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The Society for Post-Supersessionist Theology – a recap


Mark the date. November 16, 2018.

Meeting just before the annual meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature in Denver, leading theologians have inaugurated a society to promote post-supersessionist theology.

I was delighted to be able to attend this session, and would like to post what I heard.

Their mission statement, among other things, defines post-supersessionism as ‘a family of theological perspectives that affirms God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people as a central and coherent part of ecclesial teaching.’ As the session ran on, it became clear what a massive statement that was, reaching down to the very foundations of Christian history and what Christianity is.

Holly Taylor Coolman (Providence College), a Catholic theologian, spoke first. She reminded us of the tragic story of Eduardo Mortara, who was baptised as an infant by his nanny and then declared to be a Christian who under law had to be given a Christian education. Eventually he was raised by Pope Pius IX himself, but in reality the fact that he was effectively kidnapped by the church caused much troubled soul searching. While a tragedy that will probably never be forgotten by the Jewish community, at least it was part of what paved the way to Nostra Aetate – the much more progressive statement of the Roman church on its relations with other ‘Non-Christian Religions’.

Coolman’s 10-minutes were followed by a stimulating and enlightening presentation by Willie J. Jennings (Yale). Jennings stated (if I get it right) that ‘we have contoured the features of our Christian witness in a profoundly problematic way’ and characterised Christianity as ‘imperialist to its bone’ and guilty of ‘theological hubris’. Thus whereas gentiles were originally a question for Israel, now they have become a problem for Israel. He questions how the church could discuss such lofty things as the Trinity and Divine nature of Jesus and at the same time speak of the Jewish people in such horrific ways. In all of this, the experience of the Jews raises issues of racism, and there is much work to be done to work through these issues.

Gerald McDermott (Beeson) gave an autobiographical account tied to his growth in understanding of the Scriptures as he began his journey as a supersessionist who interpreted the new ‘tenants’ of Matt 21 as the church. His wake up call caused him to realise that he had been ‘trained to miss’ that God reaches the Universal [the world] through the Particular [Israel]. McDermott quoted God’s ‘irrevocable’ covenant with Israel in Rom 11:28. He pointed out the importance of the word ‘and’ in Gal 6:16. Returning to Matt 21 he identified the ‘new tenants’ as the Messianic leaders, as in Matt 19 the Twelve Apostles are the ones who sit on thrones in His kingdom, the reference to the twelve tribes pointing to the restoration of Israel. As seen in Acts 1:6, Jesus believed in the future of Israel.

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Mark Kinzer proceeded to point out that historically, if Jews who became Christians were no longer to be considered Jews, then how could the Church be both Jew and gentile? Kinzer pointed to his bilateral ecclesiology, most notably put forth in his 2005 book Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism. Kinzer pointed out that there is a need for a Jewish expression of faith in Jesus that lives within God’s irrevocable covenant with Israel and respects Jewish tradition and norms.

Anders Runesson (University of Oslo) spiritedly stressed the huge diversity of stakeholders in this discussion, and the problems in Christian theology which has been characterised by triumphalism, antagonism, and fear. Pointing to a solution, he suggested the importance of exegetical ground rules. Historical reality resides outside the denominational framework. There is a need to speak across boundaries. Exegesis helps us to uncover the past, and to uncover the radical Jewishness of Christian texts – as Jewish texts (personal note: I have been impressed by Runesson’s published work on this very theme). Against the background of recent history there is great need for this post-supersessionist theology. Success will depend on how we respond to the diversity within our unity.

The last speaker was Adam Gregerman (St. Joseph’s University). Responding with questions from a Jewish perspective, he asked that if Christians affirm God’s ongoing covenant with Israel, should they not recognise that that covenant has specific provisions such as the promise of a Land, that have practical implications. He also asked whether Messianic Judaism is itself supersessionist in that it holds that all Jews should believe in the Messiahship of Jesus as it does. And then – is the conversion of Jews desirable for post-supersessionist Christianity?

I hope that this short sketch of the presentations at the first meeting of the Society for Post-Supersessionist Theology is somewhat accurate. The air conditioning was loud and I had difficulties in hearing everything. My wife says I need a hearing aid! My impression is that the Society will be a welcome forum for the Christian world as a whole to come to terms with the implications of its general renunciation of supersessionist (some say replacement) theology. The implications are deep and wide ranging as well as historical, reaching to the earliest decades of the Church. The society has the potential not only to advance reassessment of ancient assumptions, but also to greatly affect Christian-Jewish relations for the good of both parties.

3 Responses

  1. It sounds as if they are seeking to distance themselves from a long-time mistaken viewpoint, and I suppose it’s a little late in the game to recommend that they seek a “pre-supersessionist” theology rather than a post-supersessionist one. The latter offers an advantage, I suppose, of being able to learn from prior mistakes; though perhaps the former might allow development of a truly radical first-century Jewish view.

    As CS Lewis observed, when one has made a mistake in arithmetic, one must work backwards to find where the mistake was made in order to undo it and move onward from there — one does not try simply to continue from the discovery of the mistake in the false hope that something will work out. In this case of theology for non-Jewish disciples of haRav Yeshua, what is needed truly must begin in the first century CE, before the Hurban and the expression among non-Jewish disciples of an endemic Roman antipathy toward Jews such as we see in Ignatius’ 2nd-century Letter to the Magnesians, and even a couple of hints of it in the Didache and certainly in the subsequent Apostolic Constitutions.

    On the other hand, even the Jewish notion of messiah was not as fully developed in the first century as it has come to be now 20 centuries later. Thus even a pre-supersessionist theology would require further development to accommodate subsequent Jewish thought and avoid becoming yet another kind of supersessionism.

    Nevertheless, this sounds like a challenging opportunity fundamentally to re-examine theology (e.g., non-Trinitarian considerations of the Shm’a and Is.45), ecclesiology (e.g., relationships between Torah-observant Jews and non-idolatrous non-Jews as advanced Noahides), soteriology (e.g., continual repentance and symbolic sacrificial atonement to accomplish spiritual redemption and renewal in light of a “kingdom-of-heaven” worldview) and messianology, particularly examining Rav Yeshua’s apparent view of Daniel 9 son-of-man messianism, the notions of ben-Yosef and ben-David messianic roles and functions, and perhaps individual emulation of the messianic tzadikian example. I’m sure someone reading this can think of additional examples for each of these theological categories and others.

  2. Thanks, Daniel, for preserving the entirety of your two postings as a single continuous report with a common set of comments (though so far it has comprised just the two of us). I hope soon to read some new presentations from this Society, not as further discussions of past supersessionism or its repudiated results, but rather in the form of fresh theological developments that are untouched by it. The present discussions were necessary to define the characteristics and purposes of the Society, but I hope its members can now move forward without further reference to them.

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