Supersessionism can be sneaky (if you don’t know what supersessionism is, check here).

A commenter on the Jesus Creed blog, where I guest-posted recently about Richard Harvey’s book, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology, said that someone asked N.T. Wright (famed scholar of the New Testament) if he was supersessionist. Wright said that he was not.

The thing you can learn from a good book on the subject (we’ll be learning from a great one, Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology) is that supersessionism is not just overt anti-Judaism. Supersessionism is far more pervasive in Christian theology and far more surreptitious (that means sneaky). My guess is that Wright thought to himself, “I am very sensitive to Jewish issues, I am sympathetic to Judaism, and therefore, my ideas are not supersessionist in nature.”

Yet, the sad truth is, Wright is a supersessionist, even if he doesn’t realize it. He sees Judaism as subsumed in Christ and that there is not an ongoing, active role for Israel as the freely elected, irrevocably chosen people of God.

How does someone who understands Judaism so well and who writes some of the best historical sketches of Second Temple Judaism in all of academic literature wind up nonetheless being a supersessionist?

The very idea of supersessionism is just so darn hard to shake from within Christian theology.

R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology is a book that stands out from the crowd of books on the subject. This is the singular most intelligent, constructive, and incisive treatment of the topic.

On pg. 29, Soulen cites one example of supersessionism, from Melito of Sardis, the second century church father:

The people Israel was precious before the church arose,
and the law was marvelous before the gospel was elucidated.
But when the church arose
and the gospel took precedence
the model was made void, conceding its power to the reality . . .
the people was made void when the church arose.
From On Pascha

This little theological poem is an example of economic supersessionism: the idea that Israel is subsumed and made obsolete under the new economy of Christianity (or New Covenant or however you would like to express the new economy brought to us in Christ).

Economic supersessionism need not be anti-Judaic. You can admire a fossil. You can write about its history, the beauty of the creature that became the fossil. You can even say charitable things about those who continue to exist according to the pattern of the fossilized creature. But you believe nonetheless that the being that gave arise to the fossil can only continue meaningfully by switching to the new economy.

Often hand in hand with economic supersessionism is punitive supersessionism: Israel’s place is surrendered due to lack of faith in Christ. The “punitive” in punitive supersessionism does not always indicate that the church punishes Israel (though historically, this happened more often than not in numerous slaughters, burnings, pogroms, and eventually the ovens of the Nazi party). Rather, punitive indicates that the removal of Israel from its place as the covenant people of God is a punishment for failure to believe in and follow Christ. However, the church often took it upon itself to be the avenging agent of God against the Jews.

Melito of Sardis has a poem about this as well:

Therefore, O Israel,
you did not quake in the presence of the Lord,
so you quaked at the assault of foes . . .
you did not lament over the Lord,
so you lamented over your firstborn;
You did not tear your clothes when the Lord was hung,
so you tore them over those who were slain. . .
you did not accept the Lord,
you were not pitied by him. . .
-From On Pascha

You might possible eradicate economic supersessionism from your theology and expunge every trace of punitive supersessionism and still have a problem. You can say all day long, “I continue to believe Israel is God’s chosen people,” and yet be a supersessionist in a subtle and pervasive way.

How is this so?

The most pervasive, subtle, and sneaky form of supersessionism is structural supersessionism: reading the overarching narrative of the Bible in such a way that Israel is a footnote in history.

Soulen introduces a concept called the canonical narrative. It means the way you see the big story arc of the Bible, the metanarrative, the overarching tale.

The topic deserves its own blog post, but I’ll briefly describe the standard canonical narrative of the church, which Soulen documents as a second century production. Many modern theologians have not progressed from the second century on this most important matter. The SCN or standard canonical narrative is as follows:




Consummation (a fancy word for bringing top completion, perfection)

God created us. We fell away from him. He sent a redeemer to bring us back. The redeemer will return to consummate all things.

