With reference to the book with the same title by R. Kendall Soulen
By: Jeroen Bol
Somewhere in 2007 it became clear to me for the first time how seriously the history of Christendom is laden with anti-Judaism. Since then have the anti-Jewish theology of the early church, the anti-Jewish legislation since Emperor Constantine and the many massacres among the Jews since the crusades raised enormous questions in my mind. The most urgent one was how all this could be reconciled with the Gospel of forgiveness and brotherly love that has become so dear to me since many years. It is hopefully clear that they are irreconcilable. The history of the origin of replacement theology is inextricably linked to the anti-Judaism of the early church. And what are we to think of the reformed theology that has also been dear to me for a very long time? It became clear to me, after much study, that this tradition is also marked by replacement theology that goes back to the early church fathers Justin and Irenaeus - replacement theology that eventually got its definitive form under Augustine, the father of the fathers of the church.
These were extremely shocking discoveries as far as I was concerned. What was wrong, for goodness’ sake, with that splendid Gospel that had so evidently set my own life back on the rails in a positive way years ago, following a deep personal crisis? Or was there nothing wrong with the Gospel but a lot with what the church had made of that Gospel through the centuries? And why did I discover this sad tradition of Christian anti-Judaism this late, at the age of 56, after years of quite extensive study in theology and church history? Plenty of questions!
Looking for an alternative
Diligently, and sometimes almost despairingly, I started looking for a theological model that had to fulfil three conditions as far as I was concerned. First of all, it had to be totally devoid of any kind of replacement theology, or it had at least to testify to its intention to want to radically divest itself thereof. Secondly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the kingdom of God, had to continue to shine in that model. Thirdly, the crown jewels of classical theology – inasmuch as they are able to pass the test of Scripture – had to remain standing in the new theology that was to be formulated. I am thinking in this respect among other things of the incarnation of Jesus, the trinity and the conviction that the Gospel is for the Jew and the Greek. Such a theological concept proved difficult to find. After a lot of research I finally came across a book by the American systematic theologian, R. Kendall Soulen, ' The God of Israel and Christian Theology'. Soulen graduated with this study from the renowned university of Yale, in the U.S., at the beginning of the nineties. His analysis of replacement theology appeared in book form in 1996. This book is a real goldmine for anyone who is searching for a theology that has been able to totally divest itself of replacement theology whilst at the same time striving to remain within the framework of classical confession. Is that possible? Yes, it appears so. Thanks be to God! It is my opinion that this book, which has been much praised by both Christian and Jewish authors in the meantime, fulfils the three afore-mentioned criteria completely.
Theological arguments paramount
It is my strong conviction that Soulen’s profound theological analysis of replacement theology is the most thorough analysis ever carried out. Since Soulen uses the more academic term ' supersessionism' instead of the more familiar' replacement theology' I will use both terms alternately in these two articles. Soulen's knowledge of historical theology is impressive. His theological analysis of supersessionism within the historical context of the history of its origin in the early church is intelligent and balanced. In his analysis of the history of the origin of Christian anti-Judaism, Soulen always keeps away, as far as possible, from the well-known polemic with reference to the Shoah. Furthermore, Soulen in no way underestimates the relationship between the Shoah and the tradition of the 'teaching of contempt (of the Jews)', but he chooses consciously to construct his reasoning solely upon theological arguments. ( The term ' teaching of contempt' is coined by the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, most wellknown by his groundbreaking masterpiece ' Jesus and Israel' published shortly after the second world war. It stands for the classical replacement theology in which all the curses in the O.T. are for the Jews as a cursed people and all the blessings are for the Church as the new Israel).
The following quotation sets the tone for the whole of his book:
“Certainly, one can criticize supersessionism on grounds that are not specifically theological. For instance, one might argue on psychological grounds that supersessionism is problematic because it instills feelings of hatred and contempt toward Jews. Yet even if such claims could be proven false, supersessionism would remain problematic on theological grounds. If Christians today are rethinking their traditional theological posture toward the Jewish people, it must be because of the reasoned conviction that in doing so they are more truthful and more faithful to the God whom they worship and confess. To do so merely out of a desire to avoid offense or in a spirit of " theological reparations" would contribute nothing to the genuine reform of Christian living, and would in the long run contribute only to cynicism and disappointment. Only when recognition of supersessionism's theological inadequacy stands at the center of the church's new posture toward the Jewish people are there real grounds to hope for a renewal of Christian theology and Christian living." ”(p.5).
The book consists of two parts. In the first section Soulen discusses the history of the origin of replacement theology in the early church, i.e. the role of the church fathers Justin and Irenaeus, which he discusses in detail. Soulen rightly regards these two early theologians as the founders of replacement theology. He goes on to describe how supersessionism further developed and what effects it produced in the thinking of four key, representative figures in later Christianity: Kant and Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. Soulen has a plural agenda. He not only explains why supersessionism is theologically untenable and why it has severely complicated the relationship between the church and the synagogue for centuries. He also demonstrates that the early and virtually complete break with Judaism has weakened and damaged the church substantially. In other words: according to Soulen, the church will only gain by divesting itself of the deeply radical, 1,800 year old theological legacy of replacement theology. It is striking that Soulen often appeals to the well-known German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as far as this last point is concerned.
Struggling with the living God
It is impossible to discuss the whole of Soulen’s book within the scope of this article – and even more so because the book is written in a very compact form. It contains an exceptional richness of new insights and astute observations for a book of less than 200 pages. I shall therefore limit myself to a few of his principle ideas.
