First Place, Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition
By H. Peter Kang
In this short essay I take up and develop an argument presented by George Lindbeck, longtime professor of historical theology at Yale University and prominent ecumenist, that the Church should view herself as Israel in such a way that she takes the Old Testament narratives of Israel to be constitutive of her identity. In the first section, I briefly re-present and rework Lindbeck’s argument, showing how it is both an attempt to address certain ecumenical and hermeneutic concerns and an attempt to repair a pernicious logic of supersessionism that is detrimental to the life of the Church. In the second section, I add my own supplement to Lindbeck’s argument by showing how the resources for viewing the Church as Israel are already present within the Church’s ritual and liturgical practices.
The fourth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition attracted papers from a refreshing variety of sources, both geographical and ecclesial.
H. Peter Kang, a student at Bexley Seabury in Columbus, Ohio, secured the top prize with his paper, “Viewing the Church as Israel through Liturgy and Ritual,” which The Living Church has published in this edition.
The other winners:
We thank our judges for this year’s competition:
I. Why to view the Church as Israel: an argument against supersessionism
In the last forty to fifty years, Christian theology has seen a flood of arguments against supersessionism. Undoubtedly, many of these arguments are motivated by the Church’s history of morally abhorrent attitudes towards Jews. While these arguments are certainly important, what I think is most interesting about Lindbeck’s argument is that its primary motivation is not an ethical concern about Jewish/Christian relations; rather it is motivated by Lindbeck’s ecumenical and hermeneutic concerns. In Lindbeck’s view, Christian theology needs to repair its problematic tendencies toward supersessionism because the logic of supersessionism itself is detrimental to the life of the Church and her ability to read Scripture.
The term supersessionism has come to mean several different things in recent years and therefore I think it is actually more helpful to talk about different kinds of supersessionisms rather than try to group them all into one blanket category. Here, I will address two kinds. The first is the view that because of its unfaithfulness, Israel forfeited its covenantal status as God’s chosen people and was replaced, by way of a “new covenant,” with the Church. The second is the view that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament in the sense that the full meaning of the Old Testament is fully disclosed in the New Testament. In this form of supersessionism, the Old Testament serves merely as a long (and perhaps unnecessary) prologue to the real story of the Bible that begins in Matthew. Both of these forms of supersessionism are detrimental to the life of the Church.
The first is problematic for the Church because it supports a triumphalist logic of replacement that exacerbates the schismatic nature of intracommunal disagreements. This logic is structured on the idea that the Israelites forfeited their status as God’s chosen people because of their lack of faithfulness and refusal to properly recognize Jesus as the messiah. The Church, then, replaces Israel as God’s chosen community by being the community that faithfully discerns and responds to God’s action in the world.1
The danger of this logic is that it suggests that election is predicated on a community’s faithfulness. If election is contingent on the faithfulness of the community, this means that Church communities could then forfeit their own elect status if they wander astray. This, in turn, produces a kind of anxiety over election because any form of errant behavior or belief would mean severance and rejection from relation with God. Election thus becomes something that needs to be constantly secured. According to Lindbeck, this can lead to a kind of self-righteous aggrandizement in which Church communities build themselves up as the “authentic” or “true” Church and must denounce other communities as errant and forsaken because of their doctrinal errors. This only intensifies the problematic tendency toward schism within the contemporary Church and leads to a situation in which “[w]eeping and rejoicing together become impossible because each competing party takes satisfaction in the failures of the others to the degree that these redound to its own advantage.”2
In contrast, Lindbeck argues that the Church should view herself as a common people modeled after the community of Israel found in the Old Testament. “What Christians need is an Israel-like sense of common peoplehood sufficient to sustain the loyal oppositions that make possible the persistence through time of those continuing and often bitter arguments without which otherwise divided communities do not survive.”3 In this model, dissenting voices in the Church would act more like the Old Testament prophets who were unshakably committed to the community and who constituted a loyal opposition, not an adversarial one.4
The prophets of the Old Testament always remained wedded to the community of Israel, even when they were sent to denounce Israel’s behavior. The fact that the prophets did not secede from the community to form their own religious fellowships is directly connected to the idea of election. No matter how errant her ways, Israel is and will always be God’s chosen people. It is the prophet’s job to direct that people to the correct path, not to promote schism. According to Lindbeck, without the concept of a common elect peoplehood, “the difficulty of recognizing groups that are seen as deeply in error as part of God’s chosen people is greatly increased.”5 Moreover, he writes, “Unless election is irrevocable for Israel, Christians cannot see their communities as the prophets saw Israel, as the adulterous spouse whom the Lord God may cast off for a time but has irreversibly promised never to cease loving, never to divorce.”6 This unshakable election allows for the possibility of doctrinally disagreeing parties to still view each other as common members of God’s chosen people, instead of forsaken opponents.
Lindbeck’s argument against the second form of supersessionism is that we fail to properly recognize Christ if we do not read the gospel stories about Christ in dialogue with the Old Testament. According to Lindbeck, the gospel story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is also, in some sense, a retelling of the story of Israel. Every reading of the gospel is also a rereading of some other biblical text. In Lindbeck’s words, the Bible must be seen as a “cross-referencing, interglossing semiotic system.”7 This does not displace the centrality of Christ in Christian biblical interpretation. Lindbeck still maintains that the whole Bible must be read in light of Christ, but Christ must also be read in the light of the whole Bible. Thus, to summarize the argument, to know Christ we must hear the gospel, but to hear the gospel correctly, we must interpret it in light of its relation to the Old Testament Scriptures. Finally, for the Church properly to read the Old Testament Scriptures, she must read the stories of Israel as her own stories. In short, to hear the gospel message about Christ properly, the Church must learn to view herself as Israel.
