The Importance of Supersessionism to Theology

Written by Michael Vlach.

In recent years, a greater awareness of the relationship between supersessionism and the major categories of Christian theology has developed. R. Kendall Soulen, for example, points out that current perceptions toward supersessionism are “fraught with profound implications for the whole range of Christian theological reflection.”[i] Craig A. Blaising asserts that issues related to supersessionism affect the doctrines of God, anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.[ii] Although it is beyond the purpose of this work to examine fully how supersessionism relates to all aspects of Christian theology, a brief sketch of this relationship will highlight the importance of the supersessionist view to theology. 

 

Doctrine of God

Supersessionism has implications for the doctrine of God because God is described in Scripture as “the God of Israel” and the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[iii] What do these titles mean and what are their implications for national Israel and the church? Clark M. Williamson tries to make a connection between supersessionism and the doctrine of God when he claims that supersessionism has led the church to an idea of God that is closer to Greek thought than to the biblical concept of God: “Because the Christian tradition de-Judaized itself and interpreted itself as both anti- and better-than Jewish, its classical doctrine of God tells us more about pre-Christian, Greek understandings of God than about the living, covenantal God of the Bible.”[iv]

 

Christology

Supersessionism is important to Christology since it affects the significance given to Jesus’ Jewishness and the Jewish titles he carried such as “Messiah” and “Son of David.” Blaising, for instance, believes that supersessionism has not given proper significance to the Jewishness of Jesus:

 

One of the most obvious effects of supersessionism in traditional Christology is the effacement of the Jewishness of Jesus from Christian confession. It is remarkable that the great creeds and confessions of the faith are silent on this point, being satisfied simply with the affirmation of Christ’s humanity. However, in Scripture, not only the Jewishness of Jesus, but his Davidic lineage are central features of the gospel.[v]

 

Others, too, have linked Christology to supersessionism. According to Williamson, “Jesus Christ is . . . the ‘hinge’ upon which the replacement of Jews with Gentile Christians turns.”[vi] James Carroll asserts that, “A new Christology, faithfully based in the Scriptures . . . will in no way support supersessionism.”[vii] These statements by Blaising, Williamson, and Carroll, regardless of their accuracy, highlight the importance of supersessionism to the doctrine of Christology.

 

Soteriology

            In the last century, several churches and denominations have reacted strongly against supersessionism. This reaction has implications for the doctrine of soteriology. Some Christians, in their opposition to supersessionism, have asserted that Jews can be in a right relationship with the God of Israel without placing their faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, some Christians have adopted what is known as “two-covenant theology.” According to this perspective, ethnic Jews are redeemed through their faithfulness to Torah while the mostly Gentile church is accepted by God on the basis of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work.[viii] Eric Gritsch, for example, in a publication of the Lutheran Council in the USA, states that there is no longer any need for a Christian mission to Jews:

 

There really is no need for any Christian mission to the Jews. They are and remain the people of God, even if they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Why this is so only God knows. Christians should concentrate their missionary activities on those who do not yet belong to the people of God, and they should court them with a holistic witness in word and deed rather than with polemical argument and cultural legislation. The long history of Christian anti-Semitism calls for repentance, not triumphalist claims of spiritual superiority.[ix]

 

In this case, a particular reaction against supersessionism has a bearing on the issue of Christian particularity and what Jews must believe to have a relationship with God.

 

Ecclesiology

Supersessionism has an important connection to ecclesiology[x] because it affects how one views the identity of the church and its members. Supersessionists assert that the church is now the true Israel and that its members are the true Jews. Supersessionists also view the church as fulfilling God’s covenants originally made with national Israel. In addition, supersessionism influences how one views the role and mission of the church. According to Edmund P. Clowney, who holds a supersessionist perspective, “This understanding of the church as the new and true Israel in Christ must inspire our mission in the contemporary world.”[xi]

 

Eschatology

Along with ecclesiology, eschatology is the area of doctrine most closely related to supersessionism. With supersessionism there is no expectation concerning a future restoration of national Israel. Thus, there is to be no return of national Israel to its land, no temple, and no special role of service for Israel to the nations. Instead, many of the Old Testament expectations are fulfilled spiritually in the church.

 

Blaising argues that supersessionism fits “hand in hand” with a “spiritual-vision eschatology” in which “earthly life” is viewed “as a symbol of spiritual realities.”[xii] Because a literal restoration of national Israel “would demand a national and political reality in the eschaton” supersessionism coincides with the spiritual-vision eschatology model in “denying a future for Israel.”[xiii] The spiritual vision eschatology model, according to Blaising, is contrasted with “new creation eschatology” in which the physical aspects of the eschaton are given more consideration.[xiv] Those who hold to this latter eschatological model are more likely to posit a future for national Israel.

 

Recent Events

Issues related to supersessionism have become even more significant in light of events of the last century. The Holocaust, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and controversies in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs have pushed questions and issues concerning supersessionism to the forefront of theological discussions. Commenting on the significance of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, Soulen states, “Under the new conditions created by these events, Christian churches have begun to consider anew their relation to the God of Israel and the Israel of God in the light of the Scriptures and the gospel about Jesus.”[xv] This consideration includes a “revisiting [of] the teaching of supersessionism after nearly two thousand years.”[xvi]

The acceptance or rejection of supersessionism may also influence how one views the modern state of Israel and events in the Middle East. Timothy P. Weber, for example, has documented how evangelical dispensationalists, who reject supersessionism, have had a significant impact on how many Americans view Israel.[xvii] These dispensationalists, who believe Israel will one day believe in Jesus Christ and possess the land of Palestine, have offered significant moral and financial support to Israel. In return, significant Israeli leaders have embraced the support of evangelical dispensationalists.[xviii] According to Weber, “The close tie between evangelicals and Israel is important: it has shaped popular opinion inAmerica and, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy.”[xix]



[i] R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), x.

 

[ii] Craig A. Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 44:3 (2001): 443–50.

 

[iii] Williamson writes, “The God of Jesus Christ is the God of Israel, of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, David. Because the Father of Jesus Christ is the God of Israel, Israel is connected with our faith in God; the connection with the people Israel is part of the church’s proclamation of its faith in God. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the identity of the God of the church with the God of Israel.” Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 44.

 

[iv] Ibid., 202–03.

 

[v] Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” 445.

 

[vi] Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, 168.

 

[vii] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 587. See also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 28–37.

 

[viii] For a detailed explanation of two-covenant theology see Michael G. Vanlaningham, “Christ, the Savior of Israel: The ‘Sonderweg’ and Bi-covenantal Controversies in Relation to the Epistles of Paul” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997).

 

[ix] Eric W. Gritsch, “Luther and the Jews: Toward a Judgment of History,” in Luther and the Jews(n.p.: Lutheran Council in the USA, 1995), 9.

 

[x] Diprose views supersessionism as being especially relevant to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology. See Ronald E. Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought (Rome: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000), 4.

 

[xi] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church. Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 163.

 

[xii] Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” 448–49.

 

[xiii] Ibid., 449.

 

[xiv] Ibid.

 

[xv] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, x.

 

[xvi] Ibid. 

 

[xvii] Timothy P. Weber, “How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend,” Christianity Today(October 5, 1998): 39–49.

 

[xviii] Weber gives the example of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the Voices United for Israel Conference in Washington D.C. in April of 1998.  Most of the three thousand attendees at the conference were evangelical dispensationalists. According to Weber, Netanyahu stated, “We have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room.” Weber, “How Evangelicals BecameIsrael’s Best Friend,” 39.

 

[xix] Ibid. 

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