What is “replacement theology?”
About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. I looked out over the Sea of Galilee. I climbed part of the great mountain fortress of Masada. I witnessed orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall. I walked the streets of Jerusalem down the Via Dolorosa, the Israeli flag flying high and proudly over several of these streets. It was a breathtaking experience.
However, the exhilaration was soberly offset by a conversation I had with the bus driver for our tour group. Like many other Palestinian Christians, his family had lived in the land for centuries with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, mostly at peace. However, the events of the past 60+ years between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors have resulted in persecution for his family. He never went into the details, but I was always puzzled by what he meant by that.
Later on in the tour, when our group came to a stone gate in East Jerusalem, our bus driver nervously pointed out the bullet holes where Israeli and Jordanian fighters clashed with one another during the electrifying 1967 Six Day War. On the one hand, I felt then the thrill of the Israeli victory and reclamation of the ancient city that was discussed in this previous Veracity post.
But I had become also deeply troubled: what side was our Christian bus driver’s family on during that bitter conflict, or were they simply caught in the middle of the violence (like in this recent piece of news)? As I am writing this in July, 2014, Israel and Gaza’s Hamas have for weeks been involved in a deadly exchange, and Christians like this Baptist church in Gaza are vulnerable to the crossfire.
What is a Christian to think about the prophetic promises regarding national Israel, while also considering the challenges faced by Palestinian Christians living in the contested land in Middle East today, like my bus driver? What does the Bible have to say?
The study of Bible prophecy is a complicated subject and passions run very, very deep when people talk about “Israel.” Most evangelical Christians believe that “Israel” has a special place in God’s future plans, but there is a growing widespread confusion as to what this really means. So I must admit that I get conflicted when some Christians begin to talk about the errors of “replacement theology.” What is being meant when people speak of “replacement theology?” Granted, some criticisms are indeed valid, but a quick survey of what you find on YouTube can be rather troubling. Here is the ever colorful television personality Jack Van Impe:
Well,… uh, ok… now… what in the world is this guy talking about??????????
Should Christians Stop Using the Language of “Replacement Theology?”
Here is the scoop: Jack Van Impe does have a valid and sobering point to make. Sadly, in the history of Christianity, Christians have not always uniformly demonstrated love for the Jewish people. At times, misinformed Christians have wrongly thought that since many Jews have rejected Jesus Christ as their Messiah, that somehow God has rejected His people “Israel” in favor of the “church.” One strident example even comes from one of the most beloved teachers of the early church, John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), a leading bishop in Constantinople:
The Jews, by rejecting Christ, were changed from children into dogs, the Gentile dogs were changed into children…. The very idea of [a Christian] going from a church to a synagogue is blasphemous; and to attend the Jewish Passover is to insult Christ. To be with the Jews on the very day they murdered Jesus is to ensure that on the Day of Judgment He will say ‘ Depart from Me: for you have had intercourse with my murderers’ (from Saint John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews, referenced here and here… but see this post for a rejoinder suggesting Chrysostom was merely using a particular style of rhetoric, or that he only had “Judaizers” in view).
Folks like Jack Van Impe are correct in speaking against such misuse of the Bible. Some have taken this kind of “replacement theology” to the extreme, tolerating or even promoting acts of anti-semitism, or attacks against the Jews. As discussed previously on Veracity, this situation is morally reprehensible and has therefore created unnecessary obstacles to the spread of the Gospel among many Jews today.
While we must acknowledge the regrettable tragedy of such”replacement theology”, the accusation that Jack Van Impe has put forward is a broad overstatement. If you read Romans 11, you will find that the Apostle Paul clearly rules out any “replacement theology” that suggests that God has “rejected” the Jewish people. The troublesome issue is that I have yet to find a single, reputable Bible teacher today who says, “Yes, I believe in replacement theology!”
So what is the fuss all about? Unfortunately, in popular and sometimes even scholarly discourse, the claim of “replacement theology” has been primarily used as a pejorative description against those who disagree with what is called dispensationalism. Simply put, dispensationalism is a theology that appreciates how God has related to His people in different ways throughout human history in various “dispensations.” Though a crude illustration, just imagine a soda dispensing machine giving you different types of sodas depending on how many quarters you drop in and what buttons you push. In dispensationalism, God dispenses his will towards different people in different ways at different times.
