Supersessionism, also called replacement theology, is a Christian doctrine which asserts that the New Covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes the Old Covenant, which was made exclusively with the Jewish people.
In Christianity, supersessionism is a theological view on the current status of the church in relation to the Jewish people and Judaism. It holds that the Christian Church has succeeded the Israelites as the definitive people of God or that the New Covenant has replaced or superseded the Mosaic covenant. From a supersessionist's "point of view, just by continuing to exist [outside the Church], the Jews dissent". This view directly contrasts with dual-covenant theology which holds that the Mosaic covenant remains valid for Jews.
Supersessionism has formed a core tenet of the Christian Churches for the majority of their existence. Christian traditions that have traditionally championed dual-covenant theology (including the Roman Catholic, Reformed and Methodist teachings of this doctrine), have taught that the moral law continues to stand.
The Islamic tradition views Islam as the final and most authentic expression of Abrahamic prophetic monotheism, superseding both Jewish and Christian teachings. The doctrine of tahrif teaches that earlier monotheistic scriptures or their interpretations have been corrupted, while the Quran presents a pure version of the divine message that they originally contained.
The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, "to sit", plus super, "upon". It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.
The word supersession is used by Sydney Thelwall in the title of chapter three of his 1870 translation of Tertullian's Adversus Iudaeos. (Tertullian wrote between 198 and 208 AD.) The title is provided by Thelwall; it is not in the original Latin (which means "Against the Jews").
Many Christian theologians saw the New Covenant in Christ as a replacement for the Mosaic Covenant. Historically, statements on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church have claimed its ecclesiastical structures to be a fulfillment and replacement of Jewish ecclesiastical structures (see also Jerusalem as an allegory for the Church). As recently as 1965 Vatican Council II affirmed, "the Church is the new people of God," without intending to make "Israel according to the flesh", the Jewish people, irrelevant in terms of eschatology (see "Roman Catholicism," below). Modern Protestants hold to a range of positions on the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people with the primary Protestant alternative to Supersessionism being Dispensationalism.
In the New Testament, Jesus and others repeatedly give Jews priority in their mission, as in Jesus' expression of him coming to the Jews rather than to Gentiles and in Paul's formula "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." Yet after the death of Jesus, the inclusion of the Gentiles as equals in this burgeoning sect of Judaism also caused problems, particularly when it came to Gentiles keeping the Mosaic Law, which was both a major issue at the Council of Jerusalem and a theme of Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, though the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed today.
Paul's views on "the Jews" are complex, but he is generally regarded as the first person to make the claim that by not accepting claims of Jesus' divinity, known as high Christology, Jews disqualified themselves from salvation. Paul himself was born a Jew, but after a conversion experience he came to accept Jesus' divinity later in his life. In the opinion of Roman Catholic ex-priest James Carroll, accepting Jesus' divinity, for Paul, was dichotomous with being a Jew. His personal conversion and his understanding of the dichotomy between being Jewish and accepting Jesus' divinity, was the religious philosophy he wanted to see adopted among other Jews of his time. However, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that Paul saw his faith in Jesus as precisely the fulfillment of his Judaism, not that there was any tension between being Jewish and Christian. Christians quickly adopted Paul's views.
For most of Christian history, supersessionism has been the mainstream interpretation of the New Testament of all three major historical traditions within Christianity – Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. The text most often quoted in favor of the supersessionist view is Hebrews 8:13: "In speaking of 'a new covenant' [Jer. 31.31-32] he has made the first one obsolete."
Many Early Christian commentators taught that the Old Covenant was fulfilled and replaced (superseded) by the New Covenant in Christ, for instance:
Augustine (354–430) follows these views of the earlier Church Fathers, but he emphasizes the importance to Christianity of the continued existence of the Jewish people: "The Jews ... are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ." The Catholic church built its system of eschatology on his theology, where Christ rules the earth spiritually through his triumphant church. Like his anti-Jewish teacher, St. Ambrose of Milan, he defined Jews as a special subset of those damned to hell, calling them "Witness People": "Not by bodily death, shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish. ...Scatter them abroad, take away their strength. And bring them down O Lord." Augustine mentioned to "love" the Jews but as a means to convert them to Christianity. Jeremy Cohen, followed by John Y. B. Hood and James Carroll, sees this as having had decisive social consequences, with Carroll saying, "It is not too much to say that, at this juncture, Christianity 'permitted' Judaism to endure because of Augustine."
