The God of Israel and christian theology – part one

The post-supersessionist proposals of R. Kendall Soulen

On Kendall Soulen’s book ‘The God of Israel and Christian Theology

By: J. Bol

Somewhere in 2007 it became clear to me for the first time how seriously the history of Christendom is laden with anti-Judaism. Since then have the anti-Jewish theology of the early church, the anti-Jewish legislation since Emperor Constantine and the many massacres among the Jews since the crusades raised enormous questions in my mind. The most urgent one was how all this could be reconciled with the Gospel of forgiveness and brotherly love that has become so dear to me since many years. It is hopefully clear that they are irreconcilable. The history of the origin of replacement theology is inextricably linked to the anti-Judaism of the early church. And what are we to think of the reformed theology that has also been dear to me for a very long time? It became clear to me, after much study, that this tradition is also marked by replacement theology that goes back to the early church fathers Justin and Irenaeus – replacement theology that eventually got its definitive form under Augustine, the father of the fathers of the church.

These were extremely shocking discoveries as far as I was concerned. What was wrong, for goodness’ sake, with that splendid Gospel that had so evidently set my own life back on the rails in a positive way years ago, following a deep personal crisis? Or was there nothing wrong with the Gospel but a lot with what the church had made of that Gospel through the centuries? And why did I discover this sad tradition of Christian anti-Judaism this late, at the age of 56, after years of quite extensive study in theology and church history? Plenty of questions!

Looking for an alternative

Diligently, and sometimes almost despairingly, I started looking for a theological model that had to fulfill three conditions as far as I was concerned. First of all, it had to be totally devoid of any kind of replacement theology, or it had at least to testify to its intention to want to radically divest itself thereof. Secondly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the kingdom of God, had to continue to shine in that model. Thirdly, the crown jewels of classical theology – inasmuch as they are able to pass the test of Scripture – had to remain standing in the new theology that was to be formulated. I am thinking in this respect among other things of the incarnation of Jesus, the trinity and the conviction that the Gospel is for the Jew and the Greek. Such a theological concept proved difficult to find. After a lot of research I finally came across a book by the American systematic theologian, R. Kendall Soulen, ‘ The God of Israel and Christian Theology‘. Soulen graduated with this study from the renowned university of Yale, in the U.S., at the beginning of the nineties. His analysis of replacement theology appeared in book form in 1996. This book is a real goldmine for anyone who is searching for a theology that has been able to totally divest itself of replacement theology whilst at the same time striving to remain within the framework of classical confession. Is that possible? Yes, it appears so. Thanks be to God! It is my opinion that this book, which has been much praised by both Christian and Jewish authors in the meantime, fulfills the three afore-mentioned criteria completely.

Theological arguments paramount

It is my strong conviction that Soulen’s profound theological analysis of replacement theology is the most thorough analysis ever carried out. Since Soulen uses the more academic term ‘ supersessionism’ instead of the more familiar’ replacement theology’ I will use both terms alternately in these two articles. Soulen’s knowledge of historical theology is impressive. His theological analysis of supersessionism within the historical context of the history of its origin in the early church is intelligent and balanced. In his analysis of the history of the origin of Christian anti-Judaism, Soulen always keeps away, as far as possible, from the well-known polemic with reference to the Shoah. Furthermore, Soulen in no way underestimates the relationship between the Shoah and the tradition of the ’teaching of contempt (of the Jews)’, but he chooses consciously to construct his reasoning solely upon theological arguments. ( The term ‘ teaching of contempt‘ is coined by the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, most well known by his groundbreaking masterpiece ‘ Jesus and Israel’ published shortly after the second world war. It stands for the classical replacement theology in which all the curses in the O.T. are for the Jews as a cursed people and all the blessings are for the Church as the new Israel).

