Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Church Fathers and Judaism

If you hang around patristic circles for any time, you will find someone who will object to the Fathers collectively because of their attitude to Judaism or women or such groups. Nor are these protests entirely without a point. We cannot expect the Church Fathers to be free from the prejudices and cultural blindness of their period, so, predictably, individual Church Fathers can be depended on to say things to which, today, we would take offense, if one of our contemporaries should say it. Part of this is because the rhetoric of the age was rather more polemical in tone than we would countenance in our rather bland, but serviceable civil discourse today. And, yes, part of it was the moral failings of those Fathers who were sinners, just like the rest of us. That sounds presumptuous, of course, but, if not even Paul could not rely on his own righteousness, I don't know anyone else who could. The last I checked the only sinless man was Jesus, so is it a stretch to say that his saints were also sinners, even if they were seeking sanctification in imitating Jesus to the best of their ability?

These thoughts particularly came into my head because, over the last few weeks, I've been reading R. Kendall Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology. Soulen examines the theological issue of how Christians have dealt with the God of Israel from the early patristic age (St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus) to the Englightenment (Schliermacher and Kant) to Barth and Rahner. His main aim was to examine the impact of supersessionism on our beliefs about the God of Israel and his people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His discussion of St. Justin and St. Irenaeus is, I think, illuminating, if disturbing for a patristics enthusiast living in this post-Holocaust world.

What he argues is that Justin and Irenaeus were instrumental in working out how to reconcile the Hebrew Testament with the Christian narrative, later expressed in the New Testament writings (which had not yet fully formed into a canon yet). He notes the appropriation of the Hebrew Testament, especially the prophetic writings, away from its historical connection with the people of Israel towards allegorical and typologically pre-figuring of Christ. That is, the story of Israel becomes the story of Christ pre-figured, while the story of the Church is the story of Christ in real time. In that sense, the experience of Israel as a people is superseded by the story of the Church in Christ. Israel in its carnal reality becomes obsolete and replaced by the spiritual reality of the Church. The most the Jewish people could be would be a noble ruin of a previous covenant. This would be defined as economic supersessionism in that the obsolescence of Israel is an essential feature of God's economy of redemption for the world.

Soulen, then, goes on to describe a more overtly anti-Semitic form of supersessionism: punitive supersessionism. This form of supersessionism, also found in Fathers like Justin and Irenaeus, goes beyond pronouncing Israel obsolete, but it openly argues that the Jewish people reject God in Christ and, thus, have been rejected by God. The persistent accusation levelled against the Jewish people that they were Christ-killers and such like comes from this form of supersessionism. Of course, after the Holocaust, this virulent form of supersessionism has been discredited and very few Christians would countence this kind of theological position.

What Soulen establishes for us is that the outlines of these two forms of supersessionism can be found in the 2nd century Fathers who most determined how we read Scripture: Sts. Justin and Irenaeus. He also points out that this settlement is very different from Paul's image in Romans about the Gentile church being a graft onto Israel and the understanding that Paul had that Israel will eventually turn to its Lord (Romans 11). He also notes that the economic supersessionism of the Fathers is later intensified by Enlightenment and post-Englightenment thinkers who wanted to expell all particularist elements of relligion from Christianity in order to enforce its claim as a universal, 'reasonable' religion.

This tendency towards supersessionism in this context explains the almost Marcionite tendency in mainline denominations (especially those with strong liberal leanings) to dismiss the Hebrew Testaments as merely law and, hence, useless for Christians who, like the New Testament church, are a people of grace. It also explains how and why the churches of Hitler's Germany so easily accepted the anti-Semitic measures of that government, even to the point of Holocaust. They simply had no resources to resist the formulation that Judaism could safely be removed from Christianity because they were already doing it.

The problem, of course, is what to do about this problem of supersessionism. It is, of course, easy to condemn punitive supersessionism, but economic supersessionism remains a more seductive and insideous problem. It is especially difficult because the Gospels clearly show Jesus re-interpreting passages of the prophets as evidence of his mission and, ultimately, of his death and resurrection. In that sense, the Fathers who look for Christological types in the Hebrew Testaments are really only emulating their Lord in how to read the Hebrew writings. Christianity very much tells its story by co-opting Israel's story as our own.

