Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Thirty Nine

Beginning on p. 806, Tom discusses the issue of supercessionism (and the charge that his own approach to Paul is supercessionist). For those unfamiliar with this term, it has to do with the notion that the church has replaced Israel as the people of God, or even the church is the current phase of Israel as the people of God. Tom distinguishes three kinds of supercessionism: 1) hard supercessionism; 2) sweeping supercessionism, and 3) Jewish supercessionism. The first sort is the kind you find in the apocryphal document the Letter of Barnabas, which suggests that God has cast off the Jews forever, and that Gentiles have replaced them as the people of God. While this view did exist in some early church writings like the Epistle of Barnabas, it was largely rejected by the church, and today can hardly be found anywhere. This certainly was not Paul’s view, nor is it Tom Wright’s view. The second sort is what he calls sweeping supercessionism. This he associates with post-Barthian, post liberal theology which argues for an ‘apocalyptic’ view of things such that God invades the human sphere once more in Christ, providing a hard break with all religion of the past. This view denies there is any historical continuity at all between Jesus and the early Christian movement, and what came before. It isn’t that Israel has turned into the church, but that Israel, and indeed all previous religion, has been swept aside. We see this in E. Kasemann’s theory that the real target of Paul’s polemic was ‘homo religious’ ‘the hidden Jew in all of us’. This view was revived again by Lou Martyn in the U.S. and some of his doctoral students (compare the work of Bev Gaventa on apocalyptic and others of this ilk). The third sort of supercessionism is what Tom calls Jewish supercessionism and you see this at Qumran— the future of the people of God, the true Israel is found in a particular sect or subset of Judaism, in this case the Essenes. Tom’s proposal is that Paul’s view was more or less like that found at Qumran– a particular subset of Judaism, namely the Jewish followers of Jesus and those Gentiles who join with them is to be see as Israel going forward, the true Jews, the true Israelites. This was a claim made about Jews (and converts) by Jews who followed Jesus. They of course would say they had continuity with the people of God which had come before, and in particular continuity with Abraham and his covenant, which Paul creatively says happens through the seed of Abraham, namely Jesus himself.

I would suggest at this point that Paul would hardly like the term supercessionism (or ‘co-opting’ for that matter). He would see it as more a matter of completionism if I can make up a word, the fulfillment of the promise and the mission of Israel by Jewish Christians and their converts. Tom bets the ranch on a particular passage, Rom. 2.17-20 to make his case for this view.

My response to this can be found in my Romans commentary on 2.17-3.20. The failure to recognize the rhetorical form known as diatribe here is bound to lead to misinterpreting the text. Paul is here having a censorious Jewish teacher speak… to which Paul is offering the rebuttal. This is the very view Tom rejects for this passage, because it allows him to go on and make his case that :1) the church, Jew and Gentile are the true Jews; and 2) the church is indeed the continuation of Israel, indeed can be called Israel. Against this is not only my interpretation of Rom. 2.17-3.20, but also, and more clearly what Paul says in Rom. 9-11 where he insists that Israel still has a future, and it is going to arrive when Jesus returns (see 11.25ff.). The church is certainly not the continuation of those people of God who were under the Mosaic covenant. They are a people of the new covenant which is linked to the Abraham covenant and distinguished from the Mosaic covenant in both Gal. 4 and 2 Cor. 3, not to mention in Romans. But in addition, (see p. 812) Tom is arguing that what Rom. 2.17ff. is really about is about Jews failing to fulfill their mission to put the world to rights. It’s not in the main about the salvation or lack thereof of Jews.

At this juncture, it may be worth pointing why indeed some have criticized Tom for making ecclesiology the main focus, and soteriology and even Christology subsets of that, to such an extent that he keeps talking about Israel’s mission to save the world. This can be seen to be problematic in two regards— ‘being a light to the nations’ is not the same thing as being the saviors of the world. Salvation comes through the Jews to the world through the person of their messiah, but not from the Jews. Abraham, Moses, David Israel is not the savior, only the Messiah is. And here is where the ecclesiological reading goes especially wrong. Soteriology comes to fruition through Christology not ecclesiology, to put it somewhat quaintly. And equally to the point rescuing God’s people from bondage in Israel is hardly the same thing as the sort of salvation various NT writers are talking. Indeed, the OT doesn’t talk about salvation in a Christian sense– it talks about help, healing, rescue, not conversion based on a deep theology of human fallenness and the bondage to sin. Are there passages that foreshadow what the NT will say about the new birth, the new heart, yes— but they are by way of promise, not provision, foreshadowings not foretastes. None of this should lead to the conclusion that the NT simply has a spiritualized version of salvation, just for humans who want to go to heaven. Indeed, not since Paul talks about the creation being liberated along with the raising of the Christian dead in Rom. 8. But that of course is the ‘not yet’ of the salvific Good News, not the already. Now is the time that the schema of this world is simply passing away. Especially not the case is the list of six items of what Israel’s job was on p. 814. You will see what I mean if you substitute the word Christ for Israel here, and this is not just because Christ is doing the job Israel failed to do. It is because in fact Christ was asked to do something Israel was NEVER asked to do– namely be an atonement for the sins of the world. And notice finally that Israel will not be ruling the world in the future. As 1 Cor. 15 makes clear, Israel is nowhere in sight when we hear about Christ putting his own enemies under his feet the last of which is death, and then turning the Kingdom back over not to Israel or the church for that matter, but rather to the Father. The people of God will not rule in the place or as the mediator for God in the end. This is because of course God is coming in person, in the person of Jesus to finish and do the job. Paul is not handing out applications to his converts to sign up for the task.

P.S. Fun anecdote from the recent Houston conference on these works of Tom. Richard Hays quipped “Tom would have written a shorter book…. but he didn’t have the time”.


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