Revised People of God and Supersessionism

At the heart of any theology of the Bible is the people of God, which means Israel and it is a source of astonishment that some write “biblical” theologies and have almost nothing on Israel — other than as background. At the same time, at the core of a Christian reading of the Bible as the Story of God in this world, is the church. In NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, this theme of church, along with the classic understanding of salvation, are tied together under the theme of “election.” All of this from a singular angle: The People of God, Freshly Reworked. We are talking here then as the church as the elect people of God — but what does election mean? And how does this get applied to the church after it was applied to Israel?

I use the term ‘election’, rather, to highlight the choice, by the One God, of Abraham’s family, the people historically known as ‘Israel’ and, in Paul’s day, in their smaller post-exilic form, as hoi Ioudaioi, ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Judeans’. The word ‘election’, as applied to Israel, usually carries a further connotation: not simply the divine choice of this people, but more specifically the divine choice of this people for a particular purpose (775).

Election, then, embraces some big themes and NT Wright mentions briefly each — justification, anthropology, being in Christ, salvation history, apocalyptic, transformation (deification), and covenant. Wright himself prefers covenant, thereby assuming election and covenant are to be brought together.

He knows the issues abound, including supersessionism, about which he has these strong comments to say:

We have to contend with what one can only call a revived anti-Christian polemic in which anything, absolutely anything, that is said by way of a ‘fulfilment’ of Abrahamic promises in and through Jesus of Nazareth is said to constitute, or contribute to, that wicked thing called ‘supersessionism’, the merest mention of which sends shivers through the narrow and brittle spine of postmodern moralism. How can we say what has to be said, by way of proper historical exegesis, in such a climate? (784)

The storied nature of covenant comes to the fore in NT Wright’s work: Adam and Abraham and Land and Exodus are all tied into a resumptive and redemptive framework, but the overall impact is that Abraham is the one through whom God chooses to work out the divine plan. In this section in PFG we get an important discussion of texts that connect Adam to Abraham. (I have myself for a number of years called Abraham the “first second Adam.”) From Genesis Rabbah 14.6: “Why is Abraham called a great man? Because he was worthy of being created before the first man. But the Holy One, blessed be he, thought, ‘Perhaps something may go wrong, and there will be no one to repair matters. Lo, to begin with I shall create the first Adam, so that if something should go wrong with him, Abraham will be able to come and remedy matters in his stead’” (from Wright, 794). In other words,

“The question of how this link played out – whether, as we said before, the Abrahamic purpose was designed to rescue the whole of the human race, or rather to rescue Abraham’s family from the rest of the human race – receives a variety of answers, but the underlying point remains: the promises to Abraham were understood in relation to the problems caused by Adam. Their intention was to get the human project back on track after the disasters of the fall, the flood and the idolatrous Tower. The covenant that YHWH made with Abraham was the way of seal- ing this intent, binding this God to his promise and Abraham’s family to this God, assuring Abraham of the ‘seed’ that would inherit the promises, the promises which were focused on the Land as the new Eden, promises which would be fulfilled by the Exodus from Egypt as the great act of redemption (794-795).

Covenant and righteousness go together: the former is the means of the latter. So NTW examines the meaning of “righteousness” yet one more time, and here is my four point summary:

  1. The word refers in the history of Israel first to right behavior in a relation to God and God’s will.
  2. It is connected to the law court, where the judge is to be righteous and the person in front of the judge may be declared right. (Sometimes the defendant is righteous anyway.)
  3. YHWH will vindicate/justify Israel because YHWH is righteous. God’s act of righteousness then is an act of salvation (Psalms, Isaiah 40–55). That is, God is faithful to his covenant with Israel in justifying/saving.
  4. YHWH’s righteousness then is also cosmic, setting the whole world right.

God’s righteousness, God’s restorative justice and God’s covenant faithfulness are all pulled into one whole in this term “righteousness.”

Israel, then, is God’s servant in this world. The covenant elects Israel to be the redemptive agent for God of the world. Which raises the issue of supersessionism all over again, and Wright sees three kinds:

Hard: God rejected Israel in Christ.

Sweeping: post Barthian, apocalyptic newness beyond anything earlier. It’s all new. He sees it in J.L. Martyn’s commentary on Galatians.

Jewish: Qumran. The rest of Judaism is compromised.

This latter kind emphasizes fulfillment and is not, he argues, genuinely supersessionist. He asks, Was John Baptist a supersessionist? Jesus? Paul? NT Wright sees his view of Paul to be this kind of Jewish supersessionism. He takes it all on with this:

My proposal has of course been (in chapter 6 of the present work and elsewhere) that Paul’s revision of the Jewish view of Election was more or less of the same type as what we find in Qumran. Call it ‘Jewish supersessionism’ if you like, but recognize the oxymoronic nature of such a phrase. The scandal of Paul’s gospel, after all, was that the events in which he claimed that Israel’s God had been true to what he promised centred on a crucified Messiah. That is the real problem with any and all use of the ‘supersession’ language: either Jesus was and is Israel’s Messiah, or he was not and is not. That question in turn is of course directly linked to the question of the resurrection: either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not. Trying to use postmodern moralism, with its usual weapon of linguistic smearing, as a way to force Christians today to stop saying that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah is bad enough, though that is not our current problem. Trying to use that moralism as a way of forcing first-century historians to deny that Paul thought Jesus was the Messiah, and that the divine promises to Israel had been fulfilled in him, simply will not do (810).

So election is all about God choosing Israel for a purpose:

1. Within the framework of the covenant outlined so far, in which Israel was called to be the people through whom the one God would rescue the world, Israel was called to be the Shema people, confessing the One God and loving him with heart, mind and life itself.

2. Israel was called to be the people shaped by the creator God’s ‘wis- dom’. Again, we looked at this earlier. For many in Paul’s day, this ‘wisdom’ was contained, more or less, in Torah.

3. Israel was called to be the people in whom, therefore, the life held out by Torah would become a reality – both in the sense of the ‘life’ of glad, loving obedience and the ‘life’ promised to Torah-keepers (much as the ‘tree of life’ remained, tantalizingly, in Eden).

4. Israel was the people in whose midst the living God had deigned to dwell, first in the pillar of cloud and fire, then in the wilderness tabernacle, and finally in the Temple in Jerusalem.

5. Israel was to be the people who inherited YHWH’s sovereign rule over the world. The promised land was a sign of this, but already by the first century many Jews had glimpsed the possibility, already implicit within the Adam–Abraham nexus, that the land was simply an advance signpost to YHWH’s claim over the whole of creation.

6. Israel was to be (according to the Pentateuchal origins and the second- temple writings already noted) the people who would discover YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant through the pattern of slavery and Exodus, of exile and restoration.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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