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Covenant and Reconciliation: The Future of Jewish-Christian Dialogue--Part I



When considering inter-religious dialogue (in this case the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians) while perhaps not the most volatile, the Judeo-Christian relationship stands out as being the longest. Since the beginning of the Church, Christians have had to dialogue with Jews about the Old Testament, the Messiah, and the place each respective religion fulfills in the Church of God. The purpose of this paper then is three-fold—first it is to briefly examine the history of Judeo-Christian interaction, especially with concern to anti-Semitism, secondly to examine the particular issue of supersessionism, and thirdly to apply both this examination of history and covenant theology to suggest praxis for future inter-religious dialogue. In perspective then, this paper aims to show that because the New Covenant seems to replace or abrogate the Covenant with Israel, the Church has consistently (except for the last 60 years) engaged in anti-Semitism, and because of this, the future of the Jewish-Christian relationship depends on acknowledging this history and making reconciliation for it.

The first part of this paper will give the brief account of the history of anti-Semitism, starting with the Old Testament passages often used to support discrimination against the Jews, followed by New Testament passages, Justin Martyr, Aquinas, and Nostra Aetate. The second part of this paper will examine the question of supersessionism comparing various theories of the source of the problem and its possible solutions, and then make a synthesized assertion concerning the best position. Finally, inter-religious dialogue implications will be considered along with some suggestions about how to move forward in our relationship.

A History of Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Old Testament

Throughout the Old Testament, there are countless verses which Christian’s have used to show that, though the Jews are chosen, they will be abondanded or forsaken. This abandonment seems to carry even further than just the diaspora, for not only will the Jews be scattered among the nations, but they will be despised and blamed for bringing “plague” to the areas they dwell. However, it is essential for this conversation to remember that they are always restored according to the Lord’s promise, and that these verses, when used for the purpose of anti-Semitism, are taken out of the specific context in which the Prophets usually delivered them. That is, the Jews have disobeyed God and thus he is punishing them, but always with the intention of restoring them and upholding his promise that they are his people. Furthermore, from an historical perspective, it is important to remember that the Israelites, being a people with a smaller population than those around them, were often conquered, and it is these conquests that they are interpreting as God’s punishment for their disobedience.

Jeremiah 29:18 is perhaps the most in depth of the verses detailing the “curse of the Jews”:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them…

Others include Jeremiah 49:15 and Ezekiel 5:14.

These passages are important for framing the thoughts of the Church for nineteen-hundred years of its existence: for the prevailing thought among the common Christian was that the Jews were indeed a curse, or at the very least the cause economic strife. Even among the clerics (starting in the second century) there was relatively common teaching that, at the very least, the influence of the Jewish religion was potentially detrimental to the practice of the Christian faith.

Typical Pharisee dress

Typical Pharisee dress

New Testament

Concerning Jewish-Christian relations, the New Testament concerns itself primarily with how the newly converted Jew should act as a Christian and subsequently the role of Jewish traditions and laws within the Church. Two points are especially apparent: first, in some way, there is “no distinction between Jew and Gentile”, and secondly, there is only a narrow place for the Jewish Law in Christian practice. If the law was the manifestation of God’s covenant with the Jews, membership in the Church presents a new type of covenant which in a sense replaces or abrogates this law-covenant. Acts 15 bears this out:

5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” 8 And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled[a] and from blood. 21 For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues (Emphasis added).

Concerning the law Galatians 2, and Romans give Paul’s incontrovertible view that we are only saved through grace and the justification of Christ, and thus it superfluous for the Gentile or the converted Jew to keep the laws of Moses as a means of salvation. Romans 10:12 and 3: 22-24 further affirm that proof there is “no distinction between Jew and Gentile” is that God gives his grace to all and thus all can be saved. Because of this, many Christian’s came to view Jews who kept their own law as a danger to other Christians (though this was not the case until the second century), potentially leading them astray to think that it is the works of the law that save.However, many of the Christians were newly converted Jews, and they likely kept their Jewish practices as a matter of ritual and culture. The important distinction is, while the Jews were allowed to keep their practices, and in that sense the Jewish law, Gentiles were not required to do so, and Jewish Christians were implored to remember that it was not these acts of law that saved them.

