Among recent Christian attempts at a theology of the election of Israel, Scott Bader–Saye’s book must be accounted one of the better efforts; indeed, where it specifically addresses the theology of election, one of the best. In seeking to frame an account of God’s everlasting covenant with Israel that avoids all the familiar paths of supersessionism (the teaching that the Church has simply supplanted Israel as God’s chosen people), while also preserving intact the Christian understanding of what has been revealed in Christ, Bader–Saye proves himself an able biblical exegete. Moreover, he makes a strong case for a particular style of Christian politics, one firmly at odds with the tradition of “Christian realism” and with every species of accommodation. All this said, though, it is questionable whether the various parts of his argument quite hang together.
Christian thought is confronted today by two enormous historical facts, Bader–Saye argues: the collapse of Christendom and the Holocaust. In the aftermath of these events it is incumbent upon theology both to consider anew what sort of politics the Church should embody and to recognize how grossly the tradition of Christian supersessionism distorts the biblical doctrine of election, according to which Israel and the Church belong to one covenant whose terms encompass every area of human existence, including the political. Happily, Bader–Saye believes, each of these tasks illuminates the other.
He begins by distancing himself from theologians like John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas who tend to speak of the Church in terms of the polis. It is rather Israel, as constituted by the Abrahamic covenant, that alone provides theology with the proper model for its politics, and it is only the continuing particularity of Israel as the true people of the promise that provides the Church with the unique reality of its political vocation. As Bader–Saye properly notes, Milbank’s metaphysics leaves small room for the permanent uniqueness of Israel or the historical particularity of election, and Hauerwas is occasionally given to asking the question of Christian practice in terms still too abstract and Kantian in form (“What should I do?”).
Bader–Saye draws instead upon the work of Jewish theologians—principally David Novak and Michael Wyschogrod—who have attempted to recall Jewish thought to the centrality of the doctrine of Israel’s election, and to a recognition that it is God’s election of the Jews (and not the reverse) that constitutes Israel’s identity and salvific presence in the world. From Novak he takes the lesson that, insofar as Israel is established first by God’s promise, and only long thereafter possesses a land, its election can be “on behalf of” and “a blessing of” the nations rather than a judgment simply passed against them. God’s love of Israel will have its final consummation in a day when the restored Jerusalem will embrace all flesh; Israel’s election has as its end the peace of all creation. From Wyschogrod he learns the importance of the “carnality” of election: that the covenant that saves (and that redounds to the redemption of the world) is with the very flesh of Israel.
Christian thought forgot these things. As the age of the apostles passed, the predominantly gentile Church began to think of its incorporation into Christ not as God’s gracious marriage of the nations to the saving flesh of Israel, but as the displacement of one covenant by another. In the West, election slowly ceased to be imagined in terms of God shaping for Himself a particular people with a particular vocation, and came to be mistaken for a doctrine concerning the eternal predestination of souls. It was this forgetfulness of Israel’s irrevocable “carnal election” that—so Bader–Saye claims—opened up a sociopolitical vacuum, ultimately to be filled by “Constantinianism” and by various myths of national “election” that have long estranged the Church from its true calling. Had Christians remembered all along that only Israel is the elect nation of God, so the argument goes, and its election the concrete earnest of cosmic peace, they would not have yielded their political soul to the prudential violence of the powers, or mistaken national destinies for some part of the economy of salvation.
The best part of this book is the chapter entitled “Trinitarian Election.” Here Bader–Saye unfolds a reading of the New Testament commendable for its lucidity and insight (his exegesis of Ephesians is especially acute), one that demonstrates both the eternality of God’s covenant with Israel and the dependency of the Church upon it. It would have been for the best had this chapter expanded to fill most of the book; it is the richest and most unassailable moment within Bader–Saye’s argument. But it is nearly defeated by its brevity: it is too synoptic quite to encompass its theme.
What follows is the political manifesto. When Christians remember that their “nation” is established by Israel’s covenant, they learn to live as aliens in the earth. As the election of Israel is a gracious gift whose end is the messianic dispensation of God’s shalom, Christians are bidden to forge a politics not of the restraint of violence by violence, but of peace. In the saving grace of election, the Church discovers that true freedom is not boundless arbitrary choice but liberation from sin, and so learns to reject the voluntarism and consumerism of the day in order to pursue the work of the Kingdom. In the Eucharist, whereby Christians are joined to the flesh of Christ, and through Him to the “carnal” covenant of Israel, Christians are given their “place,” which is not a space to be defended but a gift to be shared.
Moreover, since Christians believe (as Jews do not) that the final reign of God has in some sense proleptically arrived, the Church must already live according to the unbounded messianic peace of the final age. Indeed, in that Judaism may legitimately ask of Christians where the redemption of which they speak is to be found, the Church is bound by its fidelity to the Abrahamic covenant to display in its practices the presence of the Kingdom within history.
This is all wholesome and, depending on the reader’s dispositions, largely convincing. But at the end of Bader–Saye’s argument it remains unclear what work his account of Israel’s election performs within his political theology. If, after all, Christians are called to embody a messianic peace that, according to Jewish thought, has yet to appear within history except as promise, does it really matter whether one’s account of the covenant is supersessionist or not? As ever, it would seem, the challenge to Christian thought is to avoid confusing any secular order with God’s Kingdom, which means to keep faith with the gospel. What element of Israel’s covenant, as an abiding and concrete social reality, would fortify the Church in this resolve? Surely the politics Bader–Saye espouses does not so much emulate Judaism as presume, in some sense, to await it. Hence the procrustean character of his book.
Part of the difficulty is that Bader–Saye begins his argument with an historical fiction. In employing the term “Constantinian Christianity,” he allows himself a common but lamentable oversimplification of history, and implicitly attributes to the patristic age a pervasive confusion—between the ends of the empire and the ends of God’s Kingdom—of which, in fact, few theologians were culpable. To suggest, moreover, that a keener sense of Israel’s enduring election would have spared the Church the “sociopolitical vacuum” that led to the “Constantinian” accommodation is historical nonsense.
Quite apart from the fact that there was never any particular moment when the Church simply capitulated to the empire, and putting aside the immense good of the conversion of Europe, the Church of the empire was neither enabled by supersessionism nor could it have been forestalled by a more robust theology of election. Was there any aspect of Israel’s own understanding of election that would have made the conversion of a military empire ethically unthinkable? Was not the Church, prior to Constantine’s conversion, already quite powerfully aware that it was a separate nation among the heathen, “another nation within the nation,” as Origen phrased it, conscious of its own social dimensions, confirmed in its particularity through sacrament and martyrdom? And had not Paul forbidden gentile Christians any resort to the actual political constitution—the Law—of Israel? Of course, the ethos of Christianity was often betrayed by the enfranchised Church, but this was because it had forgotten not so much the nature of the covenant as the finality of Easter.
Where Bader–Saye cannot be gainsaid is in his claim that a proper biblical appreciation of the everlasting uniqueness of Israel’s covenant serves to expose as damnably false the misappropriation of the language of election by many a modern nation–state (including, frequently, our own). But beyond this, his text does not constitute a unity; it merely adumbrates an argument yet to be made in greater depth.
David B. Hart is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota