"Replacement Theology" - Is It Wrong to Use the Term? (Part 1)

Recently I have been reminded of the Reformed community’s aversion to the label of supercessionism, or worse, replacement theology. In the last decade or so particularly I have read repeated disavowals of this term from covenant theologians. Not wanting to misrepresent or smear brethren with whom I disagree, I have to say that I struggle a bit with these protests.

“We are not replacement theologians” we are told, “but rather we believe in transformation or expansion.” By some of the objectors we are told that the church does not replace Israel because it actually is Israel — well, “true Israel” — the two designations are really one. This move is legitimate, they say, because the “true Israel” or “new Israel” is in direct continuity with Israel in the Old Testament.

In this series of posts I want to investigate the question of whether it is right; if I am right, to brand this outlook as replacement theology and supercessionism.

Basics: What Is a “Replacement”?

A good thing to do as we begin is to have a definition of the word at issue. Websters New World Dictionary defines the word “replacement” thus:

1. a replacing or being replaced 2. a person or thing that takes the place of another…”

The entry for “replace” says,

1. to place again; to put back in a former or the proper place or position. [obviously, this does not apply to our question.]
2. to take the place of… 3. to provide a substitute or equivalent for.

The synonym “supersede” means that something is replaced by something else that is superior. In the way I use the terms in a theological context I mean “to take the place of.” The third meaning (i.e. to substitute) is somewhat relevant since some may be claiming that OT Israel has been switched out for another Israel. By “supercessionism” then, I mean any theology that teaches a switching out of “old Israel” with “new,” “true Israel.”

The question before us is whether the Church takes the place of Israel in covenant theology, and if so how? To answer that question we must ask several more. These include such important questions as, ‘what exactly do covenant theologians say about the matter? And do they ever use replacement terminology themselves?’; ‘Can their understandings of Israel and the church, and so their “expansion” language, be supported from the Bible?’

If “Israel” and “the church” are the same thing then clearly we have our answer, and I can stop writing. If the church and Israel are the same any question of replacing one with the other starts and stops with the simple swapping of names.

Identifying “Israel”

In the Old Testament Israel is either a person, the man Jacob who was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28, or the nation of people (sometimes a part of them either in rebellion or redeemed) who stem from Jacob who are called “the children of Israel” in Genesis 32:32 (Israelites), or a designation for the promised land (cf. Josh. 11:16, 21).

Covenant theology adds to these designations another. For example, an anonymous devotional at Ligonier’s website entitled “Who is Israel?” claims that,

Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community—the invisible church—that follows Christ. Paul does not make this application specifically in Romans 11; however, this meaning is clearly implied in his teaching about the one olive tree with both Jewish and Gentile branches (vv. 11-24).

Although nowhere does the New Testament explicitly equate Israel with the church, the assumptions that lead the writer to his conclusion (not to mention his exegesis of Gal. 6:16 and his use of the Olive Tree metaphor) come into focus once his view of the church is understood.

Chapter Twenty-five of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines the Church like this:

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

You will notice that this definition places every saved {elect} person in human history into the Church. It also places all the those elect who will be saved into the Church. The Church is also seen as the Body of Christ, as well as “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God” outside of which there is no salvation.

Acceptance of this definition pretty much wraps things up as far as OT Israel is concerned. The saved saints under the Mosaic covenant were simply the Church of the time. Also, the kingdom which was repeatedly promised to the remnant of Israel is, well, the Church. Not the land, not Jerusalem, not the national throne or the temple on Mt. Zion, just the Church.

There is reason to dissent from the honored position of the Puritans cited above, and I shall have to do so later on. But right here my intention is simply note that according to this way of thinking the elect Church and elect Israel are the same thing. If this is the right tack then there is nothing wrong with the following thought from Anglican theologian Gerald Bray:

As men and women who have been grafted into the nation of Israel by the coming of Jesus Christ, Christians…lay claim to [the] love and the promises that go with it. – God Has Spoken, 41

Very well, we are to believe that Christians have been grafted into Israel. Bray too is alluding to Paul’s metaphor of the Olive Tree in Romans 11. Again, “Israel” here must mean believers, therefore, all believers are “Israel.” That is, IF these claims are true.

(To be continued…)

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There are 35 Comments

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think there are more than reasonable responses to these that actually make better sense of the whole text.

Example # 1.  The NT declares repeatedly that John the Baptist is the Elijah foretold in the OT.  In other words, the Elijah who is to come was not the literal OT prophet, but rather one who would come in the power and spirit of Elijah.  Reading ony the OT text in Malachi, I doubt that i would have understood that prophecy correctly.  Reading the words of Christ I now can.

First, you didn't accurately cite the NT text. It speaks of one who comes "in the spirit and power of Elijah" and says the Baptist was him if they would have accepted him. They didn't accept him. Second, don't think Malachi necessarily require the literal return of Elijah, but is perfectly consistent with Luke 1:17 and one who comes "in the spirit and power of Elijah." Can you get that from the OT text? I think you can if you understand the way popular or significant figures are used even today. There are certainly a number of issues that not even the NT text makes clear. So this is not a good example.

Example # 2.  Jeremiah foretold a new covenant to be made with the house of Judah and Israel.  The book of Hebrews identifies this with the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ which embraces the church.  Conclusion:  the church fulfills the prophesy made to Judah and Israel and in fact is the Israel and Judah of which the OT prophet speaks.

