Supersessionism (sometimes referred to as replacement theology by its critics) is a belief that Christianity is the fulfillment and continuation of the Old Testament, and that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Messiah are not being faithful to the revelation that God has given them, and they therefore fall short of their calling as his chosen people. This view holds that racial and ethnic divisions and boundaries are ended in Jesus Christ, and faith in Jesus unites all peoples into one new body, which is God’s chosen people.
There are two basic types of supersessionism:
- The Jews are no longer considered to be God's chosen people solely based on ethnicity.
- The ethnic Jews are still chosen but their calling is frustrated, pending their acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah, or Muhammed as Prophet.
The first view holds that Jews are no longer chosen based on ethnicity, but that God sent is working to reconcile sinful people irrespective of Jews and Gentiles.
The second and more common form of supersessionism does not on its own terms theorize a replacement. Instead it argues that unbelieving Israel has been superseded only in the sense that the church or Ummah has been entrusted with the fulfillment of the promises of which Israel has been the trustee. The Jews have been and are forever the chosen trustee of the covenants, the Law, and the promises of blessing and salvation, and the lineage of the Messiah, and yet many of the Jews have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, the church receives the promised Messiah not on the basis of ethnicity but through faith in identity of the Christ or final Prophet, and thus consists of any Jews and any Gentiles who profess that faith.
This belief has served as the explanation for why Christians need not adhere to some laws that are seen as only for the people of God before Christ (for instance, circumcision and adherence to the Jewish dietary laws, which were addressed at the Council of Jerusalem), and it is also the rationale for urging the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Different branches of Christianity have further variations on the doctrine.
Supersessionism was traditionally considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be its ex cathedra irreformable position on the relationship with post-Messianic Judaism. The Council of Florence of the 15th century solemnly defined, that "It firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives" if they consciously and obstinately refuse to embrace the Catholic Christian Faith. The only logical explanation for this teaching then was, that Judaism of the Old Testament had been replaced by or rather transferred to the New Testament with its own law and sacred rites. In fact this is what Popes taught throughout all centuries. Pope Pius XII also re-affirmed this doctrine in his encyclical Mystici Corporis (June 29, 1943), when he authoritatively taught, that "the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished" and that "on the gibbet of His death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race. 'To such an extent, then,' says St. Leo the Great, speaking of the Cross of our Lord, 'was there effected a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from the many sacrifices to one Victim, that, as Our Lord expired, that mystical veil which shut off the innermost part of the temple and its sacred secret was rent violently from top to bottom.'" Pope Pius XII also clearly condemned the two-path approach dividing Gentile and Jew once again as in the Old Testament, when he taught, that "Christ, by His blood, made the Jews and Gentiles one 'breaking down the middle wall of partition...in His flesh' by which the two peoples were divided; and that He made the Old Law void 'that He might make the two in Himself into one new man,' that is, the Church, and might reconcile both to God in one Body by the Cross." Hereby Pope Pius XII doctrinally affirmed, that the Church was from the beginning established for the salvation of all people, both Jews and gentiles, thereby excluding the possibility of a two-path-approach for all Roman Catholics.
In the 20th century, certain hierarchs of the Roman Catholic Church issued a number of theological position papers which appear to reject this concept outright, and affirm that the Torah is a valid path for Jews and Jewish proselytes to achieve salvation, that their covenant with God is still valid, and that the Jews of modern times are a direct unbroken continuation of the ancient Children of Israel. This view is not accepted by all Roman Catholic theologians, and it is rejected outright by traditional Catholics though it has been reaffirmed several times by various contemporary Catholic hierarchs. The Catholic Church still proclaims extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, though some claim a subtle shift in interpreting this to mean the axiom sine Ecclesia nulla salus that is, that although the presence of the Church in the world makes salvation possible, membership of the Church is by no means required in order for individuals to be saved. The Catholic Church however recently affirmed the necessity of Jesus and membership in the Church for salvation in the declaration Dominus Iesus. However, although salvation comes from Christ, the teaching of the Church expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium is that those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" may attain salvation.
