On Replacement Theology: An Introduction

Some preliminary thoughts on replacement theology:

This is quite an important theological topic and debate that has especially been reinvigorated because of the latest Hamas/Israeli conflict. Questions about how Christians should understand the modern state of Israel follow on from questions about how we are to understand Israel and the church in terms of God’s overall plans and purposes.

At its simplest, the issue is whether the church has replaced Israel. Since it is also called supersessionism, another way of putting it is this: has the church superseded Israel? The question is, does present or future Israel still have a role to play in the purposes and plans of God?

But as will be seen, things are much more complex than that. Whole libraries are filled with books dealing with all the debates and discussions about this. Because it is such a massive issue, with so many layers, I will have to pen a number of pieces on this to try to do it any justice.

The general position taken by some believers is that because of its disobedience and continuous breaking of the covenant – and especially its rejection of Messiah – God no longer uses Israel for its purposes, but the church. So the church is now the “New Israel” (although that is never said about the church in the NT!). This camp also states that the modern state of Israel that came about in May of 1948 is not the fulfilment of OT prophecies, including passages such as Ezekiel 37.

The many massive theological questions that really need to be addressed before dealing with this issue would include things like how much continuity and discontinuity there is between the Testaments; the place of the law; the means of salvation; unity and diversity in Scripture; various eschatological views; how one understands the millennium; and so much more.

Thus here I will only offer a very sketchy and introductory look at things, laying out some of the terminology, definitions, main players, history, and recommended reading. And it will be seen that I can be sympathetic to both broad views, but so much depends on definitions and how things are being presented. There are various different versions of the main views, so we cannot make them out to be monolithic positions.

***

As to where I stand, I can just make this very brief comment. Some places, such as Romans 9-11 seems to make a very clear case for the continuance of Israel. While they might be a remnant now, a future ingathering of the Jews cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, we find so much appropriation of what is said about Israel to the church in the New Testament. As but just one example, consider 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Jews would have been quite familiar with that, as it is a reference back to the people of Israel as found in Exodus 19:5-6: “‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

So Peter applies to the church what was once applied to Israel. Of course all the NT writers had to draw upon at the time was the OT and what pertained to Israel. But so often the church is described in the same terms; the promises given to Israel seem to be fully applied to the church, and so on. More specifically, they find their complete fulfilment and meaning in Christ.

And then we have so many passages which speak of God never fully giving up on Israel. Many such texts are found in the OT, and NT verses like Romans 11:1a need to be considered: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (See the whole chapter, including especially verses 28-29.)

As with so many other contentious theological issues, both sides (and as will be seen, there are in fact far more than just two sides), can appeal to plenty of Scriptural support for their position. The ideal is to do full justice to ALL the biblical data, and let it determine our theology here, and not the other way around. And then we still have to seek the proper interpretation of the passages that we are prone to appeal to.

***

I should also mention that in my earlier days as a Christian my eschatology was fully fixed and affirmed: I was a hardcore pre-mil, pre-trib dispensationalist who thought all competing views were heretical! I have since shifted a bit, and I am now open to both amil and post-mill options, and so on. But see more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/

Also here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/29/on-the-millennium-part-two/

And see an earlier reading list of mine here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/11/10/recommended-reading-on-eschatology/

***

As mentioned, this is an important matter, but there might be better times than others to fully debate this. Let me explain: a friend recently asked me what I thought of a meme that says we rightly deplore Hamas killing babies, but we are silent on abortion. I replied as follows:

Well, it is accurate, but sometimes when we are dealing with one great evil (Hamas and terrorism, etc) it can be counterproductive to conflate it with a separate evil (abortion). If Israel were not right now fighting for its very existence, this could be good to post, but here it seems to muddy the waters unnecessarily. It can be the same with those who insist on having their replacement theology debates right now: they are important, and related, but this may not be the best time and place for them!

