Three Categories of Supersessionism

Written by Michael Vlach.

While all supersessionists affirm that the church has permanently superseded nationalIsrael as the people of God, there is room for variations within supersessionism. Three major forms of supersessionism that have been recognized are punitive supersessionism, economic supersessionism, and structural supersessionism. 

 

Punitive Supersessionism

 “Punitive” or “retributive” supersessionism emphasizes Israel’s disobedience andpunishment by God as the reason for its displacement as the people of God. As Gabriel J. Fackre explains, this form of supersessionism “holds that the rejection of Christ both eliminates Israel from God’s covenant love and provokes divine retribution.”[1] With punitive supersessionism, according to R. Kendall Soulen, “God abrogates God’s covenant with Israel. . . on account of Israel’s rejection of Christ and the gospel.”[2] Because the Jews reject Christ, “God in turn angrily rejects and punishes the Jews.”[3]

 

Belief in punitive supersessionism was common in the Patristic Era. Hippolytus (c. 205), for example, promoted punitive supersessionism when he declared: 

And surely you [the Jews] have been darkened in the eyes of your soul with a darkness utter and everlasting. . . . Furthermore, hear this yet more serious word: “And their back do you bend always.” This means, in order that they may be slaves to the nations, not four hundred and thirty years as in Egypt, nor seventy as in Babylon, but bend them to servitude, he says, “always.”[4]

 

Origen (c. 185–254), too, espoused a form of punitive supersessionism: “And we say with confidence that they [the Jews] will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind. . . .”[5] Lactantius (c. 304–313) also asserted that the Jews were abandoned by God because of their disobedience:

 

For unless they [the Jews] did this [repent], and laying aside their vanities, return to their God, it would come to pass that He would change His covenant, that is, bestow the inheritance of eternal life upon foreign nations, and collect to Himself a more faithful people out of those who were aliens by birth. . . . On account of these impieties of theirs He cast them off forever.[6]

 

Punitive supersessionism was also held by Martin Luther. For him, the destruction ofJerusalem was proof of God’s permanent rejection of Israel:

 

“Listen, Jew, are you aware that Jerusalem and your sovereignty, together with your temple and priesthood, have been destroyed for over 1,460 years?”. . . For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they assuredly have erred and gone astray. . . . Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.[7]

 

Economic Supersessionism

A second form of supersessionism is economic supersessionism. According to Soulen, economic supersessionism is the view that “carnal Israel’s history is providentially ordered from the outset to be taken up into the spiritual church.”[8] With this form of supersessionism, national Israel corresponds to Christ’s church in a merely prefigurative and carnal way. Thus, Christ, with His advent, “brings about the obsolescence of carnal Israel and inaugurates the age of the spiritual church.”[9] With economic supersessionism, Israel is not replaced primarily because of its disobedience but rather because its role in the history of redemption expired with the coming of Jesus. It is now superseded by the arrival of a new spiritual Israel—the Christian church.

 

Allegedly, the key figure in bringing about this expiration of national Israel’s role in redemptive history is Jesus Christ. According to Rudolf Bultmann, “The new aeon has dawned in the Christ-event.”[10] As a result, “The people of God, the true Israel, is present in the Christian community.”[11] Because of this “Christ-event,” the people of God is no longer an “empirical historical entity.”[12]

 

Economic supersessionism, according to Soulen, “logically entails the ontological, historical, and moral obsolescence of Israel’s existence after Christ.”[13] With his coming, Jesus, the ultimate Israelite, fulfills all God’s plans and promises regarding Israel. All those who are in Jesus, then, are the true Israel. This is the approach of Vern S. Poythress: 

 

Because Christ is an Israelite and Christians are in union with Christ, Christians partake of the benefits promised to Israel and Judah in Jeremiah. With whom is the new covenant made? It is made with Israel and Judah. Hence it is made with Christians by virtue of Christ the Israelite. Thus one might say that Israel and Judah themselves undergo a transformation at the first coming of Christ, because Christ is the final, supremely faithful Israelite. Around him all true Israel gathers.[14]

 

Several early church fathers espoused economic supersessionism.[15] Melito of Sardis, for example, declared: “The people [Israel] was precious before the church arose, and the law was marvelous before the gospel was elucidated. But when the church arose and the gospel took precedence the model was made void, conceding its power to the reality . . . . The people was made void when the church arose.”[16] A more recent advocate of economic supersessionism is Karl Barth.[17] He stated:

 

The first Israel, constituted on the basis of physical descent from Abraham, has fulfilled its mission now that the Saviour of the world has sprung from it and its Messiah has appeared. Its members can only accept this fact with gratitude, and in confirmation of their own deepest election and calling attach themselves to the people of this Saviour, their own King, whose members the Gentiles are now called to be as well. Its mission as a natural community has now run its course and cannot be continued or repeated.[18]

 