Soulen begins his book by establishing that Christian theology, from its very outset, has had to deal with the amazingly complex difficulty of confessing the God of Israel while that same Israel apparently does not accept the Gospel of Jesus. The early church solved this problem very quickly by teaching that it was now the new, spiritual Israel. It's here that the birth of supersessionism must be seen: the church has taken over Israel’s place. Henceforth the Jewish people served primarily to endorse the correctness of Christian theology: 'look what happens to a people that does not accept the Gospel of Jesus. It goes through life condemned by God.' That was the teaching and the practice of the church for over 1800 years, until this evil theological dream shattered into pieces by the alarming reality of the Shoah. Next to this it was the foundation of the state of Israel which raised serious questions for the whole concept of replacement theology.
Soulen then goes on to describe how the poverty of classic supersessionism could no longer be hidden after the Holocaust: Christians could do no else but to recognise the relationship between their supersessionism and this diabolical drama – which indeed, praise God, happened more and more during the decades after the Shoah.
I quote Soulen: “Revisiting the teaching of supersessionism after nearly two thousand years, many churches have now publicly confessed that fidelity to the gospel requires the rejection of supersessionism and the affirmation of God's own unbroken fidelity to the Jewish people. Yet far from bringing the church's relation to the God of Israel to equilibrium, this confession has thrust the church into new and far-reaching perplexities. For the rejection of supersessionism is fraught with profound implications for the whole range of Christian theological reflection, and the full extent of these implications is still far from fully clear. But perplexities such as these come with the promise of blessing, for they arise out of wrestling with the living God. ” ( p.X)
Which way forward?
With these remarks Soulen broaches a crucial point.. Elsewhere he postulates that supersessionism constitutes part of what he calls the 'deep grammar' of classictheology. (p.16) – in other words: when you distance yourself from replacement theology you touch upon something that has coloured classical theology to its roots. It is therefore not sufficient to postulate that you, as a church, reject supersessionism as being unscriptural. That is a crucial step, but it is at the same time a step that, in Soulen’s opinion, inevitably demands new reflection upon the whole system of classical theology. That many recoil from this step is understandable. But since the clear, even if indirect, relationship between supersessionism and the Shoah has been brought to light unequivocally by a broad spectrum of theologians, historians and philosophers, there is in fact no way back for the church and for Christian theology. Theologising without taking account of the Shoah is like practising astronomy whilst simultaneously ignoring Copernicus. It is not surprising, moreover, that after some fifty years of post-holocaust theology, no broadly supported new consensus has yet emerged concerning the relationship between the church and Israel and the further implications for the whole of (systematic) theology. A theological tradition of over 1800 years of anti-Jewish exegesis and dogma can hardly be completely revised within the relatively short period of fifty years. And reaching a new, broadly based Christian consensus on this matter is even a further step. But this is exactly the situation that churches worldwide have to deal with, and it explains the way we Christians clash with each other regularly, and even painfully from time to time. Since the Shoah and the founding of the state of Israel we as a church with our theology find ourselves worldwide in the midst of a theological turnaround as far as the relationship between the church and Israel is concerned. Doing business is always cumbersome during rebuilding work and this is even more true for the European church which is under huge pressure already for decades now due to the enormous blows of secularisation and free-falling church membership. These are not exactly ideal circumstances for a thorough rebuilding of the dogmatic house. It is quite alarming to have to accept the fact that interest for this theological rebuilding project has decreased considerably in Europe over the past twenty years. It is not a coincidence that presently much more promising work seems being done in this respect in the U.S. The U.S. still has both a more vital Christianity and a vital Judaism. Both of them are strongly represented in the chairs of several American universities. That is where you have to be, in principle, for promising renewal theology with reference to the relationship of the church and Israel. ( think of highly interesting publications such as ' Christianity in Jewish Terms', ' Jews and Christians: people of God' and Abraham's Promise; Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations' to name a few)
Renewed conversion to the God of Israel
Eighteen centuries of theology right up to this day has been unable to give any substantial place to God’s dealings with the people of Israel in the major church confessions, the majority of current dogmatics and, therefore, in the common teaching on a local church level. This is the awful heritage we Christians are saddled with. One of Soulen’s major motives for writing his book is to repair this terrible theological flaw. Soulen puts this as follows:
“At one level, this book is an effort to think through the systematic implications of the church's new posture toward the God of Israel and the Jewish people. Taking the contemporary' churches' rejection of supersessionism as its staring point, the book asks two basic questions: how deeply is supersessionism implicated in the traditional fabric of Christian theology? And how can Christians read the Bible and articulate their most basic convictions in ways that are not supersessionist? In short, how can Christians be really Christian without being triumphalist toward Jews?