Some sadly do not seem to care much about embittered and suffering Israel at this point, and are happy to use their particular theology as a battering ram here. But the ‘Israel is perfect’ view is also amiss. As one pastor friend recently put it:

The current war in Israel is fracturing Christians along theological lines, its exposing vile antisemitism that bubbles just below the surface hiding behind the pretense of theological debate (many Christians believe lots of anti-Israel propaganda), conversely it also shines light on a misinformed idolatry of the nation state of modern Israel (many Christians think modern Israel can do no wrong!).

***

As mentioned, the replacement debate is vital, but is also actually quite complex, multi-layered, and nuanced (yes, there is that word again), And there are not just two distinct views on this, but a number of them. One very simple overview might put it like this:

-Covenant theology says there is one people of God and one program of God.

-Dispensational theology says there are two people of God and two programs of God.

-Another option says there is one people of God, but with two aspects; there is one program of God, but with two aspects. Evangelical Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser and his “Promise theology” for example has run with such a view. Others, such as Gerald McDermott, also seek a sort of mediating position on this.

But bear in mind that some hardcore covenant theologians along with some hardcore dispensational theologians can strongly dislike such half-way house approaches to things! That is, many in the Reformed camp believe they must adhere to their core beliefs above all else, just as many in the dispensational camp believe they must adhere to their core beliefs above all else. So neither one will want to budge!

Also bear in mind that just as there are various versions of dispensationalism out there, so too there are different versions of covenant theology. For starters, one can speak of classical forms of each view, as well as progressive forms of each camp. So things are not quite so straightforward, and it all depends on just where you sit along the theological and eschatological spectrum.

***

A word about chiliasm versus modern dispensational premillennialism. A common mistake often made – and I see it happening often on the social media – is to confuse and conflate these two rather different things. For example, some argue that premillennialism has always been the view of the church.

Well, yes and no. Much of the early church did embrace chiliasm (Greek for the belief in the 1000-year millennial reign). But their views were much different from those of modern pre-mil dispensationalists. That latter view really only arose some two centuries ago, along with the belief in a secret rapture.

***

Speaking of Greek, three little letters have caused a world of pain for some biblical interpreters and theologians. If you know your NT Greek, you know the small little word ‘kai’ has at least two main meanings: ‘and’ or ‘even’ – with ‘and’ being the predominant one. Deciding which is the right one is often determined by the context.

But sometimes the context is not fully clear, and the meaning can go either way. In some cases that may not matter very much, but in at least one situation it matters quite a bit. I of course refer to Galatians 6:16: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (NKJV).

But here are a few other translations:

“May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy even to the Israel of God!” CSB

“And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” ESV

“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” NIV. But it does offer this footnote: “Or rule and to”.

If the correct rendering is “and”, then it seems to suppose two distinct and separate groupings. If it is “even”, it seems to suppose that the two are one and the same. Just one three-letter word can in itself be a point of major contention and debate. And bear in mind that even further explanations of how we are to understand this phrase – and passage – have been proffered. No wonder all this can be such a complex discussion.

Image of Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land
Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land by Gerald R. McDermott (Author) Amazon logo

For further Reading

Note, these 21 books are rather specific to the debate here. There are zillions of general works on dispensationalism, covenant theology and the like which I do not list here. Nor, for the most part, do I list all the books about the Bible, Israel and end time events. And there are plenty of books strongly attacking replacement theology. These offer a good place to begin:

