Atonement and supercessionism

In all our recent discussions of supercessionism in connection with Carter’s book, a thought occurred to me: in none of the “classical” theories of the atonement (i.e., on the nature and meaning of Christ’s saving work) does it actually matter that he’s Jewish. In Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard alike, everything would’ve gone fine if he’d belonged to any nation or none. The Christ-event is not connected to the covenant with Israel, but skips straight back to the “universal” problem of Adam’s sin or bondage.

At most, there is an extrinsic or superficial connection between Christ and the Jews, i.e., he had to be a Jew because it was predicted in so many ways — so that Christ’s Jewish identity becomes a kind of empty tautology (he’s a Jew because it was predicted that he would be!) and Jewish identity as such doesn’t “matter” aside from its connection to Christ (they predicted Christ so that he would be predicted!). This structure isn’t integrated into the logic of any of these thinkers’ accounts of why Christ had to become human, so that the reference to the Jewish people feels like a historical relic that can easily be set aside to get to the main point.

(And since I was developing my own “sketch” of a contemporary atonement theory in Politics of Redemption from out of this trajectory, I am largely guilty of the same thing.)

I think that this might open up a promising area of research for a theological account of race, insofar as it is in atonement theory that you really start to see the notion of humanity as a race — whether in the ransom or penal-substitutionary theories, the logic of the argument depends on all human beings being biologically related (whether to pass on the “legal status” of enslavement to Satan or to pass on the “defective gene” of original sin). In fact, one early version of my dissertation proposal was focused specifically on connecting this notion of the “human race” with the concept of “species-being.” And one could also note that as the West became more and more exclusively focused on original sin as a failing of the body, they also began to associate the “curse” of the Jews with physical defects (such as inadequate blood that requires them to occasionally drink a Christian baby’s blood, etc.) — so that the Jews do provide the paradigmatic example of “the other race,” and this conception developed directly out of a set of theological concepts taken to a certain extreme.

17 thoughts on “Atonement and supercessionism

  1. Right. It is the notion of Christ as “universal man” (second Adam, etc.) that sets up the modern secular move of speaking of the human as such. This is why discourse about (non-secular) religion finds itself caught up in discourse about race.

    Note as well the book by Denise Kimber Buell, i believe titled _Why this New Race?_, that talks about how early Christianity saw itself in terms of a new race. As, um, the title indicateds. I’m not sure how critically she takes this fact, thoush i certainly would. One of her points is that Christianity was not, in fact, seeking to go “beyond race,” it was to talk about a universal race. Though from my perspective these always go hand in hand — i.e. the race that makes itself universal / normative does so by opposition to those “races” that are not becoming “universal”

  2. In my understanding of the Christus Victor theory, I think Jesus’ Jewishness does matter, especially with claims from texts like Galatians 3, where Jesus died to end the curses of the Law to include the Gentiles.

    I think the problem with PSA (penal substitution) & even scapegoat theory is that they depend on a universal notion of what it means to be human from the outside, therefore making Jewish and Jesus’ particularity irrelevant.

  3. While I have significant qualms with the system overall, Robert Jenson’s two-volume Systematic Theology offers the most robust example that I have seen of an atonement theory that depends precisely on Jesus’ Jewishness. But much of that stems from the influence of narrative theology upon his work (and also what he, at least, takes to be the rigorously anti-Marcionite character of his ecclesiology).

  4. The trouble I see with linking Jesus to Adam, skipping clean over Abraham, is that it completely neglects the root of the Judean eschatological self-concept. In Abraham we see the root of the redemptive and saving actions of God who created all that lives. For Paul especially, Jesus is the incorporation of the wider creation into Israel — into the saving action of God beginning in Abraham. Using the part-for-the-sake-of-the-whole logic *without* that connection to Judean eschatological salvation — making Jesus a second Adam without any context — simply plops him into the world as “try #2.” It makes an effective exitus-reditus strategy, but it completely neglects the prior existence and operation of God’s salvation in creation.