At another level, however, the present book seeks to advance a larger systematic argument about the God of Israel and Christian theology in the present time, a time that has sometimes been characterized as " after Christendom". The book argues that the integrity of Christian theology after Christendom requires a renewed conversion toward the God of Israel. Such a conversion is necessary, I argue, because Christian theology in its dominant classical and modern forms embodies what is in effect an incomplete conversion toward the the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The crucial marks of that incomplete conversion are a triumphalist posture toward the Jewish people and a latently gnostic assessment of God's engagement in the realm of public history " ( p. X)
A coherent Christian faith
As already stated, Soulen’s book consists of two parts: his analysis of the untenability of supersessionism on theological grounds and his proposals for a scripturally acceptable theological alternative. Soulen expounds this further in the following quotation, in which he names one of the four starting points he uses in his discussion of supersessionism. Soulen:
“This volume takes as its point of departure the fact that significant parts of the Christian church today reject supersessionism and affirm God's fidelity to the Jewish people. From there we ask: what are the implications of this new development for the rest of Christian theology? Part One argues that supersessionism has shaped the narrative and doctrinal structure of classical Christian theology in fundamental and systematic ways. Hence the rejection of supersessionism entails the reevaluation of the whole body of classical Christian divinity. Part Two suggests one way in which Christians might reconceive the coherence of Christian theology in a manner that is free of supersessionism yet consonant with the evangelical center of faith - the God of Hebrew Scriptures has acted in Jesus Christ for all the world.”
My treatment of the problem of supersessionism and Christian theology is shaped by four central convictions. First, supersessionism raises specifically theological problems about the truth and coherence of Christian faith and must therefore be addressed at the level of systematic theological reflection." (p.3-4)
The God of Israel
Soulen speaks of 'four central starting points' in the above quotation. It is not feasible to discuss all four within the scope of this article.
I have chosen to zoom in on his first starting point because this offers the possibility of shining the spotlight on some of his basic thoughts. Soulen expounds his first starting point further on p.4 of his book as follows:
“Simply put, supersessionism is a specifically theological problem because it threatens to render the existence of the Jewish people as a matter of indifference to the God of Israel. Just in this way, supersessionism introduces a profound note of incoherence into the heart of Christian reflection about God. While it may be possible to imagine a god who is indifferent toward the people of Israel, it is impossible so to imagine the God of the Hebrew scriptures, he God of Israel. If Christians nevertheless claim to worship the God of Israel while teaching God's indifference toward the people of Israel, they are engaging in a massive theological contradiction. Moreover, they throw the credibility of of the Christian confession into doubt. If the God of Israel is ultimately indifferent even to the bodies of the Jewish people, how seriously can one take the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead? If the God of Israel ordains a salvation in the midst of history that renders the the existence of the Jewish people irrelevant, what can be the power of this salvation to mend the wounds of human history as a whole?” (p. 4)
With this quotation Soulen wants to make it clear that the God the Christians confess is always also the God of Israel. And then he means not only the Israel in the O.T. but Israel in every era and therefore the Jewish people of today as well. Soulen then postulates that a relationship with the God of Israel unavoidably implies a relationship with the Jewish people who are alive now. As is to be expected, in this respect Soulen refers to God’s eternal covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. And, of course, to Romans 11:29 as well: 'For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable'.
The storyline of the church
The notion of 'canonical narrative' occupies a very important place in Soulen’s discussion of supersessionism. It takes some time and effort to grasp this concept because it is new and uncommon when one hears of it for the first time. Soulen postulates that it is of the utmost importance to have an eye for the key role of what he calls ‘the canonical narrative’ if we want to finally rise above the legacy of 1800 years of supersessionism in Christian theology. Soulen gives the following definition of this notion: “A canonical narrative is an interpretive instrument that provides a framework for reading the Christian Bible as a theological and narrative unity."” (p. 13). The basic thought behind the notion of 'canonical narrative' is that the canon of the O.T. and the N.T. does not, in itself, delivers a coherent story or storyline. The canon consists of 66 separate books after all. The great story of God’s plan of salvation for Israel and the nations must therefore be formulated on the basis of, and in harmony with, these canonical manuscripts. A credible story line must be found in this series of 66 books. The canon requires interpretation to this purpose, or, better still, a narrative, a story. It was left to the early church to construct this ‘story’. The early church faced two great challenges. On the one hand it had to manage to position itself, as a newcomer on the religious field of antiquity, with regard to the Gentiles, the Jews and the Gnostics. On the other hand it had to determine for itself the nature of the precise relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures of the Jews - the O.T. - and its own apostolic manuscripts - the N.T. The canonical narrative which the early church formulated, shows the fundamental hermeneutical choice it made in those early ages. A choice by which it decided how the two major constituent parts of the canon, the O.T. and the N.T. hang together and how they form óne book, our Christian Bible.
Four basic elements
Soulen: “A canonical narrative shows how this twofold canon coheres as a single witness to the core confession of Christian faith: the God of Israel has acted in Jesus Christ for all the world. "” (p.13-14)
In the midst of the field of force of the second century the young church had to be able to convincingly lay down its own story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ before the predominantly non-Jewish heathen public in the Roman empire. And this story had to be linked in a credible manner to the holy text of the God of Israel, the O.T. scriptures, which they shared with the Jews. The 'canonical narrative' is the basic plan with which the early church mapped out God’s great plan of salvation. It is the plot that enabled Christians to be able to read the multiplicity of the biblical stories within an comprehensible and a consistent mutual connection.
Soulen then postulates that the 'narrative' which the early church formulated through the mouth of the church father Irenaeus consists of four basic elements: God’s creation, the Fall, the Coming of Jesus and the Coming into being of the church and the End of the age. The first two parts together take up Genesis 1 to 3. Then we find the coming of Jesus and the church from Mt.1 onwards and we meet up with the end in the last chapters of Revelation. Then Soulen goes on to make a very crucial observation: the whole of God's unique specific dealing with the people of Israel from Genesis 12 up to and including Malachi disappears within this narrative completely into the background. The narrative of the early church is the great story of God’s plan of salvation for the whole of humanity and the whole of creation. God’s specific dealings with Israel - more or less the whole of the Old Testament - is being relocated into the background in this narrative. It only serves as a preparation of the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Israel’s role is finished, in effect, after Jesus' coming. What takes centre stage now is God’s great plan of salvation for the world, for Jews and Greeks. This 'narrative' or story line proved to be ideally suited to evangelize the heathen world of that time with enormous success.