In what way is there no distinction between Jew and Gentile? Obviously there is a cultural and racial distinction, so Paul cannot mean there is no distinction in the absolute sense. Rather, Paul’s meaning is first, there is no distinction concerning to whom God offers grace (he is not prejudice in who he saves), and secondly, that because we are new creations in Christ, past distinctions (and thus harmful disputes) concerning class, culture, or religion, while they may still exist, should not be cause for strife.

[1] Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. (NewAdvent.Org, 2009), Ch. 11, 12

[2] Justin, ch. 46

[3] Ibid., 47. “And Trypho again inquired, ‘But if someone, knowing that this is so, after he recognizes that this man is Christ, and has believed in and obeys Him, wishes, however, to observe these [institutions], will he be saved?’ I said, ‘In my opinion, Trypho, such an [sic] one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men,--I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so.’”

[4] St. John Chrysostom (late 4th Cen.) wrote in his Homilies Against the Jews; I:5.4, “ And so it is that we must hate both them and their synagogue all the more because of their offensive treatment of those holy men.” This is the shortest of a host of Anti-Jewish statements.

Justin Martyr

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Justin Martyr, writing circa. 150, dialogued with a Jew named Trypho, and concluded that it is the Law that condemns the Jews, and as such, poses a threat to the Christian believer, potentially leading them from the saving grace of Christ.

Law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law—namely, Christ—has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance….This same law you have despised, and His new holy covenant you have slighted; and now you neither receive it, nor repent of your evil deeds (emphasis added).[1]

Here Justin harshly criticizes the Jewish religion as one which disregards Truth and the role of Christ as the messiah. Thus he is strongly anti-Judaic. However, it is important to note that while Justin is critical of the Law (“and we know that the ordinances imposed by reason of the hardness of your people's hearts, contribute nothing to the performance of righteousness and of piety"[2]), he says that a Jew converted to Christianity can still keep the law and be saved as long as he does not try to persuade others to follow the law as well.[3]

It is important to note the development that took place in only a hundred years—it has become extremely skeptical of the Jewish Law and has started to interpret scripture and the actions of Jews against Christ as evil and worthy of disdain as a people. While Justin is an early Church Father, and thus relatively tame concerning his anti-Semitism, these feelings would only increase as the Church matured.[4]

[1] Aquinas, Thomas. Letter on the Treatment of Jews, 1271. (Ave Maria University).

[2] Ibid., Second Response.

[3] Nostra Aetate, 4.


In his 1271 letter to Countess Margaret of Flanders, Thomas Aquinas addresses her questions about what was allowable in treatment of the Jews. In the letter Aquinas highlights various ways in which the Jew can be punished more than the Christian for practices of usury.[1] He also states that, because Jews have nothing of their own except what they gain from usury, it is acceptable to take exaction from them of everything except the essentials they need to live.[2] While Thomas may not be as extreme in anti-Semitism as many of those who came before and after him, he is one of the most respected and widely read Church doctors and thus, among many circles, his views are especially important. If even the “Angelic Doctor” of the Church rationalized some, then it is likely that, without any official church teaching, anyone could argue for treating the Jews with prejudice. While the basis of Aquinas’ “prejudice” against the Jews is based off their immoral actions, this sentiment would continue to increase through the centuries culminating in the Holocaust of the mid-Twentieth Century.

Nostra Aetate

The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate put to rest any speculation about the Church teaching on anti-Semitism. It states definitively that the Jews are not to be singled out in blame for the death of Christ (we all bear that guilt), they are not cursed, and any discrimination of any people based on race, condition of life, or even religion. Furthermore, it affirms the common patrimony Christians share with Jews through Abraham, and looks forward to the time when “all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice”[3].

While anti-Semitism is no longer allowed in the Church, is it still present? How ingrained is the idea of suppersessionism in our Christian theology, and is this a necessary element in adequately distinguishing Christians from Jews? Do we even need to distinguish Christians from Jews? If present, is supersessionism detrimental to dialogue between Jews and Christians?

[1] Soulen, R. Kendall. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 1

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Soulen, 6.

[4] Soulen, 9.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 13

[7] Lohfink, Norbert. The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 13.

[8] Ibid., 83

[9] Ibid., 39.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Ibid., 85.

