Testing the Tests:
Post-Supersessionist Theology and
Newman’s Notes of a Genuine Development of Doctrine
John L Drury
On the eve of his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, John Henry Newman wrote his revolutionary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In the second half of this book, Newman outlined seven notes to act as tests for determining whether the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were genuine developments of the Christian faith. Although the argument was strong enough to convince him to convert, Catholics and Protestants alike criticized the Essay. A typical analysis of the Essay would focus on his material case for conversion. Less common is an evaluation of the continuing usefulness of the notes. This paper aims to remedy this deficiency.
However, any attempt to evaluate the notes immediately runs aground on the question of method. How does one evaluate them? How would one determine their strengths and weaknesses? The answer is to use them, to try them out on a recent doctrinal development to see if they successfully function as a tool of doctrinal discernment. By putting them on display, the question of their enduring usefulness might be answered. I propose that Newman’s notes are still functional and applicable even for contemporary doctrinal developments.
In the course of this paper, I will test Newman’s notes by applying them to post-supersessionist theology. Recently, many churches have officially affirmed the Jews as the permanent people of God. This affirmation needs to be tested to see if it is a genuine doctrinal development. We need to ask whether Christians can coherently make such a declaration. Newman’s notes can serve as a formal guideline for asking such a question. By applying the notes to post-supersessionist theology, my thesis regarding their applicability can be tested. Post-supersessionist theology is a particularly apt specimen for such a test on account of it being both radically new and widely received. If effective, this analysis can serve as a model for additional evaluations of doctrinal developments.
In order to defend the enduring usefulness of the notes, I will first offer a brief description of Newman’s notes in general. Next, I will define precisely what I mean by post-supersessionist theology. Following these introductory matters, I will walk through the notes one-by-one, explaining each note and applying it to selected works or general themes in post-supersessionist theology. Paralleling the type of argument in Newman’s essay, this paper is intended to present a cumulative case for both the genuineness of post-supersessionist theology and the enduring usefulness of Newman’s notes.[i]
Although I intend to analyze closely Newman’s Essay, this is not so much a research paper as a piece of constructive theology. The purpose is not to make discoveries but arguments. I will therefore not gather and analyze all secondary texts on Newman or post-supersessionism; rather, I will focus narrowly on the way Newman applies the notes in order to determine how to apply them today. I will then bring them to bear on relevant texts in post-supersessionist theology. Not all the problems of post-supersessionist theology will be solved, nor will Newman’s notes be shown as a full-proof test. Rather, by displaying them as a guideline for discerning the value of this recent doctrinal development, I aim to recommend the notes for further use.
The Notes as Criteria for Doctrinal Developments
Newman’s seven notes of a doctrinal development are (1) preservation of type, (2) continuity of principles, (3) assimilative power, (4) logical sequence, (5) anticipation of its future, (6) conservative action on its past, and (7) its chronic vigor. In order to understand Newman’s notes, one need only to consider the name he gave them. He could have just as easily called them “marks” or “tests.” Instead, he called them “notes.” Newman’s notes of a genuine development function in a similar fashion to his understanding and application of the notes of the church. Just as the notae ecclesia are visible signs of the true church, Newman’s notes are visible signs of a true doctrine. Applying the notes is therefore meant to be simple. If a doctrine exhibits each of these notes, it passes the test.
While understanding Newman’s notes is simple, actually applying them to a doctrine is not so easy. As John T. Ford has argued, “Newman’s Essay was not intended to be a systematic treatment of the problem of doctrinal development.”[ii] Rather, Newman used the notes as an identity test in search of the true church. Newman limited his Essay by saying, “The only question that can be raised is whether the said Catholic faith, as now held, is logically, as well as historically, the representative of the ancient faith” (V.0.1). The notes therefore do not have ready application to just any doctrine. Although post-supersessionist theology deals with ecclesiological questions, it does not directly address the problem of ecclesial division. Hence, Newman’s specific use of the notes may very well block the application I am attempting in this paper. John T. Ford concludes,
is questionable whether the notes can legitimately be used as criteria for
evaluating specific proposals for changes within the present-day Church… it
seems exaggerated to expect Newman’s notes to furnish a definitive, much less
automatic, answer. Insofar as Newman’s
notes were originally intended to test the identity of the Roman Catholic
Church with the
While I agree with Ford’s description of Newman’s intention, I doubt whether this necessarily bars any possible use of the notes. One can avoid Ford’s criticism by simply making more modest claims. Certainly, the notes will not prove definitively that post-supersessionism or any other doctrine is a genuine development. Yet the notes can be used as a guideline or aid in the evaluation of an emerging doctrine. They serve as a sort of outline for discussion. While such a use retains the notes’ criteriological significance, the force is a bit more modest. On these grounds it seems possible to test the usefulness of notes by seeing how they fare as tools for discernment.
