The Old Covenant and the USCCB: More Schizophrenia from Sungenis, by Jacob Michael

In a recent article at CAI, Bob Sungenis shares a dialogue he had with "a high-ranking official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops" (Sungenis, My Conversation with the USCCB about the Jews and the Old Covenant, p. 1) on the subject of the Old Covenant and its current status.

Please note the following:

"Gerry": Likewise, my reading of Romans 11:29, does rely on that of Pope John Paul II, "the Old covenant never revoked by God," which resolves the ambiguity you discern.

Robert: But in his 1980 Mainz speech (which is the only place he said it, and we recognize that this was not a de fide decree), John Paul II did not specify what covenant he was referring to. It certainly can't be the Mosaic covenant, since Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils have all said that the Mosaic covenant was abolished. Otherwise, you'll be accusing John Paul II of heresy.

Moreover, if you check John Paul II's encyclicals, he says, in six different places, that the eternal covenant is the New Covenant, and that the Old (Mosaic Law) has been replaced.

If you want them I can get them for you.

If anything, in the Mainz speech, John Paul II was referring to the Abrahamic covenant which has not been revoked, but that covenant, according to St. Paul, is now the New Covenant (Gal 3:6-29; Heb 10:16-18). Likewise, Rom 11:29 is not referring to the Mosaic covenant, but to the New Covenant that was made by the Deliverer so that sins could be forgiven (Rm 11:27). (Sungenis, "Conversation", pp. 5-6)

In the above argument, Sungenis insists that Pope John Paul II could not be referring to the Mosaic Covenant with the words "Old Covenant"; he takes refuge in what he perceives as an ambiguity on the part of John Paul II ("John Paul II did not specify what covenant he was referring to"); he suggests that "If anything ... John Paul II was referring to the Abrahamic covenant which has not been revoked."

A little later in the dialogue, Sungenis pursues the same line of argumentation:

Gerry: The term used in Church documents and tradition is "Old Covenant," not "Mosaic covenant." I'm not sure what distinction you are trying to make between them.

R. Sungenis: Scholars consistently distinguish between the Mosaic covenant issued in Exodus 20 from the (sic) Abrahamic covenant issued in Genesis 12-22. The former was Law covenant, the latter was a Promise covenant. Gal 3:19 makes this distinction very clear.

When you use the term "Old Covenant" you need to distinguish which covenant from the Old Testament Scriptures you are talking about.

Since your Catechism uses the words "the covenant...through Moses," then obviously the covenant it is referring to is the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic covenant. John Paul II saw the distinction, since in his Mainz speech that you quote below he says "the Covenant concluded with Moses." Note that he said the "covenant concluded," not "remains eternally valid for the Jews," as your catechism does on page 131. (ibid., pp. 10-11)

Here the argument takes on an added element: Sungenis claims that "scholars consistently distinguish between the Mosaic covenant ...from the (sic) Abrahamic covenant." He chides his interlocutor for not distinguishing "which covenant from the Old Testament Scriptures you are talking about." He then introduces a new twist: John Paul II was definitely not referring to the Mosaic covenant when he mentioned the "Old Covenant, never revoked by God", because he spoke of the "Covenant concluded with Moses." Sungenis makes much of the fact that the Pope used the word "concluded" in reference to the Mosaic Covenant, and insists that the Pope (like other "scholars") is making a distinction between the "Old Covenant" (by which he must mean the Abrahamic Covenant) and the "Mosaic Covenant."

But just a few months ago, in a hatchet-job that he tried to pass off as a "review" of my book (Never Revoked by God: The Place of Israel in the Future of the Church), Sungenis took issue with me for saying the very same thing he argues above.

In reference to the covenants that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15, 17 and 22, Mr. Michael says the following:
Already we have the beginnings of an answer to our question concerning the Old Covenant: we can say the "Old Covenant," the one sworn here by God with Abraham, has never been revoked. Indeed, it cannot be revoked because the nature of this oath is unconditional; the text says that God has simply sworn by Himself, by His own name.

Although Mr. Michael has recognized at least some truth in these passages (namely, that God swore an oath to fulfill them), the crucial mistakes he makes are these:

1. labeling the promises to Abraham as the "Old Covenant."