Dispensationalism is a vast topic, but one of the main features of dispensational theology is that there is a profound distinction in the Bible between Israel and the church. To borrow from my woefully trivial illustration, if you want “Coke” or “Pepsi”, it all depends on which distinct button you push. For soda aficionados, “Coke” and “Pepsi” are not the same thing!
The problem is that Christians are not always in agreement with what those terms “Israel” and “church” mean and how we should interpret them in the Bible. At the most basic level, “Israel” simply means “one who wrestles with God” and church means “assembly,” in particular the assembly of believers in God. So in some sense, both terms speak about the same thing: “the people of God.” But are they really the same? Arguably, the Bible uses these terms in often very different ways. For example, Israel is mainly an Old Testament concept whereas you find the church in the New Testament. So then, exactly how are these ideas connected?
Now, that is a great question!!
Dispensationalists emphasize the differences in how the Bible uses those terms, whereas those who do not hold to dispensationalism emphasize the similarities in how those terms are used in the Bible. Dispensationalist ideas have been widely popularized in Christian circles for many years, but opposing viewpoints are less well understood.
With some variations here and there, those Christians who alternatively hold to a covenant theology understand that God has established a series of covenants in the Bible, not wholly unlike the dispensations of dispensationalism. A covenant is a type of agreement, involving several parties, where at least one of the parties agrees to do something. For example, in Genesis 12:1-3, the God of the Bible established a covenant with Abraham, making certain promises to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. As you study the Bible, you can find a number of covenants between God and His people. But in covenant theology, these relatively smaller covenants all exist within the framework of one, overarching larger covenant with the people of God running throughout the whole of Scripture. For covenant theology, there is ultimately and has always been only one people of God, not two.
Covenant Theology as a Possible Alternative to Both Dispensationalism and “Replacement Theology”
Critics of so-called “replacement theology” accuse covenant theology of replacing Israel with the church, thus teaching that God has forgotten about his people Israel. However, this is not an accurate depiction of covenant theology. Rather, covenant theology holds that the Gentile community of those who have faith in Christ have been grafted into the original, Jewish, believing people of God, Israel, to form the New Testament people of God, the church (Romans 11:17). The Apostle Paul uses the horticultural image of grafting in a new branch into an existing olive tree, which symbolizes the people of God, such that this foreign branch becomes an outgrowth of the original tree, thus fulfilling the purpose of the olive tree, thereby producing more olives. So, rather than a replacement of Israel, covenant theology argues that the church fulfills the original purposes of Israel.
Does this mean that covenant theology dismisses the special status of the Jewish people? Hardly. Even though many Jews have not recognized Jesus as being their Messiah, God is not done with them. Far from forgetting Israel, God has made a way to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ for our Jewish friends. Many defenders of covenant theology believe that in the last days that there will be a great and massive conversion of unbelieving Jewish people to the Gospel, where Jews from all over the world will recognize Jesus as their true Messiah (Romans 11:26). The great, 18th century Puritan covenantal theologian, Jonathan Edwards, put it this way over 150 years before the famous Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909:
The Jews in all their dispersions shall cast away their old infidelity, and shall wonderfully have their hearts changed, and abhor themselves for their past unbelief and obstinacy; and shall flow together to the blessed Jesus, penitently, humbly, and joyfully owning him as their glorious king and only savior, and shall with all their hearts as with one heart and voice declare his praises unto other nations. (A History of the Work of Redemption, page 487)
Does the thought of God calling an untold number of Jewish people to have faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah encourage you in your faith? Does this kind of theology “replace” the Jews in a negative way as their critics maintain? What do you think?
Why “Replacement Theology” Is Such a Hot-Button Issue Today
So, the critique of “replacement theology” is not completely a straw-man argument, as you can find examples where covenant theology has slipped into anti-semitism in the history of the church, as possibly with John Chrysostom and certainly with Isabel and Ferdinand’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. But blanket statements over the whole of covenant theology only create confusion. Embracing covenant theology does not automatically make someone anti-semitic or anti-Jewish.
Imagine what it is like having the shoe on the other foot. Sometimes you will find advocates of covenant theology who shout back using their own pejoratives against dispensationalism, such as with the charge that dispensationalists promote the idea of “setting dates.” Is this a fair accusation? Sure, some are indeed “date setters,” but the most responsible dispensational Bible teachers are not. Furthermore, people have been “setting dates” long before dispensationalism as a new method of interpreting the Bible ever came on the scene in the mid-19th century.