Such modesty is important in light of the nature of my argument. The whole idea of testing the notes by applying them is a bit suspect. If we apply them to a doctrine and they work, it does not necessarily prove the usefulness of the notes, for the doctrine itself could be a corruption. The notes and the doctrine may simply be partners in crime. This circularity is not necessarily vicious, provided we keep in mind the modesty of my argument. I am not suggesting that the notes are like a computer program spitting out guaranteed results; rather, they are guidelines for discernment. They must always be applied skillfully, in a manner becoming of Newman’s own illative sense.[iv] If, when applied to post-supersessionist theology, the notes merely offer insight and aid in the evaluation process, then my thesis has been proven and my argument satisfied.
Before turning to a clarification and
definition of post-supersessionist theology, I must address whether a
Protestant such as myself can use Newman’s notes at all. The Essay is clearly aimed at
converting the reader. Newman drew up
his concept of development solely as an argument for
fundamental reason, then, for converting to the Roman Catholic Church was the
argument from development, and consequently the argument from authority. If an idea like that of Christianity is to be
a living idea, it must evidence development.
But developments have to be distinguished from corruptions … [hence] the
need for a living authority to pronounce the legitimacy of the developments in
question. Since no other church apart
from the Roman Catholic Church claimed in practice to be able to do so, this
seemed to Newman to present a prima facie case for the claim of the Church of
Rome to be the uniquely authoritative
Newman’s concept of development is therefore tied directly
to his case for
While in no way do I wish to ignore Newman’s Catholic challenge, I would like to raise a few objections regarding the conclusiveness of his argument. Initially, Newman makes a decisive argument in favor of an authority to guide the development of doctrine (II.1). Yet it is a non sequitur to think that such a necessity guarantees its existence. Just because we need an authority does not mean that the nearest authority is genuine. Furthermore, he adds by sleight-of-hand that this authority would be singular (II.3.3). And throughout his treatment he takes for granted that this authority must be infallible. Why it must be infallible and not simply trustworthy is a question he never answers. In light of these brief comments, it is fair to say that Newman’s case for conversion is inconclusive. Accepting doctrinal development does not automatically require acceptance of Roman supremacy. It is therefore legitimate to bracket Newman’s particular aim in order to make use of his notes.
Post-supersessionism as a Doctrinal Development
What is post-supersessionist theology? As with Newman’s notes, the answer to this question is embedded in its name. Post-supersessionist theology is any theology that accepts the theological challenge posed by the recent ecclesial rejection of supersessionism. Supersessionism is the classically held belief that the Church replaces or supersedes the Jews as the people of God. Post-supersessionism works in a time after the expiration of this belief.
It is important to keep a certain level of precision and specificity when using the term post-supersessionism. Since the claim that the Jews remain the people of God requires considerable rethinking of numerous Christian doctrines, it is easy to think that post-supersessionism includes any proposal for change made in the name of respect for the Jews. Bruce D. Marshall guards against this wide use of the term in defense of a more narrow use: “Virtually all Christians who reject ‘supersessionism’ agree at least that in so doing they affirm the permanent election of the Jewish people, and so rule out the possibility that the Jews could be replaced as God’s elect; they disagree about what this affirmation does, and what it does not, entail for the rest of Christian belief.”[vi]
Note that this definition does not touch on questions of salvation or truth, but rather focuses narrowly on the issue of the Jew’s identity as the elect of God.
Within this narrow sense, post-supersessionist theology makes a dual claim. On the one hand, it negates the claim that the Church has replaced the Jews as the people of God. On the other, it makes the positive claim that the Jews are the permanent people of God. These two claims correspond to the two basic concepts underlying Newman’s notes: corruption and development. Translated into Newman’s idiom, post-supersessionist theology argues negatively that supersessionism is a corruption and positively that post-supersessionism is a genuine development of doctrine. Much of the early work done in post-supersessionist theology was focused on the negative side of the claim. The burden of proof was laid on the proponents of post-supersessionist theology to make a case that the teaching of supersessionism ought to be rejected. More recent post-supersessionist theology has focused on the positive claim and its implications for Christian theology as a whole. This paper is aimed at this more positive body of work, in order to test it as a genuine development of doctrine.
Of course, to be tested by Newman’s notes, the doctrine in question cannot simply be a mere theological proposal. It must be an official doctrine of the church. Newman’s notes are not guides for developing a doctrine, but criteria that stand against a developed doctrine. Newman avers, “They are of a scientific and controversial, not of a practical character, and are instruments rather than warrants of right decisions. Moreover, they rather serve as answers to objections brought against the actual decisions of authority, than as proofs of the correctness of those decisions” (II.2.3).
