What’s So Super about Supersessionism?

“So in other words, you don’t believe that the Jewish faith has any validity?”

“No, not any more. They blew it when they denied Christ.”

This snippet of a conversation I had with my friend Jack the other day highlights a Christian doctrine called Supersessionism.  In a little bit more than a nutshell, here is a description of this doctrine, as found on the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies website.

Part I: What is supersessionism?

The word “supersessionism” comes from the Latin super (“on,” “upon,” or “above”) and sedere (“to sit”), as when one person sits on another person’s chair, thereby displacing the other person. Christian theological supersessionism — as espoused, for example, by Augustine (5th century) and Martin Luther (16th century) — makes the claim that, following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians replaced Jews in God’s love and favor and in the divine plan of salvation. According to the supersessionist view, God repudiated the Jewish people for their rejection of Christ. As a result, God’s covenantal relationship with Israel was abrogated, to be taken up by the Church; and the Mosaic Law (Torah) was annulled, to be replaced by the law of Christ. Christians inherited all the promises of God to Israel in the Bible; Jews retained all the Bible’s prophetic criticism and condemnation. Jewish biblical interpretation was discounted, and the “Old Testament” was assigned only a provisional validity. Judaism came to be regarded as merely a historical and social entity at best, and, at worst, a dead faith, the victim of a Pharisaic-rabbinic obsession with legalistic piety.

In supersessionist theology Jesus’ ministry is understood as having been in direct opposition to Judaism. In consequence, Jesus is completely removed from his first-century Jewish context, and he becomes the primary obstacle between Christians and Jews.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that I don’t agree with my friend nor with this doctrine. But why? Well, the same good folk at the ICJS explain the reasons rather well.

Part II: Why is supersessionism a problem?

Implied in the claim that Christians displaced Jews in the covenant with God is the notion that Jews should stop being Jews and become Christians. This ideology undergirds a “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism that has marred relations between Christians and Jews for two millennia. Over the centuries anti-Judaic attitudes buttressed by displacement theology have produced evil fruit: legislation designed to discriminate against and suppress the Jews, and open acts of violence — forced baptism, child stealing, population expulsions, and murderous pogroms. Habits of hatred ultimately paved the way for the Nazis’ “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”

The supersessionist theology that created so many burdens for Jews has proved to be a problem for Christians as well. Supersessionism distorted Christian doctrine as it developed in the early Church. It continues to influence much contemporary Christian theology and is continually reinforced by the preaching and teaching presented in many churches. To our shame, moreover, supersessionist attitudes have fostered among Christians demonstrably un-Christian behavior.

Supersessionist theology raises crucial questions that a responsible Christianity cannot afford to ignore. For example, if Jews have been displaced in the divine plan of salvation, how do Christians account for Judaism’s continuing existence and for the many faithful and theologically profound people who have been a part of the Jewish community? If a newer revelation displaces an older one, hasn’t Christianity been displaced by Islam? Most significantly, what does supersessionist theology imply about the morality and faithfulness of God? If God’s promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the people Israel could be nullified by the coming of Jesus Christ, what guarantee do Christians have that God’s promises to anyone are reliable? The glaring weaknesses in displacement theology ought to make it obvious to Christians everywhere that supersessionism must be abandoned.

Amen! I then found some scriptural arguments against supersessionism on Nabion, a Jewish website.  You might be surprised at their “Christian” take on this:

The early Christians, or the sect of Nazarenes as the Jewish element was called, believed correctly that Christianity was the fulfillment of all that was foretold by Moses and all the prophets. Thus it was a fulfillment of their own religion’s expectations and not its destroyer. Once again, ever since the words of Moses there was the prediction that “that prophet” would come, and that the people were to hearken unto him or vengeance would be taken. This was elaborated upon through prophets for close to 1,500 years. Daniel was even given a complex cipher to peg the arrival of the Messiah, the Prince. His was one of the last direct prophecies and, interestingly, one to make sure that Messiah and Prince were conflated so that there should be no confusion that the one proclaimed to come from the heritage of David was one and the same with the Saviour.

