Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Supersession and Continuance: The Orthodox Church's Perspective on Supersessionism

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Supersession and Continuance: The Orthodox Church's Perspective on Supersessionism

Article excerpt

Over the last few decades as Western scholars have developed the term "supersessionism," they have used it with increasing frequency to portray traditional Christian views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, between ancient Judaism and Christianity. Yet, it is almost never mentioned in the Orthodox Church, whose traditions focus on the first several centuries of Christianity. The perspective of Orthodox Christians is important for ecumenical relations, since they number 200-300,000,000 worldwide, (1) and it is especially relevant to the Holy Land, where it is the largest Church among Palestinians and Israelis.

This raises the fundamental question of whether Orthodoxy is, in fact, "supersessionist." This essay will show that the Orthodox Church is "supersessionist" in that New Testament concepts take precedence over Old Testament ones, and Christ's coming transforms Israel's spiritual community into the Church. Yet, "supersessionism" does not give the full range of Orthodox thought, since biblical Israel and the Old Testament continue in important ways.

One must begin by reviewing the meanings of "supersessionism," which vary from inclusive to exclusive. "Supersede" itself has a scale of meanings, from full replacement to incorporation without abolition. There are other important considerations: How do Orthodox theologians view the topic? Does Orthodox thinking differ enough from that of Western Christianity that supersessionism is inconceivable? Are there ways in which supersession both occurs and does not occur? What does it mean that the Church is the "New Israel," and does that mean that the nation Israel is simply rejected?

I. Defining "Supersessionism"

Dr. Michael Vlach, a leading Evangelical scholar on "supersessionism," has defined it broadly as "the view that the NT Church is the new and/or true Israel that has forever superseded the nation Israel as the people of God." (2) He explained that supersessionism may encompass the Church, either replacing or fulfilling the nation Israel's role in God's plan. (3) One difficulty is that connotations of "replace" and "fulfill" range from one thing's cancellation of another (replacement) to the creation of fullness or success (fulfillment). Like Vlach, whose work opposes supersessionism, Orthodox Christians do not see the Church as cancelling the nation Israel "forever" from any role in God's plan, because they expect its whole return, (4) but they do see the Church as accomplishing Israel's task of bringing humanity to God.

The 2011 study document of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, One Covenant of Grace, focusing on this idea of fulfillment, portrayed supersessionism sympathetically, stating: "As Presbyterians, we want to affirm Jesus' work and fulfillment of the covenant on our behalf, [so] what [Rabbi] David Novak calls a 'soft supersessionism' may be in view." (5) Believing that in the early Church the New Testament was considered either a replacement or an addition, Novak called the latter idea "soft supersessionism," which, he wrote, "does not assert that God terminated the covenant of Exodus-Sinai with the Jewish people. Rather, it asserts that Jesus came to fulfill the promise of the old covenant." (6) He added that

   it seems to me that Christianity must be generically
   supersessionist. In fact, I question the Christian orthodoxy of any
   Christian who claims he or she is not a supersessionist at all. The
   reason for my suspicion is as follows: If Christianity did not come
   into the world to bring something better.... then why shouldn't
   anyone ... remain within normative Judaism? (7)

In other words, Novak viewed supersessionism in general to mean that Christianity brought something better and that it need only mean a fulfillment, rather than a termination, of the old covenant.

Catholic theologian Fr. Brian W. Harrison did see supersessionism as implying the end of the Mosaic covenant, calling it

   the traditional Christian belief that the covenant between God and
   the People of Israel, established through the mediation of Moses at
   Mount Sinai, has been replaced or superseded by the 'New Covenant'
   of Jesus Christ. … 
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