    But the Fathers weren’t basically interested in Jesus’ Judean identity as a component of his effectiveness. And as the Gospels and subsequent writings progress, Jesus’ choice for the gentiles moves from incorporation into, to exclusion of, the Judean people. Judean identity is defunct — the Temple remained razed to the ground, the Judean cause remained suppressed, and eventually Hadrian’s garrison city was established on the spot. Julian is called the Apostate for his attempt to contradict this history, which so obviously bears the marks of divine intervention and choice. The political struggle creates the theology. Jesus becomes a direct action of God for the sake of the world, succeeding at the imperial level in having an effect on the “entire” world of the time.

  5. “Julian is called the Apostate for his attempt to contradict this history, which so obviously bears the marks of divine intervention and choice. The political struggle creates the theology.”

    Great point.

  6. @Adam,

    Please don’t see my comment as conflating the text into some Christus Victor meta-narrative; I just used it as a possible example. Its just one of part of select texts that at least I believe that the first Christians used to help us understand the Gentile role in the stories of Israel.

  7. Rod: To be a relevant example, it would have to be a quote from a patristic author. Paul’s view of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection obviously lays great stress on Christ’s Jewishness — but that aspect of his views had virtually no influence on the patristic writers that I can tell.

  8. I must decent from Adam’s proposal, both at the level of his reading of making sense of the history of atonement (though there moves in your engagemetn with atonement that I don’t want to dispense with; I think they are very important) and at the level of the problematizing of the universal.

    I beg your forgiveness in advance because this is a longish comment.

    Let me take the latter first because with the emphasis in my work on particularity, it might seem strange to want to argue for the universal. And I admit that this is an area of my thinking that I’m still working out, for during my graduate work at UVa when I did my dissertation/the first iteration of my Race book, I was viscerally against discourses of the universal. And still comes through somewhat in my *Race* book that I think in the *Race* I’m conflicted, though I still lean in the book mainly toward the particular. Adn I have to confess, I’m still nervous and more often than not suspicious of most universalist arguments. But my reading of Karl Barth, especially the volumes making up CD III on creation and anthropology; and my new appreciation of what the very early James Cone was trying to pull off when he was under the vigorous sway of the Barth of the CD III volumes; and more recently through my engagement with a number of Negritude intellectuals, most importantly on this issue of the universal, Frantz Fanon whose entire intellectual enterprise was in the interests of “a new humanism”–in light of all of this I do want a universalism of the human–and I want it for theological reasons.

    I share with Fanon, Césaire, Toni Morrison and a number of other black atlantic thinkers, and I share with Barth—yes, Barth!—a commitment towards the universal, which entails the human as such. I don’t mean here the absolute concept from which in Hegelian fashion being traumas of the negative Spirit becomes “an und für sich” :-) The problem with the West, as Fanon shows, is that its universalism, which is to say, its humanism was not humanist enough. A discourse of “the great historico-transcendental destiny of the occident” (Foucault), Western humanism has been a discourse of war, a discourse of “race war” (Foucault). The answer to the West’s “talking of humanity while murdering human being everywhere” (The Wretched of the Earth), Fanon has convinced me, is not to surrender the universal. It is not to surrender a proper worldliness. It isnt to give up on “the universality inherent in the human condition” (Black Skin, White Masks). It is to hold onto those “proleptic universals,” those values attributable to the coming world, the coming humanity, values that arise from the specificity, particularity, and “peculiarlity of our place in the world” (Césaire), our locus as a locus of the universal and in the world. The problem of course, and this is what Fanon grasped, is that the humanism of the West vis-a-vis modern/colonial history and its varied postcolonial afterlives positions the particular and the universal within its false universal of Man. This the universalism which is to be opposed, not teh universal or the human as such, for this universal and this human as such is creation. Fanon was a thinker of creation. And this too, creation, is what is affirmed in the life and death of Jesus, though he does much more besides.