Berding, Kenneth and Jonathan Lunde, eds., Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Zondervan, 2008.
Bird, Michael and Scot McKnight, eds., God’s Israel and the Israel of God: Paul and Supersessionism. Lexham, 2023.
Blaising, Craig and Darrell Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church. Zondervan, 1992.
Bock, Darrell and Mitch Glaser, eds., Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict. Kregel, 2018.
Brand, Chad, ed., Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views. B&H, 2015.
Burge, Gary, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology. Baker, 2010.
Compton, Jared and Andrew Naselli, eds., Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9–11. Kregel, 2019.
Diprose, Ronald, Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology. IVP, 2004.
Doukhan, Jacques, Israel and the Church: Two Voices for the Same God. Baker, 2000.
Feinberg, J, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. Crossway, 1988.
Holwerda, David, Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two? Eerdmans, 1995.
Horner, Barry, Eternal Israel. Wordsearch Academic, 2018.
Horner, Barry, Future Israel. B&H Academic, 2007.
House, H. Wayne, ed., Israel: The Land and the People: An Evangelical Affirmation of God’s Promises. Kregel, 1998.
Kaiser, Walter, The Promise-Plan of God. Zondervan, 1978, 2008.
McDermott, Gerald, Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land. Brazos, 2017.
McDermott, Gerald, ed., The New Christian Zionism. IVP, 2016.
McDermott, Gerald, ed., Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship Between Christianity and Judaism. Lexham, 2021.
Robertson, O. Palmer, The Israel of God. P&R, 2000.
Tsarfati, Amir, Israel and the Church: An Israeli Examines God’s Unfolding Plans for His Chosen Peoples. Harvest Prophecy, 2021.
Vlach, Michael, Has the Church Replaced Israel? B&H, 2010.

Which ones are the best? Well, it of course depends on where you stand on the issue. Most of the titles above make it pretty clear where the authors stand. And as can be seen, some of these volumes offer a number of viewpoints. They can be helpful for those who want to learn more about the various positions.

Promise theology of course is covered by Kaiser, while a type of mediating position is argued by McDermott. One of the newest volumes edited by Bird and McKnight features a number of essay writers which are also worthwhile. If you want a perspective of a Messianic Jew on this, Michael Brown recently spoke to why we should care about Israel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1g5oVL-PRUk   

I must reiterate, this is mainly penned for those who know little about this topic. So it is just a very brief and introductory piece, with more detailed articles hopefully to follow. While disagreement and debate abound here, hopefully all believers can agree with the words of McDermott:

“So we gentiles owe Jews a debt. Because of what God did to them, we have been able to know their Messiah and become associate members of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ (Eph. 2:12). We have come to know the God of Israel and have become adopted sons and daughters of the Father of Israel (Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15).” (2017, p. 125)

Closing note: Because so much more needs to be said on all this, it might be wise for those who are eager to come here with all guns blazing, ready to pronounce anathemas on me and others, that you wait a bit until some of the follow-up pieces are penned thanks.

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13 Replies to “On Replacement Theology: An Introduction”

  1. This topic is definitely a complex one that one really should consider if the issue of Israel is being discussed. However, in all cases it should come down to “Where do I stand before God?”. I have no definitive position on this topic but I do know that I am Christian first and Jew second. Jesus did say that He did not come to do away with the Law but to fulfil it. Where Israel and Jews stand is hard to define. I suspect (my OT knowledge is a little cloudy) that God has not forgotten Israel nor abandoned them but the path to redemption, forgiveness is in Christ. The only analogy that I allow for in my thinking here is that in order to have run the race one has to have crossed the finish line. In a sense the Jewish people have reached the finish line but have not taken that last step. However, I think I would find it hard to tell a Jew that they are on the road to eternal damnation unless they repent and follow Jesus. Many times Jesus astounded the scribes with His knowledge of the scriptures. So I guess the best path is to explain through the scriptures the signs that pointed to Christ. I have been incredibly disturbed and literally sickened by what is occurring in the Middle East and it is reprehensible for Christians to get into dogmatic tit for tat spats over theological issues. I am not referring to you but those who do not have any skin in the game and prefer to sit on the side line and do nothing but rant.

  2. I find the search facility on the biblegateway.com website very handy. For example, if you search for “Israel” in the NIV version, it shows 2,431 results, including 87 in the NT. Of the latter, there seem to be only two that mention Israel in the same context as the church or Gentiles – Gal 6:16, as you mentioned, and Eph 3:6:

    “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

    Notice that Paul uses the word “together” three times. So, it’s not an either-or situation, but both have their place in God’s purposes.