Structural replacement theology
According to Soulen we find this basic fourfold scheme of creation, the fall, salvation and the end in all the important classical confessions, in countless dogmatics and in almost all catechism material. This is indeed very noticeable and the consequences can be found everywhere. Right up until today the Jewish people are invariably overlooked in most Christian publications.
Soulen distinguishes between three types of replacement theology: economic, punitive and structural. The economic variant teaches simply that Israel’s preparatory role in God’s great plan of salvation is finished with the coming of Jesus and the church. The punitive variant teaches that Israel fell outside the covenant because they had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah and even killed Him (deicide). The (new) covenant has now therefore been transferred to the new Israel, the church. These two variants are sufficiently well known.
According to Soulen the structurele replacement theology variant has however ploughed the deepest furrows in classical theology from Irenaeus (200) till around 1950.
Soulen: “To grasp supersessionism as a structural problem, consider the following. The standard canonical narrative turns on four key episodes: God's intention to consummate the first parents whom God has created, the fall, Christ's incarnation and the inauguration of the church, and final consummation. These four episodes play a uniquely important role in the standard model because together they constitute the model's basic plot or story line. They relate how God's work as Consummator and as Redeemer engage human creation in ways that have universal and lasting significance. ” (p.31)
Soulen calls these four basic episodes the 'foreground' of the narrative. In this 'foreground' God’s dealings with His creation are worded in cosmic and universal terms. Christ is the incarnation of the eternal Logos in this narrative. Humanity is set down as the descendant of the first parental pair, with a universal human nature.
Soulen: “Second, the foreground completely neglects the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of Genesis-1-3 ! The story tells how God engaged Adam and Eve as Consummator and how God's initial consummating plan was almost immediately disrupted by the fall. The foreground story then leaps immediately to the Apostolic Witness interpreted as God's deliverance of humankind from the fall through Jesus Christ. So conceived, 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. " (pag. 31-32) The story of God’s dealings with Israel disappears into the narrative’s background according to Soulen. Soulen then concludes: “As a result, God's identity as the God of Israel and God's history with the Jewish people become largely indecisive for the Christian conception of God” (p.33)
With this Soulen makes is clear once again that replacement theology does not exclusively affect the relationship with the Jewish people. It also affects our view of God and thus our relationship with God Himself.
I hope to have awoken your interest in this important American theologian with this first article about
Soulen’s book. In my next article I hope to delve deeper into the second section of his book.,In that section Soulen expounds an alternative theological model: a model in which God’s dealings with Israel are brought prominently to the fore.
New theological concept necessary
Christendom is in urgent need of a new story as far as the relationship of the Church with Israel is concerned - a new look at Scripture that has thoroughly divested itself of anti-Judaism and supersessionism. And that can still be considered truly scriptural at the same time, within orthodox parameters, correct doctrine that is the result of correctly interpreting the Word of truth. The standard must be set high when seeking the contours and principles for such a new theological design. The ambition should be for a concept to see the light of day that does substantially more justice to Old and New Testament Scripture together – more than the dominant replacement thinking did for 1,800 years. Of course we do not need to turn our backs on 1800 years of doing theology. To do so would not only be undesirable and foolish, but also impossible, in fact. Whichever way you look at it, we are standing on the shoulders of those who went before us theologically, on the shoulders of the centuries-old church. No, the only way to go is to question the in many ways rich theological legacy of the church anew, and to put it to the test in the light of the new insights into Church-Israel theology. And then to have the nerve to adjust the ‘old story’ where needed, and, if necessary, to rewrite it, on the basis of the better insights which have been gained – according to the old recipe of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – a nice motto that is more often alluded to than put into practice, unfortunately.
With what suggestions does Soulen come forward for the adjustment of the old 'narrative', the old story, and what arguments from Scripture does he put on the table for his suggestions? It is good to remind ourselves in this respect of one of Soulen’s quotations that has already been mentioned in the first article: " If Christians today are rethinking their traditional theological posture toward the Jewish people , it must be because of the reasoned conviction that in doing so they are being more truthful and more faithful to the God they worship and confess. To do so merely out of a desire to avoid offense or in a spirit of " theological reparations" would contribute nothing to the genuine reform of Christian living, and would in the long run contribute only to cynicism and disappointment. Only when recognition of supersessionism's inadequacy stands at the center of the church's posture toward the Jewish people are there real grounds to hope for a renewal of Christian theology and Christian living .” (p.5)This appears to me to be a fair, sound and simultaneously promising starting point. It is both principally theocentric and theological.
What is the benefit?