The question that remains for me at this stage is whether Christians can return to the settlement of Paul which saw Gentiles miraculously participating in the story of Israel as grafted branches? After all, did not several prophets suggest that, in the days of the Messiah, that the nations would worship the God of Israel? This approach, I think, would change the way that we would read the Hebrew Testaments, but also how we interact with the children of Israel today. Can we honour the faithfulness of God's people today, while continuing to maintain that they will come to accept their Messiah, Jesus Christ, in God's due time?

I can't yet answer these questions fully, but I think they are the directions in which we need to work, if we expect to re-interpret our relationship with the God of Israel, the Hebrew Testament and the Jewish people. May we have the wisdom to do just that.

Peace,
Phil

12 comments:

Tim A. Troutman said...

I've always said - Christianity is more Jewish than Judaism. Christianity is Israel's god becoming God of the entire world instead of remaining a relatively insignificant ethnic deity - to borrow words from NT Wright.

Nice discussion.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

From your description and the other reviews (nine of them) that I've read, I'd have to say that Soulen's approach is deeply flawed.

Supersessionism may still be a going concern among certain Protestant circles, but pulling in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus to support such is a blatant misreading of them akin to proof-texting. Both follow the depiction of the Apostle Paul that the people of the Body of Christ are not simplistically the new Israel, but the continuation of Israel itself, "grafted on." Likewise, Paul and the other Apostolic writers clearly portray Christ precisely AS the God of the Old Testament, and that He came to reveal the Father, who had not been clearly known before that. That is, the Jews were worshipping Jesus in YHWH, but unaware of doing so. This identification of Jesus with YHWH is contemporary among the Orthodox, where you'll find icons of Jesus with a cross in the nimbus around his head, with the letters Ο ΩΝ in the arms of the cross, "He Is" or "He Who Is" -- a direct translation of YHWH and a quotation of Exodus 3.14 in the Septuagint version.

Aside from all that, how can Soulen avoid the development throughout the Prophets of the anticipated Anointed, the Son of David, particularly in the exilic and post-exilic prophets? It is this Messiah, the Son of David, the scion to the throne of David promised to last forever by God, that they look for. That's pretty messianic. And, if I'm correct, the entire trend from Genesis into 2 Kings is particularly to legitimate the first Son of David, Solomon, as the legitimate firstborn ruler not just of Israel, but of all the descendants of Adam. The "messianic" imperative was thus integral to the origin of the literature itself, not a secondary importation. Even if one doesn't agree with that viewpoint, the LXX/Old Greek translators clearly shared a rather messianic trend in a number of their treatments of "messianic" texts, and they all date to long before there were any Christian exegetes to "misinterpret" the Hebrew.

I think Soulen finds solace in positing a solution to a negativity that isn't there, but that others have read into the text, whom he follows. It's very trendy, but has become tiresome. The Bible and the Church Fathers are not responsible for or associated with the asinine solipsistic fabrications of later pseudo-theologians. They stand in opposition to such when read honestly. That Soulen would attack simplistic readings of the Bible and Church Fathers is a good thing, but he shouldn't introduce other misreadings in their place. That's my biggest gripe.

Jim said...

"suprasessionism" he says so I go look it up. Nothing, except Google telling me I probably meant "Supersessionism." Great, first you use a $50 word, then you spell it funny. What is a poor business major to do? ;-)

I think that as is often the case, I like Paul's idea. If at some point, Jewish and Christian are to come together, then a lot of the problem seems to me to go away.

Jesus seems to have stood in the line that we see in 3 Isaiah "My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations. I think the idea that we somehow replace (to use a word I can at least spell) the Jewish is simply wrong. Rather, we follow Jesus into it. It is precisely His radical hospitality that so offended the pharisees.

Which leads to the question of where that leads us, in this generation and what reading what reading Justin and the other fathers might tell us about that. And it asks what we need to re-capture from discarded Jewish practice and thought. Hmm....

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Kevin;

I do think Soulen over-states the degree of suprasessionism in Justin and Irenaeus, although I think we have to concede a degree of economic suprasessionism. Whether it goes past the Pauline understanding of two sets of practice, but one church is open to some debate. At a certain point, we do have to recognize that Jesus thought of himself as and was recognized as Israel's Messiah. I think Justin and Irenaeus got that in a way that many modern theologians don't.

To be fair to Soulen, apparently he has backed away from his rather low Christology implied in this book. I haven't finished this book yet, so I can't comment. I know my wife's theology professor suggested the first part of the book was better than that latter half. We'll see.