    So, I don’t think it’s good theology to use one verse with an ambiguous conjunction (Gal 6:16) to nullify the meaning of “Israel” in the other 2430 verses.

  3. Bill, I don’t quite agree with your statement “the promises given to Israel seem to be fully applied to the church”. I’m specifically thinking of the promises concerning the land of Israel.

    Twice in the book of Genesis, God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants as an everlasting possession (15:18-19 and 17:8). But Paul says in Gal 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”. So, I’ve heard Christians say that because we are also Abraham’s descendants, then that land also belongs to us, just as much as to the Jews. This is one reason why many Christians oppose the Jewish state.

    But God didn’t promise the land of Israel to ALL the descendants of Abraham, but only to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their offspring:

    “He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit'” (Ps 105:8-11) Also see Gen 26:3 and 35:12.

    So, the promised land doesn’t belong to Ishmael or to Abraham’s other five sons (Gen 25:1-2), or to Isaac’s son Esau, or to Gentile Christians. But only to the descendants of Jacob / Israel.

  4. Thanks Denis. I said both “so often” and “seem”, and it was in the context of saying some of the claims of the replacement camp I can see some truth to. The whole article of course makes it clear that I see things as much more complex, and hundreds of passages can be appealed to – both pro and con. As I also said, ALL the biblical data has to be weighed up and hopefully properly interpreted.

  5. Thanks, Bill, for the step-by-step approach you are taking in regard to this important though complex subject.
    (Replacement Theology – as a descriptive term – might be used, at times by some, as a sort of shorthand way of inferring that those who hold it are by definition anti-Semitic…..a proposition which I do not take to be necessarily so).
    Anyway, I am sure whatever follow-on articles you may provide will be a guide for thoughtful Christians to be better equipped to go further in their studies of Scripture pertaining to the roles of Israel and the church now and until Jesus comes back.

  6. The recent work of Dr. Brock Hollett in “Jesus, the Jews, and the End of the Age” (2023) is very comprehensive and informative as well.

  7. Perhaps I’m missing something but the basics seem relatively simple to me. Clearly God made promises and there are prophecies which apply specifically to the descendants of Jacob and obviously God will fulfill His Word to them but on the other hand, there is one thing needed for eternal life and that is to eat from the tree of eternal life which is only provided though submission to God through Jesus.

    Israel means “prevailing with God” and there is only one way for that to go on happening – through the Messiah Jesus. Jesus means “God saves”. Both OT and NT scriptures are clear – He is the only means by which saving occurs.

    The prophecies relating to Israel are also important for Christians because they show the signs of the times Jesus said to look for as well as other prophecies.

    Other than that, the Biblical imagery is of Israel being the parent to Christianity and right or wrong, parents are required to be respected, especially considering the suffering Jewish people have suffered specifically because they are hated by Satan because of what God used them to do.

    It is wrong not to realise that, had the situation been different, there would similarly have been hypocritical Christians who would have murdered Jesus as there have always been hypocritical, claimed Christians who have done wrong things. They will not be saved either.

  8. Good introduction Bill. Thanks. I’ve liked some of McDermott’s writings on other topics, so I’ll have to check him out on this.

  9. To be honest, I am opposed to any attempt to evangelise Jews. Granted, some voluntarily do convert to evangelical Christianity or Catholicism, but I have problems with the concept that Jews are only ‘complete’ if they adopt the belief that Jesus is their Messiah. To be frank, the shameful millennia of Christian anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, seem to indicate that whatever Christian denomination we belong to, we must not romanticise our past. Certainly, we should be grateful for those who did speak out, even at the cost of their lives, against the evil of Nazi Germany, but so many others did not. We have a responsibility to face up to our past and take anti-Semitism seriously now. I’m a World War Two baby- one of my uncles was in the British Army and he saw for himself the barbarism and demonic horror that Nazism had wrought in Auschwitz.

  10. I thought Romans 11 (the grafted branch vs natural branch) pretty much sums up the whole thing. Gentiles get access to the same God as Israel’s, but don’t get cocky about it!

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