Read the series.
This is the final post in this series, the purpose of which has been to ask whether “replacement theology” and “supercessionism” correctly describe what some theologies, covenant theology especially, do with the nation of Israel and its OT promises in teaching fulfillment through “transformation” into Christ and the church. I am not saying that every CT (or NCT) will want to see themselves undercover of these names, only that the names fairly describe this aspect of the way these good people interpret the NT’s use of the OT.
We have seen that replacement theology exists. I have shown that some CT’s actually use the term “replace” (or “supercessionism”) to describe their approach in their own works, and that they recommend books that unashamedly use it. More anecdotally, I have encountered this opinion many times in conversations.
Of course, replacement theology is not confined to orthodox Reformed covenantalism, but they are the ones whose books and lectures I know best. In this tradition, it is common to view the history of Israel as primarily a structural learning device; a tool for teaching the Christian church through narrative and type; a “means to an end” as R. Scott Clark put it.
A Third Kind of Replacementism
What is engendered by this is an elevation of the NT above the OT, even though the NT relies on the OT in large part for its validation. A dual-level understanding of revelation is created in the mind (often as not it goes unnoticed), wherein the voice of the OT is always recirculated through the voice of the NT. This fosters a third variety of replacementism, this time involving the original voice of the OT in its context. That voice is stifled and re-transmitted through a particular understanding of the NT and its function. What results is what OT scholar John Sailhamer called a “devaluation of the Old Testament.” He reminds us that,
We must remember that those who first saw Jesus did not have a NT version of Jesus to compare with the OT. They had only the version of Jesus they knew, or knew about, to compare with the OT. Their comparison was later enshrined textually as the NT against the background of the OT. It was the end result of much reflection on the meaning of the OT Scriptures not the NT. (John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 555)
Additionally, the dissemination of the writings of the NT has often not been given much thought by those whose theological picture is informed by a hermeneutical determinism (i.e. the OT is interpreted through the NT) which was quite impossible for first century Christians. Put bluntly, these saints did not have a NT to interpret the OT with! What the most fortunate of them did have was a Gospel or two and several letters. But this was comparatively rare.
Another by-product of this is what R. Kendall Soulen has labelled “Israel-forgetfulness.” In his own words,
To recall, the model’s foreground is the sequence of episodes that constitute the standard model’s overarching plot: God’s creation of Adam and Eve for the purpose of consummation, the fall, redemption in Christ through the church, the final judgment and final consummation. Although the model’s foreground is by definition not identical with the model as a whole, it does depict how God’s consummating and redemptive purposes engage humankind in universal and enduring ways. The foreground can therefore be said to encapsulate what the standard model depicts as theologically decisive for a Christian reading of the Bible. The difficulty, of course, is that the foreground wholly omits the Hebrew Scriptures with the exception of Genesis 1-3. (R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 49)
Put more simply, by only requiring a minimal grounding in the soil of the OT because of the perceived superiority of the NT, the “standard model” (i.e. supercessionism) forgets about God’s enduring commitments to Israel in the OT, and by the adoption of typological understandings of that relation, feels no need to find its roots in those commitments. The resultant theology will be actual, conceptual or “original voice” replacementism. That original voice is a covenantally supported voice, and formal covenants of the kind God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas and David are not subject to change, “expansion”, “transformation”, and certainly not “transferal.” Once set down and sealed by a solemn oath, they are hermeneutically fixed forever. It is this very fixity which, I hold, provides the basis for biblical interpretation. Since these covenants are in the OT, the NT cannot (and I argue does not) reimagine them in any way.
I should add here that Dispensationalists normally would never follow me here, and I would never follow them in their advancing of “stewardships” above covenants. This is a big reason why I call myself a Biblical Covenantalist.
Several times we have seen that Matthew 21:43 is used by CT’s to teach that God has done with Israel as a nation, and now the “kingdom” is given to the church. Within such an interpretation there is no wiggle-room for saying the church expands Israel or grows out of it. The “kingdom” is given to another “nation.” There is no organic identity between the one nation and the one that replaces it. G.K. Beale, for instance, in his interpretation of Matthew 21:41, employs Matthew 21:43 to mean that,
Jesus … interprets this to mean that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. (A New Testament Biblical Theology, 673. The insertion of “Israel” is by Beale.)
Speaking of the same text on page 680 he writes of Jesus, “rejecting ethnic national Israel as God’s true people.” Furthermore, he interprets the stone cut out without hands, which smashes the image in Daniel 2 as smashing, “the ungodly nations, which also includes Israel” (682). In Part Two I cited Greg Durand using Matthew 21:43 this way. In Part Four Hans LaRondelle was shown using it the same way.
In Part Five I illustrated a confusion that can occur as a result of a too soon avoidance of supercession language by contrasting Sam Storms’s denial of the teaching that, “All the promises given to the former [Israel]have been transferred to the latter [the church]”; a teaching that is expressly taught by many covenant theologians.
In Part Six I concentrated on the common CT misinterpretation of the Olive Tree metaphor in Romans 11 and then compared it with Gary Burge’s replacement theology in Part Seven (N.B. Burge’s book on the land of Israel is often recommended by CT’s). Then in Part Eight I looked at how Jeremiah 31 and 33 are handled by CT’s in order to show how this approach to OT Israel ignores the force of what God promised to the nation. This lessening of the force of God’s commitment to Israel as a nation is essential to replacement theology of all stripes.
So – Is It Wrong to Use the Term?
Since many CT’s themselves use this terminology, and many non-dispensational writers also put their finger on it, I see no good reason not to call it what it appears to me it is. I have spoken of three forms of replacementism. Michael Vlach, in his fine book on the subject (Has the Church Replaced Israel?), follows Soulen in locating four varieties. My three forms are “Actual” replacementism where the church is said to actually replace the nation of Israel in God’s plans (though not, let it be said, as an afterthought). Then I gave examples of “Conceptual” supercessionism where the concepts and ideas related to the nation of Israel are applied to the church as fulfillments of the OT promises. Finally here I noted what I call “Original Voice” replacementism. In this incarnation it is the original voice of the OT text in context that is superceded by the more authoritative voice of the NT.
In all three cases I think we are justified in speaking about replacement theology, although not pejoratively. Moreover, it is important not to charge a brother with teaching actual replacementism when he or she is careful not to do so.
I do feel that sometimes it might be better to avoid the term. I think it depends on what is being discussed. But then I also think that just because one person doesn’t care for a label does not mean that they are unfairly identified. The purpose of these nine posts is to supply grounds for such an identification. Those grounds ought to be understood before using the words “Replacement theology.”
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.