The following quotation sets the tone for the whole of his book:

Certainly, one can criticize supersessionism on grounds that are not specifically theological. For instance, one might argue on psychological grounds that supersessionism is problematic because it instills feelings of hatred and contempt toward Jews. Yet even if such claims could be proven false, supersessionism would remain problematic on theological grounds. If Christians today are rethinking their traditional theological posture toward the Jewish people, it must be because of the reasoned conviction that in doing so they are more truthful and more faithful to the God whom they worship and confess. To do so merely out of a desire to avoid offense or in a spirit of ” theological reparations” would contribute nothing to the genuine reform of Christian living, and would in the long run contribute only to cynicism and disappointment. Only when recognition of supersessionism’s theological inadequacy stands at the center of the church’s new posture toward the Jewish people are there real grounds to hope for a renewal of Christian theology and Christian living.” ” (p.5).

The book consists of two parts. In the first section Soulen discusses the history of the origin of replacement theology in the early church, i.e. the role of the church fathers Justin and Irenaeus, which he discusses in detail. Soulen rightly regards these two early theologians as the founders of replacement theology. He goes on to describe how supersessionism further developed and what effects it produced in the thinking of four key, representative figures in later Christianity: Kant and Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. Soulen has a plural agenda. He not only explains why supersessionism is theologically untenable and why it has severely complicated the relationship between the church and the synagogue for centuries. He also demonstrates that the early and virtually complete break with Judaism has weakened and damaged the church substantially. In other words: according to Soulen, the church will only gain by divesting itself of the deeply radical, 1,800 year old theological legacy of replacement theology. It is striking that Soulen often appeals to the well-known German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as far as this last point is concerned.

Struggling with the living God

It is impossible to discuss the whole of Soulen’s book within the scope of this article – and even more so because the book is written in a very compact form. It contains an exceptional richness of new insights and astute observations for a book of less than 200 pages. I shall therefore limit myself to a few of his principle ideas.

Soulen begins his book by establishing that Christian theology, from its very outset, has had to deal with the amazingly complex difficulty of confessing the God of Israel while that same Israel apparently does not accept the Gospel of Jesus. The early church solved this problem very quickly by teaching that it was now the new, spiritual Israel. It’s here that the birth of supersessionism must be seen: the church has taken over Israel’s place. Henceforth the Jewish people served primarily to endorse the correctness of Christian theology: ‘look what happens to a people that does not accept the Gospel of Jesus. It goes through life condemned by God.’ That was the teaching and the practice of the church for over 1800 years, until this evil theological dream shattered into pieces by the alarming reality of the Shoah. Next to this it was the foundation of the state of Israel which raised serious questions for the whole concept of replacement theology.

Soulen then goes on to describe how the poverty of classic supersessionism could no longer be hidden after the Holocaust: Christians could do no else but to recognize the relationship between their supersessionism and this diabolical drama – which indeed, praise God, happened more and more during the decades after the Shoah.

I quote Soulen: “Revisiting the teaching of supersessionism after nearly two thousand years, many churches have now publicly confessed that fidelity to the gospel requires the rejection of supersessionism and the affirmation of God’s own unbroken fidelity to the Jewish people. Yet far from bringing the church’s relation to the God of Israel to equilibrium, this confession has thrust the church into new and far-reaching perplexities. For the rejection of supersessionism is fraught with profound implications for the whole range of Christian theological reflection, and the full extent of these implications is still far from fully clear. But perplexities such as these come with the promise of blessing, for they arise out of wrestling with the living God. ” ( p.X)

Which way forward?

