Saturday, August 05, 2006

Supercessionism, Dispensationalism, and the Present Middle East Crisis-- A Christian Stand

In my current work on a commentary on Hebrews, I have been struck by how forcefully the book of Hebrews completely undercuts a Dispensational approach to the reading of Scripture, and while we are at it, to a blind and unconditional support of the present secular nation-state of Israel regardless of its military practices and policies. This is not to say that we do not need to be equally critical of the inhuman practices of Hamas and Hezebollah, as well. We do. But here are some of my reflections.

Let us broach the question once more of whether and in what sense Hebrews should be seen as a supercessionist document. On the one hand, it is apt to point out that there were a variety of forms of early Judaism, and various of them were highly sectarian. By this I mean that, for example, the Qumran community did not think that the form of Jewish religion practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem was just as legitimate as its own practices and beliefs. Indeed, it thought that Herod’s temple was hopelessly corrupt and would be destroyed, just as Jesus himself appears to have thought. It is not then, just the Christian form of early Judaism that could and did make a case for the obsolescence of the existing cultus in Jerusalem. However, the Qumran community, though a highly eschatological group, did not take the more radical step of suggesting that the Mosaic covenant and its practices in general were outmoded. This more revolutionary notion is found only in the Christian form of early Judaism, and in particular it is found in both Hebrews and in Paul’s letters, and in some respects seems to go back to Jesus himself.

In short, I do not think it is possible to avoid the scandal of particularity when it comes to the Christian form of Judaism. There was an inevitability to the parting of the ways between Christian and non-Christian Jews however long it took in different places, and the parting was only accelerated by the Pauline Gentile mission and its success.

Andrew Lincoln sums up well what is going on in Hebrews—“its writer holds that, while the Scripture is still the authoritative vehicle of God’s self-disclosure, the sacrificial system, the law and the Sinaitic covenant, of which Scripture speaks, have been surpassed by God’s new and decisive word in Christ, and so in terms of present Christian experience are no longer appropriate. The law, its symbols and institutions remain crucial for interpreting the fulfillment of God’s purposes in Christ but do not determine Christian practice. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice does away with the need for the sacrificial system (cf. 10.4-18) and indeed the covenant with Moses can be described as obsolete (8.13). It is in this sense that Hebrews can be appropriately called a ‘supercessionist’ document.”(Hebrews. A Guide, p. 114).

To this I would add the caution that the author no doubt would have argued that he was talking about the completion of the Jewish heritage in Jesus. He would have stressed, had he lived until today, that it is totally anachronistic to talk about the replacement of Judaism as a religion with Christianity as a religion. Our author is not talking about Christianity as some separate religion from Judaism. He is talking about what he sees as the true completion of all the Jewish religion was meant to point to and prepare for and be the basis of. Of course what he says in Hebrews would inevitably be viewed as supercessionist by those Jews who had not and did not see Jesus as the completion of God’s plans for them or the fulfillment of earlier covenants.

Sometimes, in order to escape the notion of supercessionist both conservative and liberal Christians have tried to cut the Gordian knot of this problem by suggesting there are two covenants in operation at once—- one for Jews and one for Gentiles, or one for Jews and one for Christians. Surprisingly enough we find this approach both in ultra conservative Dispensationalism and also in more liberal approaches to Paul and Hebrews. There is a problem, a very serious problem with both of these two tract models. They involve the renouncing of the claims of the NT authors about Jesus as the savior of the world, and also about the true people of God being ‘Jew and Gentile united in Christ’. It also involves applying a very different hermeneutic to the OT than we see being applied in Hebrews.

Here again Lincoln helps us: “Without the conviction that Christ was the surpassing fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant, there would have been no reason in the first place for Jews to have become Christians or to remain Christians under pressure (the issue for Hebrews) or for Gentiles to have become Christians rather than proselytes or God-fearers. Without the conviction that Jesus Christ is the decisive revelation of God for all human beings, however the implications of that conviction are spelled out, Christianity is no longer recognizably in continuity with its Scriptural foundation. The suggestion, sometimes made today, that Christians should think in terms of two covenants, one for Jews, based on Moses, and one for Gentiles, based on Jesus, does not allow Jesus to be the decisive revelation for the people to whom this revelation was given in the first place.” (Hebrews. A Guide, p. 118).

