Read the series so far.
Replacement of Concepts?
In the book The Meaning of the Millennium (ed. Robert G. Clouse), the well known postmillennial scholar Loraine Boettner said,
The land of Palestine…was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8). But the same thing is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17) and David’s throne (2 Sam. 7:13, 16, 24). But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away. (98)
It stands to reason that if Israel’s promises have passed away, they have to be replaced by something else. But according to many Presbyterian covenant theologians the church has always existed, so they object to being called supercessionists. R.C. Sproul, Jr is a representative voice when he says,
The Reformed perspective takes a different tack. It affirms that that Israel which is actually Israel, just as with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, applies to those who are in Christ, who trust in His finished work. Though we deny the moniker, this is what our dispensational friends call “replacement theology.” The Reformed, however, see this is as the outworking of the truth of Galatians 3:7- “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” We who are Reformed do not believe God replaced Israel with the church. We believe instead that there has always been only one people of God, those who believe. (R.C. Sproul, Jr.)
An older work by W. J. Grier makes this abundantly clear:
Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11). (The Momentous Event, 33)
Seeing that this is the position of at least some covenant theologians, is it fair to label them as replacement theologians? Well, not in the sense that they believe the church has replaced Israel in toto, (although not a few of these men do slip into that kind of rhetoric on occasion). But I would argue that an identifiable form of supercession is still going on.
Grier’s opinion that “Israel” equals believers stripped of the accoutrements of a designated land, with cities, a temple, priesthood and a king looks overly simplistic. These key OT themes are swept aside with a wave of the hand.
Consider this statement from Edmund Clowney:
The greatest promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the church – we are the temple of the living God. (Edmund P. Clowney, “The Final Temple,” in Prophecy in the Making, ed., Carl F. H. Henry, 84)
And again this by Steve Motyer:
[Paul] consistently applies to the church – that is, the mixed Jewish and Gentile congregations to whom he writes – the great covenant ideas and terms which had previously belonged to Israel. They are the elect (1 Thess. 1:4-5), the people called to holiness (1 Cor. 1:2), the justified who are objects of God’s saving righteousness (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 3:22-24), the redeemed (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), who inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Col. 1:12). They are the children of God (Rom. 8:14; cf. Exod. 4:22), on whom the glory of God rests (Rom. 5:2; 8:30), who offer pleasing worship (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:1-2), and who can rightly appeal to the covenant faithfulness of God (Rom. 8:31-39). In all likelihood, when Paul calls God’s peace and mercy upon ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, he is referring to the church. (S. Motyer, “Israel (nation),” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., T. Desmond Alexander, et al., 585-586.)
Clowney takes all the best promises to Israel in the Bible and gives them (though in a greatly altered condition) to the church. Motyer, like so many who take this line, thinks that God’s speaking about the church in similar terms to the way He speaks about Israel is decisive in equating the two. In the Boettner quote we can see that the “perpetual duration” of the OT promises to Israel of land, king, priesthood etc., are not, in fact, perpetual; at least not in the way they would have been understood in OT times. The notion of perpetuity changes, as do the ideas of land, king, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, and other associated matters.
Picking through the Assertions
I have defined “replacement” as meaning “to take the place of” and “supercession” as a switching out of one thing for another. In the essay by Clowney from which I have pulled the quotation above, the writer calls the church the true temple. The physical temple in Jerusalem was just a foreshadowing of the church. What was said about the temple can be applied about all the other items on the OT covenant list: king, land, Zion, priesthood, the preeminence of the nation among other nations, etc.
Let me concede the point about Israel being the church at present for the sake of argument, it remains true that the church is not a physical building or a nation in the usual sense (this category error will be revisited). So it would appear, for example, that the word “temple” in Clowney’s statement is being used to refer to two different things. And it looks like the non-physical “temple” is superseding the physical Jerusalem temple. If so, then in the minds of OT believers, the idea of the temple as a physical structure on Mt. Zion is replaced by the idea of a called-out multitude of people. If we move on to land we shall find either that rather than referring to a designated territory separate from other territories, “land” now refers to heaven, or that it refers to the whole globe (usually on the new earth). The “king” does not reign over the nation of Israel in Jerusalem but instead is reigning now from heaven over the international church. Zion becomes another name for heaven, the Zadokite line of Levites become mainly Gentile Christians, and there is no such thing as the preeminence of Israel since “Israel” is the church and the church is all there is! So even though we don’t have replacement of one people group with another (because Israel = the church), we do have many replacements of important concepts with others.
Here is Greg Beale:
Here [Gal. 6:16], as in 2 Cor. 5:14-7:1, it needs to be emphasized that the church in fulfilling Israel’s end-time restoration prophecies is also fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies of new creation. (G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 724)
So the church fulfills the prophecies given to Israel over and over again in the OT. These fulfilments are not often literal (i.e. what would have been expected by hearers of the original words), but rather the concepts are substituted for other things. OT concepts (e.g. land, king, priesthood, temple in this world) are replaced by others in the world to come. But in Jeremiah 31, 33 and Ezekiel 36-48 we find some of the most strongly worded promises of God to national Israel. These are New covenant promises, not conditioned on adherence to the law of Moses.
(More to come…)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.