Soulen devotes the second half of his book to formulating and laying the ground for such a new theology of the Church-Israel relationship as carefully and as thoroughly as possible. He does not shrink from making some radical new hermeneutical choices when necessary in this respect. He bases these choices on Scripture itself however. Some readers will by now doubtlessly be asking themselves where they have heard such reasoning before. Such sound distrust is necessary. New insights must always be tested against Scripture. I am of the opinion that Soulen’s theological proposal will come through critical research of its scriptural merits largely unscathed. That is the critical approach which must and can be taken to the book. There is however yet another approach by which Soulen’s design should be looked at, and that seems to me to be at least as necessary, it is the question as to what benefit Soulen’s concept brings us. In what ways does the concept possibly do more justice to the testimony of the Old and New Testaments taken together? What possibilities do his proposals offer for the further development of a theology in which Israel is allowed to play an equal title role next to the Church - a theology that does justice to the details of the Old and New Testament Scriptures taken together? And what is the possible dividend as far as the chances of a better relationship with the Jewish people are concerned? And does his concept also procure any benefit to the church’s understanding of itself? These are not unimportant questions in the light of the ever increasing confusion in many western churches in many areas. Christianity in Western Europe is going through an identity crisis that is inextricably linked to the broader crisis that is presently affecting the Western world. I cannot get away from the impression that Soulen’s concept could bring some solace in this area as well.
I will attempt to sketch as clearly as possible a number of important aspects of Soulen’s concept for a better Church-Israel theology. I wish to point out emphatically that one should read his book for oneself in order to acquire a complete picture of Soulen’s concept and his arguments. Within the scope of this article I can do little more than introduce his concept to the reader and to sketch some of his major arguments. And, I hope passionately, to make the ready thirsty to read the book for him- or herself. For what Soulen has to offer in this intelligent and creative theological concept is more than worthwhile.
A Triple blessing
Let me begin at the beginning: Genesis. Soulen builds his concept to a large extent on his reading of Genesis 1 to 12. This reading is surprising. It is a different way of looking at very well-known parts of Scripture. This is why the first reading really takes some effort and time to grasp the line of thinking.
According to Soulen we find the basic outline of God’s great plan – by which He will eventually bring His creation to completion – in the first two chapters of Genesis. Soulen calls this plan God’s 'economy of consummation'. The notion of the 'economy of consummation' occupies a central place in his theological concept. God’s great final purpose with His creation is the ultimate worldwide shalom for Israel and the nations, the new heaven and the new earth where Gods righteousness will dwell forever. Soulen calls God’s great plan to redeem His creation from the consequences of the fall and the power of Satan God’s 'economy of redemption'. I shall comment later and in more detail on the relationship between the 'economy of consummation’ and the 'economy of redemption' in Soulen’s concept. In his discussion of the first two chapters of Genesis, Soulen remarks that God blesses His creation no less than three times in the creation story. God blesses the beings that live in water and the fowl in Genesis 1:22. He blesses the first human couple in Genesis 1:28. God blesses both the animals and the human couple with the words 'be fruitful and increase in number'. Soulen then postulates that this blessing of God is crucial to finally make the whole of creation complete until its final state of true shalom. In blessing His creation God emphatically pledges Himself to His creation and to this final goal that He has for it.
Soulen: " As represented in the Scriptures , God's work as Consummator revolves around God's blessing and its power to communicate life , wholeness, well-being and joy to that which is other than God." (p.115).This blessing, which God gave immediately, at the very beginning of His creation, constitutes a crucial part of Gods 'economy of consummation' according to Soulen. God will continue to give His creation this blessing, whatever the cost, until it finally reaches its final goal of the eschatological shalom. It is not easy for us, modern people, to estimate the true value of this thought. The fact that plants, men and animals are still reproducing, until today, is usually seen purely as a natural, obvious, merely biological process in our heavily secularised era – as a kind of mobile perpetuum. The fact that it is actually dependent upon God’s active and continued blessing of his creation is something that even believers sometimes are not really aware of anymore. This blind spot of many in no way detracts however from the fact that life is still a great miracle, thanks to God’s blessing, and that life itself is a proof of God’s faithfulness.
The principal of mutual blessing
Soulen makes yet another remarkable observation on the basis of the first two chapters of Genesis. According to Soulen, God Himself also laid a basic pattern of mutual blessing within creation itself. To what is he referring? On the basis of the creation story Soulen concludes that God composed His creation of, and divided into, what one could technically describe as 'complementary entities' - in other words: pairs that are dependent upon each other, that need each other. In this way, according to Soulen, the notion of relationship is inherent in the basic structure of creation itself. Soulen refers in this respect to the relationship between husband and wife, the generational bond within a family, the parent-child relationship but also man and his relationship with nature as a steward. The relationship between Israel and the nations, which goes back to the call of Abraham and God’s covenant with him (Gen.12, 15, 17) also fits into this principle according to Soulen. The creation story itself already points to Israel’s calling according to Soulen. I shall say more about this further on in the article. According to Soulen all these relationships, which are inherent to creation, are intended by God to be just as many opportunities to be able to be a blessing for the other: the man to the woman and the woman to the man, the parent to the child and the child to the parent, the brother to the sister and the sister to the brother, the Jew to the Greek and the Greek to the Jew, friends to one another etcetera. So God not only blesses His creation, He also lays down a basic principle of mutual blessing within creation itself. Soulen remarks in this respect that God could have created a completely different kind of creation. That thought is also difficult to grasp, but Soulen is right of course. We are so used to creation being as it is, and to the creation story, that we find it difficult to imagine that creation could have been very different. God is sovereign, is He not? But God has wanted creation to be exactly like it is. And He therefore very consciously has wanted this pattern of relationships in his creation. Soulen calls this the principle of 'mutual blessing'.
It is as clear as day that sin seriously threw this idyllic ideal into turmoil and that many of these relationships have become hotbeds of conflict and misery as a result. This however in no way alters God’s original intention of ' mutual blessing'.