Just so. We must resist the temptation to whittle off the hard edges of this and other NT texts just to make life easier for ourselves. The scandal of particularity cannot be escaped by exegetical gymnastics or hermeneutical legerdemain.

Let me say however what this does not mean. In the first place it does not mean that Jews today are guilty of practicing a false religion, a false faith. This is not how either the author of Hebrews or Paul would have viewed the matter. Even when he painfully discusses the fact that many Jews have rejected Jesus (Rom. 11) and so he says that they have been temporarily broken off from the tree that makes up the people of God, he still envisions a time when they can and in some cases will be grafted back into that people. This is a completionist not a replacement theology, and Christians today must be always reminded that the NT is a Jewish book almost entirely written by Jews, and in the case of Hebrews for Jews. We must be very mindful and wary of how this book has been misused by later Gentile believers to justify all sorts of anti-Semitic acts.

And this brings me to the most important point. Both Paul and our author see salvation as a work in progress that will not be completed until Christ returns and the dead are raised. Only then will there be full conformity of anyone to the image of Christ, and only then will we finally and fully know who is saved and who is not. Between now and then the lost can be saved, and the saved can commit apostasy, and even when Jesus returns there will still be some saving yet to be done it would appear.

This means that Christians must live with the eschatological tension of already and not yet, live with the fact that they are in the midst of salvation history not at its end, and live with the tension that they themselves are not eternally secure until they are securely in eternity. This being the case, humility and not triumphalism is in order. As Jesus warned, many will come from the east and west and replace many of those we expect to sit at the messianic banqueting table. This in turn means that ‘the church’ has not replaced ‘the synagogue’. God is not finished with any of us yet, and God certainly finds reprehensible anti-Semitism in any form, much less in the form it took in Nazi Germany during WW II. If indeed Jesus died for the sins of the world, then he died not just for the sins of his present followers, but even for those who rejected and do reject him, at least in his role as world Savior.

My suggestion would then be that we follow the author of Hebrews’ word in Heb. 12.14 where we are called to pursue peace with everyone and also the holiness without which none of us will see the Lord. We should view every human being as someone whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. We should do our best to love everyone and be more concerned about our own Christ-likeness than other’s perceived lack thereof. We should get our own house in order.

This does not mean that we should neglect a prophetic critique of ungodly behavior whether by Christians or anyone else. For example, Christians have no business blindly supporting Zionistic Israeli policies that lead to the killing of hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, any more than we should support the hate-filled practices of Hamas or Hezbollah or Iraqi Sunni and Shiite bombers. Such support violates the very heart or essence of what Jesus himself called his followers to believe and to be. We need to repeatedly ask what would Jesus do? What did he do when confronted by violence? What did he urge his followers to do in Mt. 5-7? Think on these things.


Todd M said...


Terry Hamblin said...

Darbyism is very well entrenched in evangelical Christianity where the Schofield Bible was an essential prop for the generation that came before me.

Can you explain what is meant by "all Israel will be saved" in Romans 11:26" which is often quoted as a proof text by those who believe this doctrine.

Ben Witherington said...

For a detailed discussion see my Romans commentary. In brief, it refers to what happens when Christ returns, by which I mean at his one and only return at the parousia. Paul envisions that the "redeemer will come forth from Zion and turn away the impiety of Jacob". In other words, he expects a large number of Jews to be converted to Christ when he returns to earth to establish his kingdom on earth. Israel does indeed mean in this verse non-Christian Jews, those who are not currently in Christ. Paul is explaining that they will be saved on the same basis, or 'in like manner' to the way the full number of the Gentiles have been saved, namely by grace through faith in Jesus.



Jeff said...

I am thankful for your reference to Matt 5-7 and this conflict. This is tragically disregarded in many of our conversations on the issue.

However, I am curious what the scriptural prescription is for us who aren't on one side or the other of this (or any other) conflict. We have no one to personally forgive, no enemies to love. If war breaks out on the other side of the world, how much of our energies ought to be spent in bringing peace there, especially as such energies are taken from other tasks more close to home?