But no where did it say this Messiah would destroy Judaism. Matthew 5 “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

Thus thousands upon thousands of Jews believed that he came when they saw the ministry of Jesus or when they heard the preaching of the Apostles. All were dumbfounded (including the apostles) when they heard that the Gentiles were also believing and even actively seeking the message of Jesus the Christ. Yet at the same time many of the Jews were amazed, as were the Gentiles, that Israel, on the whole, would not believe. This was a great concern for both groups, and it can be found as the underlying theme of some of Paul’s dissertations in his epistles. If Christ is the Saviour of the world, why aren’t his own people embracing him and rejoicing?

I know a lot of people really buy into this whole replacement theology thing. But what’s the point? How accurate is it? Is the infinite God really that structurally rigid that he lays out salvation the way a business person lays out her Daytimer? Has it amounted to anything other than the source of centuries of grief?

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  1. #1 by Christian Beyer on October 7, 2009 - 10:04 am

    Christianity is less about belief in the identity of Christ than it is about the experience of God. Even the demons recognize the Christ. To be a member of Israel one also has to follow His commandments, which includes submission to the authority which He established and the reception of His Holy Mysteries.

    Agreed. So in effect (of course) Israel is a metaphor for the Church which is not an institution but a metaphor for those who are in communion and accordance with God. Which can also include those who are not “Jewish” nor “Christian”. And may exclude members from both of those groups.

    As for covenants, I don’t doubt that in order for us to benefit from the goodness that God has provided us already through his limitless love and grace, that we must ‘agree’ to certain conditions, conditions which may be summed up in the summation of all God’s laws and and prophets throughout the world, a summation that is not exclusive to the Abrahamic faiths.

  2. #2 by Alex on October 7, 2009 - 12:32 pm

    “conditions which may be summed up in the summation of all God’s laws and and prophets throughout the world, a summation that is not exclusive to the Abrahamic faiths.”

    I’m not sure what this means.

  3. #3 by Christian Beyer on October 7, 2009 - 12:35 pm

    Treat others as you would want to be treated. Love God through loving others.

  4. #4 by alex on October 8, 2009 - 11:49 am

    This is certainly a commandment from G-d, but you are leaving out a significant amount of what we are taught in the NT by the L-rd and His Apostles which contain instruction for our salvation and participation in the Covenant.

    • #5 by Christian Beyer on October 8, 2009 - 1:54 pm

      It is not just another commandment from God, it is THE commandment from God. At least according to Jesus. It seems as if what he is saying is that if this is all that we do then we are doing all that is required. And what does a person look like who is ‘there’ (or maybe pretty close)?

      What else are you referring to, that is necessary for our salvation?

  5. #6 by David on December 26, 2009 - 11:45 pm

    I don’t want to intrude into the discussion except to clarify a couple of points about Nabion. Nabion exists to witness to all Jews and safeguard Jews entering Messianism from absorbtion. It does not accept Supersessionism at all. However, it teaches plainly that Jesus is “God with Us” and therefore to deny him is to deny our Father and the Covenant, which carries terrible judgment, as Moses warned. However, believing that Jesus is the Messiah does not conflict with being Jewish or Judaism. It is, actually, intricately a part of what God intended.

    Judaism and Christianity parted after several rifts, one beginning with Nazarenes abandoning Jerusalem before it was cut off by the Romans. Then Christianity became quite Greek, which caused rifts to the point there was little communication between Nazarenes and Greek Christians. Jerome, however, noted that Nazarene congregations still existed, one in Borea, where he visited and got a copy of the Aramaic gospel he believed to be Matthew’s original.

    Messianic Jews largely hold to early teachings, and do not Judaize (some definitely do!). However, they do not tolerate being Gentilized either. Often Gentile culture is touted as one and the same as believing in Jesus.

    I hope this helps.

  6. #7 by Son of Norris on December 29, 2009 - 10:14 pm

    This is all wahnsinn….Jew this, Gentile that…are we still speaking about the body of Christ? I highly doubt it…because in the body of Christ there is neither Jew or Goy (Gentile) Galatians 3:28. Let’s not get mixed up with Darby/Scofield Zionist Garbage desperately touting that the broken off branch is still special somehow. You are either in Christ or not at all!

  7. #8 by Christian Beyer on December 29, 2009 - 10:42 pm

    !?

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