There’s a Golden Rule of scholarship: “Understand thy opponent’s position as well as you would have him understand yours.” Since I’m currently working on a book that deals with both Supersessionism (Replacement Theology) and Dispensationalism, I’ve been looking for books and articles on both to make sure that I present them fairly.
Dispensationalism is easy. I grew up in a Dispensationalist church, have a few dozen books on prophecy from a Dispensationalist position, and you can find thousands of websites written from those who happily and without reservation identify themselves as Dispensationalist standpoint.
You’d think that finding the same on the Supersessionist side would be just as easy. Alas, no one seems to want to be identified as Supersessionist or Replacement Theology for some reason–even if what they actually present falls exactly into that category.
Case in point is this article from Reformedontheweb’s Blog. The author starts out arguing that applying the term “Replacement Theology” to his own Reformed Covenant Theology is incorrect, going so far as to state, “I am sure that there are some who hold to the erroneous position known as ‘replacement theology,’ yet I do not know of any. Therefore I believe that the reason this term is used against covenant theology is not so much an ignorance of what covenant theology teaches, but instead is used to discredit covenant theology and build prejudices against it.”
Okay, this got my interest. I’ve debated subjects with those of a Covenant Theology persuasion before, but this is the first time that I’ve heard someone claim that Supersessionism (their preferred term) isn’t what they believe in. So what does the author believe?
‘Expansion theology’ basically states that God, while initiating his new covenant towards Israel in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is also expanding the house of Israel unto the uttermost parts of the earth, by bringing Gentiles into the fold. This view is clearly taught throughout the Old and New Testament. Most dispensationalists will state that the mystery hid throughout the ages was that God would start a church during which time he would quit dealing with Israel and deal primarily with the Gentiles. But does scripture teach that? or Does scripture teach that the mystery that was hid throughout the ages, but is now revealed, was that God would make the Gentiles fellow heirs and partakers of the same body of Israelites?
At first I found this interesting, since it bore some resemblance to my own Adoption Theology. Since part of my purpose in developing Adoption Theology was the hope of providing some middle ground between the extremes of Supersessionism and Dispensationalism, finding a similar theological thread in the Reform tradition would be exciting.
The next few paragraphs of the article fit well enough, demonstrating from Ephesians 2-3 that the Gentiles of the Ekklesia are “fellow-heirs” and “citizens” of “the same body” as the Jewish followers of Yeshua. So far so good, and the author rightly points out that these passages completely undermine the Dispensational paradigm in which the Church and Israel are completely separate bodies.
Paul is plain in these verses that Gentiles were at one time alienated from the citizenship of Israel, from the covenants, and from Christ. But now God is taking two peoples, Jews and Gentiles, and making one body of people out of them. Is this not what Christ declared in “John 10:16 and other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” Did you get what Christ is saying? Jesus declared that he had sheep that were not of the fold of Israel, namely the Gentiles, which he would bring in and there would be one fold and one Shepherd.
Absolutely correct. But where the rubber hits the road is in answering the question, “What then happens to national Israel?” And this is where the author falls right back into what everyone else in the world understands to be Replacement Theology:
Under the Old Testament administration of the people of God, God commanded that every Israelite that would not keep his commands should be cut off. So it is clear that the promises, even under the Old Covenant of Moses were only to the faithful. Can we find evidence in scripture that plainly states that God has cut off natural Israel and is engrafting Gentiles into Israel in order to fulfill the Abrahamic promise of a seed as numerous as the stars? Absolutely. (emphasis mine)
Look at that key phrase: “God has cut off natural Israel.” All of it, apparently. Not a single thought given to the Messianic Jews who still identify with national Israel, as Paul did (Rom. 11:1). And to fulfill the promise, God has replaced, superseded, or, as the author puts it “engrafted Gentiles into Israel.” Now, we have no problem with the concept of “engrafting,” but there is a difference between grafting new branches onto a tree and replacing every single branch in the tree! One will enrich the tree, giving it a longer life, while the other will certainly kill it!
They key element of Supersessionism is the belief that Israel as a body–meaning the Jewish people as a whole–have been cut off from God’s promises and replaced with (superseded by) the Church, which then takes over as a “new” or “spiritual Israel.” Likewise, the Torah is seen as being superseded by (depending on the flavor) either a “new law” or by “grace” and “faith.”
Supersessionism’s deficiency is two-fold: First, not recognizing that there are many Jews throughout history who have believed in Yeshua, but who have rejected the Church’s demands that they give up being Jews in order to be “saved.” As David Rudolph writes, “Often I come across books and articles that assume the non-existence of Messianic Jews or reflect disregard for how a particular reading of a text, if translated into practice, would impact a twenty-first century Messianic synagogue. Having said this, I have also observed that awareness of Messianic Judaism is increasing . . .” (Rudolph, “Messianic Jews and Christian Theology: Restoring an Historical Voice to the Contemporary Discussion,” Pro Ecclesia VOL. XIV, NO. 1, retrieved from Academia.org on May 12, 2015 pp. 1-2).
Second, Reformed on the Web mistakes God’s punishment of Israel with an eternal rejection of Israel when in fact the exile of twenty centuries, when “among the nations” the Jew found “no resting place for the sole of your foot” and they had “no assurance of [their] life” (Deu. 28:65, 66) demonstrates that the Eternal One has never released Israel from her covenant with him–a covenant that ends not in disgrace, but in restoration (Deu. 30:1-10).