May all good things be yours,

Ben Witherington said...

Actually, we are on a side of this conflict like it or not. We are the chief ally of Israel, which means we may not much identify with what our government is doing, but it is in the end our government, which is supposed to be operating "with the consent of the governed". And since we are a global community, I also don't think we can say that this does not effect us either. At the very least it is making it difficult for us to be one with the parts of the body of Christ in the countries involved-- for instance with Marionite Christians in Lebanon or Palestinian ones in Israel.



Matt, Christine, Elijah, Joseph, Sarah, & Oliver said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am a regular reader of your blog. I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren context, but during my undergraduate days began to seriously question much of theology (especially eschatology) I was taught in my formative years. My time at Acadia Div. College (MDiv, MA) under the teaching of Craig Evans, Glenn Wooden, and other great professors was eye-opening and liberating, to put it mildly. As my friend Danny Zacharias (over at and I often say, we have left behind the "left behind" theology. Thank you for your posts, especially the ones which address the troubling pastoral/ethical concerns inherent in pre-millenial dispensationalism.


M.L. Walsh

Glen Alan Woods said...

I am grateful for a scholarly treatment of this sensitive issue. I also have deep concerns with the recent flare up of hostilities. I tried to broach it with sensitivity in my own blog but I always feel like I am walking on egg shells since some folks would view critiques of the Israeli military to be tantamount to anti-semitism. It seems to me that Jesus called us to love all folks, regardless of ethnicity.

I have a very dear friend who has family in Lebanon. They love the Lord. Their lives are in peril as a result of the hostilities. This same friend has her PhD in Counseling Psychology with an expertise in assisting victims of war, something she now practices as her occupation. And now once again her own family is at risk. You might imagine what she must be going through right now.

Despite what some folks think, there are many in Lebanon and in the broader region who do not condone or support terrorist activity. Yet they become viewed as the enemy because they live in the wrong country.

While I believe Israel has a right to defend its sovereign territory, I also maintain that innocents, whether Israeli or Lebanese, should not be destroyed under the auspices of rooting out terrorists.


Glen Woods

The Ole '55 said...

On the covenant, professor, I think you are on track. Separate covenants is an untenable position. That doesn't mean that Christians don't feel a certain affinity and hope for those who were the original recipients of God's grace. They are in principle our brothers and sisters. Christ died that we all might be together in one household of faith.

Blind support of any political body by Christians is unwarranted. That includes Israel. That includes Hezbollah. And unfortunately, that sometimes includes our fellow Christians in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon.

Without arguing for any particular position, it is possible to support Israel for reasons other than Dispensationalism.

In this world, we usually do have to decide which side we're on. Neutrality is an illusion. And sometimes, the use of ugly, sickening military force is the only means available to achieve a measure of peace and justice.

United Methodist Donald Sensing has a large number of excellent posts on the Israel-Hezbollah war, with militarily reasonable criticisms of Israel.

I have a simple prayer for the land in which Jesus walked here.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

In your post, you quote Lincoln as saying, "Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice does away with the need for the sacrificial system (cf. 10.4-18) and indeed the covenant with Moses can be described as obsolete (8.13)."

While I do not intend to disagree with this statement at all, I am curious if you can shed some light on the practices of Paul (specifically), and the early Chuch (generally) in light of this statement?

What I am specifically curious about is our accounting of Paul's last actions before his final incarceration in the book of Acts. It is puzzling to me that he still felt the need to make sacrifice at the temple, and that he wanted to do so in the presence of witnesses.

In addition to this, our historical evidence suggests that the early Church still largely practiced Christianity within the Synagogue community until nearly 200 ce. This included observance of the feasts, worship, Sabbath keeping, and dietary laws. In fact, letters from some of our Early Church Fathers as late as ce 300 express contempt for those congregations still doing so. In particular, I remember reading a letter by John Chrysostom in which he calls these people Judaisers and refers specifically to their keeping of the Sabbath and Feasts.

My question then, is how do we reconcile some of these historical findings, and the witness of Scripture to Paul's actions, with the statements that you quoted from Lincoln? Did the early believers hold onto something that they shouldn't have? What would Paul's motivation have been for making sacrifice?