This principle of ‘mutual blessing’ takes centre stage in Soulen’s theological proposal for a supersessionism free theology. It is a crucial part of the 'economy of consummation' itself. In other words, the principle of 'mutual blessing' is fundamental to God’s all-embracing plan of bringing His creation to its final completion - the eschatological shalom for Israel and the nations. It will not succeed without it.
This idea of 'mutual blessing' in the basic concept of creation itself contains some very attractive features. It calls for associations with notions such as harmony, being complementary to and caring for one another. It is fundamentally different from the antithetic thinking that is encrusted in replacement theology: the church instead of Israel. Soulen’s setting centre stage the notion of 'mutual blessing' does indeed present something of a new paradigm: the church being called from the outset to be a blessing to Israel; and Israel being called to be a blessing to the nations (and, therefore, to the church too). If this is indeed presenting a new paradigm, it is one that challenges christians to make getting along with one's fellow man in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount of paramount importance in practice as well in teaching. The paradigm would be congruous with the spirit of the double love-commandment that both Jesus and Paul hold in the highest esteem. In the light of 1800 years of anti-Judaism, a paradigm of 'mutual blessing' is an alluring perspective for the development of a theology that is devoid of replacement thinking.
Consummation and Redemption
The Bible shows very clearly that sin and unbelief threaten to block this divine programme time and again, and sometimes even have seemed to damage it to the point of no repair. Scripture testifies in several places to the fact that there are sometimes very great tensions between God and humanity. And the history of the world unto this very day is full of everything that is in opposition to this principle of mutual blessing. That is why the 'economy of redemption' is so very crucial. The end and final worldwide shalom will never be achieved without the saving, reconciling suffering and death and victorious intervention of Jesus, the promised Messiah. Soulen makes use of two concentric circles to make his view of the relationship between the two 'economies' clear. The outer circle thereof is the 'economy of consummation' - the basic principle of God’s great programme of bringing creation to the end phase of salvation history, the final Messianic Shalom. The inner circle thereof represents the 'economy of redemption' which takes place within the broader context of this 'economy of consummation'.
It is clear that this grates against the classical narrative of the early church. The 'economy of redemption', the redemption from sin, is in the classical narrative the determining broad context from which meaning is given to all the details of Scripture. Consequential reading of the Old Testament through the spectacles of the New Testament and almost exclusively Christocentric hermeneutics are essential to this classical narrative. Soulen is correct when he remarks in this respect that everything undoubtedly does depend on Christ, but that not everything is about Christ. (P. 175).
With his unfortunately too meagre discussion of the soteriological significance of the reconciling suffering and death of Jesus in the last chapter of his book, Soulen might load the suspicion of the more sceptical reader onto himself that he might not subscribe to the classical confession concerning the vicarious atonement, the reconciling suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Fortunately that is not the case. In correspondence with him on this subject the author has informed me that he endorses the criticism that the treatment of this subject in the last section of his book is with hindsight indeed too meagre. And that he in absolutely no way distances himself from the confessions of the reformation and the classical revival movements in this respect. This was amply confirmed during a series of lectures the author gave in the Netherlands in March 2012. His teaching at the premises of Christians for Israel in Nijkerk and at the Free University of Amsterdam was very well received. The issues of christology and soteriology are being addressed at much fuller length by the author in his new book ' The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity', published in the fall of 2011.
Soulen’s choice of making the 'economy of consummation' the broader context within which the 'economy of redemption' is being played out is an essential part of his new theological concept. On the one hand he intends to do justice with this concept to what he sees as the core confession of the Christian faith: 'the God of the Hebrew Scriptures acted for the salvation of the whole world in Jesus of Nazareth'. On the other hand, he seeks to create room this way for a fully-fledged place for God’s dealings with Israel in the context of a renewed Christian theology. By this move Soulen brings about a change in the 'canonical narrative' of the early church. As a result of this alteration, the history of Israel - as it is described from Genesis 12 right up to the book of Malachi - is promoted in one go from being background material to the Gospel story to being the plot itself - the 'plot' of God’s all-embracing intention of bringing His creation to its final completion. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in that 'core plot' not degraded to background music but belongs to the inner concentric circle and is in this way essential part of the core plot. So there is no consummation without redemption.
Israel alluded to even in Genesis 2
Soulen is able to bring yet more to the surface in support of his theological concept from the first twelve chapters of Genesis. Back to the role of God’s blessing in Genesis.
The third blessing is mentioned in Genesis 2:3. This is the blessing of the seventh day, on which God rested from all the work of creation that He had brought into being. According to Soulen this third and last blessing in the creation story, after the completion of creation, is the high point of the creation story.
Soulen: "God's Sabbath blessing forms the true climax of the passage and simultaneously points forward to God's history with Israel, for it is here that God's Sabbath will first be commanded and observed ( Exod 16:23; 20:8-11). The relation of the three blessings anticipates the contents of the canon as a whole: God's blessing as Creator prepares for God's blessing as Consummator. God's blessing as Consummator crowns God's blessing as Creator." (p. 118).
