Augustine’s contribution to the doctrine of supersessionism is significant. James Carroll points out that Augustine’s attitude toward the Jews was rooted in “assumptions of supersessionism.”[i] According to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Augustine (354–430) introduced a “negative element into judgment on the Jews.”[ii] He did so by advancing the “‘theory of substitution’ whereby the New Israel of the church became a substitute of ancientIsrael.”[iii]
In line with supersessionist theology, Augustine explicitly stated that the title “Israel” belonged to the Christian church: “For if we hold with a firm heart the grace of God which hath been given us, we are Israel, the seed of Abraham. . . . Let therefore no Christian consider himself alien to the name of Israel.”[iv] He also said, “The Christian people then is rather Israel.”[v] According to Augustine, when Gentiles believe and become part of the new covenant, their hearts are circumcised and they become part of Israel:
Now what the apostle attributed to Gentiles of this character, how that “they have the work of the law written in their hearts;” must be some such thing as what he says to the Corinthians: “Not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.” For thus do they become of the house of Israel, when their uncircumcision is accounted circumcision. . . . And therefore in the house of the true Israel, in which is no guile, they are partakers of the new testament.[vi]
Concerning Israel’s role in the plan of God, Augustine argued that national Israel prefiguredspiritual Israel—the Christian people:
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob three fathers, and one people. The fathers three, as it were in the beginning of the people; three fathers in whom the people was figured: and the former people itself the present people. For in the Jewish people was figured the Christian people. There a figure, here the truth; there a shadow, here the body: as the apostle says, “Now these things happened to them in a figure.”[vii]
For the most part, Augustine’s supersessionist views were not original. In fact, they were mostly consistent with the patristic tradition that preceded him. Augustine’s most original contribution regarding Israel and the church, however, can be found in his reasons for Israel’s continued existence. During Augustine’s time, the existence of the Jews and Judaism posed an apologetic problem for the church. If the church was the new Israel, for what purpose did national Israel exist?
Augustine offered an answer for this perceived dilemma. For him, the Jews functioned primarily as witnesses. They were witnesses to the faith preached by the prophets, witnesses of divine judgment, and witnesses of the validity of Christianity. He wrote, “But the Jews who slew Him . . . are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”[viii] The Jews, according to Augustine, shielded Christians from accusations that Christians invented Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus. Thus, the existence of non-Christian Jews was not a problem but an essential testimony to the truth of Christianity.
Hood views Augustine’s contribution in this area as “ingenious” because it “provided a foundation for tolerating Jews within a Christian society.”[ix] Augustine’s contention that the Jews were witnesses to Christianity became especially important when the crusades began and the church began to persecute heretics. Hood asserts that Augustine’s views “shielded the Jews of western Europe from the full force of Christendom’s coercive powers.”[x]
Although devoting much of his attention to matters such as free will, original sin, and predestination, Augustine’s views on the Jews and Judaism carried great weight for many years. In fact, Hood asserts that Augustine’s ideas on these matters “dominated the medieval debate.”[xi] This was so “despite the fact that Judaism and the Jews are not major themes in Augustine’s voluminous writings.”[xii] Yet, because Augustine’s writings in the Medieval Era were so revered, his thoughts on any topic, no matter how sparse, were considered important.
[ii] Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “Christianity and Judaism, a Historical and Theological Overview,” in Jews and Christians: Exploring the Past, Present, and Future, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 20.
[vii] Augustine, On the Gospel of St. John 11.8, NPNF¹ 7:77. Augustine also stated, “In that people [the Jews], plainly, the future Church was much more evidently prefigured.” Augustine, On the Catechising of the Uninstructed 19.33, NPNF¹ 3:304. Augustine expressed a supersessionist perspective when he wrote, “But when they [the Jews] killed Him, then though they knew it not, they prepared a Supper for us.” Augustine,Sermons on New Testament Lessons, Sermon 62, NPNF¹ 6:447.
[ix] John Y. B. Hood, Aquinas and the Jews (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 12. Carroll states, “It is not too much to say that, at this juncture, Christianity ‘permitted’ Judaism to endure because of Augustine.” Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 218. See also Jeremy Cohen, “Introduction,” inEssential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict: From Late Antiquity to the Reformation, ed. Jeremy Cohen (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 13–14.