Read the series so far.
My stated intention in these posts is to try to settle whether or not it is proper to speak in terms of theologies of supercessionism or replacement theology. It is not my design to argue for the opposite view (which I have done many times before). I am coming towards the end of my article, with probably one post left to go. I said that I wanted to take a look at two OT passages to discover how those holding to one or more forms of supercessionism handle them.
The first passage is the famous New covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34. It involves a prediction of cleansing and salvation for Israel and Judah and their reunification. The passage is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12. But attached to the original prophecy is a crystal clear guarantee that if man can tinker with the ordinances of creation,which stand fast (Psa. 33:9), “then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.” (Jer. 31:36). That sounds like a rock solid affirmation of the perpetuity of the existence of Israel as a nation!
But God then underscores the promise by speaking of His secret counsels (cf. Deut. 29:29) in establishing the dimensions of the heavens and earth, and stating that if human beings can fathom them then Israel as a distinct people will be cast off for their disobedience (31:37). Yet this is exactly what several of the writers I have quoted have claimed.
How do covenant theologians (whose theology is usually identified with replacementism), deal with verses 35 to 37?
In “The Charge of Replacement Theology is a Cover for Fuzzy Theology,” Gary DeMar writes,
Jeremiah’s prophecy was given more than 2500 years ago. Prior to 1948 and after A.D. 70, Israel had not been a nation. So we have a few interpretive choices regarding the Jeremiah passage: (1) God lied (impossible); (2) the promise was conditional (not likely); the promise was postponed (always the dispensationalist answer and untenable); (4) or the fulfillment was fulfilled in the new nation that grew out of the New Covenant made up of Jews and non-Jews(most likely). Consider what Jesus tells the religious leaders of His day:
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:43–45).
DeMar ignores the details of the vow God made and moves straight to sort through the alternatives as he envisions them, using Matthew 21:43-45 to transform the unconditional language of continuity (remember Jer. 33:37) into conditional language threatening termination. The NT is brought in to nullify the solemn vow of God in the OT. Is that how Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture? One might employ a little irony here by pointing out that if one waits long enough God will change the apparent meaning of what He has said, no matter how strongly it was put, and the expectations will change along with it. As Michael Brown has observed in his commentary on “Jeremiah” in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary, this dissolves any fixity of meaning in Divine Revelation. Can Jeremiah 31 really be redirected by Matthew 21? or is DeMar guilty of trivializing a Divine pledge?
Notice the equivocation on the word “nation” in DeMar. When he writes of a “new nation” growing out of the New covenant does he reference the promise of national and ethnic permanence which accompany it? He does not. Israel the nation becomes “Israel” the “nation.”
As if to drive His covenant dependability home, this long section, which begins with a prediction of the Messianic rule from Jerusalem (not New Jerusalem) over a righteous earth, proceeds with a promise that the Davidic covenant and the ministration of the Levites (doubtless related to the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25:10-13) will continue (33:17-18). This is followed by avowals of fidelity to the Davidic covenant and the Priestly covenant based on God’s constancy to the Noahic covenant (cf. Gen.8:21-22) and then the creation ordinances (Jer. 33:19-22).
What appears next is most informative for our discussion:
Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, “The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off”? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. (Jeremiah 33:24)
In replacement theology, the very thing that is at issue is the continuance of Israel as a nation. And that is what this form of theology denies! Another instance of this is when John Frame expressly says that through unbelief Israel “lost its special status as God’s elect nation.” (The Doctrine of God, 49 n. 3)
Jeremiah closes off his chapter by reiterating the fixity of God’s purposes for ethnic Israel (33:25-26). How do CT’s respond to such a God-proffered bond? I’m afraid they regularly ignore Jeremiah 33:14-26 completely. But there it sits, witnessing against them.
Just to make the point even more, allow me to reproduce a few other samples. In another book Frame writes,
The promises given to Israel are fulfilled to us in Christ… We are the heirs of Israel… Indeed, we are the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). Paul even describes Gentile Christians as wild branches grafted into the tree of Israel in place of the unbelieving branches that have been cast out.” (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology, 75)
And Anglican theologian Michael Bird writes in a similar vein:
In sum, the promise of a universal blessing made to Abraham and inherited by Israel is fulfilled in the church of Jesus Christ, which constitutes the elect from every nation. (Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology, 715)
This is then smoothed over with some soft words:
The existence of the church, then, is not an abandonment of God’s promises to Israel; rather, it is the remnant chosen by grace, which is the first order proof of his faithfulness to Israel. (Ibid, 716)
But how can this be squared with God’s language in Jeremiah 31 and 33? These statements are perhaps the two most strongly worded promises in the entire Bible! How can they be circumvented? Several things to notice in the above quotes: 1. Frame uses a proof-text (Gal.6:16) whose support for his position is very questionable (and at the very least debatable). 2. He wrongly (though not untypically for CT’s) refers to the olive tree in Romans 11 as Israel, when the native branches are Israel. 3. Bird uses the third part of the Abrahamic covenant to completely swamp the first two promises (i.e. of national and territorial inheritance).
The Organic Route Won’t Work
I have said that those CT’s who are more careful cannot break free from Jeremiah. The great Geerhardus Vos wrote,
It is one church that is built on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles; as a matter of course the spiritual Israel, the true Israel, grows out of Israel according to the flesh.” (Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 5, 297)
You cannot have a non-Israelite nation grow out of the Israelite nation. You cannot rename the church “true Israel” without coming up against God’s solemn promises to the “old” nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Jer. 33:26); oaths which God fully intends to follow through upon exactly as He has sworn to do. He will renew and restore national Israel to their land (cf. Ezek. 37:14, 21-28).
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.