So, does covenant theology over-allegorize God’s promises to Israel, thus explaining away those promises? Does covenant theology fall susceptible to the charge of “replacement theology?”
When covenant theology talks about the one people of God throughout the whole of the Bible, dispensationalists will often cry foul. To say that the Israel of the Old Testament becomes the church of the New Testament smacks of “replacement theology.” In such a “replacement theology,” it would appear that God has done away with national Israel, in favor of a different people. Old Testament Israel now no longer serves any purpose within God’s ultimate plan, in the era of the New Testament church.
If so, it would appear that God has abruptly canceled His own promises given to Israel. Worse yet, this type of theology lays the groundwork for antisemitism, the hatred of Jewish people.
These are serious claims. How does covenant theology respond?
Does Covenant Theology Teach a “Replacement Theology?”
The answer is actually quite complex in the history of this discussion within Christianity. To a tragic degree, there has been a harmful “replacement theology” throughout much of church history.
As noted in a previous post in this series, a number of early Bible teachers in the church promoted a type of punitive , supersessionist view of Jewish people: Because so many Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God sought to punish the Jews. The destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was interpreted as a sign, that God was indeed punishing Jews for their unbelief. As the church became more predominately Gentile, there was a sense that God had raised up the Gentile church to supersede, or replace, the Jewish people. Sadly, many people have resorted to calling Jews “Christ-killers,” based on a hyper-literal misreading of Matthew 27:24-25. In this sense, some strands of covenant theology bear this unfortunate stain. 1
There are other critiques of covenant theology that are not as harsh, but are still critical nonetheless. One can understand that certain Jewish practices from the Old Testament, such as the adherence to the strict food laws, are no longer in effect in the New Testament era and today. But does this necessarily mean that the literal land promise, given by God to Abraham and his descendants, is no longer applicable? Does covenant theology obscure clear and direct statements made in Scripture about Israel?
The critics have a point: There are certain promoters of covenant theology, while disavowing themselves of antisemitism, nevertheless use language that can be quite confusing. For example, covenant theology is often associated with supersessionism, the idea that something supersedes something else. But what is being superseded, and how?
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13).
It would be a mistake to think that the Jews, as a people, have been superseded, or “replaced” by the New Testament church. Sadly, some advocates of covenant theology have used this unfortunate use of the word “replacement.”
In every era, Jews have come to know Jesus, and are surely counted among the faithful, in the New Testament church. As a result, among most advocates of covenant theology, “replacement theology” is regarded as a pejorative, that misrepresents what covenant theology actually teaches.2
The Bible is quite clear that both Gentiles and Jews make up the New Testament church. Rather, the writer of Hebrews is telling the reader that it is the covenant itself that has been superseded, not the people of the covenant. If ethnically Jewish people come to know Jesus as their Messiah, as genuine covenant theology teaches, this is hardly a “replacement” of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the charge of “replacement” is a difficult one to shake, given the history of antisemitism in certain corners of the church.3
In order to avoid some of the trappings of supersessionism, that implies “replacement theology,” there are now some theologians who advocate for either new covenant theology or progressive covenant theology. In a progressive covenant theology, the emphasis is on the sense of Jesus Christ fulfilling the promises made to Israel: a fulfillment theology, not a “replacement theology.” Jesus Christ was able to accomplish that which Israel was not able to do. In this way, Jesus, as the Messiah, fulfills the mission of Israel, giving a broader and deeper meaning to those promises originally given to Israel.
In other words, God’s purposes are not limited to national, ethnic Israel, nor its land. Rather, God’s ultimate purposes are about all of God’s redeemed people, Jew and Gentile, and the expansion of God’s rule and reign through the whole world:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV)
This does not lessen or deny national or ethnic Israel’s role for today or the future. Instead, it stresses the fact that the very continued existence of the Jewish people, extending back into history, bears witness to the God of the Bible. Is this not a miracle of God? Through all of the various trials and sufferings of the Jewish people over the centuries, they have continued to survive, and even flourish. Many even see that there will be a great spiritual revival among the Jewish people in the End Times, thus anticipating the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We can pray earnestly for the day when the Jewish people might recognize Jesus as their long awaited Messiah!
1. It is a terrible fact that so many have misread Matthew 27:24-25 to say that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, a misreading that the recent, former Pope Benedict has unequivocally condemned. Yes, the Jewish leadership did bring Jesus before Pilate, but it would defeat the whole tone of Holy Scripture is insist on a literal curse being passed down to ethnic Jews from generation to generation. When European church-goers of the medieval and early modern era left their cathedrals after morning services, crying “Christ-Killers!,” and thus terrorizing their Jewish neighbors, they were infected with the disease of hyper-literalism that has brought great harm to the Gospel. Instead, if one properly understands the typological nature of Scripture, it should be clearer to see that the Jews who declared “His blood be on us and on our children,” actually represent all of humanity. As Donald Hagner, my professor of New Testament in seminary, wrote in his Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, on page 828, “As for the responsibility for the death of Jesus, theologically there is only one possible answer: it is sin, the universal malady of all human beings, that drives Jesus to the cross. The crucifixion is in this sense a piece of the autobiography of every man and woman ever to walk this earth. It is ‘I’ who am guilty of crucifying Jesus.”↩
2. In his essay in Perspectives on Israel and the Church, covenant theologian Robert Reymond often uses the term “replacement theology,” in scare-quotes, just as I have done. But I never really got the sense that he is in any way qualifying “replacement theology,” as he embraces it in his description of his theology. As far as I can tell, for Reymond, there does not seem to be any future significance for ethnic Israel, either in terms of an additional witness to the God of the Bible, or any future conversion of the Jews. So, I can see why covenant theologians like Reymond come under criticism, despite their best attempts to deflect the critique. I wrote a blog essay a few years ago saying that I knew of no responsible covenant theologian who embraced the language of “replacement theology.” Apparently, I was wrong!↩
3. From a covenant theology perspective, Anglican pastor Stephen Sizer puts it this way,” the succession is first of all from one covenant to another, not from Israel to the Church.” This is why Jesus first instructs his disciples to preach to the Jews first, and then only later to the Gentiles in the Book of Acts. However, former Roanoke College professor of religion, Gerald R. McDermott argues differently on his Patheos.com blog, The Northampton Seminar. McDermott contends that the covenant be obsoleted is the Mosaic covenant and not the Abrahamic covenant. Contra to non-Zionists like Sizer, McDermott sees the land promise under the Abrahamic covenant to be still be in effect. McDermott ran a series of thoughtful posts on his blog, such as this on “Is the Church God’s New Israel?,” calling for a “New Christian Zionism.” Interestingly, McDermott is not a dispensationalist. McDermott lays out his case in Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land. Summaries of McDermott’s view can be found here and here.↩