Consider how the SCN makes use of the Bible:

Creation – Genesis 1-2

Fall – Genesis 3

Redemption – Gospels and Epistles

Consummation – Revelation

The Bible of the SCN is greatly abridged. You could take your Christian Bible, cut out Genesis 4 through Malachi 4, and not lose a drop. Copies of the New Testament could be printed with Genesis 1-3 as an introduction and a selection of Messianic prophecies appended, and little would be lost.

The SCN is structural supersessionism because in the very structure of its understanding of the Bible, Israel is a footnote.

We would do well to ask ourselves, why didn’t God bring the redeemer right away, before Abraham and Moses and all that inconvenient stuff?

At the very least, we need to embrace a canonical narrative that recognizes God sunk his presence into the “carnal soil” of history (the term was coined by Michael Wyschogrod, an Orthodox Jewish theologian, and is used by Soulen). Israel is the carnal soil into which God’s presence was placed in human history. To make a long story short, in a foolproof manner, not dependent on complete faithfulness from Israel, God’s presence on earth, his incarnation, was through the people Israel.

Ultimately the incarnation settled in its ultimate form in a son of Israel.

Our canonical narrative at the very least needs one more step, and creative ways of restructuring it should be thought out:






So, if you want to develop a theology which rids itself of all supersessionism, which assumes that God did not waste anything in his economy of redemption, that nothing is purposeless in the Biblical story arc, you need not only to get rid of economic and punitive supersessionism, but also structural.

And this is a paradigm change in theology. I suggest Soulen’s book as one great attempt on the way. I find his rebuilding of the canonical narrative persuasive. Others are possible.

Discussion Starter
Are you prepared to accept the three levels of supersessionism (punitive, economic, structural)?

What Biblical ideas persuade you that supersessionism is not true theology? Or, conversely, if you think supersessionism is valid, what points persuade you of that? (I promise, this is dialogue, not a chance to gang up on those who do not share my own theology).

What is the continuing role of the Jewish people in a theology that eliminates supersessionism?

13 Responses to Supersessionism

  1. Penina says:

    Hi Derek,

    Since I didn’t hear back from you, I thought I’d check and make sure you got my email. I would love to have a theological post exchange.


  2. Your say concerning N.T. Wright:

    “How does someone who understands Judaism so well and who writes some of the best historical sketches of Second Temple Judaism in all of academic literature wind up nonetheless being a supersessionist?”

    The easy answer is that you and N.T. Wright hold a differing definitions of supersessionism. Since, in your own words, N.T. Wright “understands Judaism so well” I think you might want to rethink your definition of supersessionism.

    • Derek Leman says:


      Do you have a definition of supersessionism that you’d make a case for as being better than the one I’ve been describing? Have you some better thoughts to offer or a critique of R. Kendall Soulen or Mark Kinzer? Or is your comment simply a vague implication that I don’t know what I’m talking about because you are unable to back up your critique?

      Derek Leman

      • Derek:

        It is risky to “read into” print on a screen, but I sense an irritation in your response. I find your first two questions quite appropriate. If I were to engage you in conversation about supersessionism it would be quite right of you to ask me to state my case. And in terms of major voices on the topic, Soulen and Kinzer would have to be considered.

        But it is your third question that is troublesome because its underlying assumption is that I’ve somehow cast a stone at you because I am unable to “back up my critique.”

        First, my comment was simply an observation based on your own description of N.T. Wright followed by an apparent amazement that a man of his stature could be so misguided.
        Of course, he could be misguided, as both you and I could be also.

        I fail to see how you extracted the negative vibe you think you see in my first comment. You had posed the rhetorical question in your post, and I was simply responding to that with what seems evident to me – N.T. Wright does not embrace your view of supersessionism.

        I was not, and am not, necessarily seeking a dialogue with you on supersessionism. Though you could not know my personal understanding on the topic since I’ve never written publicly about it, I am confident that we would take differing views. That doesn’t require us to impugn motives, however. Brothers in Messiah ought to be able to disagree agreeably.

        Wishing you every blessing in Messiah,

        P.S. Thank you for the email – I don’t always get back to blog sites where I’ve left comments.