Supersessionism is not the name of any official Roman Catholic doctrine and the word appears in no Church documents, but official Catholic teaching has reflected varying levels of supersessionist thought throughout its history, especially prior to the mid-twentieth century. Supersessionist theology is extensive in Catholic liturgy and literature. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) marked a shift in emphasis of official Catholic teaching about Judaism, a shift which may be described as a move from "hard" to "soft" supersessionism, to use the terminology of David Novak (below).
Prior to Vatican II, Catholic doctrine on the matter was characterized by "displacement" or "substitution" theologies, according to which the Church and its New Covenant took the place of Judaism and its "Old Covenant", the latter being rendered void by the coming of Jesus. The nullification of the Old Covenant was often explained in terms of the "deicide charge" that Jews forfeited their covenantal relationship with God by executing the divine Christ. As recently as 1943, Pope Pius XII stated in his encyclical Mystici corporis Christi:
By the death of our Redeemer, the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished; then the Law of Christ together with its mysteries, enactments, institutions, and sacred rites was ratified for the whole world in the blood of Jesus Christ. …[O]n the gibbet of His death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees and fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race.
At the Second Vatican Council, convened within two decades of the Holocaust, there emerged a different framework for thinking about the status of the Jewish covenant. The declaration Nostra aetate, promulgated in 1965, made several statements which signaled a shift away from "hard supersessionist" replacement thinking which posited that the Jews’ covenant was no longer acknowledged by God. Retrieving Paul's language in chapter 11 of his Epistle to the Romans, the declaration states, "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues. …Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures." Notably, a draft of the declaration contained a passage which originally called for "the entry of that [Jewish] people into the fullness of the people of God established by Christ;" however, at the suggestion of Catholic priest (and convert from Judaism) John M. Oesterreicher, it was replaced in the final promulgated version with the following language: “the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Zeph 3:9).”
Further developments in Catholic thinking on the covenantal status of Jews were led by Pope John Paul II. Among his most noteworthy statements on the matter is that which occurred during his historic visit to the synagogue in Mainz (1980), where he called Jews the "people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been abrogated by God (cf. Romans 11:29, "for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" [NRSV])." In 1997, John Paul II again affirmed the Jews’ covenantal status: “This people continues in spite of everything to be the people of the covenant and, despite human infidelity, the Lord is faithful to his covenant.”
The post-Vatican II shift toward acknowledging the Jews as a covenanted people has led to heated discussions in the Catholic Church over the issue of missionary activity directed toward Jews, with some Catholics theologians reasoning that "if Christ is the redeemer of the world, every tongue should confess him", while others vehemently oppose "targeting Jews for conversion". Weighing in on this matter, Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the , reaffirmed the validity of the Jews’ covenant and then continued:
[B]ecause as Christians we know that God's covenant with Israel by God's faithfulness is not broken (Rom 11,29; cf. 3,4), mission understood as call to conversion from idolatry to the living and true God (1 Thes 1,9) does not apply and cannot be applied to Jews. …This is not a merely abstract theological affirmation, but an affirmation that has concrete and tangible consequences; namely, that there is no organised Catholic missionary activity towards Jews as there is for all other non-Christian religions.
Recently, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013), Pope Francis’s own teaching emphasized[clarification needed] the communal heritage and mutual respect for each other. Similarly, the words of Cardinal Kasper, "God's grace, which is the grace of Jesus Christ according to our faith, is available to all. Therefore, the Church believes that Judaism, [as] the faithful response of the Jewish people to God's irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises," highlight the covenantal relationship of God with the Jewish people, but differs from Pope Francis in calling the Jewish faith salvific. In 2011, Kasper specifically repudiated the notion of "displacement" theology, clarifying that the "New Covenant for Christians is not the replacement (substitution), but the fulfillment of the Old Covenant."
