ambivalence in the Apostle Paul’s letters as to the continuing authority of the Jewish law for the followers of Jesus, an issue that became urgent as more Gentiles became followers. Paul’s sharpest formulation of his position on this was in Galatians 3:28, where he said that there was “no longer Jew or Gentile” in the community of Jesus Christ. There continued some disagreement as to the obligation of Gentile converts to undergo circumcision and to observe other provisions of Jewish law. Around 50 CE the issue was finally decided by the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, with Paul taking a strong stand in favor of exempting Gentile Christians from most of the ritual obligations of Jewish law, including circumcision, which after all had been the most intimate mark of the covenant between God and the people of Israel (and a particular embarrassment for Hellenized Gentiles who wanted to continue frequenting the gymnasium (literally, “place of nakedness”), where athletes trained in a state of complete nudity. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic symbolization of the Christian claim to be under a new covenant, distinct from rabbinical Judaism. The rabbis reciprocated. The so-called Council of Yavne was probably not a single event but a developing consensus among the rabbis gathered around the religious school founded in Yavne in that location on the coastline of what is now central Israel. The school became a major rabbinical authority after the disappearance of the Jerusalem center. By 90 CE it had established the canon of the Hebrew Bible or Tanach (Torah, Prophets, Writings), thus marking the boundaries of legitimate Judaism: Gentile Christians, holding on to their New Testament and their foreskins, were definitely left on the outside!In the 1950s there developed a trend of anti-supersessionism among both Catholics and Protestants. Biblical scholarship increasingly emphasized the Jewish context of Jesus of Nazareth. Much of this, I think, happened apart from larger political events (scholarship has its own dynamics, some of it resulting from the need of every new academic generation to commit intellectual parricide, that is to differentiate itself from the generation of its teachers). The emphasis on “the Jew Jesus of Nazareth” was tailor-made for upsetting the older generation of mostly conservative Protestant scholars. There was also the memory of the Holocaust, making every whiff of anti-Semitism intolerable and leading Christians to reflect to what extent supersessionism had been a cause of anti-Jewish sentiments. Many Catholics and Protestants came to the conclusion that efforts to convert Jews to Christianity should cease, and Jewish organizations often regarded such efforts to be intrinsically anti-Semitic (not a very logical conclusion—if people really believed that faith in Jesus Christ was necessary for eternal salvation, excluding Jews from missionary outreach could be construed as ultimate anti-Semitism!)Reinhold Niebuhr was an interesting case in this regard: He came to New York from a conservative Protestant background in the Middle West and acquired many Jewish friends after his move to New York: It is difficult to socialize amicably with people who, according to your beliefs, are bereft of God’s grace (The sociologist John Murray Cuddihy has provided a vivid picture of this social and theological dilemma in his book No Offense, 1968). Vatican II brought about a far-reaching shift in the relations of the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism. The declaration Nostra aetate (1965) emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity, and the special relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. Pope Francis, in his ‘apostolic exhortation” Evangelii gaudium (2013) carried this emphasis further. Some (non-Orthodox) Jewish thinkers reciprocated by making friendly noises about Christianity and even about Jesus, who had been traditionally abhorred by Orthodox Jews. In 2000 a group of rabbis and Jewish thinkers, led by David Novak (a prominent Conservative rabbi in Toronto), published a sort of manifesto about Jewish-Christian relations, Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth”). It affirms that Jews and Christians worship the same God and endorses interfaith dialogue.The most radical case of anti-supersessionism I have come across in mainline Protestantism is expressed by a group of young Lutheran theologians associated with Humboldt University in Berlin. Their key proposition is, not only that the covenant between God and the Jewish people still holds, but that the basic and most authentic revelation of God happened to Israel and not through Jesus Christ—a curious reversal of the traditional Christian view that the Old Testament is a preparation for the New, but rather that the New Testament is an appendix to the Old—a sort of simplified Torah for Gentiles. I don’t know how far the German context was important for this development: Some members of the group have been active in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, including the very moving public ceremony in which the names of all Berlin Jews murdered by the Nazis are pronounced aloud. It was not clear to me why these individuals did not take the (I would think, logical) step of converting to Judaism (perhaps as a kind of second-class citizens, somewhat similar to Christians who accept the status of dhimmis in Islamic society).In terms of anti-supersessionism Evangelical Protestants get first prize. Many of them come from Calvinist backgrounds and have an inheritance of identifying with Israel and its covenant (as in Geneva, New England, South Africa). The same impulse underlies Christian Zionism, especially in America. Not only does the old covenant still hold, but the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants is also still valid. Recent survey dates show that more American Evangelicals than American Jews believe that God has given the Land of Israel to the Jews! To be sure, those who have actually read the text of the promise to Abraham (in Genesis 15) get a little nervous: God promises “this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates”. This territory actually includes present-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, possibly Lebanon, and chunks of Egypt and Iraq—Greater Israel indeed! (This map may even make Prime Minister Netanyahu a bit nervous.)Quite apart from the geopolitical difficulties, this anti-supersessionism depends on a very literal reading of the Hebrew Bible. Anyone not sharing this view of Scripture is unlikely to be persuaded by the argument. I find intriguing that a different variety of anti-supersessionalism has recently surfaced elsehere in the spectrum of theological debates. In May 2017 there will be celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, when Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses on Indulgences on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg. This scene has become an icon, burned into the consciousness of every Lutheran Sunday school pupil ever since. As with so many icons, what actually happened was much less dramatic. It was not a defiant act at all. The entrance to the church contained the main bulletin board of the university; what Luther did, in accordance with academic practice at the time, was to announce the theses which he wanted to discuss in a public debate.The American writer Paul Goodman once described the Reformation as a conspiracy of junior faculty at a provincial university. While the 95 Theses contained some potentially explosive criticisms