So according to Soulen the reference to the Sabbath in Genesis 2 does point forward to the future existence of Israel later in history. Moreover, Israel is the only nation that receives the commandment to observe the Sabbath from God. This is an argument for Soulen to suppose that God was already before the fall in Genesis 3 intending to call Abraham, and to bring forth the people of Israel from his loins. If this conclusion is right, then God had the election of the Jewish people already in mind before there had even been any question of the fall. In that case this passage of Scripture presents a different story than the one we are used to, and that definitely takes some getting used to! But the strength and the attraction of Soulen's conclusions is that they present a basis – from Scripture itself - for a fundamentally different look at the place of Israel within the whole of theology. This exegesis by Soulen makes it possible to no longer connect the election of Israel exclusively with the fall and its resulting need of a Saviour. Jesus did of course come from the people of Israel, as the Scriptures clearly testify. But according to classical replacement theology the Jewish people’s mission has been fulfilled since Jesus’ coming. And this is just the point that Soulen contests so emphatically. His conclusion from Genesis 2:3 is so intriguing in that light. It provides an argument to situate God’s election of Israel even before the fall, within the basic pattern of creation itself. This presents a fundamentally different view of God’s motives in calling the people of Israel into being. It results in the place and role of Israel in the whole of God’s plan of salvation being no longer solely and only explained soteriologically. And Israel’s role is therefore not finished with the coming of Jesus.
The calling of Israel
Soulen sees Genesis 1 to 12 as an expanded creation story. After the first seven days follow the fall, the coming into existence of the generations that are the descendants of the first parent couple, the flood and again a line of generations that are the descendants of Noah, his three sons and their wives. Soulen then points to the fact that, in spite of the catastrophes of the fall - Cain’s murder of Abel, the earth that is filled with violence and the flood - God nevertheless continues to bless His creation. Each catastrophe has huge and dire consequences and yet both man and animal remain under God’s blessing and multiply anew, become numerous and fill the earth nevertheless. And this, as has already been mentioned before, is less self-evident than many assume. Who is not acquainted with the reaction of parents to the birth of a child: it is a miracle! Right up to the present day science, with all its knowledge, has not been able to penetrate into the secret of life. God does not withdraw His hand of blessing from His creation, in spite of sin. And He promises a Saviour in Genesis 3:15 who will finally bruise Satan’s head.
As has been said, Soulen sees the coming into existence of the generations, the nations, mentioned by name in Genesis 10, 11 and 12 as part of an expanded creation story. It is, moreover, the initial result of God’s commandment to multiply, to become numerous and to fill the earth. The coming into existence of many different nations is then unavoidable, as well as it is the God-willed consequence of his blessing of creation. Fill the earth and multiply ! In this respect Soulen points to the fact that there is both a horizontal and a vertical line to be found in the genealogies of Genesis10 and 11. There is a horizontal generational line in chapter 10, from Noah’s sons onwards, which results in the coming into existence of many different nations. And in chapter 11 we meet a vertical generational line that runs from Shem to Abraham. Soulen then sees Genesis chapter 12 as the completion of this whole episode of God’s creative work, which started in Genesis 1. This completion is the call of Abraham, who will call the people of Israel into being via the line of Isaac and Jacob. This call of Abraham is given a very fundamental role in Soulen’s concept. And judging by God’s choice of words when He calls Abraham, blessing once again plays a prominent role.
‘The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.' ( Gen. 12:1-3)
Soulen then makes the following observation with reference to this passage of Scripture. " Contrary to a common Christian assumption, nothing about this passage or its immediate context suggests that God's primary motive in calling Abraham is any special concern with the problem of sin, evil, or wickedness. To the contrary, God's motive seems chiefly to be the sheer fecundity and capaciousness of the divine good pleasure. While God's call of Abraham does indeed interrupt previous cycles of curse, this interruption appears to serve a more basic divine purpose. The same God who freely created the human family and blessed it with increase and growth ( Gen 1-11) now graciously promises to bless the world ( " all the families of the earth") in a new way that presupposes God's previous activity but cannot be reduced to it." (p. 120).
Here too we see that Soulen seeks to explain the significance of Israel’s election more broadly than simply and only doing so soteriologically. Israel’s role is apparently even still greater than the bringing forth of the promised Messiah. The coming of the Messiah constitutes a very essential part of Israel’s calling but according to Soulen it is definitely not the whole story
The continuing central role of Israel
On the same page Soulen also writes the following, with reference to Gen. 12:1-3: " Curiously, God's promise to bless Abraham, like God's blessing on creation, entails an inescapable moment of difference. On one side stand Abraham, Sarah, and their chosen descendants, on the other " all the families of the earth" ( Gen 12:3; 28:14). The resulting distinction between Israel and the nations runs through the rest of the Scriptures like a golden thread." ( p. 120-121).
On the basis of all this Soulen concludes that the distinction between Israel and the nations is meant and willed by God to be an everlasting fundamental distinction within humanity until the end, and that it can therefore never have been God’s intention that the Jewish people should in the end lose their identity by becoming completely assimilated into the Church. Both - Israel and the nations - are intended by God to be a blessing to each other, not only in the final shalom, but already now in the present time. The Jews who confess Jesus as the Messiah occupy a very special place in all of this. How horrible otherwise has been the relationship between Israel and the nations generally, and it is more often than not still marred by all kinds of antisemitism. I can do no better than to quote Soulen once again in this respect.
"In short ( and this is my proposal in the briefest possible compass), Christians should acknowledge that God's history with Israel and the nations is the permanent and enduring medium of God's work as the Consummator of human creation, and therefore it is also the permanent and enduring context of the gospel about Jesus. "” ( p. 110).
