Baker Academic

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bono, Love, and Supersessionism - Le Donne

Most Christians believe in some form of supersessionism. This is to say that most of us believe that God chose Israel to bring Christ into the world for the ultimate purpose of establishing the Church. Or put another way: the teleology of God's covenants with Israel find fruition in Christianity. The implications of this belief should be (I say should be) obvious. Christian supersessionism fits hand-in-glove with anti-Judaism. We're sorry for those poor blighters, but God just can't bother with those old promises anymore.  Never mind what Paul says in Romans 11; we'd rather have a neat soteriology.

Actually, it's worse than this because it is much more subtle and not nearly as superficial as I've made it out to be.  Take, for example, this recent interview given by Bono: 
Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that's not so easy. 
Assayas: What about the God of the Old Testament? He wasn't so "peace and love"? 
Bono: There's nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.
Hello supersessionism, my old friend. Why are all of my favorite social justice icons so willing to adopt the premise of an OT-God-of-Wrath vs. a NT-God-of-Grace?  I have no problem with underscoring the "God is Love" mantra. We probably need much more of this. I can even get on board with the action movie metaphor. But what warrant do we have for viewing the Hebrew Bible as an action movie and the New Testament as a love story?  Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod is of the mind that the dominant thread of the Hebrew Bible is love (specifically eros).  God chooses a specific people to love passionately.  

It may well be the "passion" that motivates the action in our R-rated narrative (to merge the metaphors of Wyschogrod and Bono).  But, and this is where Bono fails, doesn't this metaphor work just as well for the book of Acts? Or Revelation? Or Mark and John for that matter?  The notion that "God is Love" is most clearly expressed in 1 John.  This epistle is quite disturbing for those of us who would rather preach a gospel of inclusion. The particularity of election established in the Hebrew Bible is alive and well in the New Testament - just framed differently.

And this brings us back to the topic of supersessionism.

Hebrew Bible scholar and Jewish theologian, Jon Levenson writes:
Radically transformed but never uprooted, the sacrifice of the first-born son constitutes a strange and usually overlooked bond between Judaism and Christianity and thus a major but unexplored focus for Jewish-Christian dialogue. In the past this dialogue has too often centered on the Jewishness of Jesus and, in particular, his putative roles of prophet and sage. In point of fact, however, those roles, even if real, have historically been vastly less important in Christian tradition than Jesus’ identity as sacrificial victim, the son handed over to death by his loving father or the lamb who takes away the sins of he world. This identity, ostensibly so alien to Judaism, was itself constructed from Jewish reflection on the beloved sons of the Hebrew Bible, reflection that long survived the rise of Christianity and has persisted into the post-Holocaust era. The bond between Jewry and the Church that the beloved son constitutes is, however, enormously problematic. For the longstanding claim of the Church that it supersedes the Jews, in large measure continues the old narrative pattern in which a late-born son dislodges his first-born brothers, with varying degrees of success. Nowhere does Christianity betray its indebtedness to Judaism more than in its supersessionism. (Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, p.x.)
This, I think, helps us understand the particularity of Christianity and the buds of supersessionism that are evident in the New Testament - buds that grow into forests in the writings of the Church Fathers.  But, while I can affirm the genius of Levenson on this point, I must be very careful when I echo it.  Levenson is a master at what he does.  He is also a Jew who is invested in the well-being of Judaism.  And, crucially, he is a Jew who is deeply invested in the well-being of Christians.  So he can imply that Christian supersessionism (e.g. Bono's view) is just a big-brother-little-brother thing.  And, after all, Christians are just mimicking what we've learned from our forebears.  But I, for one, am tired of being the prodigal.  It's time to grow up and take some responsibility.  Levenson's brilliant observation, while true, does not let Bono off the hook.


  1. Anthony, I’d be happy to discuss supersessionism, but I wonder if that’s at the heart of the problem you sense (me too) with Bono’s statement. Isn’t it possible to believe in supersessionism AND the continuity of God’s character from Old to New Testament? In fact, isn’t this the predominant (or at least a dominant) Christian position? The essence of supersessionism as you’ve described it (correctly, in my understanding) is that the new covenant replaces the old, so that the Church replaces the Jewish people as the focus of God’s plan for humanity. This replacement may raise difficult questions (see, e.g., Romans 11:1): perhaps God has changed God’s mind. But a change of mind, or of heart, does not necessarily mean that God changed.

    For me, the problem with Bono’s statement is the same problem I see in the writing of people like Peter Enns. Please understand, I admire Enns and read his blog regularly. Enns wants to find a way to deal with problematic Biblical provisions like the war instructions God gives to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 20:16: “for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.” My reading of Enns is that he contrasts the God that could give these kinds of orders with God’s character: merciful, loving, and so forth. It’s an interesting way to go, to assume that one’s general assessment of what God would and would not do trumps what the Bible said God actually did. But while the matter is complicated and there are arguments to be made against Enns here, I think he’s basically on the right track.

    Here’s where my problem comes in. From what I’ve seen, Enns’ problem texts come exclusively from the Old Testament. And the texts Enns draws upon to support his description of God’s true character? They seem to come mostly from the New Testament. I don’t for a minute think that either Enns or Bono are anti-Jewish, but when the problem they address is exclusively Old Testament and the solution is predominantly New Testament, the process does not seem to me to be good for the Jews.

  2. I'm happy with the 'supersessionist' label, as long as I can still believe the following:
    1. Jesus is Jewish
    2. Jesus is the Jewish messiah
    3. Jesus' gospel is primarily the final redemptive plan for Israel (ethnic, not national)
    4. Jewish people are the primary target/intended recipients of the gospel
    5. Gentiles are the secondary target/intended recipients of the gospel. They are graciously given the 'crumbs' of the gospel (Matthew 15/Mark 7)
    6. Jews and Gentiles are at peace but separate in the body. "He is our peace". (c.f. Ephesians 2:11-22)

    If my 'supersessionist' Jesus does not fit into the paradigms of modern day Judaism then so be it. I don't think Jesus would care (again, Matthew 15 shows how much Jesus cared about the traditions of the elders).

    I think the problem is that most supersessionists either accept none of the above points or only accept 1. and 2.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Re: point four, I would recommend Joel Lohr's chapter in this book:


  3. Thanks Anthony, that does look like an interesting book.

    I should clarify that I don't apply the supersessionist label to myself but I can see why a person who is Jewish would apply it to me. If they want to label me supersessionist while I hold to my view (outlined roughly with my six points) then so be it.

    My concern is primarily practical, not historical. As I see it the general Christian population have swallowed one or both of the following misconceptions: a) Jewish people do not need the gospel (the worst); or b) Jewish people are not the primary, intended recipients of the gospel (almost as bad).

    Both directly contradict the soteriology of the NT (particularly Romans 11 as you have pointed out). Both cause Gentile Christians to be apathetic towards evangelism to Jewish people.

    I would like to know how those misconceptions came about. Like every issue regarding modern Jewish and Christian relations, I'm sure a major factor will be the events including and surrounding the Shoah.

    1. I normally don't have a problem with replying to anonymous comments on this blog. But in the case of inter-religious dialogue, I must insist on equal footing re: self-disclosure.

      I just made up that rule.