    As for the second reason I’d decent from Adam’s suggestion for a theological account of race, which is to say, a theological account of the human _race_ is precisely because what it concedes to the biological as that which unites us, that the Jews as a race, “the other race,” is paradigmatic if not axiomatic of this, and that precisely in being paradigmatic of the human _race_ a conception is put in place, shall we say, that will eventually be taken to an extreme (routed through Christain theology) to create the problem of race. This, I must say, is precisely the move I’m trying to take to talk in my critique of Foucault on his acct of race (notwithstanding how important Foucault is to so much of my thinking). I won’t repeat here my many comments about why I don’t think that this is anti-Christian enough. I refer reader to the long thread of comments on Brandy Daniel’s summary of chapter 1 of my book, Race: A Theological Account, on this website. Instead I offer this different approach to the issue of the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness and the story of Jews in Hebrew Bible for atonement theology.

    I think it important to note that the earliest habitus of those who followed Jesus and who then (in the book of Acts) started to call themselves christians was one in which the Jewishness of Jesus was assumed. It didn’t have to be argued for. It was that on which the christian life was perceived as resting, organized around Jesus, the Israel of God who is the God who loves the world. The centrality of the Jewishness of Jesus didn’t have to be isolated for doctrinal affimation or made the subject of theological disputation (It’s not woven into any of the earliest hymn-confessions; cf Phil. 2:5–11, 1 Tim. 3:16). Neither a matter of theologoumenon or of confession, the Jewishness of Jesus and the continuity of Christianity and the faith of Torah was aruged about but still doxa for the followers of this new sect. I would include many of the NT writers and the earliest patristic writers in this early habitus or doxa of Jesus’ followers. This is simply to say, Christianity in its earliest of moments was understood as a sect among the Jewish followers of the ways of YHWH, those variegated followers of Torah, who were far from agreed on what it meant to be faithful and to live in expectation of the Jewish Messiah, but all of whom thought they were doing it. For all of early christianity’s uniqueness, it was yet in continuity with those who took themselves to be within the fold of the Jews as followers of Torah.

    But eventually it emerged, through a combination of complex social and historical forces, that a shift took place in which Gentiles/non-Jews started to dominate the ranks of this sect among the Jewish followers of Torah, this sect that started to be called Christians. The number of Jews in the ranks decreased. New social and political alliances eventually emerged whereby this particular sect among the Jewish sects was embraced by the powers that be, while the other Jewish sects continued to be rejected in varying degrees by the wider Greco-Roman culture. It was during this complex historical, social, and theological time that what was once taken for granted, namely Xnity’s Jewish roots (which was part of the habitus and doxa of this early movement and that didn’t need to be argued for), now subtly mutuated into an opposition to that earlier habitus in which the Jewish roots and the ongoing significance of those roots of the sect called called ‘Christianity’ was taken for granted.

    Admittedly, this is a summary (and necessarily unnuanced at points) of a complex history.

    It seems to me (and I think Adam would agree) that atonement theory emerges inside of the shift in Christian doxa or habitus, the shift whereby the Jewishness of the Christian sect was lost sight of and that the invisible visibility or the in-visibility of the Jewishness of Christian faith (by virtue of the Jewishness of Jesus) becomes a new habitus, a new doxology. One could claim that atonement theory is the theological/conceptual correlate of this new habitus of the Christian forgetfulness of and indeed antagonism toward (Jewish) being, and in some regards this would have some truth to it.

