by Keith Megilligan
There is a branch of theological study that has existed since almost the beginning of church history that has trailed and tainted the church’s relationship to her Jewish friends. In recent years, this study has taken on a level of sophistication that brings new life and a new name. Replacement theology has been its standard nomenclature; more recently it has been called supersessionism. Now, before I lose you, let’s tackle this subject piece by piece.
First, what is replacement theology?
Basically, it is the view that God has turned His back upon the Jews, Israel and his promises to them in Scripture and has replaced them with the church. Thus, whatever covenants and provisions God has made with and for the children of Israel now belong to the children of God in the church. God has rejected the “old Israel,” and the church has become the “new Israel.” Whatever has been promised to Israel in the Scriptures (read Old Testament) was no longer for them, the church obtained those rights. Literal or normal understanding of God’s relationship to Israel has been replaced with a “spiritual” understanding of Scripture. According to this view, Israel has been replaced by the church.
Second, how did this view originate?
The origin started with Origen! Origen was the one of the most prominent early church fathers (about 185-254 AD). He had concluded and espoused the view that God had judged the nation of Israel and abandoned them forever because of her sins. He further taught that the Jews would never be restored to their former condition. What basically had happened (from Origen’s point of view) was that the nation of Israel suffered yet another dispersion (dissolution) at the same time that the church had become the visible spiritual entity that God was going to use to get his message out.
Third, but how is that possible, that the church would replace Israel?
Basically, you would have to redefine “Israel.” Origen was also part of the early church’s development of allegorical teaching and preaching. He and others espoused a view that would “spiritualize” their interpretation of Scriptural passages to have meanings that were not normal or literal. Thus, anything that the text said about Israel, since she had now been set aside by God, was “spiritualized” in its meaning to refer to the church.
Fourth, so did the church continue to believe and practice such teaching?
Yes and yes! Within a few centuries of its origin, the church split into two major factions: eastern church (Orthodox) and western church (Roman Catholic). The western church became the prominent force for “Christianity” and her influence became the more dominate of the two worldwide. The Roman church continued the teaching and preaching model of allegorical interpretation. Israel was replaced in their eyes as well. So, for well over 1,600 years replacement theology “grew,” and the Jewish people suffered both biblically and literally for it.
Fifth, didn’t things change in the reformation?
Sort of – let’s use Martin Luther as a principle example. Though it appears that Luther struggled during much of his career/ministry with what place in God’s plan the Jew/Israel had, he settled, by the end, with strong anti-Jewish sentiment. As he viewed their history, he concluded that the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (70 AD) was argument enough for God disregarding the Jew. He also struggled with the matter of why couldn’t/shouldn’t a Jewish person accept Jesus as Messiah since Jesus was a Jew as well? Luther was torn by these two (among other) factors that left him basically with an anti-Semitic mind set. For example, he wrote a tract entitled: “On the Jews and their Lies.” Luther adopted a position very consistent with Origen. He wrote at one point, “Thus all the Gentiles who are Christians are the true Israelites and new Jews, born of Christ, the noblest Jew.” It is not difficult at all to see Luther’s “replacement theology” in such a quote.
Sixth, what about the rest of the leaders of the reformation, did they hold the same position?
Essentially, yes. Since Roman Catholicism had held such a powerful sway upon the thinking of Christian leaders for so long, it was not easy to throw off this yoke. In other words, allegory and its implications still influenced the reformed leaders with their attitude toward the Jew and Israel. Though the reformers certainly tightened up their interpretation of Scripture with regard to salvation, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and they developed a much improved exegetical approach to the interpretation of Scripture, they couldn’t shake the allegorical (if not anti-social) view of Israel and the Jewish people which had been held for centuries.
Seventh, so where does that leave us today?
