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God’s Supersessionism

David Novak (“Supersessionism Hard and Soft,” February) clearly demonstrates the negative consequences of the “hard” supersessionism and the positive benefits of the “soft.” I consider myself a soft supersessionist, meaning that the covenant God made with the Jews continues to be effectual, and the Jews continue to be God’s chosen people in a unique manner. Nonetheless, I would like to make two points.

The first concerns what is termed “the eschatological horizon.” This notion, found among some Christians, suggests that if the Jews do become Christian, it will only be when Jesus comes in glory at the end of time. Such a view appears to solve two sensitive issues within Jewish-Christian relations. Because Jews will only become Christian when the world ends, we presently need not discuss whether Judaism or Christianity is the “true” faith, for that will be divinely sorted out. Moreover, Christians need not evangelize Jews, and Jews need not fear being evangelized.

But to employ the eschaton as a means to neutralize Jewish-Christian relations and theological dialogue is a cop-out. Jews and Christians need to grow in love and respect for each other, and Christians should never forcibly proselytize Jews, but it is the essence of Christian love to offer ­Jesus to others as the supreme gift of joy. And, I suppose, it is the essence of Jewish love to evangelize Gentiles.

Moreover, Christians need to realize that the Body of Christ is anemic without the full complement of their Jewish brothers and sisters. This does not mean Jews should become whitewashed Gentiles, but that Jewish Christians can only enhance the Body of Christ by remaining authentically Jewish within it. I believe this unity must become a reality before the eschaton. Only if Jews and Gentiles live and love as one in Christ here on earth will they become the one mature man in Christ at the end of time.

As for my second point, Novak asks: “What if God’s final judgment . . . supersedes our human triumphalism that looks at the final judgment as an either/or proposition?” I am sure that the eschaton will supersede what both Jews and Christians imagine. But it also cannot be incongruous with what preceded it; otherwise God would have been fooling us all. Together, Jews and Christians must hold that what God revealed to the Jews is true even beyond the eschaton. If such were not the case, the Jews would lose their covenanted status as God’s chosen people upon the eschaton’s arrival. Similarly, Christians must maintain that what God revealed in Jesus Christ is true. For Christians, Jesus’s name cannot be superseded. There cannot be an eschatological supersessionism, either hard or soft, that moves beyond him.

Thomas G. Weinandy
capuchin college
washington, d.c.

David Novak wisely sees “hard supersessionism” as incompatible with Jewish-Christian dialogue. But he then argues that “soft supersessionism” is not only compatible with ­dialogue, but also essential to theological integrity.

Novak rightly acknowledges that Christian theology cannot dilute its high Christology without undermining its core identity. Likewise, Jewish theology forfeits its raison d’être when it undermines the Torah as the divinely given expression of Israel’s eternal covenant. But it does not follow that these truths entail some form of supersessionism. Novak’s argument only makes sense if one treats Christianity and Judaism as two species of the genus “religion.” In that frame of reference, the two are distinguished primarily by distinct beliefs and practices: Christians believe and practice Christianity, and Jews believe and practice Judaism.

That may work for Christians, but as many Jewish thinkers recognize, it fails to capture the complexity of Jewish identity. The Jewish people are a family descended genealogically from the patriarchs and matriarchs. That family includes some who have left their family of origin and become part of Israel, but they are the exception rather than the rule. God’s covenant is with this particular family, and the Torah is the basis of their common life.

Christians may hold to a high Christology and still affirm that God’s covenant with genealogical Israel remains intact. That covenant requires that Israel remain a people to fulfill its unique vocation among the nations. Accordingly, Christians should support Jews in their fidelity to Judaism—now viewed not as a universal “religion” in competition with Christianity, but as the ­divinely given way of life for a particular people. That provides a sufficient basis for serious Jewish-Christian ­theological engagement, without the need for a soft supersessionism in which ­Christianity is viewed as the superior religion.

Commitment to a high Christology does require that Christians see Jesus as the Messiah for Israel, and not only for the nations. As such, adherence to him cannot be inherently incompatible with Jewish identity. But Christians must also acknowledge that Jews do not at present agree with this proposition. Christians may accept this judgment as one of the mysteries of divine providence. Thus, they may remain faithful to their theological tradition while advancing a truly post-supersessionist agenda.

Mark S. Kinzer
ann arbor, michigan

A problem arises in David Novak’s argument when he makes the questionable and unnecessary claim that only the second form of soft ­supersessionism facilitates “true dialogue.” The second form views Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity as developing in tandem, both in partial dependence on the Old Testament, while the first sees Christianity as sequentially growing out of Judaism. I think the second has more historical credibility, but I disagree with Novak that only soft supersessionism permits true dialogue.

Novak claims that “true dialogue” entails three things: that the parties treat each other as “equals”; not require each other to “renounce [their] deepest theological commitments at the outset”; and look upon each other “as they see themselves.” Being treated as an “equal” can only presumably relate to “rights”—the right to practice one’s religion without coercion and threat. It cannot relate to granting metaphysical equality to both religions when these clearly differ, as Novak himself concedes. According to Novak’s rules, one would never engage with militant secular supersessionists. But of course, we all do, for dialoguing with them is vital. Remember Jürgen Habermas’s slow shift away from excluding religious language from public discourse. Pope Benedict XVI, who didn’t impose such rules of dialogue, may have had something to do with that.

Do hard supersessionists at their best insist that others renounce their deepest theological commitments at the outset? Of course not. Not unless they exploit their position of power, which is part of the sad history of Christian-Jewish “dialogue.” Every hard supersessionist I know would not dream of such a stipulation, even if he thinks the other falls into grave error and will end up in hell.

Finally, can I, as an orthodox Catholic and soft supersessionist, view Jewish friends as they view themselves? No, not even if I were a pluralist. If I were a pluralist, I’d view Orthodox Jews as mistaken in their claims to be God’s “chosen people.” As a soft supersessionist, I hold Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. I presume that Jews who reject Christ do so in good faith, giving even more reason to dialogue over matters of difference. Of course, I must hear how Jews ­describe ­themselves, and that is challenging. But I cannot be required to affirm their self-description, as it may entail self-contradiction as per the messianic question. Let’s talk with anyone who wants to talk.

Gavin D’Costa
university of bristol
bristol, united kingdom

David Novak’s argument for Jews and Christians to reject both “hard” and “soft” supersessionism is bracing and convincing.

For Christians the central text supporting this position is Romans 9–11. The argument can be summarized with the first verse of chapter 11: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? Of course not!” Jesus’s ministry repeatedly points forward to the mission to the Gentiles but never implies any rejection of the covenant. His calls to repentance and his sharp warnings to his own people are no more severe than those of the prophets before him.

Moreover, as Novak asserts, the scriptural basis for the earliest proclamation of the gospel is the Hebrew Bible. When St. Paul announces that Jesus was crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures”—a phrase that ultimately made its way into the Nicene Creed—he is obviously referring to the Old Testament. And he did not see himself as writing the first books of the New Testament. Theologically, there is much more work to be done on this question, but I affirm Novak’s central point that “both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism come out of, and thereby supersede, a religion based on the Hebrew Bible.” In agreeing with him, I am confident that I agree with the Catholic Church, of which I am a priest.

I once heard a bright seminarian say that the most disastrous schism was the first one, the one that divided the Church and the Synagogue. That thesis requires further nuance, but it points out that a division occurred—one that Paul had not anticipated and with which he struggles in Romans. The hostility that surfaces toward “the Jews” in John likely reflects the Jewish Evangelist’s comparable pain at the growing division, surely not a rejection of the covenant. “Salvation is from the Jews,” says Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

With the destruction of the Second Temple, two paths lay open, and Novak rightly contends that we know them as Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. There is a historical and theological kinship there that cannot be broken or denied.

Fr. Leonard Klein
wilmington, delaware

I appreciate David Novak’s irenic spirit toward all readers of goodwill. But I wonder how he views the integrity of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. Are these authors/apostles reliable or not?

Novak does not believe they are reliable, presumably with good ­reason. So what might that reason be? I would like to hear his case against Jesus, the apostles, the “New” Testament, and the history of the Christian movement—not at all like the private accounts of Muhammad or Joseph Smith, but the public eyewitness accounts issued when hundreds, ­possibly thousands, of the living could testify for or against the claims being pronounced.

Pr. Gary Hardaway
lynden, washington

David Novak replies:

It is good to see in these responses the theological gravitas which prevailed in the colloquia led by our late lamented First Things founder, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

Gavin D’Costa disagrees with my position on dialogue with Christian “others.” But I am not “granting metaphysical equality to both religions when these clearly differ.” I’m only granting political equality insofar as we Jews and Christians are both fast becoming culturally marginalized by militant secularism. Religions, like languages, are inherently public (that is, political/moral). That is why Jews and Christians need to recognize our common secularist enemy and retrieve our common theological resources ­dialogically, so as to positively convince ourselves, and then others, that our defensive public posture is more than a reactionary protest.

Thomas G. Weinandy worries that my suggestion of God’s hard supersessionism itself implies that what the eschaton brings will be “incongruous with what preceded it.” For Weinandy as a Christian, that means Jesus must be there in the end-time. For me as a Jew, that means that the covenantal uniqueness of the Jewish people will not ever be overcome. However, my method here is very much a via negativa; I am not saying what this divine supersessionism will be or do, only what I think it won’t be or do. And what it won’t be, in my view, is the type of zero-sum game in which either Jewish victors will humiliate Christian losers or Christian victors will humiliate Jewish losers.

