Oct 10, 2011

Putting the Super in "Supersessionism"

What the heck is supersessionism you ask? It's kind of like a replacement theology buzzword mainly attributed to Christianity's superseding of Judaism.  Fun, huh? 

Here's another way to describe supersessionism: "Replacement Theology." According to Walter C. Kaiser, a really interesting Old Testament theologian that I had lunch with once and was forever fascinated by his resemblance to 1940's comedian Ed Wynn, “Replacement theology ... declared that the Church, Abraham’s spiritual seed, had replaced national Israel in that it had transcended and fulfilled the terms of the covenant given to Israel, which covenant Israel had lost because of disobedience.”1 If you would imagine, such a definition is not too popular in Israel.  

Many Christians I talk with have no idea what to make of Israel. Is Israel saved? Chosen? Hellbound? Confused? Destined? Should we support them? Are they ever going to become Christians? With so much anti-semitism in the world, supersessionism is something we Christians need to address with delicate care and thoughtfulness. If you are of the Christian faith, how do you explain Israel? Do you see them simply replaced with the New Israel of Christianity? Do you seem them as equally saved in their own personal understanding of faith? Here's one of my favorite theologians on the subject. Good ol' Karl Barth. Read this fun-filled quote: 



"The election of grace as the election of Jesus Christ, is simultaneously the eternal election of the one community of God by the existence of which Jesus Christ is to be attested to the whole world and the whole world summoned to faith in Jesus Christ. This one community of God in its form as Israel has to serve the representation of the divine judgment, in its form as the Church the representation of the divine mercy. In its form as Israel it is determined for hearing, and in its form as the Church for believing the promise sent forth to man. To the one elected community of God is given in the one case its passing, and in the other its coming form."2 

Barth's view blessed Israel by providing Christians a healthier, more positive understanding of Israel's place in the Judeo-Christian worldview.  For Barth, the Jews are the chosen people of God and nothing may alter that truth. They remain as an example of those who reject their own election. He sees their existence functioning as a sign of a people living in disobedience. Christ, as the Elect One of God, whose elect people are the Church--made up of both Jew and Gentile, is the culmination of all human history, as well as Israel's history. Eventually, the first Israel, those who rebel against their election, will accept Christ as Messiah in human history and their destiny will be taken up into the Church, the New and True Israel. Now doesn't that seem easy to understand? I'm pretty sure I don't know what I just wrote. Anyway, ...

In no way does Barth see Israel as being rejected by God for their disobedience. That idea has another fancy term called Punitive Supersessionism. Barth believes Israel to be the very "visible and tangible" (3) evidence to the existence of God. The very fact that they have survived throughout the generations with so many trials and persecutions is a literal miracle. Yet, for Barth, Israel's main role came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although his view of supersessionism is gentler and kinder than many of his predecessors and contemporaries, it still stings a bit with a negative outlook toward Israel coupled with a slight taste of universalism.

Here's one last thought on the subject from Barth, that I love:

"The new Israel is not (like the old Israel) a “nation,” a natural society . . . but a people gathered solely by the preaching of the Word and the free election and calling of the Spirit. The first Israel, constituted on the basis of physical descent from Abraham, has fulfilled its mission now that the Savior of the world has sprung from it and its Messiah has appeared."4

I may not readily buy into all of Barth's view on the Nation of Israel for I simply struggle with their rejection of Christ. Yet, even as I say that, I know that God's promise still stands regardless of our inability to keep up our end of the covenant. After visiting Israel twice I believe wholeheartedly that they are a peculiar people. As for their place in the Kingdom of God, I think St. Paul said it perfectly: "I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew." Romans 11: 1-2 

All of that is to say that God is faithful even when we are not. Any Jewish person can come to a saving faith in Christ. Each person has that opportunity presented to them--whether they are Jewish, French, or even from Trona. 

That's enough Barth for now ... I'm off to play the Battlefield 3 Demo.  


1.  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “An Assessment of ‘Replacement Theology’: The Relationship Between the Israel of the Abrahamic–Davidic Covenant and the Christian Church,” Mishkan 21 (1994): 9.

2.  Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 195.

3.  Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G. T. Thompson (London: SCM, 1949), 75.

4. Barth, CD III/2, 584.