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 In that sense, the experience of Israel as a people is superseded by the story of the Church in Christ.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.