Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.3)

Part Two

Replacement of Concepts?

In the book The Meaning of the Millennium (ed. Robert G. Clouse), the well known postmillennial scholar Loraine Boettner said,

The land of Palestine…was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8).  But the same thing is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17) and David’s throne (2 Sam. 7:13, 16, 24).  But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away. – 98

It stands to reason that if Israel’s promises have passed away, they have to be replaced by something else.  But according to many Presbyterian covenant theologians the church has always existed, so they object to being called supercessionists.  R.C. Sproul, Jr is a representative voice when he says,

The Reformed perspective takes a different tack. It affirms that that Israel which is actually Israel, just as with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, applies to those who are in Christ, who trust in His finished work. Though we deny the moniker, this is what our dispensational friends call “replacement theology.” The Reformed, however, see this is as the outworking of the truth of Galatians 3:7- “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” We who are Reformed do not believe God replaced Israel with the church. We believe instead that there has always been only one people of God, those who believe. – R.C. Sproul, Jr.

An older work by W. J. Grier makes this abundantly clear:

Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11). – The Momentous Event, 33

Seeing that this is the position of at least some covenant theologians, is it fair to label them as replacement theologians?  Well, not in the sense that they believe the church has replaced Israel in toto, (although not a few of these men do slip into that kind of rhetoric on occasion).  But I would argue that an identifiable form of supercession is still going on.

Grier’s opinion that “Israel” equals believers stripped of the accoutrements of a designated land, with cities, a temple, priesthood and a king looks overly simplistic. These key OT themes are swept aside with a wave of the hand.

Consider this statement from Edmund Clowney:

The greatest promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the church – we are the temple of the living God. – Edmund P. Clowney, “The Final Temple”, in Prophecy in the Making, ed., Carl F. H. Henry, 84

And again this by Steve Motyer:

[Paul] consistently applies to the church – that is, the mixed Jewish and Gentile congregations to whom he writes – the great covenant ideas and terms which had previously belonged to Israel. They are the elect (1 Thess. 1:4-5), the people called to holiness (1 Cor. 1:2), the justified who are objects of God’s saving righteousness (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 3:22-24), the redeemed (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), who inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Col. 1:12).  They are the children of God (Rom. 8:14; cf. Exod. 4:22), on whom the glory of God rests (Rom. 5:2; 8:30), who offer pleasing worship (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:1-2), and who can rightly appeal to the covenant faithfulness of God (Rom. 8:31-39).  In all likelihood, when Paul calls God’s peace and mercy upon ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, he is referring to the church. – S. Motyer, “Israel (nation)”, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., T. Desmond Alexander, et al., 585-586.

Clowney takes all the best promises to Israel in the Bible and gives them (though in a greatly altered condition) to the church.  Motyer, like so many who take this line, thinks that God’s speaking about the church in similar terms to the way He speaks about Israel is decisive in equating the two.  In the Boettner quote we can see that the “perpetual duration” of the OT promises to Israel of land, king, priesthood etc., are not, in fact, perpetual; at least not in the way they would have been understood in OT times.  The notion of perpetuity changes, as do the ideas of land, king, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, and other associated matters.

Picking through the Assertions

I have defined “replacement” as meaning “to take the place of” and “supercession” as a switching out of one thing for another. In the essay by Clowney from which I have pulled the quotation above, the writer calls the church the true temple. The physical temple in Jerusalem was just a foreshadowing of the church.  What was said about the temple can be applied about all the other items on the OT covenant list: king, land, Zion, priesthood, the preeminence of the nation among other nations, etc.

Let me concede the point about Israel being the church at present for the sake of argument, it remains true that the church is not a physical building or a nation in the usual sense (this category error will be revisited).  So it would appear, for example, that the word “temple” in Clowney’s statement is being used to refer to two different things.  And it looks like the non-physical “temple” is superseding the physical Jerusalem temple.  If so, then in the minds of OT believers, the idea of the temple as a physical structure on Mt. Zion is replaced by the idea of a called-out multitude of people. If we move on to land we shall find either that rather than referring to a designated territory separate from other territories, “land” now refers to heaven, or that it refers to the whole globe (usually on the new earth).  The “king” does not reign over the nation of Israel in Jerusalem but instead is reigning now from heaven over the international church.  Zion becomes another name for heaven, the Zadokite line of Levites become mainly Gentile Christians, and there is no such thing as the preeminence of Israel since “Israel” is the church and the church is all there is!  So even though we don’t have replacement of one people group with another (because Israel = the church), we do have many replacements of important concepts with others.