So, does Reformed on the Web fall into the category of Replacement Theology? Absolutely. And he does so by failing to read his proof-texts in their original context.
Let’s examine some scripture from Hosea:
Hos 1:6-9 And she conceived again, and bare a daughter. And God said unto him, Call her name Loruhamah: for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away.
But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, by horses, nor by horsemen. Now when she had weaned Loruhamah, she conceived, and bare a son. Then said God, Call his name Loammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God.
Listen to what God states here. God plainly declares that natural Israel is no longer his people. God cuts off all the unbelievers because Israel failed to weed them out.
The author recognizes that the prophecy does not end there, but interprets verse 10 exactly backwards: “God tells Hosea that natural Israel shall be cut off, but God will still keep the promises to Abraham of being blessed with a people that is numerous as the sand of the sea, because God is going to bring the Gentiles into the nation of Israel. Paul quotes this portion of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 while discussing who true Israel consists of.”
My Reformed brother oversteps and misinterprets. Paul does rightly point out that simply being born Jewish doesn’t make one “of Israel” and that God reserves the right to prune his tree. However, what Paul emphatically does not say is that “Israel” ceases to be Jewish, or indeed that all Jews who do not believe in Yeshua cease to be Israel. As I pointed out in “Is the Church an Enemy of the Gospel For Its Own Sake?” if we are to assume that in Paul’s theology “Israel” now means the Church, that would mean that the Church is partially blinded until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and that the Church is an enemy of the Gospel because of itself. That makes no sense at all. Therefore, it must follow that by “Israel” here, Paul is speaking of the same Israel of which the majority were blinded in vv. 8-10, the same Israel that he starts chapter 9 by describing:
For I could wish that myself were accursed from the Messiah for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Torah, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Messiah came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (vv. 3-5)
As I wrote then: “It is not the Gentile believers who are beloved of God because of the patriarchs–we are beloved solely because of our adoption in Yeshua–but Israel, who received the covenants that God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is Israel who received the Torah, the service of God, and the promises. Sha’ul starts chapters 9-11 by defining Israel in such a way that nobody could mistake him for meaning the Ekklesia, and he ends his argument the same way. How then can some read Romans and suppose that God has forever rejected ‘Israel according to the flesh’?”
At no time does Paul say that the Gentiles become Israel, meaning the Jewish people, but rather that they are “citizens” of Israel the same way that he himself was a citizen of Rome. They are children of Abraham by adoption through Yeshua, yes, but Ishmael, Esau, and the children of Keturah were all children of Abraham–and yet none of them were Israel.
Getting back to Hosea, it take violently tearing the prophecy out of its context to interpret, “Where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said to them, ‘[You are] sons of the living God” (1:10). First, the very next verse makes it clear that the “sons of the living God” are “sons of Judah and sons of Israel”–that is, the two kingdoms. Secondly, in the narrative of Hosea’s life, he is ultimately reconciled with his wife (ch. 3), and thereby with his children–he doesn’t go out and get a new wife and new children, which is what Covenant Theology claims the Holy Father did!
Let’s look at another example of Reformed on the Web’s error:
Jesus stated in Mat 21:42-43:
Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.
Notice that natural Israel is again in the context of those of whom shall be cut off.
Context is key. Who was Yeshua speaking to? The “chief priests and elders of the people” (v. 23), not all “national Israel.” Yeshua claims that the tax-collectors would enter into the Kingdom before them–but the tax-collectors, like Levi-Matthew, are also Jews! Moreover, in the parable of the landowner in vv. 33-41, the vineyard represents Israel (see Isa. 5) while the vine-dressers represent the leaders. And again, Yeshua quotes Psalm 118:22-23, “The stone the builders rejected, this became the chief corner-stone.” Peter expressly points to the Sanhedrin as being Israel’s “builders” in Acts 4:11.
And if all that were not enough, the Jewish leadership knew darn well who Yeshua was addressing, and it wasn’t the masses: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they understood that he was speaking about them” (Mat. 24:45)–not “them” as in Israel, but “them” as in the leaders.
So then, the point is not that God was replacing Israel with the Gentiles, but that Yeshua was replacing Israel’s spiritual leadership with that of his Twelve, to whom he had given the power of binding and loosing (Mat. 16:19, 18:18)–that is, to give authoritative rulings on God’s commandments.
I’m picking on Reformed on the Web not because his thoughts are badly written, and certainly not because I’m looking for a strawman to pick apart. On the contrary, I find his posts to be thoughtful, well-written, and generally a good representation of mainline Protestant Christianity. And that’s precisely what makes them so sad: He claims that Replacement Theology is a boogyman of Dispensationalism, but then goes right on to defend its worst qualities under another name.
I believe that most Christians have shied away from the term “Replacement” because of a gut-check issue: As many authors have pointed out, if God could replace Israel so blithely with another body because of her disobedience, why couldn’t he do the same to the Church? Is the Church so pure that it can honestly claim to have held to its covenant with the Almighty better than Israel? And if not, then how can those who claim that the Holy One replaced one people–despite all of the Biblical promises not to (e.g., Gen. 13:15)–be assured that he hasn’t replaced them with the Muslims or the Mormons or pick-your-favorite cult?
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them, and became partaker with them of the root and of the richness of the olive tree; don’t boast over the branches. But if you boast, it is not you who support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.” Fine. By their unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by your faith. Don’t be conceited, but fear; for if God didn’t spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (Rom. 11:17-21)