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner

Supersessionism, Covenant, and Modern Theology


Supersessionism is essentially a “theology of displacement”, essentially that “the ‘special role’ of the Jewish people came to an end and its place was taken by the Church”.[1] As implied in the historical section of this paper, supersessionism is deeply engrained in Christian theology because of the consistent and passionate teaching in the early Church that Christ fulfills the Old Covenant, manifest in the Mosaic Law, thus implying that, at the very least that covenant is assumed into the “new covenant”.

Kendell Soulen sees supersessionism as a fundamentally doctrinal problem arising from the way in which Christians interpret the unity of the Bible. He states that the primary problem with supersessionism is that it fails to adequately establish a coherent divine nature—the “heart” of God—with the rest of theology, because it shows that the “God of Israel” becomes indifferent to his chosen people.[2]

Soulen addresses the issue by focusing on Israel’s election, which is essential to their relationship to and understanding of God. According to Soulen, the Jewish election begins with Abraham, and is familial, or more appropriately corporeal, rather than a spiritual or moral election.[3] Soulen uses this idea to show, in the tradition of Michael Wyschgorod’s theology, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is actually in itself a form of incarnation—basically, through God’s covenant with and corporeal election of the Jewish people, God is indwelling in them in a unique and particular way not to be encountered anywhere else.[4] This means that “Apart from a relationship to the people of Israel, no relationship to the God of Israel is possible.”[5] Because the covenant with the Jews is primarily corporeal, Soulen argues that God’s covenant through the incarnation of Christ is primarily spiritual—rather, the “New Covenant” is a spiritualization of the Covenant with Israel.[6]

According to Soulen, the way in which we go about recovering this idea, and replacing the “theology of displacement” is not only through “renewed investigation into the meaning of… central Christian doctrines”, but primarily through a “fresh way of telling the Christian story”—a renewed Canonical narrative, which is the basis of all Christian theology. This will be addressed later the paper discusses Barth and Rahner.

Norbert Lohfink approaches the issue from a more Biblical perspective. Arguing that the language of “new” and “old” as applied to covenants encourages anti-Semitism[7], Lohfink gives a series of arguments to establish that there is really only single-covenant but with two modes of salvation.[8]

Lohfink comes to a similar conclusion as Soulen by saying that the “New Covenant” is really just the Abrahamic covenant applied to the Gentiles. He uses 2 Corinthians: 3 to argue that it was not the “Old Covenant” that came to an end through Christ, but rather it was the “veil” over the covenant that was lifted.[9] All who believe in Christ are also unveiled (in countenance), they have entered the sanctuary and no longer have their splendor hidden. The Old Covenant was a shinning object to which no one could expose themselves. Thus, the New Covenant is nothing more than the uncovered Old Covenant which radiates its already contained godly splendor. The New brings the ancient to new light.

Lohfink uses this line of thought to conclude, “Both Jews and Christians are on the way. God is with both. Both are ‘in the covenant.’ It is one and the same ‘covenant.’ Yet each has it in a different way”.[10] Thus, Lohfink concludes that there are two means of salvation for the Covenant—Jesus, who is needed by the Christians, and the Jews who do not need him, for they are already “with the heavenly father”.[11]

If we assume that Soulen and Lohfink are correct in their assertion that supersessionism is detrimental to the relationship between Christians and Jews, how does one establish a theology more biblically coherent, which is respectful to the Jewish covenant, and yet still upholds the importance of Christ as the messiah and mediator of grace.


While both of these arguments have their merits, some questions and criticisms must be raised. The first, most obvious question is, is supersessionism really a problem in Christian-Jewish dialogue, and is it really doctrinal or narrative in source? If the definition of supersessionism is as Soulen defines it— a theology of displacement to the extent that the Jews no longer “matter” in the eyes of God— then it presents a serious doctrinal and narrative incoherence. However, if the issue of supersessionism is rather a focus on the fulfillment of the Law, thus leading to the question of the role Judaism now plays in the current world, it is less detrimental and more an avenue of dialogue. However, it is likely that those of Jewish faith would find the idea that their covenant was in need of fulfillment somewhat insulting, and thus even this language is not ideal for dialogue.

Furthermore, Soulen’s argument that the “New Covenant” is a spiritualization of the “Old Covenant” still implies that there is a difference between the two covenants, and so the question must be asked, what degree of covenantal difference is healthy without committing the sin of supersessionism? It was this difference that the early fathers used to help distinguish themselves from the Jews, a process that, while sometimes unjust in its means, was necessary to distinguish itself as the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant. It seems, therefore, that a certain amount of difference between the two faiths is necessary, but must be done without prejudice and with awareness of our common origins and common witness as people of the LORD.