In the case of post-supersessionist theology, authoritative decisions have been made. Various church bodies have promulgated statements rejecting supersessionism and affirming the Jews as the people of God.[vii] To cite just one widely discussed example, Vatican II issued a statement regarding the Jews in Lumen Gentium declaring, “On account of their fathers, this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.”[viii] A year later, Nostra Aetate stated, “[T]he Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”[ix] Although these statements are rather pithy and circumspect, they do show that official ecclesial bodies are rethinking their understanding of the Jews. Therefore post-supersessionist theology, as an official church teaching, may be tested by Newman’s notes.[x]
The First Note: Preservation of Type
Having outlined a general description of both Newman’s notes and post-supersessionist theology, we can now begin to apply the notes individually. Newman’s first note, preservation of type, is best understood by means of Newman’s own analogies. His first set of analogies is biological. Preservation of type “is readily suggested by the analogy of physical growth” (V.1.1). He observes, “The adult animal has the same make as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic, of which he is by inheritance lord” (V.1.1). His second set of analogies is official: “In like manner every calling or office has its own type, which those who fill it are bound to maintain; and to deviate from the type in any material point is to relinquish the calling” (V.1.1). He describes how priests, magistrates, monks, and emperors each must preserve their type or be regarded as corrupt.
Newman asserts that the same preservation of type is found among doctrines: “And, in like manner, ideas may remain, when the expression of them is indefinitely varied” (V.1.7). While the external image of a doctrine changes over time, the “substantial identity” can remain the same (V.1.9). Therefore, the first test of a true doctrinal development is whether this substantial identity – its type – remains, even in the midst of apparent change.
One could take Newman’s first note to be the primary sign of a genuine doctrinal development. Not only does it appear first, but his treatment of it is about as long as his application of the other six notes combined. Furthermore, it deals directly and narrowly with the focal question of the entire Essay: where is the true church? By identifying the Christian church’s type in its early years, Newman hopes to ascertain by analogy which church of his day best fits this type. As John Ford points out, Newman’s purpose for writing the Essay could be accomplished by means of this first note alone.[xi]
Newman therefore applies the first note in the most general terms possible. He walks through three distinct eras of the church searching for the general “type” of the Christian church. In the first section, he cites external critics of the ante-Nicene church to characterize the church as “a superstition, … embodied in a society, … a proselytizing society; and its very name was connected with ‘flagitious,’ ‘atrocious,’ and ‘shocking’ acts” (VI.1.2). In the next two sections, Newman describes respectively the Trinitarian controversy of the 4th Century and the Christological controversy of the 5th and 6th Centuries. In both cases, he shows how the one, universal church encounters dissent and schism. In all three sections, Newman argues that the contemporary Roman Catholic Church is not unlike the character of the church in each of these eras. Hence, it has preserved the type of the true church.
The attempt to apply Newman’s first note to post-supersessionist theology is difficult. It may very well be impossible. Newman’s actual application of the note is both incredibly narrow and devastatingly general. Since Newman uses the note to tackle the basic problem of the Essay – where is the true church? – the note takes on a narrow ecclesiological focus. This particular ecclesiological question is then pursued by means of general characterization. As John Ford reminds us, preservation of type is an “identity test” and therefore has limited use as a criterion for specific doctrinal proposals.[xii] The first note tests the identity of the church, not the truth of a doctrine.
Yet these observations do not ultimately bar use of the first note. As previously noted, I am proposing only a modest use of the notes. The notes are a guideline for discernment rather than a criteriological automaton. Furthermore, in response to Ford’s characterization of the first note as an identity test, one could argue that all doctrinal matters bear on ecclesiological identity. This is certainly the case with post-supersessionist theology. The heart of post-supersessionist theology is the issue of identity. Post-supersessionist theologians ask, “What is the church in light of its relationship to the Jews?” Therefore, Newman’s first note is at least applicable to this doctrinal development.
Although applicable to post-supersessionism in principle, it remains to be seen how one would apply the first note in practice. In this regard, I would like to point out a subtle and oft overlooked aspect of Newman’s first note: his use of external identification. As noted above, Newman cites external critics of Christianity in order to ascertain its type. The Christian church has had and always will have its critics, and they provide the church a great service by helping it render its own identity. When testing a doctrinal development, one can apply the first note by asking, “In light of this development, will the church retain a similar external characterization, or will it lose its basic character or type?”
question is readily applicable to post-supersessionist theology. Early critics regularly characterized the
Church by its deep interconnection with the Jews. Early Christian apologists responded with
complicated exegesis and grand theories of the relation of
characterization is not lost but deepened by the rejection of
supersessionism. Even in its most
radical forms, post-supersessionist theology retains the Church’s deep
interconnection with the Jews. Some
would contend that the promotion of this interconnection is one of the basic
purposes of post-supersessionist theology.