These statements from Catholic officials signal a remaining point of debate, wherein some adhere to a movement away from supersessionism, and others remain with a "soft" notion of supersessionism. Fringe Catholic groups, such as the Society of St. Pius X, strongly oppose the theological developments concerning Judaism made at Vatican II and retain "hard" supersessionist views. Even among mainstream Catholic groups and official Catholic teaching, elements of "soft" supersessionism remain:
Protestant opinions on supersessionism vary. These differences arise from dissimilar literal versus figurative approaches to understanding the relationships between the covenants of the Bible, particularly the relationship between the covenants of the Old Testament and the New Covenant. In consequence, there is a range of viewpoints, including:
Three prominent Protestant views on this relationship are covenant theology, New Covenant theology, and dispensationalism. Extensive discussion is found in Christian views on the Old Covenant and in the respective articles for each of these viewpoints: for example, there is a section within Dispensationalism detailing that perspective's concept of Israel. Differing approaches influence how the land promise in Genesis 12, 15 and 17 is understood, whether it is interpreted literally or figuratively, both with regard to the land and the identity of people who inherit it.
Adherents to these various views are not restricted to a single denomination though some traditions teach a certain view. Classical covenant theology is taught within the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed traditions. Methodist hermeneutics traditionally use a variation of this, known as Wesleyan covenant theology, which is consistent with Arminian soteriology. In the United States, a difference of approach has been perceived between the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church which have worked to develop a non-supersessionist theology.
Paul van Buren developed a thoroughly nonsupersessionist position, in contrast to Karl Barth, his mentor. He wrote, "The reality of the Jewish people, fixed in history by the reality of their election, in their faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness, is as solid and sure as that of the gentile church."
Judaism rejects supersessionism, only discussing the topic as an idea upheld by Christian and Muslim theologians. While some modern Jews are offended by the traditional Christian belief in supersessionism, a different viewpoint has been offered by Rabbi and Jewish theologian David Novak, who has stated that "Christian supersessionism need not denigrate Judaism" and that some subsets of Christian supersessionism "can affirm that God has not annulled his everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, neither past nor present nor future."
In its canonical form, the Islamic doctrine of tahrif teaches that Jewish and Christian scriptures or their interpretations have been corrupted, which has obscured the divine message that they originally contained. According to this doctrine, the Quran both points out and corrects these supposed errors introduced by previous corruption of monotheistic scriptures, which makes it the final and most pure divine revelation.
Sandra Toenis Keiting argues that Islam was supersessionist from its inception, advocating the view that the Quranic revelations would "replace the corrupted scriptures possessed by other communities", and that early Islamic scriptures display a "clear theology of revelation that is concerned with establishing the credibility of the nascent community" viz-a-viz other religions. In contrast, Abdulaziz Sachedina has argued that Islamic supersessionism stems not from the Quran or hadith, but rather from the work of Muslim jurists who reinterpreted the Quranic message about islam (in its literal meaning of "submission") being "the only true religion with God" into an argument about the religion of Islam being superior to other faiths, thereby providing theoretical justification for Muslim political dominance and a wider interpretation of the notion of jihad.
Both Christian and Jewish theologians have identified different types of supersessionism in the Christian reading of the Bible.
R. Kendall Soulen notes three categories of supersessionism identified by Christian theologians: punitive, economic, and structural:
These three views are neither mutually exclusive, nor logically dependent, and it is possible to hold all of them or any one with or without the others. The work of Matthew Tapie attempts a further clarification of the language of supersessionism in modern theology that Peter Ochs has called "the clearest teaching on supersessionism in modern scholarship." Tapie argued that Soulen's view of economic supersessionism shares important similarities with those of Jules Isaac's thought (the French-Jewish historian well known for his identification of "the teaching of contempt" in the Christian tradition) and can ultimately be traced to the medieval concept of the "cessation of the law" – the idea that Jewish observance of the ceremonial law (Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws) ceases to have a positive significance for Jews after the passion of Christ. According to Soulen, Christians today often repudiate supersessionism but they do not always carefully examine just what that is supposed to mean. Soulen thinks Tapie's work is a remedy to this situation.