There is a heresy that has plagued religion almost from the beginning of time. It infects the most noble of faiths and causes outbreaks of violence repeatedly throughout history. Like a virus that is unaffected by all of the antibiotics, this heresy bides its time, mutates, and reappears to threaten the health of the body. For being such a virulent threat to the health of the body, it receives surprisingly little attention in modern day thought. Its generic name is supersessionism.
Historically this heresy became quite visible to Christians in their early existence. Paul felt the need to respond to it in Romans 9-11. Its strongest early proponent was a man named Marcion. He argued that there was a god of the Old Testament who was harsh and vindictive and a god of the New Testament who was loving and merciful. Later Christians would speak of the God of the Old Testament as a God of law and the God of the New Testament as a God of love. The essential core of this heresy is that the previous revelation of God’s word has been superceded by the latest and newest revelation.
The general outline of this heresy is to recognize continuity with the previous revelation but to suggest that a new revelation was necessary to complete what was missing from the old. Many contemporary Christians speak of the New Testament as fulfilling what was promised in the Old Testament. The practical result is that now that we have the New Testament, the Old is but an interesting historical relic.
This same pattern is followed in Islam, which reveres the revelation given to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus but asserts a more complete revelation was given to Mohammed. While not quite as overt, a similar process took place in the Reformation which suggested that the faith that was contained in the Roman Catholic Church was corrupted and needed to be replaced by the truth as it was contained in the various versions of Protestant churches which emerged. In America this same process resulted in the formation of the Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Again there was recognition of the continuity with Christianity but also the emergence of a further revelation to Joseph Smith. Interestingly in all these examples, it is suggested that this latest revelation, be it Jesus, the Koran, or Joseph Smith, is the final revelation. It is as if they realized the danger of the replacement strategy, but the only antidote was an assertion that the process stopped with their particular revelation.
My suggestion is that the most recent mutation of this heresy is the eclectic forms of spirituality that have emerged in our society. Many of them retain some continuity with Christianity but reject the necessity of the church as an incomplete embodiment of the revelation of the Word of God. To understand the danger of this heresy, one must recall the consequences of its emergence in various moments in our history. A particularly horrifying consequence can be seen in the climate preceding WWII that permitted the Holocaust. This horrible slaughter of Jews and others who appeared different from the Aryan norm took place in a society that could easily boast of being the cradle of intellectual and theological thought in Western society. Yet, with few exceptions, even most Christian thinkers of the time seemed unequipped to combat this barbarity.
Supersessionism, the assumption that the followers of Jesus had replaced the old Israel as the new Israel, was then justified by naming Jews as Christ killers. Because Jews, who had been favored by God with special treatment, not only failed to be obedient to God but also rejected God’s most “complete revelation,” Christians were justified in treating them with cruelty which finally led to the barbarity of the Crusades and the Holocaust.
The failure of supersessionism is to take seriously the sovereignty of God. If God is God, then it is only human arrogance to suggest that God made a mistake in an earlier expression of the Divine word. While one might make a case for the continuing revelation of God within the changing contexts of history, the new expression or revelation would not contradict or replace the core truth of God’s prior revelation. The fact that Christians could justify actions in the name of Christ that violated both the core of their faith and that of their parent religion should have warned them against this heresy, but it didn’t.
It was part of the genius of Paul that he was unwilling to follow this heretical path. In a similar manner to the prophets before him, Paul recognized that when historical events seemed to contradict the promises contained in God’s revelation, what was needed was a re-listening to the core revelation in the light of the new experience. When a majority of the Jewish people failed to accept Jesus as the Christ, Paul did not see this as justification for a rejection of his Jewish people. Rather he saw it as a further development of the salvation of the nations as originally revealed to Abraham (Genesis 12:3). The Hebrew Scriptures were not replaced by but commented on by the writings later known as the New Testament.
In the same manner that early Christians were tempted to reject Israel as a failed community of God, so many contemporary Christians are tempted to reject the church as the latest failed community of God. As happened in Germany, a number of prominent Christian spokespeople have provided support by themselves turning their back on God’s gathered community.
In America this process of cutting oneself off from one’s roots is happening concurrently with the rise of hate groups who suggest religious justification for their inhumane behavior towards people who differ from them. Having rejected the authority of God’s word as contained in a community of faith that transcends time and racial and geographical divisions, they lack the depth and breadth of understanding to hold in check the temptation of ethnocentrism.
The path of supersessionism follows a similar pattern throughout history. It seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the manner in which God reveals truth in life. In contrast to the repeated witness of scripture, it is assumed that God’s truth can only be contained in a pure vessel. Therefore when the current vessel is found to be impure, the disappointed believers look for a new key to truth which they believe has been lost in the prior community. In contrast to this assumption, one of the striking characteristics of scriptural writings is their refusal to deny the shadow sides of the leading biblical figures and the repeated failure of the community of faith. Yet it is precisely through these people and communities of faith that God reveals the Divine truth. An essential component of that truth is that God does not give up on the people God has chosen nor is God defeated by their lack of purity.
This virus of supersessionism plants the seeds of violence. Once it is assumed that for your truth to be valid it must displace all other truths, then you must protect your truth at all costs. For our race to be acceptable, it must be recognized to be superior to all others races. After all, there can only be one superior race. An inferior race, like an inferior truth, only pollutes the purity of the world. Therefore you are justified in cleansing the world of impurity. Is this not the philosophy of most of the recent white supremacist groups and part of the muddled thinking of the children who shoot other children?
I would suggest that the churches of our land, and particularly the pastors and the theological faculty and denominational leaders who help shape the members, bear a responsibility to challenge this heresy at its roots. As a beginning, let me suggest three theses that rest at the core of the Christian revelation and build upon the truth of Judaism as well. First, God is the author of all of life and therefore all of life has an inherent value that cannot be easily dismissed. Therefore Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He instructs us to forgive those who offend us repeatedly. We are bound to each other as humanity created in the image of God, and this cannot be violated without offending God. Second, while we may believe that our truth is received as a revelation from God, few of us are so arrogant as to believe that we fully comprehend the completeness of that revelation. Repeatedly throughout scripture it was the foreign voice, from Ruth the Moabite to the Roman commander, who enabled us to hear the truth that was in our very presence. It is by listening to those who disagree and even believe differently from us that we can transcend our own narrowness and hear the truth of God. Third, the truth of God is consistent and cumulative. It is the same God who has revealed truth to those who have gone before us and who will come after us. Because of human limitations, fresh revelations may occur to correct human distortions or accommodate new conditions, but it will build upon and not replace the truth of God that has gone before it.
While our recognizing the heresy of supersessionism will not eliminate the mentally unbalanced from erupting in violence, it might at least serve to end the deafening silence of the churches in response to the hate groups that nurture such thinking. This recognition might also challenge the acceptability of racist jokes and religiously bigoted statements that create an atmosphere in which such groups can exist. And by our living out an ethic of valuing and being hospitable to those whom God values, it is possible that someone might be healed of hate and alienation and feel no need to respond in violence.