The most concerning criticism of Lohfink’s theory is the short leap to pluralism. Suggesting that Jews “do not need” Christ, or in other words are not saved through him, presents a serious identity crisis and challenge to a Church which teaches that, in some way, all are saved through Christ. Perhaps it is just an issue in ambiguity of language, and the fact that this unique path of salvation is exclusive to Jews guards against true pluralism. Nevertheless, Lohfink’s proposition poses serious questions about salvation, Christology, and the imparting of saving grace.

[1] Soulen, 81.

[2] Accessed from Soulen, 85. My summary of Barth and Rahner’s work is based off of Soulen’s presentation of it. Furthermore, in his book, Soulen quotes Barth directly and uses more of his primary works than he does of Rahner, whom he seems to just paraphrase. It is difficult to pinpoint one specific work of Rahner’s in which he talks about his supernatural existential, and so Soulen’s presentation of him is an overall summary of a few of his works.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 90.

[7] Ibid., 94.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 96.

Reexamining the Canonical Narrative

Soulen’s claim that the Canonical Narrative should be renewed is a daunting task and must be examined further if we are to seriously consider a solution to the supersessionism problem. Fortunately, two monumental twentieth-century theologians have already attempted the endeavor, and Soulen critiques their effort. Though Barth and Rahner are typically theological opposites, both had the same intent of overcoming “doctrinal reductionism” and to “rejuvenate scholastic tradition”, and in doing so developed new ways of engaging the “narrative coherence of the Christian Faith”.[1]

Barth approaches the issue by placing God’s covenant with Israel within his creating and consummating plan for the world. His position can be summarized by two axioms, “creation is the external basis of the covenant”, and “covenant is the internal basis of creation”.[2]

The covenant which God made with Abraham and his seed…was not an arbitrary invention of God and therefore something wholly new in history. It was simply the initial stage in the execution of the purpose God intended when he caused history to commence in and with creation and therefore in and with the beginning of time generally.[3]

By centering God’s covenant with Israel in God’s consummating plan, Barth places the covenant within the spectrum of Grace, and thus inseparable from salvation. Salvation cannot be gained outside the context of this covenant, because it is the initial moment in which God’s consummating act touches humans in “concrete, historical form”.[4]

Despite this attempt to renew the Canonical narrative by centering God’s consummative work on the Covenant, Soulen argues that Barth’s theology is still inadequate in overcoming supersessionism because he remains so intensely Christocentric.[5]

Ultimately, Barth regards God’s covenant with Israel as only the provisional form of a more basic covenant that God has established with human creation as a whole, namely, God’s eternal covenant with creation in Jesus Christ. As he write “The covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel…without denying its exclusiveness…points to a covenant which was there at the beginning and which will be there at the end, the covenant of God with all me”.[6]

Because Barth believes that, though the Covenant is made with Israel it is made for humankind and through Jesus, the event of the covenant with Israel is just a “provisional” covenant to be fulfilled or fully recognized later. It is a promise only kept through the incarnation of Christ.

Rahner reexamines the Christian narrative through what he calls the “supernatural existential”. Rahner, like Barth, shows God’s making of a covenant within the scope of his consummating work, but rather than centering this covenant on the person of Christ, Rahner “draws the moment of gratuity, contingency, and particularity into the immanent structure of human religious identity”.[7] Rahner’s fundamental disagreement with Barth is in Barth’s “concentration in a particular reality extrinsic to the creature”. Rahner views this concentration as fundamentally incomplete, for if the human person possesses no intrinsic power of consummation (which Barth and Rahner agree is true of human nature), then an external-centered consummation may leave the human person indifferent to the offer of Grace. Rather, Rahner seeks to show how this offer of consummating grace can correspond to the human person’s “immanent spiritual dynamism”.[8] Rahner posits the following as his basic premise:

It simply must be the case—and our experience confirms that it is so—that the human creature possesses a positive orientation toward God’s consummating grace that is more than a mere non-repugnance to grace. Put another way, personal intimacy with God is a goal that is not foreign or extraneous to the human condition but rather is congruent with the human creature’s innermost identity and the deepest longings of the human heart.[9]