"As attested by the Scriptures, God's work as Consummator engages the human family in a historically decisive way in God's election of Israel as a blessing to the nations. The resulting distinction and mutual dependence of Israel and the nations is the fundamental form of the economy of consummation through which God initiates, sustains, and ultimately fulfills the one human family's destiny for life with God. So conceived, God's economy of consummation is essentially constituted as an economy of mutual blessing between those who are and who remain different. Thus interpreted, God's work as Consummator is inseparable from the open-ended history that unfolds between the God of Israel, Israel, and the nations. This history is not a more or less unfortunate consequence of sin, nor is it a merely prefigurative economy that prepares the way for something much higher and grander. Rather, God's history with Israel and the nations is the enduring form of God's gracious work as Consummator, apart from which the realization of the final end of human life is inconceivable. On this view, God's primordial work as Creator is oriented from the outset toward God's history with Israel and the nations, just as God's history with Israel and the nations is oriented at every point toward God's eschatological reign of shalom, where God's work as Consummator will finally be fulfilled. " ( p. 111-112)
An impossible contradiction
In this article I have deliberately focused on the central place of the notion of ‘mutual blessing’ in the concept which Soulen proposes. With this notion of ' mutual blessing' Soulen has opened a discussion about something very crucial. It is clear that the notion of ‘mutual blessing’ is very closely linked with the central New testament notion: the double commandment to love in the New Testament. Brotherly love is preeminently the motive to be a blessing to others. The commandment to love is called the highest by Jesus and by the apostle Paul and it is paramount as well in the letters of the apostles John and James. It is the most important commandment given by Jesus and the apostle Paul ( Mt.22: 36-40; Rom.13:8-10; 1 Cor.13:1-3, 13; Gal.5:13-14; 1 Tim.1:5). As strong as the emphasis on this commandment is in the New Testament, just as poignantly scanty is the attention paid to the love commandment in by far the greater part of classical theology.
The teaching of contempt of the Jews anchored in classical theology cannot be reconciled with the command God that has given the nations in Genesis 12: to be a blessing to Israel. It is undeniable that the classic 'Christian' teaching of contempt stands in flagrant contradiction with the commandment to love one's neighbour – a commandment that Jesus Himself nota bene reckons to the second part of the greatest commandment in the Law. However you look at it, in the light of the paramount priority given to brotherly love by both Jesus and the apostle Paul, the classical doctrine of replacement theology and the teaching of contempt that is inseparable attached to it, does have a very serious ethical and theological problem. It not only contradicts the greatest commandment, it also fails to comply with Gods command to bless Israel. What is even worse, classic replacement theology consistently cursed the Jewish people throughout the history of the Church from the second century onwards right into the 20th century. Seen in that light, the proposals Soulen makes for a theology which does not vilify but blesses are surely worth considering, to say the least.
Soulen’s concept is an important and theologically profound step forwards. It will most probably not be the last word on this subject. But his profound and creative way of theologising is downright challenging and callls for further reflection, elaboration and development. The precious material Kendall Soulen has handed the church and the theological community through this remarkable book lends itself pre-eminently to just that. Who will take up the challenge?
With reference to ' The God of Israel and Christian Theology' , R. Kendall Soulen, Fortress Press 1996
ISBN 13: 9780800628833
ISBN 10: 0800628837
Dr. R. Kendall Soulen is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and teaches Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He received his B.A. from Yale University, M.Div. from Candler School of Theology (Emory U), and Ph.D. from Yale University.
R. Kendall Soulen is also the author of ' The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity; Distinguishing Voices, volume 1, which was published in 2011.
He is as well the editor of Michael Wyschogrod's book ' Abraham's Promise; Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations'. Soulen wrote an introduction of 22 pages to the collection of essays and articles by this Jewish theologian whose theology has been an important source of inspiration for Soulen in writing his ' The God of Israel and Christian Theology' .
Recommended further reading
The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity ; Distinguishing the Voices volume 1 , R. Kendall Soulen Westminster John Knox Press
Israel and the Church ; the origins and effects of replacement theology, Ronald E. Diprose, Paternoster
Has the Church Replaced Israel ? A theological evaluation, Michael Vlach, B&H Publishing Group
Future Israel ; why christian anti-judaism must be challenged, Barry E. Horner B&H Publishing Group
Christianity in Jewish Terms , editors Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs Westview Press
Christians and Jews Together, Stuart Dauermann Wipf and Stock Publishers , MJTI Publications
Abraham's Promise ; Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Michael Wyschogrod, edited
and introduced by R. Kendall Soulen Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
The Internal Foe; Judaism and Anti-Judaism in the Shaping of Christian Theology, Jeremy F. WorthenCambridge Scholars Publishing
Postmissionary Messianic Judaism; Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People, Mark S. Kinzer Brazos Press
Israel' s Messiah and the People of God; A Vision for Messianic Jewish Covenant Fidelity, Mark S. Kinzer Cascade Books
Jews and Christians ; People of God, Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson editors, Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
The Crucifixion of the Jews; the failure of Christians to understand the Jewish experience, Franklin H. Littell Mercer University Press
Israel, Servant of God, Michel Remaud T & T Clark
The Origins of Christian Zionism; Lord Shaftesbury and evangelical support for a Jewish Homeland, Donald M. Lewis Cambridge University Press
Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, Paul C. Merkley Mcgill Queens University Press
The Politics of Christian Zionism 1891-1948, Paul C. Merkley Frank Cass
The Origins of Christian Zionism; Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland,
Donald M. Lewis Cambridge University Press
Another Reformation ; Postliberal Christianity and the Jews, Peter Ochs Baker Academic
© 2012 George Whitefield Stichting