The next question, of course, is How? Lindbeck does not answer this question. In the following section I will argue that the resources for recovering the identity of Israel are already present within the ritual and liturgical practices of the Church.
II. Ritual and Liturgy as a means for inhabiting the identity of Israel
The ability to self-identify as members of Israel follows directly from our membership in the body of Christ. To use imagery from Romans, through Christ, we, the wild olive branches, are grafted into the root of Israel (Rom. 9-11). And it is precisely our membership in the body of Christ that effects this unnatural change that allows us to claim the history of Israel as our own. Take for example Paul’s statement to the Galatians: “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). For the Jewish members in the church of Galatia this tells them nothing new; they are already descendents of Abraham. Yet for the Gentiles, Paul’s statement tells them something quite surprising, for through Christ they are made the offspring of a foreign patriarch and receive the same promise as the natural heirs. In other words, by virtue of our being in Christ we are also adopted into the lineage of Abraham.
How is it that these Gentiles come to be in Christ? According to Paul, through the incorporative action of the Spirit we are made members of Christ through the initiation of baptism. As he tells the Corinthians, “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Along this line of reasoning we can see that the ritual dimension of Christian life is inseparable from the Church’s ability to self-identify as Israel through Christ. Through baptism we are initiated into the one body of Christ and through Christ we are made members of the community of Israel and fellow heirs to God’s promise given to Abraham. Only in the context of baptism does it make sense for Paul to speak collectively to his “brothers and sisters” in the Gentile-filled church at Corinth about “our ancestors” who passed through the sea with Moses (1 Cor. 10:1).
This initiation into Christ by way of baptism is strengthened through the unificatory nature of eucharistic celebration. As Paul tells the Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). This brings us to the second question about how the Church can inhabit the biblical stories to the extent that they are viewed as constitutive of the Church’s identity. The Eucharist, I suggest, provides the Church with a primary means for inhabiting Scripture.8
By and through the Eucharist, the community is able to participate in the events of the gospel story — Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection — through a kind of liturgically structured dramatic performance. As ecumenist Susan K. Wood explains, the Eucharist is a dramatic performance but it is not “play-acting” because “we ourselves assume the identity that we enact.” According to Wood, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the scriptural narrative becomes “autobiographical” in such a way that “the texts proclaimed are not just about a past event in salvation history, but recount the transformation that is taking place in us now.”9 This transformation is the transformation that occurs through the Church’s performative participation in the events of the gospel narrative, through which the Church comes to be identified with those events. Thus, in the words of theologian Gerard Loughlin, the participants are enfolded into the scriptural story through their “absorption of the story in and through its ritual enactment.”10
Following Lindbeck, we can add that the gospel narrative is itself always a rereading of the Old Testament narratives of Israel. As such, our performative participation in the gospel narrative through the Eucharist is itself also a performative rereading of the story of Israel. Thus, with Origen we affirm that “the Passover still takes place today” and that “those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.”11
Through our baptism into Christ we Gentile Christians are grafted into the root of Israel and adopted into the lineage of Abraham in such a way that we can view the narratives of Israel in the Old Testament as our own history. And, through the habitual practice of the Eucharist, we are able to inhabit these scriptural narratives in such a way that they become constitutive of our identity as the Church.
I have argued for three main points. First, supersessionism is not only harmful to Jewish/Christian relations; the logic of supersessionism is also harmful to the life of the Church. Second, viewing the Church as Israel can help repair ecumenical and hermeneutical problems in the Church. Third, liturgy and ritual can provide a means for viewing the Church as Israel.
H. Peter Kang is a senior M.Div. student at Bexley Seabury and a postulant for the priesthood from the Diocese of Louisiana, where he plans to return, after school, to assist the ministry of the Church within the state’s prison system. Mr. Kang thanks Peter W. Ochs for his guidance and encouragement: Mip’nei tikkun olam (For the repair of the world).
1 For example, Martin Luther, in “On the Jews and their Lies,” argues that the Jewish Diaspora and their continued suffering is an example of God’s wrath that shows first that they have erred and gone astray and second that they are “surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God” (Luther’s Works, vol. 47, pp. 138-139).
2 Lindbeck, “The Church as Israel” in Jews and Christians: People of God, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 94.
3 Lindbeck, “What of the Future? A Christian Response” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, ed. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2000), p. 364.
5 Lindbeck, “Church as Israel,” p. 92.
7 Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability” in The Church in a Postliberal Age, ed. James Buckley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 235.
8 As Oliver Davies writes, “The celebration of the Christian Eucharist is a primary way in which those who follow Christ come to inhabit Scripture” (in The Creativity of God: World, Eucharist, Reason [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004], p. 128).
9 Susan K. Wood, “The Liturgy” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James Buckley and David Yeago (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 106.
10 Gerard Loughlin, Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 223.
11 Origen, Peri Pascha, 3.10, 3.20-25.