WHY SUPERSESSIONISM IS PROBLEMATIC AND A HERESY
Image taken from Seattle Pacific University
Today, I would like to take the time to discuss my view of Romans 11, and the problem with historic approaches that I shall briefly allude to. The most infamous of approaches to Romans 9-11 is the allegorical reading of Romans 9-11. The Allegorical approach to reading Scripture has its strengths but when it come to these passages, its limits are exposed. Augustine of Hippo was one of the first Christians to apply this technique to these 3 chapters, and in the process, theological determinism was given birth. The debate starts with Romans 9:13, the oft quoted verse by Augustinians and Calvinists, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” In the context of the chapter, God’s election, God choosing special people over others, starts inside a woman’s womb, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, the daughter-in-law and relative of Abraham. Reading Romans 9:10-13 by privileging a Greek/Gentile literary reading strategy over and above unique revelation from YHWH (the Hebrew Bible)is problematic; it is a practical way in which supersessionism, the idea that Gentile-lead Christianity overtakes Judaism as the household of God, manifests itself. Augustine, and those who claim to be his heirs in Protestantism, the Reformed tradition with modern-day neo-Calvinists and the like do not in fact practice “Sola Scriptura” as they claim, or using Scripture to interpret Scripture first, but rather tradition and individualism to do so.
The implications from this interpretation are this: Jacob is the elect chosen before the creation, and Esau, in this ALLEGORY, is the reprobate, chosen by God before creation. Just when does God choose them to their fates, before or after the fall? Well that’s up to debate between our theological determinist friends. I’ll let them sort that out.
So, if we go by just the Reformation tradition, and its own standard of Sola Scriptura, there is conflict in the popular, predestination, individual election reading of Romans 9-11. The subsequent debate of Arminians proposing “corporate election” as opposed to “individual election” misses the point of my criticism. This isn’t about the nature of election; in the Hebrew Bible, there is both. This is about interpretation of Scripture, and the relationship of our Messianic Pharisee friend Paul’s writings with that of the canon. Using the Hebrew Bible/First Testament to understand the New/Second (biblical scholars call this practice intertextuality) is an important part in understanding God’s mission of to the world through God’s Son Jesus the Anointed One, and the Holy Spirit.
Supersessionism and its fellow heretical teaching, that of Marcionism (the belief that there is 2 God in the Christian canon, an evil violent God in the “Old” and a “peaceful”, loving God in the “New.” What perpetuates supersessionism is well meaning pastors and professors continually essentializing Judaism as a warmongering religion of revenge. Have you ever heard or read someone say that “the Jews were waiting for a violent messiah to overtake their enemies”? The idea that God evolved (that being God’s character) from violent to non-violent being taught by white Emergent Church leaders is just another form of this supersessionism, with a nice, smiling face. Amy Jill-Levine points out, for example, that the oft-cited Psalm of Solomon chapter 17, where Israel’s Messiah is supposed to have a “blitzkrieg” versus the Gentiles, verses often times get ignored. The nations are destroyed by “the words from his mouth.” Does this sound familiar? This is exactly the same concept that the author of Revelation says about Jesus, that a sword will come from Christ’s mouth in chapter 19, verse 15.
The example of Psalm of Solomon compared to Revelation is an example of just how dependent on Israel’s story Jewish and Gentile Christians alike really are. “Spiritualizing” Israel’s historic encounter with the One, True God is a supersessionist anti-Judaic practice. Let’s go back to Romans 9-11. It is my belief that the apostle Paul is utterly, hopelessly reliant on the words of the prophets, and in Romans, this is no different. Romans 9:10-13 cannot be understood apart from the stories of Jacob and Esau as well as Israel’s concrete relationship with Edom, the nation that descended from Esau. Malachi 1 for example addresses Israel implicitly as Jacob, and Edom (explicitly) as Esau:
“I have loved you,” says [YHWH].
“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?”
“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’
Throughout the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, if you pay attention to the details, Edom has a special place in God’s plan. Edom is a stand-in for the rest of us Gentiles and our stories. In Deuteronomy 23, YHWH orders the Israelites: “Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country.” In the time of Solomon’s reign, as punishment, YHWH raised up opposition, from guess where? Edom! So just as the Gentiles have historically been resistant to YHWH, so has Edom rebelled against the reign of Israel.
Fast forward to Romans 11, Israel’s story is one where the descendents of Abraham lived in a cycle of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and then exile and return. God is given credit with liberating the Israelites and Judeans time and time again with judges and kings, and even after God sends God’s people into exile, God makes a way for them to return, and even choose the empire that allows them to do so according to Ezra and Chronicles. Just as the imagery in Romans 9 about stressing God’s sovereign freedom and love, so is the image of God as a gardner, engrafting the Gentiles in to the roots and branches of Israel. Much like the author of Hebrews, Paul is arguing that the Gentiles have been included fully in the new plan. This is what makes the New Covenant better than the “old”: more people for God to call beloved. The election and call to service to YHWH as well as the gift of the Promise (which includes the Law) is irrevocable (Romans 11:28). The problem with supersessionism is that it is first and foremost, a rejection of God’s plan that includes the strategy of engraftment. Understanding our Gentile place is crucial part of understanding the mission of YHWH, the Word that YHWH sent went to Israel and Judah first, and then the Gentiles.
The Resurrection faith in Yeshua the Messiah does not permit us to ask, “who will go to heaven?” or “who will go down to the abyss?” (Romans 10:5-7). These questions are not what the covenantal relationship between God and humanity is about. The specific details of the afterlife are for God to know, and God is God’s own mystery and power decides alone (Romans 11:25-36). When it comes to living in fellowship with Jews, Jewish and Gentile Christians exist as a testimony that Israel’s covenant has been opened up, that God has reconciled Jew and Gentile.
“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”- Genesis 33:4 (NIV)