of the Church’s toleration of the sale of Indulgences (official pardons for the remission of sins for cash payments), the Theses were not, or not yet, an explicit attack on the Church. Luther singled out one Johann Tetzel, a famous salesman of these pardons, to whom was attributed the ditty ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs’. The drama came a little later. The proceeds of the corrupt trade in Indulgences went to the reconstruction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome; in addition to the (still implicit) criticism of his authority to pardon sins, the Pope was not happy about this threat to a lucrative source of funding. In 1520 Pope Leo X issued the encyclical Exsurge domine, a direct attack on Luther. In the meantime, with the use of the newly invented printing press, the 95 Theses were disseminated throughout Germany and beyond.The quarrel between Wittenberg and Rome escalated rapidly, reaching a certain climax in the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530, presided over by the Emperor Charles V who wanted domestic peace to confront the threat of Turkish invasion. Luther’s little conspiracy had by then grown into a formidable alliance of Protestant princes and states. This alliance presented the Emperor with the so-called Augsburg Confession, the founding document of Lutheranism as a separate church. Turks or no Turks, The Emperor failed in his attempt to reconcile the two parties. The schism became permanent and led to the devastating wars of religion that only came to a fragile end in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. Needless to say, the Reformation has been hailed by Protestants as a great victory for the truth of the Gospel, by Catholics as a catastrophe for European civilization.In the half-millenium since then the religious and cultural differences between the two ecclesial communities have hardened. Yet there have been signs of mellowing, at least since the end of the so-called Kulturkampf in the late 19th century (when Bismarck’s Prussia and later the new German state tried to clamp down on the Catholic Church), and more continuously since the outbreak of the ecumenical movement in the mid-20th century (with its injunction that all Christians should make nice when they meet). There has even been some discussion of whether Protestants and Catholics might jointly commemorate the 2017 anniversary. [Nothing has come of this so far. Instead the Lutheran World Federation will stage its big birthday party by itself—of all places in Windhoek, Namibia, the former German colony in southwest Africa, where there are still a good many black Lutherans, lustily singing “A mighty fortress is our God!”, the hymn composed by Martin Luther himself to become a sort of national anthem of the Reformation.] In 1999, after laboring for several years, a commission of Catholic and Lutheran theologians produced a joint statement on the doctrine of justification, concluding that the differences on this doctrine that had once seemed irreconcilable no longer merited mutual condemnation. [This document proved once again that intellectuals, if so motivated, can find reasons to agree or disagree on almost anything. For example, there was a brief but intriguing movement in Boston academia called “Methodist Confucianism”. The 1999 statement on justification was highly abstract, oblivious to the massive differences between the two communities in actual lived piety. Most Catholic and Lutheran lay people have never heard of this exercise, and would not be interested if they had—they know intuitively what their faith is. Such exercises could be uncharitably called border negotiations between non-existing countries.]The Lutherans were latecomers in the matter of negotiations with Rome. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England had been trying since the early 19th century to get the Vatican to recognize the validity of the Anglican priesthood. This is not the place to go over the often tortured argumentation by which this case was made. Rome kept saying no, but it does so more nicely now. In any case, there is a vocal group of Lutherans in America (and to a lesser extent in Europe) who call themselves “Evangelical Catholics” and who would be quite willing to fall into the arms of the Roman Church (to “go swim in the Tiber”, as the saying goes) if certain concessions were made to them. Eventually most of them make the jump, concessions or no concessions. The major argument here is quite simple: The Reformation was a reform movement in the Western Church, possibly justified at the time (see Tetzel and his magical release cards from purgatory). But the abuses against which the reformers protested are no longer being committed. Therefore, there is no more reason for the schism. This is the argument mainly responsible for the decision of my good friend Richard John Neuhaus to leave Lutheranism and eventually to become a Roman Catholic priest. (See the very thorough and objective biography by Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, 2015. Needless to say, I did not follow his example.)There is of course a historically correct point in this argument: Luther originally had no intention to start a new church; he was driven to this step by the fierce mesures taken against him by the Pope and the Emperor (the former excommunicated him, the latter put him under the “imperial ban”, which meant that anyone could kill him without fear of punishment). But the argument has at least two serious flaws: It basically ignores the fact that the Reformation, far beyond wanting to correct certain abuses, developed a very different basic understanding of the Christian faith and its ecclesial expression. Also, it greatly exaggerates the degree to which Rome has corrected the ideas and practices that troubled the early Protestants (such as the authority of the Pope over the faith, including the power to issue indulgences—to be sure not for sale now, but still extending from this life to the hereafter). What is more, as with the issue of the covenant with Israel, there are some very questionable Scriptural assumptions, this time with regard to the New Testament rather than the Hebrew Bible. Thus it is assumed that Jesus really urged his followers to remain united “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). Most important, it is assumed that Jesus really uttered the “Petrine commission” (Matthew 16:18), saying that he would establish “his church” on the Apostle Peter or (as some Protestant exegetes maintained) on Peter’s confession of faith. I think that most New Testament scholars would hold the notion, that Jesus really spoke these words, thunderously improbable.In sum, we have here two curiously similar forms of “anti-supersessionism”: one denying the profound discontinuities between Judaism and Christianity, the other between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches derived from the Reformation. Both denials, empirically dubious in themselves, are buttressed by Scriptural “proof texts” that are literal if not fundamentalist. This raises important theological issues for Christian believers (such as myself). For others, say happy agnostics or Buddhists who have no personal stake in this, there is yet another reason to be fascinated by the endless curiosities of religion.
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Published on: March 18, 2015
...& Other CuriositiesSupersessionism and All That
Throughout history, movements have sprung up denying the profound discontinuities between Christians and Jews, as well as between Protestants and Catholics.