With these remarks Soulen broaches a crucial point.. Elsewhere he postulates that supersessionism constitutes part of what he calls the ‘deep grammar’ of classic theology. (p.16) – in other words: when you distance yourself from replacement theology you touch upon something that has colored classical theology to its roots. It is therefore not sufficient to postulate that you, as a church, reject supersessionism as being unscriptural. That is a crucial step, but it is at the same time a step that, in Soulen’s opinion, inevitably demands new reflection upon the whole system of classical theology. That many recoil from this step is understandable. But since the clear, even if indirect, relationship between supersessionism and the Shoah has been brought to light unequivocally by a broad spectrum of theologians, historians and philosophers, there is in fact no way back for the church and for Christian theology. Doing theology without taking account of the Shoah is like practicing astronomy whilst simultaneously ignoring Copernicus. It is not surprising, moreover, that after some fifty years of post-holocaust theology, no broadly supported new consensus has yet emerged concerning the relationship between the church and Israel and the further implications for the whole of (systematic) theology. A theological tradition of over 1800 years of anti-Jewish exegesis and dogma can hardly be completely revised within the relatively short period of fifty years. And reaching a new, broadly based Christian consensus on this matter is even a further step. But this is exactly the situation that churches worldwide have to deal with, and it explains the way we Christians clash with each other regularly, and even painfully from time to time. Since the Shoah and the founding of the state of Israel we as a church with our theology find ourselves worldwide in the midst of a theological turnaround as far as the relationship between the church and Israel is concerned. Doing business is always cumbersome during rebuilding work and this is even more true for the European church which is under huge pressure already for decades now due to the enormous blows of secularization and free-falling church membership. These are not exactly ideal circumstances for a thorough rebuilding of the dogmatic house. It is quite alarming to have to accept the fact that interest for this theological rebuilding project has decreased considerably in Europe over the past twenty years. It is not a coincidence that presently much more promising work seems being done in this respect in the U.S. The U.S. still has both a more vital Christianity and a vital Judaism. Both of them are strongly represented in the chairs of several American universities. That is where you have to be, in principle, for promising renewal theology with reference to the relationship of the church and Israel. ( think of highly interesting publications such as ‘ Christianity in Jewish Terms‘, ‘ Jews and Christians: people of God‘ and Abraham’s Promise; Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations‘ to name a few)

Renewed conversion to the God of Israel

Eighteen centuries of theology right up to this day has been unable to give any substantial place to God’s dealings with the people of Israel in the major church confessions, the majority of current dogmatics and, therefore, in the common teaching on a local church level. This is the awful heritage we Christians are saddled with. One of Soulen’s major motives for writing his book is to repair this terrible theological flaw. Soulen puts this as follows:

At one level, this book is an effort to think through the systematic implications of the church’s new posture toward the God of Israel and the Jewish people. Taking the contemporary’ churches’ rejection of supersessionism as its staring point, the book asks two basic questions: how deeply is supersessionism implicated in the traditional fabric of Christian theology? And how can Christians read the Bible and articulate their most basic convictions in ways that are not supersessionist? In short, how can Christians be really Christian without being triumphalist toward Jews?

At another level, however, the present book seeks to advance a larger systematic argument about the God of Israel and Christian theology in the present time, a time that has sometimes been characterized as ” after Christendom”. The book argues that the integrity of Christian theology after Christendom requires a renewed conversion toward the God of Israel. Such a conversion is necessary, I argue, because Christian theology in its dominant classical and modern forms embodies what is in effect an incomplete conversion toward the the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The crucial marks of that incomplete conversion are a triumphalist posture toward the Jewish people and a latently gnostic assessment of God’s engagement in the realm of public history “ ( p. X)

A coherent Christian faith

As already stated, Soulen’s book consists of two parts: his analysis of the untenability of supersessionism on theological grounds and his proposals for a scripturally acceptable theological alternative. Soulen expounds this further in the following quotation, in which he names one of the four starting points he uses in his discussion of supersessionism. Soulen:

This volume takes as its point of departure the fact that significant parts of the Christian church today reject supersessionism and affirm God’s fidelity to the Jewish people. From there we ask: what are the implications of this new development for the rest of Christian theology? Part One argues that supersessionism has shaped the narrative and doctrinal structure of classical Christian theology in fundamental and systematic ways. Hence the rejection of supersessionism entails the reevaluation of the whole body of classical Christian divinity. Part Two suggests one way in which Christians might reconceive the coherence of Christian theology in a manner that is free of supersessionism yet consonant with the evangelical center of faith – the God of Hebrew Scriptures has acted in Jesus Christ for all the world.