For instance, John T. Pawlikowski lists it among his key
convictions. He says, “Christianity
needs to reincorporate dimensions from its original Jewish context.”[xiii] Furthermore,
By recognizing the Jews as the enduring people of God, the Church can and does preserve its type. Post-supersessionist theology has shown that Jewish identity need not automatically rule out the identity of the Church. Rather, the permanent identity of the Jews as the people of God grounds the identity of the Church as the body of Christ. This new insight does not destroy Christianity’s basic type. In Newman’s words, it is “differing from itself only as what is young differs from what is mature” (VII.0). The basic affirmation of post-supersessionist theology therefore satisfies the stipulations of the first note. At the same time, the first note, despite its apparent difficulty, has proven useful in doctrinal discernment.
The Second Note: Continuity of Principles
According to Newman, a true development of doctrine will exhibit a continuity of principles. Principles are the abstract laws that guide the concrete development of doctrine (V.2.1). Newman forcefully asserts that principles do not develop. They may appear to develop, but this is merely their doctrinal exemplification (V.2.3). Principles are, by the nature of the case, unalterable (VII.1.1). Newman offers analogies from mathematics, grammar, philosophy, warfare and politics to show that distinguishable principles are operative in every field (V.2.1, 4, 5).
As to their use, Newman insightfully declares, “Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine” (V.2.3). He points to the Antiochenes, who shifted in terms of doctrinal position, but remained faithful to their “common principle, that there is no mystery in theology” (V.2.3). His caricature of the Antiochene tradition notwithstanding, Newman drives home the criteriological force of the second note. As Newman succinctly puts it, “[T]he continuity or the alteration of the principles on which an idea has developed is a second mark of discrimination between a true development and a corruption” (V.2.6). In other words, the principles underlying a doctrine are determinative of its status as a genuine development.
Unlike his treatment of the other six notes, Newman does not technically “apply” the second note to a doctrine, set of doctrines, or a larger theological issue. Rather, he finds it more important to outline precisely what the principles of Christianity are. He lists nine: dogma, faith, theology, sacraments, the mystical sense of Scripture, grace, asceticism, the malignity of sin, and the capacity of matter to be sanctified (VII.1.4). For these he only provides brief descriptions. Yet he singles out four of them for further discussion: faith, theology, the mystical sense, and dogma.
In order to apply Newman’s second note to post-supersessionist theology, I will test its basic affirmation against each of these four principles. Such an application is true to Newman’s intention and even supplements his incomplete treatment of this note. However, when applying this note, one is not necessarily bound to accept Newman’s entire list of principles. They are formally contestable, since Newman arrives at them more by assertion than argument. Yet I will bracket such a concern, since the four principles that Newman treats are relatively uncontroversial, with the possible exception of the mystical sense of Scripture. So I will proceed by offering a brief description of each principle coupled with its application to post-supersessionist theology.
The first principle Newman singles out is the supremacy of faith. Newman sums up this principle by saying, “That belief in Christianity is in itself better than unbelief” (VII.2.1). He then argues for an Anselmian faith-seeking-understanding model modified by the Thomist concept of implicit and explicit faith. He contrasts this principle with the Lockean idea that “doctrines are only so far to be considered true as they are logically demonstrated” (VII.2.2). He concludes by recommending the following theological method: “Arguments will come to be considered as suggestions and guides rather than logical proofs; and developments as the slow, spontaneous, ethical growth, not the scientific compulsory results, of existing opinions” (VII.2.10).
There is no inherent conflict between this principle and post-supersessionist theology. From the perspective of this principle, the basic affirmation of post-supersessionism can be viewed as an article of faith. We can accept on faith the enduring status of the Jews as the people of God. After believing it, we then can seek an understanding of its meaning and even try to prove its truth. In Newman’s words, we can “believe first on presumptions and let the intellectual proof come as [our] reward” (VII.2.4).
The second principle exposited by Newman is theology. In many ways, his understanding of theology falls on the heels of the principle of faith. Therefore, his treatment of it is rather brief. Theology uses reason for “handling, examining, explaining, recording, cataloguing, defending the truths which faith, not reason, has gained for us, as providing an intellectual expression of supernatural facts, eliciting what is implicit, comparing, measuring, connecting each with each, and forming one and all into a theological system” (VII.3.1). Even this potentially dated definition of theology fares well when compared with post-supersessionist theology. Some of today’s most complex conceptual work is being done in post-supersessionist circles. For instance, Bruce D. Marshall and R. Kendall Soulen have both offered detailed treatments of the Trinity in relation to the Churches’ new attitude toward the Jews.[xv] Furthermore, Clark S. Williamson and Paul van Buren have each published full-scale systematic theologies rethinking numerous doctrines in a post-supersessionist light.[xvi] Clearly post-supersessionist theologians do not contradict Newman’s principle of theology, but rather embody it.
Newman’s principle of mystical
interpretation is a bit more controversial.