Furthermore, another Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, as well as the repeated comments of Pope John Paul II, according to some imply a repudiation of supersessionism by insisting that the divine covenant which constitutes Israel as a nation remains permanently in force. However at the time of its approbation at Vatican II it was not understood as dispensationalist at all, mainly as affirming that the Old Testament's promise was never taken away, but was "perfected" in the New Testament religion and thus, that the Old Testament had been transferred into the New Testament, while being abolished and void of salvification if taken only by itself.
Covenant theology, a dominant theological schema within the Reformed churches, has as one of its core teachings the idea that the covenant with the Old Testament nation of Israel is continued in the historical Christian church, and that most prophetic reference to a promised exaltation of Israel is fulfilled in the ascension of Jesus and in the Christian Church, and otherwise will be fulfilled in the endless age after Christ's return and the resurrection of the dead. It holds that God's original purpose was to create for himself one covenant people, which was to be found in the people of Israel in the years before Christ, and in the international church in the years after Christ. Adherents of this view cite Romans 9:6ff, 11:1-7 to substantiate their belief that only the elect of both covenants are God's chosen people — that even prior to Christ, not all who belonged to the nation of Israel were "children of the promise". So while unbelieving Jews are still considered "blessed" (because they have the Old Testament) they are, in the end, no different from unbelieving gentiles in their position before God. Jesus Christ, not Palestine or Jerusalem, and Immanuel not the people of Israel is the focal point of covenant theology.
Jewish Restorationism is the belief of some Christians concerning the end times when they believe that certain Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel will be fulfilled in their return to their ancestral home, and ultimately in a large-scale conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Many conservative Christian groups anticipate a future time, when God will return his focus to the Jewish nation, whence a national conversion will take place where all or almost all Jews will miraculously convert to Christianity, citing the book of Romans 11:26a: "And so all Israel will be saved."
Usually those who hold this view note that it does not say every individual Jew will be saved but that the nation as a whole will be saved, just like the nation as a whole supposedly committed the unpardonable sin. It will still be up to individuals to accept the Gospel of the Kingdom or reject it, but the nation as a whole will be blessed, perhaps in the sense that its representative leadership is blessed.
This hope of a Jewish restoration has an especially prominent place within dispensationalism. The distinctive dispensationalist scheme conceives of the Christian church and the church age as primarily an arrangement through which God gathers in the Gentiles, a parenthesis in God's dealing with the Jews, which has been instituted because the Jewish people rejected the Messiah. Dispensationalists classically believe that the acceptance of Christ by the Jews will come about as a distinct group, after the age of the Christian church. In other words, they believe that Jews are a permanent feature of God's plan, apart from the Christian church; and it is in this sense that they deny supersessionism. They nevertheless believe that the Jews are in need of conversion to Christianity, and this conversion will signal their restoration - unlike others who would use the language, to reject supersessionism.
Like the dispensationalists, some supersessionists commonly anticipate a momentous future conversion to the church of the Jews on the basis of Romans 11, especially verse 26. Dispensationalism's distinctive difference from the common view of this "mystery" (as St. Paul calls it) is in its idea that the church is primarily intended for the salvation of the Gentiles, and that the Jews have a separate destiny that cannot be fulfilled in the church age. In the dispensationalist scheme, the Jewish restoration and acceptance of Christ will be as a people distinct from the Christian Church (which by that time will have ceased to exist on the earth, having been removed by a miracle called the rapture). Most dispensationalists believe that 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, spoken of in the Book of Revelation, are either the literal or symbolic number of ethnic Jews who will be followers of Christ during the Great Tribulation. In the meantime, dispensationalists typically hold that the promise "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse" (Genesis 12:3) has abiding reference to the Jewish people and the modern, political state of Israel. Such ideas are often used in support of Christian Zionism. Yet most non-Dispensationalists have held throughout church history, that the salvation of Israel is not postponed until the Second Coming of Christ as Dispensationalists speculate, but rather, as the Apostle Peter stated in Acts 2:36-39, the salvation of Israel has been occurring, and continues to occur throughout the New Testament harvest period, and will be complete at the second coming.