My treatment of the problem of supersessionism and Christian theology is shaped by four central convictions. First, supersessionism raises specifically theological problems about the truth and coherence of Christian faith and must therefore be addressed at the level of systematic theological reflection.” (p.3-4)


The God of Israel

Soulen speaks of ‘four central starting points in the above quotation. It is not feasible to discuss all four within the scope of this article.

I have chosen to zoom in on his first starting point because this offers the possibility of shining the spotlight on some of his basic thoughts. Soulen expounds his first starting point further on p.4 of his book as follows:

Simply put, supersessionism is a specifically theological problem because it threatens to render the existence of the Jewish people as a matter of indifference to the God of Israel. Just in this way, supersessionism introduces a profound note of incoherence into the heart of Christian reflection about God. While it may be possible to imagine a god who is indifferent toward the people of Israel, it is impossible so to imagine the God of the Hebrew scriptures, he God of Israel. If Christians nevertheless claim to worship the God of Israel while teaching God’s indifference toward the people of Israel, they are engaging in a massive theological contradiction. Moreover, they throw the credibility of of the Christian confession into doubt. If the God of Israel is ultimately indifferent even to the bodies of the Jewish people, how seriously can one take the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead? If the God of Israel ordains a salvation in the midst of history that renders the the existence of the Jewish people irrelevant, what can be the power of this salvation to mend the wounds of human history as a whole?” (p. 4)

With this quotation Soulen wants to make it clear that the God the Christians confess is always also the God of Israel. And then he means not only the Israel in the O.T. but Israel in every era and therefore the Jewish people of today as well. Soulen then postulates that a relationship with the God of Israel unavoidably implies a relationship with the Jewish people who are alive now. As is to be expected, in this respect Soulen refers to God’s eternal covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. And, of course, to Romans 11:29 as well: ‘For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable’.

The storyline of the church

The notion of ‘canonical narrative’ occupies a very important place in Soulen’s discussion of supersessionism. It takes some time and effort to grasp this concept because it is new and uncommon when one hears of it for the first time. Soulen postulates that it is of the utmost importance to have an eye for the key role of what he calls ‘the canonical narrative’ if we want to finally rise above the legacy of 1800 years of supersessionism in Christian theology. Soulen gives the following definition of this notion: “A canonical narrative is an interpretive instrument that provides a framework for reading the Christian Bible as a theological and narrative unity.”” (p. 13). The basic thought behind the notion of ‘canonical narrative’ is that the canon of the O.T. and the N.T. does not, in itself, delivers a coherent story or storyline. The canon consists of 66 separate books after all. The great story of God’s plan of salvation for Israel and the nations must therefore be formulated on the basis of, and in harmony with, these canonical manuscripts. A credible story line must be found in this series of 66 books. The canon requires interpretation to this purpose, or, better still, a narrative, a story. It was left to the early church to construct this ‘story’. The early church faced two great challenges. On the one hand it had to manage to position itself, as a newcomer on the religious field of antiquity, with regard to the Gentiles, the Jews and the Gnostics. On the other hand it had to determine for itself the nature of the precise relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures of the Jews – the O.T. – and its own apostolic manuscripts – the N.T. The canonical narrative which the early church formulated, shows the fundamental hermeneutical choice it made in those early ages. A choice by which it decided how the two major constituent parts of the canon, the O.T. and the N.T. hang together and how they form óne book, our Christian Bible.

Four basic elements

Soulen: “A canonical narrative shows how this twofold canon coheres as a single witness to the core confession of Christian faith: the God of Israel has acted in Jesus Christ for all the world. “” (p.13-14)

In the midst of the field of force of the second century the young church had to be able to convincingly lay down its own story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ before the predominantly non-Jewish heathen public in the Roman empire. And this story had to be linked in a credible manner to the holy text of the God of Israel, the O.T. scriptures, which they shared with the Jews. The ‘canonical narrative’ is the basic plan with which the early church mapped out God’s great plan of salvation. It is the plot that enabled Christians to be able to read the multiplicity of the biblical stories within an comprehensible and a consistent mutual connection.