After citing numerous examples, he concludes that the “use of Scripture,
especially its spiritual or second sense, as a medium of thought or deduction,
is a characteristic principle of doctrinal teaching in the Church”
(VII.4.8). Such a positive affirmation
of the mystical sense is hard to come by since the rise of modern biblical
criticism. More germane to the topic of
this paper is the use of the mystical sense in support of supersessionist
Yet some have emerged to defend the mystical sense of Scripture in service of post-supersessionist theology. George Lindbeck has attempted a post-supersessionist retrieval of what he calls “classic Christian hermeneutics.”[xvii] He argues his case by defining the gospel’s uniqueness in terms of translation rather than salvation.[xviii] Religions in general, and the Christian gospel in particular, claim to be comprehensive and therefore cannot be translated into another idiom without serious deficit.[xix] Christians, therefore, necessarily have their own unique interpretive strategies for appropriating material from another religion.
Lindbeck applies this theory of religion
to the relation between Christians and Jews.
He says that Christians interpret “their own communities, and their
relations to non-biblical people in Israel-like ways.”[xx] Lindbeck avoids the supersessionist
implications of such an appropriation by suggesting that the proper
The last principle discussed by Newman is dogma. Newman recognizes this principle as the Church’s claim to teach truth and reject falsehood (VII.5.6). He links this principle to the Church’s desire to be consistent and thorough in its belief (VII.5.7). Although dogmatism is not popular in many theological circles today, official church teaching, or dogma, has been an indispensable vehicle for the promulgation of post-supersessionist theology. For instance, the Vatican II dogmatic declarations Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate have served to spread an otherwise controversial idea into rather conservative circles. Not only is there compatibility between the principle of dogma and post-supersessionist theology, but dogma has served a positive role in the development of this theology. This both verifies post-supersessionism as a genuine doctrinal development and confirms the continued usefulness of the dogmatic principle.
Post-supersessionist theology successfully passes the test put forth by Newman’s second note. There is no necessary contradiction between the unchangeable principles of Christianity as outlined by Newman and the ideas proposed by this doctrinal development. Once again, the potential usefulness of Newman’s notes has, at least in the case of post-supersessionist theology, been confirmed.
The Third Note: Assimilative Power
In Newman’s treatment of the third note – assimilative power – we find a continuation of the biological theme already present in the first note. Christianity’s power of assimilation is correlative of its organic nature. Since Christian doctrine is alive, it grows. It grows by gathering into itself the ideas it encounters. Incorporation of external ideas is therefore not automatically a sign of corruption (V.3.1-2). Such an organic view of doctrinal development is at the heart of Newman’s Essay.
Newman’s application of this note focuses on the development of martyrdom and saints. He defends this tradition by appealing to the careful sensibility by which the church assimilated certain pagan ideas while discarding others. Newman exhibits the criteriological force of this note by commending Christian doctrine for successfully assimilating its surrounding culture. He describes this process as “no random combination of various opinions, but a diligent, patient working out of one doctrine from many materials” (VIII.1.10). The capacity of Christianity to make use of various materials in its formation of one faith is commendable in Newman’s eyes. It is a confirmation of a genuine development of doctrine.
Just as assimilative power touches the heart of Newman’s Essay, so too does the logic of assimilation pervade the development of post-supersessionist theology. Because of its dialogical context, one of the central questions of post-supersessionist theology is “What beliefs does the Church share with the Jews?” Christians have of course assimilated many Jewish ideas; common ground is built on such ideas. The more troubling matter is that Christians have assimilated more than Jewish ideas; they have assimilated Jewish identity. By calling themselves “the people of God” and claiming to have superseded the Jews in this role, Christians have robbed Jews of their very identity.
On Newman’s account, supersessionism would be commended for its assimilative power. He characterizes assimilation with strikingly triumphalistic imagery. Christianity is like Aaron’s rod, which devours the rods of the Egyptian sorcerers (VII.0.1). According to Newman, Christianity “broke in pieces its antagonists, and divided the spoils” (VIII.1.2). Such language is hardly acceptable once the Church has concluded that the Jews remain the people God. Is Newman’s third note necessarily so triumphalistic? Could post-supersessionism also exhibit assimilative power yet without such violent overtones?
Bruce D. Marshall answers this question
in his recent work in theological epistemology, Trinity and Truth. By way of philosophical argument,
The above treatment shows that
assimilative power is not necessarily linked to the triumphalistic cast into
which Newman molds it. The third note
remains a commendable feature of genuine doctrinal developments. Post-supersessionist theology can assimilate
a belief of the Jews such as election, yet in a manner more respectful of
Jewish identity than supersessionism. In
The Fourth Note: Logical Sequence
Newman’s fourth note evaluates ideas based on their logical sequence from prior ideas. Such a logical development of an idea is natural and necessary (V.4.1). He cites numerous examples of how schools of thought logically develop from the seed ideas of their founder (V.4.4-5). He concludes his description of this note with the following general rule: “A doctrine, then, professed in its mature years by a philosophy or religion is likely to be a true development, not a corruption, in proportion as it seems to be the logical issue of its original teaching” (V.4.5).