    But it seems to me that there’s another way to come at the history of atonement, the discourse of the work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Atonement discourse, discourse about God’s/YHWH’s work in the death of Jesus, it seems to me can also be found before the shift into this new supersessionist Xn doxa, that is, before there was that fateful Xn forgetness of (Jewish covenantal) being which is tied to the forgetfulness of creation or of what it means for the creature to be creature and not (a false) Creator. In this other trajectory the work of YHWH in the death and resurrection of Jesus is not that ontological event of the sealing in of beings, which is ultimately the event of war. (This is the story that dominates, I think, far too many “classical” accounts of atonement. And here, I agree with you, Adam.) Rather, to pull from insights of Emmanuel Levinas, the death of Jesus is Eschatology. It is that eschatological event that inaugurates “the breach in the totality,” as Levinas might put it. It is the event of the interruption of “the totality of wars and empires” and of the subjectivities and identities and modes of immitative desire (this is so vital: immitative desire) produced of the totality of death. With Atonement as Eschatology, history is opened up to being historical (which is to say, creaturely again), beings are opened to being creaturely being, the void of subjectivity (the ex nihilo of creation) is no longer terrible (no longer a terra nullius) and thus no longer calls forth terror-ism (I speak not of the so-called terrorism of the other, but our own terrorism, everywhere speaking of humanity and killing human beings, as Fanon put it). The other is no longer that which is to be conquered, subdued, or in short killed in the name of the possession, the possession or End of History, Being, and the establishment of my own subjectivity (more commonly known under such guises as ‘Liberty’ and ‘the Market’). Put differently, in Jesus’s death and resurrection we are delivered from death, which is to say, from judgment or the will to be a judge, a false God-Man, delivered from the positions of Master and Slave (and their varied permutations).

    Jesus’ being from among the Jewish people is integral and vital, not ancillary or accidental, to this, for the story of the overcoming of death in the immitative/mimetic desire to supplant the Creator and so be a Judge, the very story in light of which the NT evangelists tell of the life of Jesus, is precisely the story of creation that is on vivid display in the scriptural stories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, this story of ancient Israel/the Jews is what finally makes Jesus’ life and death and then life again intelligible.

    But I would say, and this is my second decent from Adam’s suggestion, that this approach to Jesus as the atonement in connection with a reading of the stories of ancient Israel/the Jews doesn’t turn on biology, on a biological acct of this people, and therefore on a biological acct of the human _race_, which can precipate a gnostic fall into an accoutn of _race_ and the _races_. Let’s take that important story of the call of Abram, who will become Abraham, whose progeny, not even in his llfetime, will become the people of Israel. This story of creation, I mean the creation of this people (they both go together), doesn’t turn biology. In the beginning the was not biology; its was the call, the call that creates the people for them to journey into an identity that is given and yet that is always unsettled, being at the same time ahead of them. In the beginning was call and response, call and ethical response-ability. The tyranny of blood is therefore not what founds the people. The call of God does. And so antecedent to anything biological is the call to Abram to leave Ur or the totality or the discourses of Babylon or the unifying discourses of religion (and alas, the secular too). Here identity is at once atonement (the turn from Babylon, the place of enclosed or sealed in identity) and eschatology (the following of God toward an identity, a humanity, that is in front me). It is this eschatology-cum-atonement of identity in the life of israel, which jesus is part of, that binds together the people. Torah, the life of the Jews, their covenantal existence in relationship to YHWH witnesses to our creatureliness. And the life of Jesus through the confession of the woman Mary of Israel recapitulates the very witness of Israel without erasing them as a people, for he is them in affirmation of the universal, the world or creation.

    And so Israel is not the universal race nor is the claim that in saying that Jesus is the second Adam he therefore is the universal man. Rather, Israel is that people who witnesses to what it means to be a creature, a witness that embraces others (“in you shall all nations be blessed . . “). And Jesus arises from the witness of this people (his life is dependent upon and flows through the woman Mary of Israel) and Gentiles participate in this witness through Jesus.

    I call this trajectory of ‘atonement’, Atonement as Eschatology or Eschatology as Atonement in the restoration of creation as loved by God. This is a trajectory of atonement thinking that also seems to be at our theological disposal in thinking about the death of Jesus.

    OK. Another long comment on my part. Verboseness notwithstanding, I in no way mean to be dominating or shut down conversation. My apologies . . . It’s just that Adam’s post sparked much thinking for me.