As always, I enjoy your posts, and am anxious to hear your thoughts on these matters.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Chris, you are welcome to disagree, but the NT is perfectly clear that conversion is only the beginning of salvation. You still have to work our your salvation with fear and trembling thereafter. And I would suggest you read through Heb. 6 carefully on the apostasy issue. As Paul says, there are those who have made shipwreck of their faith. You can't make shipwreck of something you don't have.



Link McGinnis said...

Very interesting post. However, I have to disagree with your description of dispensationalism as having "two covenants in operation at once—- one for Jews and one for Gentiles, or one for Jews and one for Christians."

I'm not sure where you've gotten this information but it more likely came from someone attempting to refute Disp. instead of from a Dispensationalist.

I agree that the natural progression would have been from Judaism to Christianity. But, since that has not necessarily followed for each individual Jew, they are still practicing Judaism - meaning that it IS a separate religion. It's great news for all Israel that one day they will be saved. But, what about the individual who never accepted Christ's sacrifice as the fulfillment of God's requirement? Is it not true that this person has practiced a failed religion?

Concerning the security of a believer: "I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life" and John said, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life."

Comfort each other with these words.

David M said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for the post. Could you or anyone here post where I could find a schematical view of the different eschatalogical positions there are?


Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. said...

Dr. Witherington provides a helpful, balanced analysis of the biblically-based theology of supercessionism. Supercessionism simply states that the new covenant is the fruit of the old covenant. And that the new covenant necessarily replaces the old covenant. It is is no way anti-Semitic, despite the response of dispensationalists, liberal "Christians," and politically-correct pluralism.

ounbbl said...

Despite quite a few comments already in, I have one to make about the quoted passage which reads:

'...and indeed the covenant with Moses can be described as obsolete ... It is in this sense that Hebrews can be appropriately called a ‘supercessionist’ document.”(Hebrews. A Guide, p. 114).

It may be rightly described as supercessioNISTIC, but should not be called supercessioNIST document; the former is telling about some picture of it, but the latter is a plain 'labeling'. A world difference, especially when quoted out of the text. Whether Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant supercessionists take it as 'supercessionist' document, is another matter.

One more thing: a comment by Kenneth that the new covenant necessarily replaces the old one is plainly false. In view of the total picture of Genesis to Eschatology of the entire Bible message, the new covenant is what necessarily renews the old one.

If a covenant in the Bible is understood as a unilateral contract from God with people, as with the one through Adam, Abraham, Moses, and down the final one through Yeshua, by its nature, it has to be of renewal process, rather than of replacement process as in human political ones in the history, despite some of details may become inapplicable and replaced with better one.

Daniel said...

Old blog, but I hope that I can present a balanced critique. Dispensationalism has more evidence in it's favor than you might think. Calling it Darbyism is like calling the Gospel "Paulism". As a non-halachic Jew who accepted Christ in the past year, Dispensationalism makes more sense to me than Calvinism or supercessionism.

Sadly, Ben Witherington seems to fall into the trap of equating Zionism with the terrorism of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Precisely because terrorists hide among civilians and use civilians as shields (while also indoctrinating civilians), Israel's in a no win situation that only God can deliver her from. Israel's fair weather friends, who only seem to like Jews as victims, and the international community cowering in fear before radical Islam certainly are a hollow reed for Israel to rely upon.

Someday, God will redeem Israel and Palestinian Arabs will live in peace as a clan within Israel, but radical Islam has no future. Until that time, it's the fault of the Arabs that there is no peace in the Middle East. Every civilian death on both sides will be counted against the terrorists, not the Zionist Jews that the world so loves to hate.

Calvin L. Smith said...

There is as middle route, and indeed one can also reject supercessionism without embracing Christian Zionism (as R. Kendall Soulen's excellent "The God of Israel and Christian Theology" demonstrates). My new book also challenges the extremes of supercessionism and Christian Zionism. It is called "The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians". Full details, contents, endorsements and contributors can be found at
Ben, ironically we first met in Jerusalem sever4al years ago and as a result you kindly did a great interview for us (with Andy Cheung) for our website at King's Evangelical Divinity School, United Kingdom. Many thanks for that.

Calvin L. Smith