Jim;

Re; the Pharisees.
You have a point, of course, but many of the prophecies of the Messiah in the Prophets presumed that the Gentiles would be pulled into the worship of the God of Israel. To that extent, the Pharisees would have to recognize that this was a mark of the Messiah. Their problem, ultimately, was that they weren't convinced that Jesus was delivering the goods.

Peace,
Phil

Weekend Fisher said...

So would you say "supersessionism" is the more accurate description for what you've read in the fathers, or "completion / fulfillment"? I know the views are easy to confuse but there's a huge difference. "Supersessionism" sees Christianity as a new and different thing from Judaism; you can only replace or supersede something if what comes next is a radical break, discontinuous with the past. I think to speak of supersession means that someone in the conversation -- either the speaker or the interpreter -- has a view that Christianity is a radical break from Judaism.

If Christianity is seen in full continuity with Judaism as the promises of God for all nations as fulfilled in the Messiah, then it leads to a whole different set of questions. On that view, the question is not "did Christianity replace Judaism?" but "in light of Judaism, is it equally valid to reject the Messiah or to accept the Messiah?"

So one key factor in my mind is to what extent the fathers thought that Christianity was discontinuous with Judaism and a replacement for Judaism, and to what extent they thought Christianity is just what you call Judaism gone global and accepting the Messiah.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Phil Snider said...

I clearly have mush for brains this week. One outright correction and two strong hints and I still don't get it until 12 a.m. last night.

supersessionism

not

suprasessionism

I've fixed all instances in the post now and now, I'll just sit in a linguistic corner.

Peace,
Phil

P.S. I'm a little too muzzy and sick to respond to Anne tonight. Besides, we have a first birthday party to deal with tomorrow.

Yes, Ian is one tomorrow!

Malcolm XYZ said...

this blog rocks! you know anybody who'd like to get a Greek study group together. come visit my page sometime. I'll be back

Phil Snider said...

Anne;

I think that is the main problem, complicated by the fact that later theology certainly saw the break between Judaism and Christianity which was very sharp. I think that is rather another study. A logical place to start would be Justin's Dialogue with Trypho. Perhaps that is something to work through carefully.

Peace,
Phil

Phil Snider said...

Malcolm;

Thanks for the complement. A Greek study group is an interesting idea, although the question is whether I'll have time. Still, others may be interested.

Peace,
Phil

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Phil

You were saying: "later theology certainly saw the break between Judaism and Christianity which was very sharp."

I think, though, that positing a break with Judaism is a misstep ... just saying.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Jim said...

So, here then a theological question. If not "suprasessionism" or its near cousin, "supersessionism" then what? Do Christians decide that Jewish practice is equivilant, better, something to adopt or what?

FWIW
jimB

StBasil said...

Can we not offer an alternative to the options of complete break or perfect continuation? It is obvious that there is not a complete break in Christianity from Judaism, hence the Apostle's notion of "being grafted on to the root." However, the question is more over the historical people of Israel and their rejection of the Messiah - and in some ways their rejection of their own covenant.

When Jesus came, He continually had to offer many of them correct understanding of the Law and the Prophets. He was, it seems to me, guiding them to the truth of the covenant.

The entire Law and the Prophets point to Christ - He is their fulfillment - so when the people of Israel reject Christ then they no longer continue in faithfulness to the covenant and all it holds for them. The promises cannot be true when faithfulness is not kept to the demands of it.

Soteriologically, Christianity has replaced old Israel as the new Israel, the one which remains true to the covenant and its promises. I would argue that is the replacement. In this regard the disciplinary laws have passed away. However there is continuity in that Christ fulfills the old covenant and brings salvation by grace in the new covenant. He demands nothing contrary to the old covenant but fulfills them all. What the Law was powerless to do, Christ brings to us - i.e. grace.

Those who would assert that Judaism is still salvific, that their covenant can save them or that they are still the chosen People of God err. Because Christ was the fulfillment of the old covenant, He is the definitive covenant. Those who do not continue with Him cannot hope for eternal life. Modern day Jews may play a role in the plan of Divine Providence, and many of them may still come to salvation in the fulfillment by Christ, but they do not any longer represent the chosen People of God corporately.

I know that is sort of a rant but just wanted to offer my two cents. Your blog post was very interesting. I am fascinated with historical theology, particularly in this regard. Thanks for posting it. I think often in the modern world people are forced to think emotionally more than intellectually, i.e. saying certain things must be true about the Jews not because of objective truth or fact but moreso out of emotional compassion for their plight.

Pax Christi tecum.