In line with an economic supersessionist viewpoint, N. T. Wright asserts that “Israel’s purpose had come to its head in Jesus’ work.”[19] As a result “Those who now belonged to Jesus’ people . . . claimed to be the continuation of Israel in a new situation.”[20] Wright also argues that, “Jesus intended those who responded to him to see themselves as the true, restoredIsrael.”[21]

 

Structural Supersessionism

Soulen argues that there is a third form of supersessionism—structural supersessionism. This is a deeper form of supersessionism than both the punitive and economic positions, he claims, because it involves how the unity of the Christian canon has been understood:

 

The problem of supersessionism in Christian theology goes beyond the explicit teaching that the church has displaced Israel as God’s people in the economy of salvation. At a deeper level, the problem of supersessionism coincides with the way in which Christians have traditionally understood the theological and narrative unity of the Christian canon as a whole.[22]

 

Whereas punitive and economic supersessionism are “explicit doctrinal perspectives,” structural supersessionism concerns how the standard canonical narrative as a whole has been perceived.[23] According to Soulen, “Structural supersessionism refers to the narrative logic of the standard model whereby it renders the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about how God’s works as Consummator and as Redeemer engage humankind in universal and enduring ways.”[24]

Soulen argues that the standard canonical narrative model, which the church has accepted since Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, turns on four key episodes: (1) God’s intention to create the first parents; (2) the fall; (3) Christ’s incarnation and the inauguration of the church; and (4) the final consummation.[25] He says two facts stand out from the narrative content of this standard model.

 

First, the foreground of this standard model emphasizes God’s engagement with human creation in “cosmic and universal terms.”[26] Second, the foreground of this model “completely neglects the Hebrew Scriptures with the exception of Genesis 1–3!”[27] The standard model tells how God engaged Adam and Eve as Consummator and how God’s consummating plan for them was disrupted at the fall. The story, however, then “leaps to the Apostolic Witness” and the “deliverance of humankind from the fall through Jesus Christ.”[28] Thus, according to Soulen, 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.”[29] What is the result of this leap over the Hebrew Scriptures? God’s identity as the God of Israel and his history with the Jewish people “become largely indecisive for the Christian conception of God.”[30]

 

Soulen’s assertion that the church fathers completely neglected the vast majority of the Old Testament witness is certainly an overstatement. The church fathers did indeed grapple with the Old Testament on many occasions. Yet it may be valid to argue that there is a lack of treatment from the fathers concerning national Israel’s role in God’s plan as explained in the Old Testament. According to Craig A. Blaising, the “structural nature of supersessionism” has established “the deep set tradition of excluding ethnic, national Israel from the theological reading of Scripture.”[31] 



[1] Gabriel J. Fackre, Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 148.

 

[2] R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 30.

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Hippolytus, Treatise Against the Jews 6, ANF 5.220.

 

[5] Origen, Against Celsus 4.22, ANF 4.506.

 

[6] Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.11, ANF 7.109.

 

[7] Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in LW 47:138–39. See also WA 53:418.

 

[8] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 181, n. 6.

 

[9] Ibid., 29.

 

[10] Rudolf Bultmann, “Prophecy and Fulfillment,” in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann, trans. James C. G. Greig (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1969), 71.

 

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Soulen, 30. Dubois writes, “Now that the messiah has come, the church—versus Israel—has taken the place of the ‘old’ Israel and the Jewish people no longer has any reason to occupy the historic landof Israel.” Marcel J. Dubois, “Israel and Christian Self-Understanding,” in Voices From Jerusalem: Jews and Christians Reflect on the Holy Land, eds. David Burrell and Yehezkel Landau (New York: Paulist, 1992), 65. Emphasis in original.

 

[14] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2d. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994), 106. See also John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1972), 106–07.

 

[15] Pelikan points out that Genesis 49:10 was sometimes used by the early fathers as evidence that the “historic mission of Israel” came to an “end with the coming of Jesus.” Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), vol. 1, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 56; Cf. Justin, First Apology 32, ANF 1:173.

 

[16] Melito of Sardis, On Pascha, trans. S. G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 21.

 

[17] According to Soulen, “Barth’s theology of consummation embodies the logic of economic supersessionism as clearly as any in the history of the church. The incarnation brings Israel’s history to a conclusion in principle, after which Israel’s sole legitimate destiny is to be absorbed into the spiritual church.” Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 92–93.

 

[18] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 584.

 

[19] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 457.

 

[20] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 457. Emphasis in original. According to Wright, these who make up the redefined Israel were able to draw upon Israel’s images, read Israel’s Scriptures and “fulfil Israel’s vocation on behalf of the world” (457–58).

 

[21] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 316. Emphasis in original.

 

[22] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 33.

 

[23] Ibid., 181, n. 6.

 

[24] Ibid.

 

[25] Ibid., 31.

 

[26] Ibid.

 

[27] Ibid.

 

[28] Ibid., 32.

 

[29] Ibid.

 

[30] Ibid., 33.

 

[31] Craig A. Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44:3 (2001): 442.

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