God’s Israel and the Israel of God: Paul and Supersessionism,* edited by Michael F. Bird & Scot McKnight, Bellingham, WA, 2023, 188 pages, paperback.
Any book that tries to tackle the issue of supersessionism or replacement theology should expect a welcome. Of course, exactly what one means by “supersessionism” has to be addressed, and good representatives of the discussion must be chosen. Sadly, this book fails on both counts.
Since the subject of supersessionism has been a blight on the Church’s witness for centuries and has been given some welcome attention recently in several publications, one would think that a work with such a title would be of real value. And given that the editors are respected and capable scholars I was looking forward to reading the work. It is not as if McKnight and Bird didn’t have a large pool of proficient evangelical writers on the topic to choose from. That they singularly failed to get the right balance of contributors probably speaks more about their position on the subject than anything else.
The book is divided into two parts: Part One contains three essays that argue for what many would call supersessionism, although none of them set their stall out very clearly in that regard. Part Two has three essays by Respondents, only one of whom (David Rudolph) is an evangelical Christian.
The first four essays are by those who believe certain forms of supersessionism are inevitable (i.e., by McKnight, Bird, Witherington, and Cohick). This is because ancient Judaism itself included those sects who believed they were the true Israel as opposed to other Jewish sects. Ergo, “in Christ,” that is, in the Church, Jews have hope, but not as a covenant nation apart from the Church. These essays closely resemble each other and are quite repetitive without actually getting fully into the subject.
Scot McKnight complains that top level Christian scholarship that results in a “more nuanced” view of “new” Israel and “true” Israel is often bypassed (25-26). His example of the “best Christian scholarship” is N. T. Wright. But in his lengthy exposition of Wright’s position he fails to notice the veneer covering the same old supersessionist arguments.
Quite honestly who cares if one Jewish sect repudiated another sect as not being the true Israel? Call that “supersessionism” if you will, but you are just muddying the waters. At its ugly historical core supersessionism is the belief that the Church has taken over the national covenant promises God made to ethnic Israel so that there is no future for the nation of Israel in God’s eschatological plan. This is precisely what Wright, along with the first four essayists in this book believe. Or as Rudolph puts it,
I am convinced that when the smoke and mirrors are removed, Wright’s ‘redefined Israel’ view is ultimately a form of traditional supersessionism that is in continuity with the tradition of Justin Martyr’s transference theology.” (108)
Of course he’s right. One of the big problems with modern supersessionists is that they have convinced themselves (and others in their bubble) that they are not supersessionists. An example of this is when McKnight says, “Israel is not done away with; Israel is not superseded; Israel is expanded to include gentiles” (42, italics his).
But in the Church Jews are vastly outnumbered by Gentiles. Who cannot see that adding a hundred gallons of water to a drop of wine basically makes it water? It most certainly does not expand the wine! Even so adding mainly Gentiles to “Israel” replaces Jewish Israel with Gentile predominantly. Call them “Israel” all you want. This is not expanding Israel, it is eliminating it. Rudolph is the sole author in the book who calls it what it is.
Rudolph is also on the money with his observation that if the beliefs of the authors of Part 1 are followed it would logically lead to the gradual eradication of the Jews.
If Jewish boundary markers of identity no longer matter in God’s kingdom, the implication is that God no longer desires Jews to live as Jews. Jewish life has been superseded. (115)
Michael Bird’s piece argues that “in Christ” Gentiles become Israel (45, 46, 57). This cannot be smoothed over by high sounding words like “gentile deliverance is nourished by its Jewish roots (Rom 11:16-18), and gentiles are saved only by being grafted into Israel’s election (11:17)” (60). and “the church is the agent of Israel’s deliverance” (61). It is Israel’s national aspirations that are at issue, and Bird has no words of assurance about those.
Witherington’s chapter is a little better. But that is only because he does not get into the subject of supersessionism until the end. He does have some solid things to say concerning Galatians 6:16 (which he says is not referring to Gentiles – 76-77). However, once he enters the debate we get fulfillment of Israel’s covenant hopes “in Christ” (78, 79).
Lynn Cohick is the first respondent and she dutifully agrees with the three writers who precede her (84). Like those essays Cohick does not engage any challenges from Dispensationalist and Messianic Jewish writers other than briefly mentioning J. Brian Tucker on page 93. She spends the rest of her space discussing Melito of Sardis, which may interest some readers but does not really do much for me. Whether or not Melito agreed with Paul (Cohick says he didn’t – 101-102) really doesn’t do anything to further the discussion.
The two last essays (by Janelle Peters, a Roman Catholic, and Ronald Charles, a liberal) are quite honestly pointless and add nothing to the book. They are not even biblical scholars. Charles uses his space to attack McKnight’s premises, forgetting that McKnight is writing an essay not an academic article. While a few of his questions hit the mark (151, 164), he contributes nothing of substance towards the subject of the book.
Peters informs us all that she is the author of a prize-winning thesis (136 n. 11), and that she has expertise in the Dead Sea Scrolls; two pieces of information I could have happily died without knowing. But she wrongly interprets the olive tree root as Israel (136). She also thinks “Paul the Pharisee” has to be taken into account when reading him (133). For example, “Paul’s plant image in Romans is less supersessionist than the ‘mystery’ of Colossians, which could be evidence that Paul the Pharisee is indeed more present in Romans than Colossians” (136). A little meditation on Philippians 3:8 might be in order! Her final flourish caused me to blink in disbelief:
Although Paul, a former Pharisee, couldn’t resist engaging in dialogue with his former Jewish colleagues, the Roman Catholic Church must definitely not pressure Jews into following Christ. Jews have salvation on their own terms. (144-145)
Yes, you read that right. The Jewish Messiah can be safely ignored by Jews wanting to be right with God! After reading this essay my only response was “what possessed the editors to choose this scholar as a contributor to this book?”
Much the same can be said of Ronald Charles, whose piece includes the following question:
Paul’s view is accepted without question. This is a particular Christian perspective – that is, it is a particular construction of Christianity developed from Paul. However, does that render the statement gospel truth? (159)
At the foot of the page he objects to the view that unless one believes in Christ “there’s no salvation for you.” Honestly, what on earth were the editors thinking?
Both these authors believe Jews can obtain salvation other than through faith in Jesus Christ. Their joint efforts take up 36 pages of this short volume. Why they were given airtime in a book like this mystifies me. Perhaps this is what passes for good form in the academy nowadays?
While there are venues where the ideas of unbelievers belong this is not one of them. I object to having my time wasted, and I object to editors who have the seeming inability to choose contributors who could actually enhance the subject-matter of the book. This is a serious subject and McKnight and Bird need to wake up to it! With four essays arguing for some form of supersessionism and only one clearly against it again I must ask, “what is going on?”
What God’s Israel and the Israel of God lacks is a serious interaction with the main issues over the claim that the Church fulfills the promises of God to Israel. It would have been vastly improved if scholars like Craig Blaising or Craig Evans would have been participants instead of Cohick, and (especially) Peters and Charles. The editors found Gerald McDermott to write a blurb for the book. Could they not get him to write a chapter for it? There is no real give and take in this volume. Other than Rudolph’s effort the whole thing lacks bite. This book should have been so much better than it is. As it is, it is a wasted opportunity.
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Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.