This, I think, is clearly false. The only way in which your conclusion stands is by ignoring what the text of the OT says and reconciling it with the NT. The book of Hebrew does not cite the whole NC but only the part in which the church is has a part. Again, there are several different explanations of the church and the NC, but none can be considered complete if it ignores part of the NC in the OT. The one you give is the most exegetically tenuous because of what it forces us to omit or overlook. If we start with the OT text and figure out what it says, then we can figure why the NT cites the part it does and omits the other part. It seems obvious to me that the NT cites the part of the NC it does because the church has a part in that aspect of it, and it omits the part of the NC it omits because that part applies to Israel, those whose fathers were led by the hand out of Egypt who broke the former covenant. That can only be Israel and that is why Hebrews cannot be saying the whole NC is given to the church. It would require a denial of what the OT clearly says.

But even if we were to grant your positions here as derived from inspiration, it still doesn't help us with any text that is not addressed in the NT. And that is the point of Longenecker and Walton. What is your response to their articles?

Steve Davis's picture

Taking GNB's two examples. I'm trying to understand what the objections are.

Jesus made it clear in Mark 9:13 that John the Baptizer was Elijah and "they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him." So when literal doesn't work then "spirit and power" will do? So Malachi wasn't really talking about historical Elijah and the prophecy is fulfilled in JTB. Did those in Malachi's day understand how the prophecy would've been fulfilled? Probably not. Did they expect Elijah Elijah?  Maybe. We have no way of knowing. You can only get it in the text looking back from its fulfillment.

In Hebrews 8 the OT prophecy to Israel and Judah is fulfilled in the Church. If Elijah wasn't literally Elijah as the OT hearers might've understood, then what's the objection to prophecies concerning Israel and Judah being fulfilled in the Church which was originally composed of believing Israelites? The original readers in Jeremiah's day would have understood Israel and Judah as they knew it but their understanding is not authoritative especially when the NT provides clarity. The NC was enacted, (not in part) in Luke 22:20 when Jesus said "This is the New Covenant in my blood." That NC was instituted with Jewish disciples (Israel & Judah) and would also include Gentiles. Together they would be "built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices...For it stands in Scripture, Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious... (I Pt. 2:4-6). In verse 10 Peter, writing primarily to Gentiles and alluding to Hosea 1, makes it clear that the Church is the new Israel. For years I studied and followed DT and made things fit my presuppositions.

I agree with GNB (who I don't know but since we agree he must be a great scholar even if linked inelegantly with Peter Enns) that DT conclusions are unconvincing. But hey, let's keep talking. 

Paul Henebury's picture

I don't have time to respond fully to this, but it is full of presuppositions.  For starters, you cannot rush to Mk 9:13 and just ignore John the Baptist's testimony to himself in John 1:21.  These two have to be harmonized, which I don't think Steve's approach is capable of doing.  It is possible to harmonize if one takes seriously that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah because the offer of Jesus to Israel was bone fide, even if He knew that He would be rejected and Elijah would come (at or around the 2nd coming).

Steve says that Hebrews is written to the church.  It says it is written to the Hebrews.  We wouldn't be surprised to find Jer. 31:31-34 quoted to Hebrews. 

I don't have time to write about the New covenant but it is clear that it was made with the church as well as the fact that it will be made with Israel at the eschaton, just as the OT passages predict.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Steve Davis's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

I don't have time to respond fully to this, but it is full of presuppositions.  For starters, you cannot rush to Mk 9:13 and just ignore John the Baptist's testimony to himself in John 1:21.  These two have to be harmonized, which I don't think Steve's approach is capable of doing.  It is possible to harmonize if one takes seriously that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah because the offer of Jesus to Israel was bone fide, even if He knew that He would be rejected and Elijah would come (at or around the 2nd coming).

Steve says that Hebrews is written to the church.  It says it is written to the Hebrews.  We wouldn't be surprised to find Jer. 31:31-34 quoted to Hebrews. 

I don't have time to write about the New covenant but it is clear that it was made with the church as well as the fact that it will be made with Israel at the eschaton, just as the OT passages predict.

Paul,

None of us are presupposition free. I admit it. But I don't consider an appeal to Jesus' words in Mark 9:13 "rushing." Which approach better harmonizes is another question. Did John know at that time when asked that he was the fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy? Apparently not. Did Jesus know? Apparently he did. Should we be surprised that Jesus knew some things about JTB which JTB did not know about himself? Or we can harmonize by having two Elijahs, one in the "spirit and power" and one appearing in the future. That remains to be seen. Which harmonizes better the conundrum? Would anyone reading Malachi have understood that? 

Did I say Hebrews was written to the Church? I don't know. I did say the NC was fulfilled in the Church. You also believe it was made with the Church (and wil be made again which is where we disagree). So I might be missing something in your objection.

I would suggest that we drop saying things are "clear" when they are not. Maybe say "clear to me." If they were clear we wouldn't be discussing this. It is clear (to me) that the NC was made with the Church because we can look at historical fulfillment. It is not clear (to me) concerning Israel in the future except as a clear (to you) presupposition.

Steve 

 

 

J. Baillet's picture

And the answer is:

"The acorn is not replaced by the oak, but rather the oak IS the acorn in mature form." John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (Whitefield Media Publishing: Lakeland, Florida 2011), at 197 (ignore the title of Frame's book; has nothing to do with the issue at hand).

The real question is, is this what the Bible teaches? Good discussion of that issue above by Steve Davis and C. N. Barkman, on the one hand, and Dr. Henebury and Larry, on the other.

JSB

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