  3. Derek Leman says:


    But I do fault you. I fault you because you said, in effect, “Derek, the reason you cannot understand why N.T. Wright could get this wrong is because you, Derek, misdefine supersessionism.”

    That is a claim. Yet you did not give any evidence for your claim. The burden is on you. It’s not a matter of anger. It’s a matter of not letting people get away with criticisms without substance.

    Derek Leman

  4. Derek:

    Rather than attribute meaning and motive to my comment, please consider what I actually wrote in response to the question you raised in your post – how could N.T. Wright end up being supersessionist?

    First, note that you do not accept N.T. Wright’s own declaration that he is not a supersessionist. For me that leaves two options: (1) Wright has a different definition/understanding of the term, or (2) Wright is simply being dishonest. I am confident you and I would both believe that the difference is in how the term is being understood.

    My comment was noting that you and he are in disagreement over the meaning of supersessionism. I concluded my comment with: “Since, in your own words, N.T. Wright ‘understands Judaism so well’ I think you might want to rethink your definition of supersessionism.”

    You asked the question about N.T. Wright. Because you close your post with an invitation to dialogue, I posed the observation that, given your high esteem of this scholar with whom you clearly see as a supersessionist, though he explicitly denied it, you might wisely spend some time reflecting/rethinking your own definition of the term. Is it not possible that you might have something to learn from him? My comment was not a statement of my own view, but rather a suggestion that it is always appropriate to reflect and be open to change if warranted. It was an honest response to a question you posed.

    If I may respectfully say so, your faulting me is misguided at best, and ill-spirited at worst. If you are not open to having your views questioned, and in this case it was merely noting that you might reflect on your view in light of your surprise and disagreement with N.T. Wright, then you are not a good candidate for genuine dialogue.

    At the conclusion of your post, you write: “(I promise, this is dialogue, not a chance to gang up on those who do not share my own theology).”

    To counter a suggestion that you might rethink your definition by construing it as a “vague implication that I don’t know what I’m talking about because you are unable to back up your critique”, then I don’t see how you will have much meaningful dialogue.

    I would hope for much better from a colleague in ministry.

  5. Derek Leman says:


    As I have said to you from the beginning, you did not come to “dialogue” but to criticize without offering any reasons. I don’t know why it is so hard to explain this, but let me make it clear:
    (1) You said in your original comment that I need to rethink my definition of supersessionism (you did not consider that it is N.T. Wright who could possibly have it wrong or that both of us could be wrong).
    (2) You then failed to say what was wrong with my definition of supersessionism.
    (3) Therefore, you indicated that I was likely wrong about the subject without giving a reason.

    Derek Leman

  6. Derek:

    I have neither the desire or intent to debate you concerning the meaning and intent of what I first posted. We both know what I wrote, and I alone know the intent of what I wrote.

    You have interpreted it as some kind of personal attack on you (e.g. “…is your comment simply a vague implication that I don’t know what I’m talking about…”) and followed it with a dismissive jab (e.g. “…because you are unable to back up your critique”).

    Believing, despite your verbal swipe, that your reply warranted a further response, I agreed that, were I to engage in a discussion of my own view of supersessionism, your challenge for me to respond by stating my case, including interaction with major voices (e.g. Soulen & Kinzer) was perfectly legitimate.

    But as I explained, my comment was simply in response to your rhetorical question about how a man of N.T. Wright’s theological stature could, though he expressly denies it, nevertheless be guilty of supersessionism.

    I stated that this could be so because you and Wright hold differing definitions of supersessionism. I then wrote: “Since in your own words, N.T. Wright ‘understands Judaism so well”, I think you might want to rethink your definition of supersessionism.” Clearly it is this last statement that apparently so annoys you.

    Despite your confident interpretation, or more accurately, negative assessment of what I meant, this is precisely what my statement means: Given the credentials of N.T. Wright in that very area of biblical and theological concern that is vitally connected with Israel and the Church, and given your respect of N.T. Wright, since you find yourself wondering how he could be so wrong about supersessionism, you owe it to yourself to re-examine your own understanding.