Church history continues to impact this answer. As the reformation settled down and even an “anti-reformation” came in to play, orchestrated by the Roman Catholic church, the teaching and the practice of the church (Reformed and Catholic) in matters related to Israel stayed the same. Post-reformation German theologians grew in prominence in the European/western church. They eventually brought to the forefront two brands of theology. One was neo-orthodoxy and the other was documentary hypothesis. Though the mere mention of these disciplines of study may turn you off, they impacted the church’s teaching regarding Israel significantly. First neo-orthodoxy: the term simply means “new doctrine.” However, there is little that is orthodox about it. Liberal German (and other) theologians began to present a view of doctrine that used the same and familiar biblical terms (in their teaching/preaching) but gave them entirely new meanings. “Salvation” could simply be a new experience a person had that made them think or behave in a better fashion. “Grace” was cheapened to be more expressive of a feeling than a sovereign display of God’s character towards an undeserving sinner. And so it went. This took allegory to a new level. The text was beyond being spiritualized; it was re-defined. One German theologian of the previous century, for example, while having good things to say about Jesus and Judaism, implied that Jews were children of Satan. The “problem” of the Jew in his day was a social issue and the church had nothing to do with it. Let the state deal with it/them (Rudolph Bultmann, Liberal and Anti-Jewish). It is not too far a jump to see how liberal theology had influenced the church to turn its back on the Jew and stay focused on (what it considered) church issues. Documentary hypothesis taught that the Bible (Scripture) was not really a divinely authored or inspired text, and it was written and edited by man. Thus, they developed a “complete editorial” staff for the Old Testament and divided their “schools of editors” into various factions: those that favored Jehovah, those that favored Elohim, the priests, etc. Each group wrote his portion/emphasis of the Old Testament. The liberal emphasis thus took God completely out of the picture. Who then cared about Him or what he had to say about Israel?
Okay, but surely the impact of the “fundamentalists” of the early twentieth century until now cleaned up and corrected that view of disparaging the Jews and replacement theology, didn’t it?
Sadly, no. We have major denominations, seminaries and Christian leaders who still espouse the view of replacement theology, or supersessionism. Though this is a broad statement, many, if not most seminaries that consider themselves “reformed” (or covenantal) in their theology are also “replacement” in their Israelology! That is, since most reformed seminaries have a covenantal view of theology (which makes little or no distinction between Israel and the church) they are much more prone to espouse replacement theology as their view of Israel in Scripture. On the other hand, those Bible colleges and seminaries that are more, or exclusively, dispensational in their view of Scripture (that is, there is a distinction between Israel and the church and God still has a plan for His chosen people, the Jew) do not adopt replacement theology. Of all the “fundamentals” that were listed as fundamentals of the faith, the language regarding the return of Christ and the nature of His coming kingdom was most fuzzy. Eschatology became the sacrificial lamb of the fundamentals. And since your view of the end time events highly impacts your view towards God’s place for Israel in prophecy and thus your view of who is Israel, once again the tension among theologians, theology and the church became evident. To a certain extent, the development and declaration of the modern State of Israel (1948) boosted the dispensational view of Israelology.
How did modern day Israel’s existence boost dispensationalism?
The argument of course is more historical than biblical (we’ll get to that in a minute). Simply because Bible believing Christians could see God preparing the way for fulfilling his Scriptural promises to Israel and her people, the mere fact that Jews were back in their land created enormous excitement among their ranks! 1948 wasn’t the beginning of the 70th week of Daniel (9:24-27), but the events surrounding the UN’s declaration of the modern state of Israel showed clearly that God would/could bring Israel’s dead bones back to life (Ezekiel 37). It would also set the stage for the Lord to put a new heart and spirit in his people. They would be His people and He would be their God (Jeremiah 31, 33). Further, Paul would show how all the parts – Jews, Gentiles, and the promises of God – would fit together (Romans 11).
Good, so now we have no more issues regarding Israel and the church as long as we attend Bible believing churches, right?
Oh that it were so! Bible-believing Christian does not always equal discerning Christian. We are told to rightly divide the Word of God, to test the spirits to see if they are of God, the Bible, or not. There are several prominent denominations today who are replacement theology advocates, such as: the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, Churches of Christ, Corsicana, Texas, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church United Church of Christ, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, Joplin, MO, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similarly there are some prominent theologians of our day who advocate replacement theology such as: RC Sproul, Michael Horton, Meredith Kline and JI Packer. Another person I would add to this list I do with a great deal of personal sadness because his ministry has tremendously impacted the Bible believing church for decades. But recently, evidence has come to light that John Piper appears to support replacement theology. There are both nuances in his preaching, as well as blog statements of his which evidence at least a confusion of covenant and/or replacement theology. He has called Jewish people, “a non-covenant-keeping people” that does not have “a divine right to hold the land of promise.” At the least he has not read God’s clear statement to Abraham (Genesis 12-15) or worse, he refuses to accept God’s promise to keep Israel as his own in the Land (Jeremiah 31, 33).
So, what’s the bottom line?
Be discerning! Seek to understand both the biblical and historical framework for replacement theology. Learn to take God at his word, interpreting Scripture with its normal or literal meaning. Make sure you understand the distinction between Israel and the church: your basic theology and final eschatology are pinned to it.
(The writer credits several on-line, as well as other sources, for their contribution to this article. The sources include, but are not limited to: h4cblog.com, theologicalstudies.org, The Survivors of Israel, Mark Eliot. Another excellent resource from a biblical point of is, The Coming Apocalypse, Renald Showers)