Read the series so far.
It’s a Real Thing
That replacement theology actually exists should be beyond dispute. In a well known admission, the esteemed NT scholar C.E.B. Cranfield wrote,
the assumption that the Church has simply replaced Israel as the people of God is extremely common… . And I confess with shame to having also myself used in print on more than one occasion this language of the replacement of Israel by the Church. (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, 448.)
If such a prominent voice as Cranfield’s says that replacement theology is no fiction then clearly we have something to talk about.
Although some non-covenant theologians have believed in supercessionism, this teaching is usually found in the sphere of covenant theology. A trip to Monergism.org brought up a link to an article on “Israel and Dispensationalism” that includes this:
The covenantal privilege that national Israel enjoyed as the chosen people of God was ended when the Jewish leaders “fill[ed] up… the measure of [their] fathers’guilt” (Matthew 23:32) by rejecting and crucifying their own Messiah. Jesus was very explicit in stating that the “house” of Israel was left “desolate” (Matthew 23:37-39), and that the Kingdom would be taken from the Jews as a people and given to another people (Matthew 8:10-12, 21:33-45, etc.).” (Greg Loren Durand, “Israel and Dispensationalism”)
The “other people” to whom the kingdom was given is the church, according to the standard CT interpretation of Matthew 21:43. Such an interpretation implies a switching of one people (“the Jews”) with another people, a “supercession.”
As an example of a major voice from this perspective one can hardly get more authoritative or more trenchant than Herman Bavinck, who avers,
The community of believers has in all respects replaced carnal, national Israel. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.667)
Another, though admittedly lesser example, would be covenant theologian Charles Provan, who wrote a book entitled The Church is Israel Now: The Transfer of Conditional Privilege. On the first page of his introduction, the author states that because the NT uses some of the same descriptions of the church as the OT does to describe Israel,
The only hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called ‘Racial Israel’) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church.
Provan’s book has been lauded by many. It is sold at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Bookshop in London, where I first encountered it. In his recent work A New Testament Biblical Theology, G.K. Beale commends the book’s thesis and acknowledges the influence it had on him (page 669, footnote 50).
A Preterist website carries a synopsis of the book by Provan in which he states,
When the Israelites obeyed God, God loved them. But when the Israelites turned from him, He hated them, stripping them of their Israelite status. After centuries of Israelite rebellion against God, culminating in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, the titles, attributes and blessings of Israel were transferred to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to no one else, regardless of Abrahamic descent. (The Church is Israel Now)
In these excerpts it is clear that Provan had no problem with replacement terminology, and that he used the word “transfer” to denote a transfer of title from one entity (national Israel), to another entity (the church). The transfer even going so far as to take the name “Israel” from off the one and give it to the other. And since a book which plainly does teach replacement theology is recommended by many covenant theologians, one can hardly blame people who tar them with the same brush. In fact, to the degree that CT’s promote such works they practically drip the tar on themselves. This impression grows deeper when those who claim not to be supercessionists employ the very same arguments as those who do.
A final instance of this approach, at least for now, comes from a book whose purpose was to contrast the positions of dispensationalists and covenant theologians on the relationship between the Testaments. In his contribution to the book, entitled “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” covenant theologian Bruce Waltke states that,
The Jewish nation no longer has a place as the special people of God; that place has been taken by the Christian community which fulfills God’s purpose for Israel. (Bruce Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Testaments, ed., John S. Feinberg 275)
There is, therefore, such a thing as “replacement theology,” where some Christians believe and teach that the Church has taken the place of OT Israel, including its name.
A Few Misunderstandings
Notwithstanding, many covenant and even “new covenant” theologians; whose theology has often come under the censure of being “replacement theology” or “supercessionism,” complain that these two labels are unfairly applied to their outlooks due to a misunderstanding of their theologies by dispensationalists. R. Scott Clark objects,
Those dispensational critics of Reformed covenant theology who accuse it of teaching that the New Covenant church has “replaced” Israel do not understand historic Reformed covenant theology. (“Covenant Theology Is Not Replacement Theology”)
Right off the bat I am happy to concede that there are dispensationalists who have not properly understood what they were talking about. I hope that I shall not be included among their number. I have been studying covenant theology for over twenty-five years, and own just about all of the classic works on the subject. In this study I shall quote from some of the most important authors to try and impart a good grasp of their approach to Israel.
Continuing where he left off, Clark writes,
First, the very category of “replacement” is foreign to Reformed theology because it assumes a dispensational, Israeleo-centric way of thinking. It assumes that the temporary, national people was, in fact, intended to be the permanent arrangement. Such a way of thinking is contrary to the promise in Gen. 3:15. The promise was that there would be a Savior. The national people was only a means to that end, not an end in itself. According to Paul in Ephesians 2:11-22, in Christ the dividing wall has been destroyed. It cannot be rebuilt. The two peoples (Jews and Gentiles) have been made one in Christ. Among those who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, there is no Jew nor Gentile (Rom. 10:12; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).
There are reasons to examine this statement, and I shall look at it further on, but even if we grant his contention that we are assuming “a dispensational, Israeleo-centric way of thinking,” it is hard to square his disavowal of “replacement” with the evidence I have already given. But what I wish to highlight here is Clark’s line about, “The promise was that there would be a Savior. The national people was only a means to that end, not an end in itself.”
In covenant theology the nation of Israel and the covenants that God made with them are merely a means to the end of furnishing us a Savior. We shall need to inquire more about this interpretation of the covenants of God, perhaps by seeing how CT’s understand God’s words in Jeremiah 31 and 33. But that will have to wait until the end.
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.