In his application of the fourth note, Newman narrates the logical development of a whole string of interlocking medieval doctrines and practices. He explains succinctly how, from a consideration of sin after Baptism, pardons were first developed. Pardons were followed by penances, satisfactions, the concepts of purgatory and merit, and the monastic rule (IX). His treatment is rather brief, and the reader is left wanting more in terms of detail. Nevertheless, Newman’s swift application of the fourth note reveals his intended mode of use. The fourth note is to be applied by a narration of the logical development of a series of ideas that issue in a complete doctrinal development.
A similar narrative can be pulled together to describe the logical development of post-supersessionist theology. As with the other notes, I will take from Newman only the logical form of his argument. Although I find his history of the development of penance and purgatory to be rather insightful, the validity of his historical case can be bracketed. The purpose of this paper is to apply the formal shape of his argument to a particular doctrinal issue. I am interested in his ability to narrate briefly the logical development from one doctrine to another until a whole tapestry of belief is woven. I will follow this model by offering my own brief narration of the dispersed doctrinal pieces that logically develop into a full-blown post-supersessionist theology.
The first and most obvious piece in the puzzle is early Christianity’s relationship to Judaism. Christianity first emerged as a Jewish sect; the majority, if not all, of the New Testament writers were Jews. Despite the eventual break with Judaism, Christianity’s Jewish roots are indispensable. To this piece we can quickly add the full acceptance of the Jewish Scriptures as part of the Biblical canon. Furthermore, the continued presence of the Jews in Christian-dominated areas serves as a reminder that Jews have not ceased to exist despite the pervasive supersessionist teaching of the churches.
Three later theological developments play a part in the eventual emergence of post-supersessionist theology. The first is the development of Christology. Christology, of course, has a certain problematic role to play in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Yet Orthodoxy’s affirmation of the full humanity of Jesus, and therefore his Jewish flesh, places the earthly reality of the Jewish people at the center of Christian faith.
Two additional ideas developed with special emphasis in the Reformation. Luther’s doctrine of justification asserts with considerable force the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Such an understanding of God has been cited as a reason to affirm the Jews as the people of God. The logic goes something like this: if God is eternally faithful, and God has promised to be the God of the Jewish people, then God will not turn back on this promise.[xxvii] As Paul says, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans , NRSV).
contribution of the Reformation to the eventual emergence of
post-supersessionist theology is Calvin’s doctrine of the unity of the two
covenants. Such a teaching is not unique
to Calvin, but he did develop it with considerable vigor in his theology and it
is one of the great emphases of the Reformed tradition. Despite his supersessionism, Calvin had a
The final pieces required for a full-blown post-supersessionist theology developed in the modern period. The first of these is the theological reflection spurred on by Christianity’s encounter with world religions. Modern missions and colonialism brought Christianity face-to-face with the great religions of the world, in some cases for the first time. Upon turning inward to reflect on their proper relationship with other religions, Christians finally noticed the inter-religious factor in their own back yard: the Jews. This has led to many dialogical encounters accompanied by a large body of theological reflection.
The second modern contribution is contemporary biblical scholarship, which has investigated the Jewishness of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement.[xxix] This has served to fill out the vague Christological claims to Jesus’ full humanity, and therefore turned the Christian mind to see the embodied Jew at the center of their faith.
Finally, the horrific experience of the Holocaust has resulted in a massive re-thinking of the Church’s relation to Jews. Post-holocaust theology has asked tough questions about religious responsibility and the presence of evil in the world. In many ways, these reflections are the final straw toward the development of post-supersessionist theology.
Despite its generality and brevity, the foregoing narration exhibits the logical sequence by which post-supersessionist theology developed. It did not simply appear out of nowhere. Not even the grave event of the Holocaust can alone account for it as a doctrinal development. Rather, theological patches have been slowly sewn into the tapestry of Christian theology so that the post-supersessionist patch would find its place in due time. This narration goes to show that Newman’s fourth note has immediate applicability to this contemporary doctrinal development.
The Fifth Note: Anticipation of Its Future
Newman’s fifth note looks for hints of a doctrinal development in its past. Newman observes that “instances of a development which is to come, though vague and isolated, may occur from the very first, though a lapse of time be necessary to bring them to perfection” (V.5.1). Newman cites numerous examples, including the skeptical Academics’ anticipation in Socrates’ statements against the Sophists and the early instance of intellectual activity in the monasteries (V.5.3). Newman admits that the force of the fifth note is rather weak. He says that early anticipations of a later development must only be “not inconsistent with its idea” (V.5.3). Yet he concludes that although “[t]hese, indeed, were but exceptions … they suggest its capabilities and anticipate its history” (V.5.3).