  9. I meant to say near the beginning of my verbose post in explaining my turn toward the universal: ” I don’t mean here the universal as the absolute concept from which, in Hegelian fashion, through the traumas of the negative in concrete experience Spirit becomes “an und für sich”, in and for itself :-) “

  10. Part of the problem here would seem to be the changes in the idea of race … patristic fathers & middle ages atonement theorists probably didn’t think of “Jewish” as a race in the sense we might today, just because the concept as we have it emerges in the early Modern period.

    The problem Adam points to is still a problem, but getting access to how they might have done it differently is a bit tricky. Just to seperate a contemporary concept of “Jewish” from older versions will take some work.

    Another place to look that might be interesting regarding atonement and universality and humanity as a race would be the early Modern discussions about whether or not Africans could be Christians.

    A Puritan like Cotton Mather thought they were “black,” for example, not because of race, but because they’d done something to their skin over the generations of Satantic worship and barbarism. I.e., it was their culture, which was degraded because it wasn’t Christian. He did think, though, that atonement of course was applicable to them. Because it was universally applicable.

    Early proponents of the idea of race as something scientific disagreed, and said the Africans were fundamentally different — “scientifically” different — and thus outside of Christianity, of course, which really belonged to the civilized races. So here you get the idea of race-based limitations on the universality of atonement — it’s good for everybody, but “everybody” is smaller now.

    There was also a Christian argument emerging at that time of expanded European colonization that atonement would only extend to the regions of the world given to the descendants of Noah’s one son (so, for example, a whole argument about how God’s millennial kingdom would not include New England, which aggravated the Puritans in Boston quite a bit), which we see working into a racial idea of salvation. There’s also the whole strand in their that makes it not regional but racial, with the “curse of Ham” and all that.

    It would seem like for the latter two groups, the specificity of Jesus’ race might be an issue. I don’t know if or how they deal with that.

    What would be interesting to see, and I don’t know that anyone’s looked at it, is how the emergence of the idea of race in the early Modern period affected the idea of Jesus’ Jewishness. In atonement theory or otherwise…

  11. Jay, I suppose to be more clear, I should have said that my suggestion was for an area of research toward a theological genealogy of race, rather than a (positive, constructive) account. And I agree that something different is going on in at least some of the New Testament writings.

  12. Daniel, The point about how they thought of Africans is a good one. I would also say that the encounter with hitherto completely unknown groups of people in the Americas also plays a role in the formation of modern race theory — and the question of whether the Native Americans were actually human was explicitly posed as a theological one, with the papacy finally deciding that they must be because some of them had accepted the gospel. It’s worth noting, though, that the same year Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” Spain expelled the Jews — making it all the more fateful that Spain was the world power that was first confronted with the issue of how to deal with these “new” groups.

  13. To Adam’s last point: when I was researching contemporary theories of the development of what we now consider to be “authorship,” I was struck by how many historians view the encounter with the races of the “new world” to be the impetus for innovative reconceptions, on the part of Europeans, of the very nature of creative authorship (a realm which eventually expanded to include theology). Because the newly “discovered” people could not be explicated without at least some recourse to novel categories – categories and descriptions hitherto unfamiliar within established authorial idioms – the discovery of the “races” of the Americas became a significant event leading towards Romanticism’s conception of the author as an innovative, creative individual who (re)describes the world in genuinely new ways.

  14. From my research into Hellenistic Judaism, I can tell you that, even without the “race” concept, “ethnos” functioned in some similar ways. The “ethnos of the Judeans,” for example, so called from the Hasmonean period, is autochthonous, centered on an ancestral home in Judea, oriented toward the Temple in Jerusalem, and filiated on Abraham. This is the basis for Judeans in the diaspora remaining Judean. It has a “nomos” — in terms of cultural basis — set forth in Torah. It believes in a god, if one irritatingly unfriendly to pagans, and exercise ancestrally originated worship practices. Outside of its homeland, Judean communities demonstrate filial piety towards it. It does all the things a “people” does. And as an ethnic concept, it also functions as a target for stereotype, parody, slander, and persecution of the people so referred. The Hellenistic imperial world used concepts like this to deal with the nature of the peoples it encountered, and the nature of peoples within its borders. It’s a schema.

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