Replacement Theology: Is it wrong to use the term? (pt.1)

Recently I have been reminded of the Reformed CT community’s aversion to the label of supercessionism, or worse, replacement theology.  In the last decade or so particularly I have read repeated disavowals of this term from covenant theologians.  Not wanting to misrepresent or smear brethren with whom I disagree, I have to say that I struggle a bit with these protests.  “We are not replacement theologians” we are told, “but rather we believe in transformation or expansion.”  By some of the objectors we are told that the church does not replace Israel because it actually IS Israel; well, “true Israel” – the two designations are really one.  This move is legitimate, they say, because the “true Israel” or “new Israel” is in direct continuity with Israel in the Old Testament.

In this series of posts I want to investigate the question of whether it is right; if I am right, to brand this outlook as replacement theology and supercessionism.

Basics: what is a “replacement”?

A good thing to do as we begin is to have a definition of the word at issue.  Websters New World Dictionary defines the word “replacement” thus:

“1. a replacing or being replaced 2. a person or thing that takes the place of another…”

The entry for “replace” says,

“1. to place again; to put back in a former or the proper place or position.” (obviously, this does not apply to our question).

“2. to take the place of… 3. to provide a substitute or equivalent for.”

The synonym “supersede” means that something is replaced by something else that is superior.  In the way I use the terms in a theological context I mean “to take the place of”.  The third meaning (i.e. to substitute) is  somewhat relevant since some may be claiming that OT Israel has been switched out for another Israel.  By “supercessionism” then, I mean any theology that teaches a switching out of “old Israel” with “new”, “true Israel.”

The question before us is whether the Church takes the place of Israel in covenant theology, and if so how?  To answer that question we must ask several more.  These include such important questions as, ‘what exactly do covenant theologians say about the matter?  And do they ever use replacement terminology themselves?’; ‘Can their understandings of Israel and the church, and so their “expansion” language, be supported from the Bible?’

If “Israel” and “the church” are the same thing then clearly we have our answer, and I can stop writing.  If the church and Israel are the same any question of replacing one with the other starts and stops with the simple swapping of names.

Identifying “Israel”

In the Old Testament Israel is either a person, the man Jacob who was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28, or the nation of people (sometimes a part of them either in rebellion or redeemed) who stem from Jacob who are called “the children of Israel” in Genesis 32:32 (Israelites), or a designation for the promised land (cf. Josh. 11:16, 21).

Covenant theology adds to these designations another.  For example, an anonymous devotional at Ligonier’s website entitled “Who is Israel?” claims that,

Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community—the invisible church—that follows Christ. Paul does not make this application specifically in Romans 11; however, this meaning is clearly implied in his teaching about the one olive tree with both Jewish and Gentile branches (vv. 11-24). 

Although nowhere does the New Testament explicitly equate Israel with the church, the assumptions that lead the writer to his conclusion (not to mention his exegesis of Gal. 6:16 and his use of the Olive Tree metaphor) come into focus once his view of the church is understood.

Chapter Twenty-five of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines the Church like this:

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

You will notice that this definition places every saved {elect} person in human history into the Church.  It also places all the those elect who will be saved into the Church.  The Church is also seen as the Body of Christ, as well as “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God” outside of which there is no salvation.

Acceptance of this definition pretty much wraps things up as far as OT Israel is concerned. The saved saints under the Mosaic covenant were simply the Church of the time.  Also, the kingdom which was repeatedly promised to the remnant of Israel is, well, the Church.  Not the land, not Jerusalem, not the national throne or the temple on Mt. Zion, just the Church.

There is reason to dissent from the honored position of the Puritans cited above, and I shall have to do so later on.  But right here my intention is simply note that according to this way of thinking the elect Church and elect Israel are the same thing.  If this is the right tack then there is nothing wrong with the following thought from Anglican theologian Gerald Bray:

As men and women who have been grafted into the nation of Israel by the coming of Jesus Christ, Christians…lay claim to [the] love and the promises that go with it. – God Has Spoken, 41

Very well, we are to believe that Christians have been grafted into Israel.  Bray too is alluding to Paul’s metaphor of the Olive Tree in Romans 11.  Again, “Israel” here must mean believers, therefore, all believers are “Israel”.  That is, IF these claims are true.

to be continued…

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7 comments

  1. My understanding of the true Israel in Galatians are the descendants of Jacob, who live by faith In Jesus Christ, otherwise it would be not all the church is the church. I also think to fit properly in with Romans 9-11 where Paul is talking about his concern for his kin (the natural branches) he makes the point that how much more readily because of there familiarity with the ways of God they can be grafted in to their own olive tree. Ro 11:24
    This argument within the community of believers has a long history and I’ve been in congregations with both opinions. My theology reconciles best with Israel being only the descendants of Jacob as I study and interact with other believers.

  2. Having grown into and finally adopted over several years, a covenantal understanding of Scripture, I see a basic flaw in your argument. It involves the idea of replacement. As a covenant theologian myself, I think the term is misleading from the start. It does not capture what covenant theology teaches about the nation of Israel and its relationship to the Church. If it is true that covenant theology teaches that the church existed as those who were elect in Israel in the Old Testament (a small number indeed) and that the church consists of those elect Jews and Gentiles in the NT, then there is no sense in which replacement enters into the discussion for the covenantal approach. If I am correct, using the term “replacement” to describe covenant theology would be inappropriate because it is inaccurate and misleading. The entire idea of “replacement” is a dispensational construct, not one that is borne out in historic reformed covenant theology.

    How is life treating you my dear friend? Been a while. 🙂

    1. Hi Ed, how nice to hear from you. I hope you are well.

      Thank you for a thoughtful comment. Though I plan to deal with your objection as I move forward I think I have already intimated that the idea must be nuanced. Still, although I agree that dispies employ the “replacement” term commonly, I cannot go so far as to say that it is a construct of that approach.

      I will need to build my argument more and I know we are unlikely to agree, but I want to be respectful too.

      God bless you brother!

      1. Things are well over here on the east coast. The battles are still the battles as you well know and I am sure they remain the same over there.

        The idea of replacement requires certain presuppositions which are, in my understanding, present in a dispensational scheme and which are absent from a covenantal one. If those presuppositions are not present, I fail to see how replacement could be anything other than misleading when applied to covenant theology. I look forward to your reading your thoughts on the subject.

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