Soulen then postulates that the ‘narrative’ which the early church formulated through the mouth of the church father Irenaeus consists of four basic elements: God’s creation, the Fall, the Coming of Jesus and the Coming into being of the church and the End of the age. The first two parts together take up Genesis 1 to 3. Then we find the coming of Jesus and the church from Mt.1 onwards and we meet up with the end in the last chapters of Revelation. Then Soulen goes on to make a very crucial observation: the whole of God’s unique specific dealing with the people of Israel from Genesis 12 up to and including Malachi disappears within this narrative completely into the background. The narrative of the early church is the great story of God’s plan of salvation for the whole of humanity and the whole of creation. God’s specific dealings with Israel – more or less the whole of the Old Testament – is being relocated into the background in this narrative. It only serves as a preparation of the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Israel’s role is finished, in effect, after Jesus’ coming. What takes center stage now is God’s great plan of salvation for the world, for Jews and Greeks. This ‘narrative’ or story line proved to be ideally suited to evangelize the heathen world of that time with enormous success.

Structural replacement theology

According to Soulen we find this basic fourfold scheme of creation, the fall, salvation and the end in all the important classical confessions, in countless dogmatics and in almost all catechism material. This is indeed very noticeable and the consequences can be found everywhere. Right up until today the Jewish people are invariably overlooked in most Christian publications.

Soulen distinguishes between three types of replacement theology: economic, punitive and structural. The economic variant teaches simply that Israel’s preparatory role in God’s great plan of salvation is finished with the coming of Jesus and the church. The punitive variant teaches that Israel fell outside the covenant because they had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah and even killed Him (deicide). The (new) covenant has now therefore been transferred to the new Israel, the church. These two variants are sufficiently well known.

According to Soulen the structural replacement theology variant has however ploughed the deepest furrows in classical theology from Irenaeus (200) till around 1950.

Soulen: “To grasp supersessionism as a structural problem, consider the following. The standard canonical narrative turns on four key episodes: God’s intention to consummate the first parents whom God has created, the fall, Christ’s incarnation and the inauguration of the church, and final consummation. These four episodes play a uniquely important role in the standard model because together they constitute the model’s basic plot or story line. They relate how God’s work as Consummator and as Redeemer engage human creation in ways that have universal and lasting significance. ” (p.31)

Soulen calls these four basic episodes the ‘foreground’ of the narrative. In this ‘foreground’ God’s dealings with His creation are worded in cosmic and universal terms. Christ is the incarnation of the eternal Logos in this narrative. Humanity is set down as the descendant of the first parental pair, with a universal human nature.

Soulen: “Second, the foreground completely neglects the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of Genesis-1-3 ! The story tells how God engaged Adam and Eve as Consummator and how God’s initial consummating plan was almost immediately disrupted by the fall. The foreground story then leaps immediately to the Apostolic Witness interpreted as God’s deliverance of humankind from the fall through Jesus Christ. So conceived, God’s purposes as Consummator and Redeemer engage human creation in a manner that simply outflank the greater part of the Hebrew Scriptures and, above all, their witness to God’s history with the people of Israel. ” (pag. 31-32) The story of God’s dealings with Israel disappears into the narrative’s background according to Soulen. Soulen then concludes: “As a result, God’s identity as the God of Israel and God’s history with the Jewish people become largely indecisive for the Christian conception of God” (p.33)

With this Soulen makes is clear once again that replacement theology does not exclusively affect the relationship with the Jewish people. It also affects our view of God and thus our relationship with God Himself.

I hope to have awoken your interest in this important American theologian with this first article about

Soulen’s book. In my next article I hope to delve deeper into the second section of his book.,In that section Soulen expounds an alternative theological model: a model in which God’s dealings with Israel are brought prominently to the fore.