Israel, the Church, and Millenarianism

A Way Beyond Replacement Theology

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Steven D. Aguzzi
Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , July
     2017.
     354 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472485229.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Steven D. Aguzzi, who has written extensively on the topic of supersessionism in relation to Jewish-Catholic relations, offers his unique perspective in Israel, the Church, and Millenarianism: A Way Beyond Replacement Theology. It is an ambitious work that draws its inspiration from Jürgen Moltmann’s revisionist eschatology, ambitious both in terms of the scope of his research and the task he sets out to accomplish, which is to convince his readers that the only valid eschatology for proper Jewish-Christian relations is premillennialism,with its reference to the thousand-year interregnum suggested by Revelation 20. While his argumentation is sound, including a thorough examination of critical documentation, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is too eager to get the material to say what he wishes it to say. Amillennialists will be particularly puzzled by his characterization (or perhaps better, mischaracterization) of their perspective which serves as a diabolical foil for his thesis. 

And this is Aguzzi’s thesis: “In this book, I will argue that one powerful means of overcoming supersessionism—a theological problem admitted, identified, and addressed recently in the Catholic scholarly tradition—is by the re-evaluation and reintegration of certain positive attributes of the millenarian approach to eschatology” (2). 

The qualifications Aguzzi offers here are significant: first, the admission that this is only “one” tool that can be used to overcome the poisonous impact of supersessionism on Jewish-Catholic relations; second, a qualification that is necessary to underscore that his is not a blanket endorsement of all millenarian models, but only of “certain positive attributes” of the “millenarian approach to eschatology.” This is important because in many people’s minds the word “millennialism” is associated almost exclusively with the apocalyptic speculations of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism. Aguzzi specifically excludes this popularized form of pre-millennial eschatology in favor of what he claims to be earlier, more biblically astute forms of millenarianism, a millenarianism that was the default position (he claims) of many of the earliest patristic writers. 

To make his case, Aguzzi divides his book into four parts, which he characterizes as four “projects,” with each part adding weight to a layered argumentation that in its entirety gives what he considers to be an airtight case for his thesis.

Aguzzi begins his projects with a reference to Nostra Aetate (NA), endorsing the document’s attempt to address the worst abuses of supersessionism, particularly in its recognition that God’s purpose for the Jewish people has not and will not be revoked, thus suggesting two salvific tracks to God’s ultimate purposes. NA, Aguzzi writes, “has collectively had the effect of discerning that the synagogue and church are called to work together to witness to God’s coming reign and the consummation of the Kingdom” (68).

This is what NA says. But Aguzzi believes that the sentiment expressed in this document has had and will continue to have little real impact on the deeply ingrained impulses of supersessionism as long as post-Augustinian amillennialism remains the default eschatology of the church. At issue is the ecclesiology that accompanies the eschatology (or vice versa—a classic chicken and egg paradigm), particularly the conviction that the church has taken up the mission and identity of Israel as “the goal of God’s plan for human history,” which other documents such as the Catechism continue to perpetuate (70). According to the Catechism, the church has “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ … If the Church is what was prefigured ‘in creation,’ and particularly prepared for in the revelation historically expressed in the Old Covenant … how may there be an alternative expression of God’s consummative economy, particularly in Judaism?” (70).

The real villain here is amillennialism, with its inability to open up a salvific role for Judaism. This is so, says Aguzzi, because it assumes that there is only one resurrection allowing the church militant to become the church triumphant. Jews, in this case, like all other human beings, have only one hope, which is to become Christian. Pre-Augustine millenarian schemes, on the other hand, with their embrace of Revelation 20’s suggestion of an interregnum period positing two resurrections, leaves open the possibility that the covenant promises made to Israel may find a fulfillment in the millennial kingdom that will be established when Messiah is revealed prior to the final consummation. Church and synagogue in this case can exist in tandem, each finding their own fulfillment in God’s redemptive purposes in and outside of history. 

Agguzi’s research, although well considered and extensively covered, leaves open two holes that weaken his conclusions. The first is the fact that those who stand under the amillennial banner today (among whom I count myself) would find his characterization of the amillennial perspective almost unrecognizable. Most who hold this position do so because they find the literalism of the premillennial assumption about an interregnum thousand-year period untenable when read in the larger context of the biblical narrative. This is not Christian triumphalism. It is an exegetical matter that actually has the effect of setting aside millennial schemes as a significant factor in Christian-Jewish relations, or in relations with any other neighbors for that matter (noting here that current premillennial speculations tend toward the demonization of our Muslim neighbors).  

The second hole is in Agguzi’s assumption that premillennialism is necessarily conducive to the kind of two-track salvific purposes of God that he posits as the only way forward in breaking the hold of supersessionism on the Christian imagination. The problem here is finding any contemporary premillennialists (or even ancient premillennialists) who would hold to this perspective. The dehumanizing nature of the contemporary dispensationalist narrative, which is the most prominent form of premillennialism in contemporary Christianity, underscores how anti-Semitism is not too far below the surface of all eschatological camps. Shifting eschatological perspectives may in this case not be the solution Agguzi assumes it is.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Hubers is Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Global Education at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven D. Aguzzi is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, and on the adjunct faculty of Duquesne University’s theology department. He earned his PhD in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in December of 2013, with a research specialization in Jewish–Christian comparative theology. He is widely published on the topic of supersessionism and Jewish–Catholic relations, particularly in ecumenical journals, and his work is constructive in its attempts to utilize traditional eschatologies in an effort to express a Christian theology that takes Judaism seriously, on its own terms. Aguzzi also holds an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, with specializations in comparative theology and ecumenical ecclesiology. Aguzzi has established ecumenical relations in the Pittsburgh area, and speaks nationally on the topic of post-Shoah, post-replacement theology.

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