Pr. Gary Hardaway bluntly asks me the question Christians have always (though often less bluntly now) asked: What is your “case against Jesus?” I assume Hardaway means: Why have Jews like David Novak resisted Christ’s call to “follow me” (Matt. 19:21)? So, it is not really my case against Jesus and the Church, but their case against a Jew like me.

I cannot accept this case. If I did, I would place myself outside the traditional Jewish community, which excludes apostates—even Messianic Jewish apostates—from communion. Only in this world are these apostates (meshumadim) still members of the Jewish people, because humans cannot un-elect those elected by God. But on a deeper theological level, I cannot accept the Christian claim because Jesus of Nazareth did not fulfill the necessary messianic ­criteria: He did not restore kingship to Israel, he did not rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, and he did not bring about the universal realm of just peace or ­peaceful justice, when “the earth will be filled with the acknowledgement of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).

Nevertheless—and this might be my own soft supersessionism—I am grateful to God that because of the ministry of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, many Gentiles like Hardaway have covenanted with the Lord God of Israel. We Jews have already been covenanted with God before Jesus’s time, during Jesus’s time, and forever after Jesus’s time on earth. Therefore, Jesus and the apostles have no case against Jews like me, nor do we have any case against them.


Peter Hitchens (“The Caudillo,” February) is right. Conservatives should not be thankful to Franco for having supposedly ensured that Spain remained Christian. Spain is as liberal today as the rest of Europe, and this may partly be due to a backlash against the Franco regime’s censorship and lack of political freedoms.

The separatist challenge and the economic crisis have led even some non-Christians and non-­conservatives to celebrate Franco as a strong leader who kept Spain together and lifted it out of poverty during the fifties and sixties. Although some Basque and Catalan nationalists’ accusations of “cultural genocide” are blatant propaganda, Franco’s attempt to resuscitate some sort of Spanish imperialism by exalting everything Spanish probably alienated many Basques and Catalans, or gave arguments to those who hated Spain or needed separatism to feed their own ambitions. Concerning the so-called “economic miracle,” Franco was actually in favor of autarchy. This was a disaster, partly due to the international isolation suffered by Spain after World War II. It was actually liberal policies introduced by some of his non-fascist ministers that led to the aforementioned miracle. Franco was simply pragmatic enough not to rein them in.

Neither Franco nor the other plotters had a clear conservative ideology: They just feared another Marxist revolution and wanted to put an end to the reigning chaos (Hispanic countries have a long history of this kind of praetorian intervention, on the right and left). After meeting fierce resistance, a staunch, repressive kind of conservatism seemed like the best way to unify all those who opposed the Popular Front and what it ­represented, at a time when it was difficult not to take sides.

Franco may also be loathed for ignoring Hitler’s true nature, but Spain was hardly the only European country to fall under the spell of the attempt to present Hitler’s war as a modern crusade.

Spanish conservatives must let go of the past. Conservatism has too rich a tradition to need such unsavory saviors ever again. During the aggressively anti-Christian Spanish Second Republic, there were some young Christian intellectuals and politicians who were truly democratic and progressive. Had there not been a civil war, and had the left been willing to let other parties into the government when they won the elections, Spanish conservatives could have been as democratic as they have been in Italy or Germany. One great harm of Franco’s dictatorship was to deprive Spain of forty years of experience in handling ­democracy.

Nicolás Zambrana-Tévar
kimep university
almaty, kazakhstan

Peter Hitchens replies:

I agree with Nicolás Zambrana-Tévar that there has been too much understanding toward supposedly Christian despots, and that it is partly a defensive reaction, given the left’s willingness to defend tyrannies which are at least as bad and often worse. 

The regrettable truth is that political power, especially in its modern all-embracing forms, tends to be blasphemous in itself, and destroys those who wield it. I thought this was the whole point of Tolkien’s great parable about the Ring of Power, which perhaps too many people see as a mere adventure story. (In fact, it is as crammed with moral significance as the parable of the prodigal son.) Christians cannot use the weapons of the enemy. If they do, they become that enemy.

I take issue with only one of ­Zambrana-Tévar’s points: his defensive remark that “Spain was hardly the only European country to fall under the spell of the attempt to present Hitler’s war as a modern crusade.” This is a poor description of the circumstances. Most of the countries that became involved in Hitler’s alleged crusade against Bolshevism did so after Hitler had invaded and ­subjugated them, which did not happen to Spain. None of those countries, I think, maintained then or afterward that they were primarily Christian. Mussolini, perhaps the closest parallel to Franco (as his association with Hitler was more or less voluntary), was overtly and noisily anti-Christian, and given to mockery of the pope.