28 May 2024

No false unity on show: God’s Israel and the Israel of God

Picture: iStock

Daniel Zeunert 

11 May 2024

Bird, Michael F. & Scot McKnight, eds., God’s Israel and the Israel of God: Paul and Supersessionism. Bellingham: Lexham, 2023. 

All Christians who read the first three quarters of their Bible ask the question at some point, “What has become of Israel, now that Christ has come?” “How are we to think of the New Testament church in relation to Old Testament Israel?” The theological term “supersessionism” describes a spectrum of views that consider Israel to have been replaced by the church. So then, does Paul present a supersessionist theology? These questions are not merely academic, but affect our church practice and evangelism. 

Michael Bird and Scot McKnight’s edited book, God’s Israel and the Israel of God aims to bring some clarity to this topic. “Supersessionist” is a title that most pastors and theologians would like to avoid. An extreme caricature of supersessionism is as the belief that the Gentile church has replaced the Jewish nation of Israel in God’s redemptive purposes. The term is used as a slur that is often equated with Christian antisemitism. Today in particular, as Jewish people are experiencing an alarming surge in anti-semitic attacks, Christians would prefer to distance themselves from such labelling. This book shows that the polarising rhetoric on both sides of this discussion does not paint the whole picture. 

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A range of views on supersessionism in Paul’s writings are presented. Bird and McKnight present their case that if Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, then some level of supersessionism is unavoidable. The most basic tenet of their view is: the affirmation that “faith in Christ is necessary for salvation” is inherently supersessionist. Does the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus “supercede” the old covenant? If yes, then that is at least one version of what is known as “supersessionism”. Contrary to the strawman stereotype, Bird affirms the place of ethnic Israel in God’s purposes, while arguing that Paul’s view of Israel is more correctly “expanded” to now include Gentiles.  

The honest responses included in this book illustrate just how difficult this issue is to navigate. A Messianic Jewish response (David J. Rudolph) critiques the editors’ view, positing that Israel remains in a unique covenant relationship with God. However, as McKnight points out, it is unclear in this view whether faith in Jesus is required for Jewish people to be saved. Much grace and understanding is needed when considering this view. It is more than reasonable that Messianic Jewish people are triggered by any hint of theological marginalisation of their people. Jesus-believing Jewish people were subject to the same horrors of the Shoah as their non-believing brothers and sisters.  

This is perhaps why McKnight makes an effort to allay these fears, plainly saying that he celebrates Messianic Jewish identity within the church. Additionally, Messianic Jewish thought is not monolithic, so McKnight’s critiques are not necessarily critiques of all Messianic congregations. For example, the fear that Messianic congregations rebuild the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14) is not true of our Melbourne context, where Beit HaMashiach welcomes a large gentile contingent in their congregation in Caulfield. 

Read more: An elegant, joyful, gentle book: Reading Genesis

It may be surprising to protestant audiences that a Catholic response (Janelle Peters) emphasises that God still works through the old covenant with non-believing Jewish people. Majoring on, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” (Romans 11:29) Peters echoes the official Catholic position since the second Vatican council in the 1960s that the church does not replace Israel, and that Jewish people have salvation apart from Christ. The obvious result being that Catholics discourage Christians from evangelising to Jewish people.  

A final contribution from a liberal approach (Ronald Charles) questions the application of any supersession on the basis that he does not accept the authority of the apostle Paul. The same old speculation of “Paul’s Christianity” being but one of many divergent “Christianities” is regurgitated, and thus we are told not to uncritically accept any supersessionism we find in Paul’s writings. A summary chart of the views presented in this book is as follows: 

 Supersessionist Non-Supersessionist 
Bird / McKnight Messianic Catholic Liberal 
Does the church expand Israel? Yes No No No 
Should Christians evangelise Jewish people? Yes Yes No No 

Rarely does one find an edited volume with such rawness in disparate views on display. Rather than presenting some kind of false unity, Bird and McKnight have left us with a realistic state-of-play of the complex debates around supersessionism. The tension felt between the contributors leaves McKnight confessing, somewhat hysterically, “I have never once enjoyed this conversation.” Rather than dissuading Christians from engaging, this frustration leaves us feeling the weight of what is at stake in this conversation. Surely, we can agree that a hardline (punitive) supersessionism excluding ethnically Jewish people wholesale from God’s plans is to be rejected. Equally, we should see that the milder form of supersessionism (as presented by Bird and McKnight), retains the impetus for sharing the gospel that is, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” (Romans 1:16). 

Daniel Zeunert works for International Mission to Jewish People and is a tutor at Ridley College. 

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