Newman applies the fifth note to the issues of relics, virginity, the cult of saints and Mary. Once again, we need not attend to the details of his argument except to note its formal quality. Newman cites only a few simple instances for each development. In his mind, he needs only to show some small hint of a later development in its early history. The fifth note is therefore tied closely to Newman’s previous argument in favor of anticipatory readings of church history (III.1.7, 10 and IV.3.9).[xxx] Is it possible to use Newman’s fifth note without necessarily accepting wholesale his anachronistic hermeneutic? Yes it is, provided we remember that the fifth note does not stand alone, but works only in conjunction with the larger cumulative case argument of the Essay as a whole. As we have already shown, Newman admits the weak force of this note.
In light of its rather low-flying status, the fifth note is not much of a barrier to any doctrinal development. It is only capable of blocking massive innovations with no clear anticipation in the tradition. Yet post-supersessionist theology is a likely candidate to be labeled as a massive innovation. It rejects a widely held Christian idea – that the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s people. Furthermore, it challenges the structure of the entire web of Christian belief. Post-supersessionism leaves no stone unturned.
Yet post-supersessionist theology is not
without its anticipations. For starters,
many of the ideas listed under the fourth note – logical sequence – would also
apply in this case. Another plausible
anticipation is dispensationalism.
Dispensationalists were some of the first modern Christians to assert
that when the Bible speaks of “
One of the items on the agenda of
post-supersessionist theology is to mine the Christian tradition for ideas
useful for theological reconstruction. A
body of work is growing in which contemporary theologians draw on the work of
past theologians. In his
post-supersessionist work on the Trinity, Bruce Marshall finds a constructive
dialogue partner in the 17th century Lutheran theologian Johann
Gerhard.[xxxi] R. Kendall Soulen builds on Barth’s
creation-is-for-consummation formula and Rahner’s supernatural existential in
his constructive proposal.[xxxii] Robert W. Jenson makes extensive use of
Augustine’s totus Christus concept in his revised theology of
Newman’s fifth note has proven useful, provided we understand its weak force and use it in conjunction with the other notes. Post-supersessionist theology does have numerous anticipations. Despite its rather radical systematic implications, it is not without precedent. The continued post-supersessionist research project will no doubt find more.
The Sixth Note: Conservative Action on Its Past
Newman’s sixth note clarifies that no matter how much change a doctrinal development brings, it must be conservatively tied to the tradition. The organic theme reemerges here as Newman contrasts the effect of developments with the effect of corruptions. He says, “[A] true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction” (XI.0). Newman applies the note to a few simple practices such as asceticism and the use of the cross. He also applies it to the development of Marian devotion.
In many ways, Newman’s sixth note is a mirror image of the fifth. For a note to conserve its past it must have a past to conserve. If an idea fails the fifth test, the point of the sixth test will be moot. However, it does play a special role by requiring doctrinal developments to do more than tip their hats to past anticipations. Rather, the doctrine must actually build up and enliven the tradition. Ideas that destroy the faith are not genuine developments but corruptions.
Avoiding the tendency to destroy is a serious concern in post-supersessionist theology. Since its basic affirmation overturns a commonly held belief, it is necessarily critical and deconstructive. Yet for it to have a lasting impact on the church, post-supersessionist theology must also build. One can feel the tension between these two tendencies by comparing Bruce D. Marshall and R. Kendall Soulen in their work on the Trinity. Soulen compares the positive ethos of ressourcement typical of Trinitarian theology with the critical ethos of repentance that characterizes post-supersessionist theology.[xxxiv] Soulen openly assigns priority to the latter over the former. His resultant theological conclusion is that the divine name YHWH ought to be assigned constitutive status for the identity of God alongside and even above the Triune name.[xxxv] The name Father/Son/Holy Spirit is a sort of “cover” for God’s real name YHWH/YHWH/YHWH.
Newman’s sixth note aids the arbitration
between these two lucid and conceptually rigorous proposals. Although Soulen’s treatment should not be
discarded out of hand, his prioritizing of repentance over ressourcement
has its dangers. If Newman is right that
a genuine doctrinal development takes conservative action on its past, then
It seems fair to suggest that Newman is right about the sixth note, for religious communities are not quick to change as it is. Proposing change that endangers its entire belief structure will inevitably fall on hard times. The doctrinal development that proposes radical change and makes extensive use of traditional conceptualities will be the winning combination. Since the sixth note has proven itself capable of serving as a guide for discerning between these two theological proposals, it confirms the continued applicability of Newman’s notes.
The Seventh Note: Chronic Vigor
The seventh and last note, chronic vigor, receives Newman’s shortest treatment. This is to be expected from a cumulative case argument. Once the ball gets rolling on this kind of argument, one needs less and less material to keep it going. Newman has already made his point, so he does not need to belabor the last note.