More to the point of present day concerns, some would say that it is the dispensationalists who are instead the real advocates of “replacement theology,” condoning Israeli “replacement” of Palestinian Christian communities through the continued expansion of Jewish settlements into communities formerly populated by Palestinian Christians, like my bus driver’s family. When the Israeli nation was formed in 1948, Christians made up about 18% of the population. Today, the percentage of Christians living in the Holy Land has dwindled down to less than 1.5%. A number of complex factors are responsible, including the rapid growth of radical Islam, but the displacement resulting from newer Jewish settlements remains one part of a very convoluted and tragic story.
Has the popularity of a dispensationalist view of the end times contributed to the rapidly dwindling size of the Christian community within the Holy Land? Thoughtful Christians today are struggling with how best to respond to this issue in the light of Scripture.
Being dispensationalist in one’s theology does not necessarily make someone “anti-Palestinian.” I would dare say that while there are extremes on both sides of the issue, most dispensationalist Christians that I know would have a very warm and generous heart towards their fellow Palestinian Christian brother or sister, if they ever would have the chance to meet one another. In other words, making a blanket statement that tends to mischaracterize all dispensationalists is not very healthy either.
Nevertheless, the heart of the disagreement between dispensational and covenant theology concerns how the Old Testament prophecies regarding national or ethnic Israel are to be understood from the Bible. Here is the fundamental question for Christians to consider: Are the prophecies concerning Old Testament Israel, such as the restoration of the land and the Temple, meant to be understood literally or spiritually, or perhaps both, and how is this supposed to happen, and what is the timing involved? Christians of all stripes have very different views on this question, even within the various covenant theology and dispensationalist camps.
So, in the interest of clarity and better understanding, it might be good for those who insist in talking about the error of “replacement theology” to take a deep breath, count to ten, and then consider replacing their terminology with concepts that might generate more light rather than heat. At the very least, if critics of so-called “replacement theology” still insist on using that term, they should be more careful in defining what that does and does not mean to help avoid confusion. Christians do differ with one another on these important topics, but in order to resolve these issues, it will help if we use concepts and terminology that more accurately represent the beliefs of other fellow believers.
In future Veracity posts, we hope to unpack some of the details of the debate between dispensationalism and covenant theology. This is an enormous topic, rivaled only by the topic of creation in terms of complexity and controversy. It is as though the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, represent some of the most difficult material to grasp within Scripture! But do not lose heart! Knowing where we came from (Genesis) and where we are going (Revelation) are crucial to gaining a right understanding of the Christian life. To borrow from a famous quote by Richard Weaver, “Ideas have consequences.”
In the meantime, here is a treasure store of some helpful material on the subject. First, regarding what was discussed at the very beginning of the Jack Van Impe video, here is the text of the series of articles (part 1 and part 2 and part 3 and part 4: with that last part 4 being the most controversial for evangelicals) that originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of “Israel My Glory”, a publication of the The Friends of Israel, written by dispensationalist theologian James Showers, that kicked off the fairly recent inflammatory debate over the deficiencies of “replacement theology.” You may have sympathy with the perspective of James Showers, but in fairness you may wish to consider the other side of the debate. Here is a plea from a covenant theologian going into more specifics as to why the terminology of “replacement theology” should itself be replaced.
A fairly more responsible video critique of so-called “replacement theology” can be found here from Joel Rosenberg (at least it was the best I could find offhand related to the topic). I am not convinced that Rosenberg really understands covenant theology, but Rosenberg should be commended for setting out a reasonably more balanced approach to dispensationalist theology:
From a covenant theology perspective, you might want to view this discussion (at least the first 20 minutes) with R. C. Sproul and some fellow Ligonier colleagues as to some of the theological issues with dispensationalism and the history behind the movement. You may not agree with Sproul and friends, and it gets pretty deep, but it is worth considering:
FINALLY, for you theology nerds out there: To get a more technical treatment of the issues, Michael J. Vlach at Masters Seminary in California continues to use the language of “replacement theology” in his critique, but his analysis of the issue from a dispensationalist position is more nuanced (read this essay in PDF format). Michael Bird, from the land down under at Ridley College wrote a series of posts at his Euangelion blog (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and the most important summary here in #6) engaging Vlach’s position from a covenant theology perspective. Notice that Bird refuses to take up Vlach’s moniker of “replacement” to describe his covenant theology. We have a long ways to go if we ever hope to try to resolve this issue in the church if we can not even agree upon basic terminology. *SIGH*