    A couple of further observations: I said you “might” want to rethink, particularly in light of your wondering how someone like Wright could, in your view, be so wrong or misguided. Further, to “rethink” does not necessarily lead to redefining, nor changing one’s view. It may well lead to reaffirming that view. If that is offensive to you, then you really ought not to publicly blog about the subject, nor should you invite responses.

    Please stop impugning my motives. There is no legitimacy to your claim that I said anything like “Derek, the reason you cannot understand why N.T. Wright could get this wrong is because you, Derek, misdefine superssionism.”

    What I find disappointing in our exchange is that you never seem to respond to what I actually write, but what you deem to be the motive behind what I write. That is what I see in your first reply to my comment: “Or is your comment simply a vague implication that I don’t know what I’m talking about” (and here’s where you descend into judgmentalism) because you are unable to back up your critique?” Attempting to discern motives is both a fruitless and pointless exercise since no one but God himself can discern the motives of another.

    In your last reply you accuse me of coming to “criticize without offering any explanation.” Suggesting that one might want to “rethink” an understanding is not a criticism – not in the context in which I was writing. You may choose to persist in your view of my post, but I know what I wrote, I know why I wrote it. There was no malice intended then or now. Whether or not you accept my word is your choice. My heart is clear before God to whom I will give account for every word I speak and write and for every thought I entertain.

    To construe my comment that “I would hope for much better from a colleague in ministry” as an insult is both sad and pathetic.

    Still wishing you every blessing in Messiah,

  7. Derek Leman says:


    Apparently I got a little behind the last few weeks on reading blog comments. Obviously David and I have carried on a frustrating and boring mutual-psychoanalysis exchange here. I’m glad I did not respond to the last comment (what is the word-count on that last one, about 1,000 or more?). Instead of responding to David, I’ll be snarky and make a few blog commenting pointers:

    (1) If you make an assertion in a blog comment, it is good to back it up.

    (2) If you make an assertion that a blog writer is wrong, don’t be offended if he says “offer proof.”

    (3) If you use religious language like “I would hope for much better from a colleague in ministry” and “still wishing you every blessing in Messiah,” know that all readers can tell you are saying “$%#@^&% you, but I love you in the Lord.”

    (4) No one will believe you when you say, “I alone knew what I meant.”

    Derek Leman

  8. Aaron says:

    I’ve been looking to have a discussion with somebody on this topic. I’ve heard talks against supersessionism, but I haven’t heard an explanation of what it means when Paul says “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.”

    Or when he talks about Gentiles being heirs of the promises to Abraham through Jesus.

    I see the indications of a spiritual Israel – a chosen people not determined by race but through faith.

    I don’t know exactly how this fits with national Israel, but it seems evident that if Jewish individuals fail to turn to Christ then they will not inherit the blessings promised to Christ (Abraham’s seed).

    If Gentiles of faith are in reality Abraham’s children and heir of the promise, then aren’t they in line to receive every promise to Israel?

  9. Zuzu's Petals says:

    Sounds like you two need to have a realtime spoken conversation about this issue, if you haven’t already. You two are “speaking pass each other” in this written dialogue. Written blog comments are not condusive to constructive dialogue on this kind of matter.

  10. Today I visited this blog site for the first time and admit to being rather turned off by the usual desire men of God have to challenge each other, regardless of how politely it is done, so that each can prove the other wrong. I was a Christian most of my life, and since I have accepted to respond to HaShem’s call to Messianic Judaism, never have I seen so many men who love to argue with each other over doctine, viewpoints, and belief. No wonder it is said that Messiah will not come again until all of Hashem’s children are gathered under one banner! With all the self-righteous egos involved in the fight, Messiah could be standing right among us, and the men here would not recognise him, so busy they would be with their verbal jockeying. Makes me glad I am a woman and not required to get involved in these debates! Baruch HaShem!

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