Neither the Old nor New Testament EVER refer to the promises to Abraham as the "Old Covenant." Consequently, Mr. Michael is inventing a term that does not exist. The only time Scripture uses the term "Old Covenant" is in reference to the Mosaic covenant, as St. Paul details in 2Co 3:7, 14 ... Having said that, we can give credit to Mr. Michael for recognizing that the Abrahamic covenant cannot be revoked, as long as Mr. Michael admits that the Abrahamic covenant is not the "Old Covenant." The reason it is not, nor ever can be, "old" is precisely because it never ceases to exist, since it is guaranteed by a divine oath. (Jacob Michael’s "Never Revoked by God" - A Review by Robert Sungenis, Ph.D., pp. 5-6, emphasis added)

In short, when I argue in my book that the Abrahamic covenant can be understood as a the "Old Covenant", Sungenis insists that nowhere in the bible is the Abrahamic covenant called the "Old Covenant"; I am "inventing a term that does not exist"; the Scriptures clearly prove that the term "Old Covenant" is always a reference to the Mosaic covenant; yet, when arguing with the USCCB representative over what John Paul II meant by saying "the Old Covenant, never revoked by God," suddenly Sungenis is employing the very same arguments he earlier criticized as untenable. He argues that John Paul II meant precisely the covenant with Abraham when he said "Old Covenant"; he argues that scholars consistently make this distinction. How very interesting!

Of course, the reason he now employs the same arguments he earlier criticized is because he doesn't want to admit that John Paul II was indeed referring to the Mosaic covenant as the covenant "never revoked by God." That would have proved his interlocutor's position, and so suddenly, Sungenis is willing to speak out of both sides of his mouth: the Old Covenant never refers to the Abrahamic covenant, but also, scholars consistently make this distinction, and the Pope meant nothing other than the Abrahamic covenant when he used the term "Old Covenant" (but remember, this is a term that "does not exist").

He wants to make much of the fact that the Pope used the word "concluded" in reference to the Mosaic covenant, and yet he somehow failed to read the very words he quoted just a few paragraphs later:

Robert: You're ignoring the fact that Paul is referring back to Jeremiah 31:31, which began the "fading away" of the Old Covenant in the past. Then all you need do is read verses 7-8 just before it to find out when the complete "fading" occurred. It says:

"For if that first covenant had been faultless, no place would have been sought for a second one. But he finds fault with them and says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.’"

Those "days" came when Jesus died on the cross, not when he comes at the end of the world. At the end of the world, there will be no more forgiveness for repentance, since it is the end. (Sungenis, "Conversation", p. 6, emphasis added)

Note well: when God refers to the future ratification of the New Covenant, He says "I will conclude a new covenant" - obviously not referring to the end of the New Covenant! Apparently Sungenis is unaware that the word "conclude" can mean "to end, to terminate," but it can also mean "to settle, to arrange." That is, in fact, what the word means in the passage he quoted from Jeremiah, and it is also what the word means in the Pope's speech; in the context of his listeners, it makes no sense that the Pope would have said to a Jewish audience that the "Old Covenant" was "never revoked", only to then say that the Mosaic covenant was "concluded [terminated]" - especially when, as Sungenis argued against me, the phrase "Old Covenant" so obviously means "Mosaic covenant."

Not only does it make no sense in the context of a Jewish audience, it doesn't make sense in its grammatical context. Here is the phrase again: "A second dimension of our dialogue - the true and central one - is the meeting between present-day Christian Churches and the present-day people of the Covenant concluded with Moses." If "concluded" means "terminated", as Sungenis argues that it does, then this sentence means that the Old Covenant was terminated with Moses. But that's not what happened in Scripture; the Old Covenant was inaugurated with Moses, and could not have been brought to an end (if it ever was) at least until the coming of Christ. Sungenis might have a case if the Pope had said, "the people of the Covenant concluded [terminated] with Christ," or even, "the Covenant with Moses, now concluded," but he said neither of those things. He said "the Covenant concluded with Moses," and since the Old Covenant was not terminated at any point in Moses' lifetime, clearly the Pope does not mean "concluded" in the sense of "terminated."

Once again we are treated to Sungenis' unique style of schizophrenic argumentation; he employs one argument against me, and then completely reverses himself and uses the very arguments he criticized when it serves his purpose. In his introduction to the USCCB dialogue, Sungenis writes, "it is clearly taught in Catholic dogma and Scripture that the Mosaic covenant has been legally abolished and replaced by the New Covenant. After I brought this matter to his attention, 'Gerry' politely side-stepped the issue. 'Gerry' terminated the discussion thereafter."

Indeed. Given the incoherence Sungenis displayed in his argumentation, I would have terminated the discussion as well! You can't have a meaningful discussion with someone who argues one thing on one day with one opponent, and then argues the exact opposite on the next day with another opponent.

In the end one thing is demonstrated: as befits Sungenis' M.O., any argument is a stick worth swinging (even two contradicting arguments!), as long as it's being swung at the Jews.

Jacob Michael
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