Thursday, February 19, 2009

Replacement Theology and The Return of the King

I've mentioned that I'm working on a thesis on the Temple in the Gospel of John, and one of my major interests is with the "replacement" theology that pervades much of the literature on the subject.* Most previous studies and commentaries view Jesus as the replacement of the Temple, the Torah, Moses and a variety of other Jewish figures and institutions. In older studies especially, this is often part of a broad supersessionist approach that emphasizes contrast and polemic in comparing Judaism and Christianity.

A growing number of scholars, especially since the Second World War, have come to question this supersessionist approach, and now emphasize Jesus' continuity with and "fulfillment" of his Jewish predecessors, but replacement remains the default view, and polemical overtones often crop up even in those studies that emphasize fulfillment. For a variety of reasons, I think this paradigm distorts our understanding of John's--very Jewish--Gospel and distracts from his more central Christological and Theological purposes. I'll be exploring those reasons in my thesis and don't want to detail them just yet, but yesterday I was struck by an analogy that, I think, captures very well John's point as I understand it, and may be of wider interest [Updated, see Hugh's comment]:

Imagine a king went away on a journey and left an emissary a regent to govern in his stead. The regent is charged with reminding his people of the king's wishes and keeping them expectant of his eventual return. The regent does his job well, but when the king finally does return, it is in a manner that no one expects, and most do not recognize him as the king at all. At that point, the king's regent is, technically speaking, no longer necessary--no one needs to ask the regent about the king's wishes because they can now ask the king directly--but since the regent is one of the few who knows the king's true identity, he does continue to serve as a "witness" to that fact, valuable to those who have come to trust the regent but are not yet convinced that this late-comer is truly their king.

Now as far as the regent continues to do his job well, he becomes in a sense "obsolete," for those who do listen to him and recognize their king no longer "need" the regent, but he is not thereby "replaced" by the king, for he is and always was the king's agent. Thus, it is not a case of supersession, as when one king replaces another, for the king and his regent have always been in different categories. The regent always was a mere "witness" to the king's identity and purposes, so this is not some new change in his role after the king returns; it is rather the fulfillment of the role he was charged with from the beginning.

Such is how, I believe, John views Moses, the Torah and the Temple. As the incarnation of the one God of Israel, Jesus does not replace those "predecessors" (after all, he thinks Jesus, as the logos, predates them), nor is their status as "witnesses" (John 5) a demotion from their previous roles. Instead, John seems to be saying that this is the purpose they have always served. Jesus is not a new Moses, a new Torah or a new Temple, but the divine king to whom all three have always pointed.

*So please don't steal what I'm about to say! ;)


Anonymous said...

Just a point of language, intended in a friendly spirit. An 'emissary' is somebody you send out on a mission, so this isn't the right word for somebody who stands in for you when you go away.

For the scenario you propose, 'regent' might be the best word

Ken Brown said...

Hmm, that's a good point. I had planned to say that the king did send the emissary ahead of him, but when I changed my mind it didn't occur to me that "emissary" would not really fit the scenario as described.

I thought about calling him "steward," but that seemed a bit too heavey-handed! ;)

Anonymous said...

Well done, Ken. You're definitely one of my favourite (British spelling) Christians.

Ken Brown said...

Coming from you, that is quite an honour (British spelling).