"Replacement Theology" - Is It Wrong to Use the Term? (Part 2)

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hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called ‘Racial Israel’) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church.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.

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There are 10 Comments

Phil Siefkes's picture

Looking forward to more in this series. I appreciate the evenhandedness you have demonstrated so far. I realize what you are presenting is not popular and hard for some to swallow. Keep writing.

Discipling God's image-bearers to the glory of God.

Mike Harding's picture

Thank you Paul.  I really enjoy and benefit from your articles on dispensationalism and covenant theology.  May your tribe increase.


Pastor Mike Harding

Pastor Mike Harding

Paul Henebury's picture

Well, Phil and Mike, I really appreciate your kind words

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

J. Baillet's picture

C. E. B. Cranfield, who was born in 1915 and died in 2015, was an Arminian who was ordained for the Methodist ministry at Wesley House in 1941. He remained in the Methodist Church until 1954 when he was admitted to the Presbyterian Church of England after having become persuaded of a form of Reformed theology heavily influenced by Karl Barth. I suggest that this background and context should be kept in mind when reading Cranfield’s commentaries on Romans written in the 1970’s. On page 448 of volume 2, which is part of the introduction to his treatment of Romans 9-11, he states:

It is only where the Church persists in refusing to learn this message [that the Christian community lives by God’s mercy alone], where it secretly—perhaps quite unconsciously!—believes that its own existence is based on human achievement, and so fails to understand God’s mercy to itself, that it is unable to believe in God’s mercy for still unbelieving Israel, and so entertains the ugly and unscriptural notion that God has cast off His people Israel and simply replaced it by the Christian Church. These three chapters emphatically forbid us to speak of the Church as having once and for all taken the place of the Jewish people.2

(Boldface added). Footnote 2 states:

Cf. Barth, CD II/2, p. 290f (=KD II/2, p. 319f); Gaugler, 2, pp. 23ff. But the assumption that the Church has simply replaced Israel as the people of God is extremely common. Thus Barrett, for example, writes: “This fact reminds us that behind Paul’s discussion there lies the historical background formed by the ministry of Jesus; his rejection and crucifixion by Israel …, which thereby disavowed its own place in God’s plan; and the election of a new Israel in Christ to take the place of the old’ (p. 191f). 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.

(Boldface added). And Barrett, C. K. Barrett, who was a long-time colleague of Cranfield’s at Durham University in England? He was and remained an Arminian Methodist until his death in 2011.

The first quotation of Cranfield above was written by Cranfield the Reformed theologian. I would suggest that the second quotation confesses shame for what was written as an Arminian Methodist. I am not saying that replacement theology is a myth; merely that a little context is in order and that this quotation from Cranfield does not connect replacement theology with Reformed theology. It does, in fact, the opposite.


Paul Henebury's picture


Thanks for broadening the quotation of Cranfield.  It fills out my point well.  I think that I need to add some correctives to what you say however.

First, in these pieces I am not conflating Reformed Calvinist Theology with Covenant Theology the way that, e.g., Sproul does.  I am speaking of Covenant Theology and supercessionism, not soteriology.  Many Arminians (Arminius included) were CT's.  They also saw themselves as Reformed whether they were CT's or not, although I think you are limiting the idea to Calvinism (?)

Second, Cranfield was Reformed but not in the Calvinist tradition.  He was more in line with Barth and Brunner - both Reformed continental theologians.  Barth was no American Calvinist.  I recall reading him refer to limited atonement as "that grim doctrine."  His doctrine of election in Christ is very different than Calvin's of course.  Brunner was really classical Arminian in his soteriology, as spelled out in his The Christian Doctrine of God.  

So not all Reformed theology is replacement theology, nor is it CT.  But covenant theology is supercessionist.      

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

J. Baillet's picture

Thank you Dr. Henebury. I do understand the difference between those who hold to the Doctrines of Grace (Calvinists) and those who hold to Covenant Theology. Most in the orthodox Reformed community hold to both but certainly not all do. 

In your introductory remarks in Part 1, you note "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." Barth and Brunner were leaders of the Neo-orthodoxy movement and would not be acknowledged as part of Reformed orthodoxy. So as you seek to establish in this series that "the Reformed community" holds to supercessionism or replacement theology while denying that it does so, to whom are you referring? From your comments above, I believe you are focusing upon those who hold to Covenant Theology and not just those in the broader "Reformed community."  If so, I appreciate the clarification. If not, please provide further explanation. In other words, who are you targeting?


Paul Henebury's picture

I completely missed the way I had used "Reformed" as a synonym for CT.  It ought to read something like "Reformed CT".

Thanks for noticing the error.

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

J. Baillet's picture

Just helpful to me in understanding your argument, which I believe is something to the effect that:

All Reformed Covenant Theologians are supercessionist or hold to replacement theology, although many Reformed Covenant Theologians deny it.

Assuming C. E. B. Cranfield qualified as a Reformed Covenant Theologian (although I am not sure that he did, but I am not a Cranfield scholar), then he expressly held to replacement theology as a Methodist but not as a Reformed theologian. Therefore, again assuming that he at all times was a Reformed Covenant Theologian, he was honest as a Methodist but disengenuous as a Reformed theologian.

I will give that some additional thought. A crucial question is what "OT Israel" now is the "NT Church" (CT's alleged position) or what "OT Israel" has now been replaced by the "NT Church" (your allegation of CT's actual position)? You addressed that in Part 1, but I will also give that some additional thought. I believe that OT Israel in this context would be those entitled to the covenant promises of God to Abraham in regard to (1) a seed and (2) a land. You have discussed this in another series.

In any event, thanks for the clarification and let me know if I have misstated something here.


Paul Henebury's picture

Well, the main point of these articles is simply to prove that replacement theology is real.  The reason I focus on Reformed CT is because they are who I have read and they are who most write on the subject.  I have cited Cranfield only for his authority.  One or two other non-Reformed authors are included, but in the main my info comes from Reformed CT's.

I do not think Cranfield was disingenuous at any time.  Neither do I think most CT's are being disingenuous.  As they see it they are not guilty of replacement theology.  But that does not mean that it is not what is going on.  Many Ct's have recognized this, as have many non-dispensationalists.  

As for your question about Israel.  The doctrine of the Remnant which is throughout OT prophecy effectively answers the "which Israel?" question.  When you refer to my allegation of what CT's believe I hope you will wait to see whether I prove that from CT sources and/or by argument. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

J. Baillet's picture

Thanks Dr. Henebury. Will wait and am interested to see how you develop your thesis. May make an observation or two in the meantime. For example, G. K. Beale doesn't affirm Provan's replacement language but rather Provan's survey "of the names and images of Israel that are applied to the church." A New Testament Biblical Theology, 669 n.50. However, I recognize that you may interact with Beale a little more directly as you go along.

I do not deny that some hold to "replacement theology." Therefore, I agree that it is real. The question is, Who hold to it and who does not?

Finally, that is helpful to know that we are addressing the Remnant.



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