However, the seventh note is also the summit of the notes. A doctrine’s chronic vigor or tenacity is a result of its preservation of type, continuity of principles, assimilative power, logical sequence, anticipation of its future, and conservative action on its past. The necessity of chronic vigor is correlative of Newman’s organic view of doctrine. If ideas are alive, then the ones that live longer are fuller of life. It is a sort of doctrinal survival of the fittest. Even without subscribing to any kind of social Darwinism, one must admit that ideas that die are dismissed.
Despite the necessity of the seventh note, this is one test post-supersessionist theology cannot take. It neither passes nor fails, for it is too young. The test remains operative, but will not be applicable to this particular case for at least a few more generations. This need not worry advocates of post-supersessionist theology or Newman’s notes. Patience is virtue when dealing with doctrines. A development that sweeps in to take the world by storm is oft discarded later as a fad. A genuine development has a chronic vigor and so proves itself over time.
Setting aside the seventh note as premature in this particular case, post-supersessionism has passed the test of Newman’s notes. Simultaneously, the notes in general have exhibited their usefulness in doctrinal discernment. They aid the process of doctrinal discernment by pointing out a retrievalist path for a typically revisionist theological trend. Although not a definitive argument for either, a cumulative case has emerged on behalf of Newman’s notes and post-supersessionist theology. Therefore, I would like to lift up Newman’s rather beautiful concluding remark. Although he intended it as a call to conversion, it can be read in light of this paper as a recommendation of both the notes and post-supersessionist theology:
And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have here found; regard it not as a mere matter of present controversy; set not out resolved to refute it, and looking for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself with the imagination that it comes of disappointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility or other weakness. Wrap not your self round in the associations of years past, nor determine that to be true which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations. Time is short, eternity is long. Nunc Dimittis.[xlii]
Since Newman’s notes have proved useful as a tool for discernment, I recommend their application to other doctrinal changes. Perhaps they can organize another difficult discussion or point a way forward in otherwise stalemated debate. And if there are still doubts about their usefulness, then further application will continue to test the enduring usefulness of the notes.
[i] This paper is not intended to be a description and critique of Newman’s own view of the Jews. Even a cursory reading of Newman shows that he fits well within the supersessionism of his day. See for instance his comments on the Jews in Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine: Revolutionary Texts by John Henry Newman, ed. James Gaffney (New York: Doubleday, 1992) VI.1.8; hereafter cited in-text by chapter in Roman numerals, section and subsection in Arabic numerals.
[ii] John T. Ford, “Faithfulness to Type in Newman’s ‘Essay on Development’” in Newman Today, The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute, Vol. 1, ed. Stanley L. Jaki (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989) 18.
[iii] Ford, “Faithfulness to Type” 36-37; italics original.
[iv] See John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1979). Ford recommends a similar skillful modesty when apply the notes, “Faithfulness to Type” 38.
[v] Ian T. Ker, Newman and the Fullness of Christianity (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993) 115.
Bruce D. Marshall, “The Jewish People and Christian Theology” The
[vii] Numerous collections of such documents are available such as Allan Brockway, et al, The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People (Geneva: WCC, 1988); Helga Croner, compiler, Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations (New York: Stimulus Books, 1977).
Although I have cited Catholic documents, the reader will quickly notice my
dependence on Protestant theologians.
Many of these Protestants are connected with the so-called
[xi] Ford, “Faithfulness to Type” 31.
[xii] Ford, “Faithfulness to Type” 35-36.
[xiii] John T. Pawlikowski, “New Trends in Catholic Religious Thought” in Twenty Years of Jewish-Catholic Relations, eds. Eugene J. Fisher, A. James Rudin, and Marc H. Tanenbaum (New York: Paulist Press, 1986) 178.
[xiv] Marshall, “The Jewish People and Christian Theology” 88.
Bruce D. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of
[xvi] Paul M. van Buren, A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality, 3 Vols. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995); and Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).
[xvii] George Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability,” Modern Theology 13:4 (Oct 1997) 423.
[xviii] Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness” 424-428.
[xix] Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness” 428-434.
[xx] Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness” 434.
[xxi] Lindbeck, “The Gospel’s Uniqueness” 435.
[xxii] Bruce D. Marshall, Trinity
and Truth (
[xxvii] See Marshall, “The Jewish People” 88.
For an insightful treatment of Calvin’s ambiguous understanding of the Jews,
see Mary Potter Engel, “Calvin and the Jews: A Textual Problem” in The
[xxix] The most influential examples are E. P. Sanders two works Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) and Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
[xxx] Nicholas Lash discusses the significance of interpreting the “earlier” by the “later” in Newman on Development: The Search for an Explanation in History (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos Press, 1975) 80-113.
R. Kendall Soulen, The God of
Robert Jenson, “Toward a Christian Doctrine of
[xxxiv] Soulen, “YHWH the Triune God” 26.
[xxxv] Soulen, “YHWH the Triune God” 46.
[xlii] Essay conclusion (Gaffney edition, pg. 385).