In The God of Israel and Christian Theology, R. Kendall Soulen often talks about “the standard canonical narrative.” This is the way Christian thinkers have told the biblical story since the second century. Soulen thinks this standard narrative is flawed.
Two biblical themes are the consummation of creation and the redemption of creation. God created the world and started a history with humankind moving toward fulfillment or consummation. The election of Israel was a part of this consummation history. However, because human sin frustrated the movement toward consummation, a second motif of redemption entered in.
Christian theology usually focuses on redemption. It tells the story of Christ as redeemer. Soulen believes that in the process it has demoted the theme of consummation. While downplaying consummation history in favor of salvation history, theology has also displaced Israel.
He traces this wrong turn to the second century. He talks about the church patriarchs Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. I have called Irenaeus my favorite church father and know a little about him. So I will concentrate on what Soulen says about him.
Before the time of Irenaeus the Christian Bible had been the Torah and the other scriptures of Israel. But by his time Christians had an additional official list of books: what we call the New Testament. The great task of Irenaeus, in the face of the separation of the gentile church from Judaism and the rise of gnostic teachers, was to tell a new story based on this twofold canon.
The gnostics were telling a story in which the God of Israel was inferior. In fact, in their story, Jesus saved mankind from the God of Israel and his material creation.
Over against this, Irenaeus affirmed that the God of Israel and the God of Jesus were the same God. Also, he affirmed goodness of creation. Irenaeus said God had created the world with the consummation of men and women in mind. He made us in his image, which Irenaeus conceived as something we had to grow and mature into. So the consummation involved humans becoming beings fit for companionship with God.
The fall of Adam, however, created a breach in the plan of God. We now needed to be saved and there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. So Irenaeus conceived Jesus as Adam in reverse, undoing the damage to the image of God that Adam had done. He also saw the church as taking up Christ’s work of “recapitulation”, undoing Adam’s fall.
This story was a powerful help for the church that was opposing the gnostics.
Nevertheless, Soulen says it was flawed in that it bypassed the heart of the scripture, which was God’s covenant with Israel.
Irenaeus was a kind of dispensationalist. He saw Israel as part of a dispensation that prepared the world for Christ. The actual coming of Christ ended that dispensation and the world moved on. “Israel serves as a training ground for salvation” (p. 46).
The whole idea of an Old and a New Testament goes back to Irenaeus. These terms name, not just two parts of the Bible, but entrench “economic supersessionism”: the idea that salvation history progresses from one divine “economy” to another, and that the new economy fulfills and ends the old one.
So there are two sides to Irenaeus in Soulen’s view.
There is the negative side in which he discarded Israel as part of the past and tended to apply the Hebrew Scriptures narrowly to the problem of sin and salvation. This lent itself to individualistic interpretations and a “flight from history” (p. 54).
But there is the positive side in which he recognized and promoted the idea that creation’s original goal was the consummation of humanity. Soulen will build on that positive side.