Several liberal Protestant groups have formally renounced supersessionism, and affirm that Jews, and perhaps other non-Christians, have a valid way to find God within their own faith. The doctrine has also lost strength among twentieth century Protestant evangelicals, especially in the U.S., through the influence of dispensationalism, which posits that the Jews will inherit the promises concerning the Messiah in a future restoration (see "Restorationism" above) and in the meantime are the subject of God's favor as a people under the same terms that applied to them prior to the coming of the Messiah. Some few groups assert a theory that their group is the chosen people rather than those who are called Jews, and in so doing, these groups emphatically reject supersessionism by adopting the identity of true Israel so that the Jewish people are in some cases regarded as false Israel (see, for example, Anglo-Israelism and Christian Identity).
Supersessionists see their view as a theology of fulfillment, but from the standpoint of Judaism and other critics, it is reviled as a theology of replacement. Yet according to supersessionism, no ethnic Jew who truly believes the Gospel is ever replaced, any unbelieving Jew (like Judas Iscariot or Ahab) was never truly part of God's chosen people because he or she had never followed God, and a person's race alone does not merit God's favor.
Relevant New Testament passages
- John 1:11-13: "[Jesus] came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
- Romans 1:16-17: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."[Habakkuk 2:4]
- Romans 2:28-29: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God."
- Romans 3:29-31: "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law."
- Romans 9:6-8: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but 'Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring."
- Romans 10:12-13: For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."[Joel 2:32]
- Romans 11:1-6: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 'Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.' But what is God's reply to him? 'I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.' So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace."
- Romans 11:26: "So all Israel will be saved."
- Galatians 2:14-16: When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."
- Galatians 3:29: "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise".
- Revelation 3:9: "Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie - behold, I will make them come and bow down at your feet and they will learn that I have loved you."
1. At Makkah the Quran generally addressed the mushrik Quraish who were ignorant of Islam, but at Al- Madinah it was also concerned with the Jews who were acquainted with the creed of the Unity of Allah, Prophethood, Revelation, the Hereafter and angels. They also professed to believe in the law which was revealed by Allah to their Prophet Moses (Allah's peace be upon him), and in principle, their way was the same (Islam) that was being taught by Prophet Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him). But they had strayed away from it during the centuries of degeneration and had adopted many un- Islamic creeds, rites and customs of which there was no mention and for which there was no sanction in the Torah. Not only this : they had tampered with the Torah by inserting their own explanations and interpretations into its text. They had distorted even that part of the Word of God which had remained intact in their Scriptures and taken out of it the real spirit of true religion and were now clinging to a lifeless frame of rituals. Consequently their beliefs, their morals and their conduct had gone to the lowest depths of degeneration. The pity is that they were not only satisfied with their condition but loved to cling to it. Besides this, they had no intention or inclination to accept any kind of reform. So they became bitter enemies of those who came to teach them the Right Way and did their worst to defeat every such effort. Though they were originally Muslims, they had swerved from the real Islam and made innovations and alterations in it and had fallen victims to hair splitting and sectarianism. They had forgotten and forsaken Allah and begun to serve mammon. So much so that they had even given up their original name "Muslim" and adopted the name "Jew" instead, and made religion the sole monopoly of the children of Israel. This was their religious condition when the Holy Prophet went to Al-Madinah and invited the Jews to the true religion.
- Concilio de Florence, La Bulla Cantate Domino, 1442
- Encyclical Mystici Corporis, 6-29-1943, Pope Pius XII, On the Church, par. 25-33.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 846
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- Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi's Chapter Introductions to the Qur'an