Here is Greg Beale:

Here [Gal. 6:16], as in 2 Cor. 5:14-7:1, it needs to be emphasized that the church in fulfilling Israel’s end-time restoration prophecies is also fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies of new creation.  – G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 724

So the church fulfills the prophecies given to Israel over and over again in the OT.  These fulfilments are not often literal (i.e. what would have been expected by hearers of the original words), but rather the concepts are substituted for other things.  OT concepts (e.g. land, king, priesthood, temple in this world) are replaced by others in the world to come. But in Jeremiah 31, 33 and Ezekiel 36-48 we find some of the most strongly worded promises of God to national Israel. These are New covenant promises, not conditioned on adherence to the law of Moses.

More to come…


16 thoughts on “Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.3)”

  1. Paul,

    I was wondering how you would respond to the specific statement made by Boettner at the beginning of your article. I’ve heard this reasoning used many a time.

    Why did God say that the priesthood, passover, sabbath, etc. were everlasting and yet they eventually did come to an end?

    Why is this not an argument against a consistent “plain-sense” or “literal” interpretation of OT promises and prophecy?



    1. Jay,

      according to Ezek. 20:12 & 20 the sabbath is a sign of covenantal identity for Israel: “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them”.
      We should not be surprised therefore when we come across sabbaths in millennial contexts like Isa. 66:23; Ezek. 45:17.
      For the Passover continuing into the kingdom see Ezek. 45:21. The covenant with Phinehas covers the priesthood (Num. 25), as does Ezek.43-46. See also

      The question of the interruption of these things is a red herring. In their original covenantal intent they were perpetual (as with Israel in the land for example). But sin and disobedience does cause judgment and with it a cessation of certain elements. But God has promised to overcome the sin and so these things will be re-established.

      1. Thanks Paul.

        That’s helpful. Essentially, your saying that the priesthood, passover, and Sabbath ARE everlasting because they were given to Israel covenantally and WILL continue forever with THEM in the millennial kingdom (and also the eternal state?). Is that right?

        What about circumcision?

  2. The only way that “replacement” is appropriate is if one assumes a dispensational hermeneutic. If we want to accurately represent reformed covenant theology, then the idea of replacement is not the proper way to go about it. The reason is that ‘replacement’ is not the same for the dispensationalist as it is for RCT. Their interpretive grids are fundamentally different. For the dispensational, replacement language is literal. For the reformed covenant position, it is at best apparent, but more accurately, typological. National Israel was always a type of the NT community in Christ. She was always pointing to the true covenant community in Christ. The national covenant with Israel was always pointing to the new covenant in Christ with the promise in Genesis 3 to Adam and 12 to Abraham serving as its forerunner.

    The fact that National Israel was a type of the New Covenant community does nothing to cast doubt on the belief that a minority in Israel were indeed elect and that those elect were truly the people of God called out of spiritual darkness into the light of God’s glorious promise, the gospel, given in Genesis 3. Here is where we have the existence of the called out ones even in the OT. This is the church.

    A better approach is to take the essence of RCT and contrast that with the essence of DT and ask if the idea of ‘replacement’ can be applied to both systems equally. I think the answer to that question is obvious.

    1. Ed,

      Although you make some valid points here which I shall pick up on, the fact is that many non-dispensationalists have used the terms “replacement theology” and “supercessionalism”. I have more to say on this and more quotations and nuances to bring out, but I have already shown that some CT’s have used the language of replacement or endorsed books that teach it.

      1. Hey Paul,
        The fact that some CT have used such language is precisely why I think it is important to distinguish between “apparent replacement” and literal “replacement.” You must admit that a CT theologian would never view National Israel and the Church in the same way that Dispensationalism does and for that reason, we must admit that replacement in dispensationalism is used differently than it would be in CT. As we both acknowledge, context defines meaning more than any other single factor. I think it is important for you to emphasize this point. And once you do that, it seems to me at least, that your entire question becomes a moot point. What I am actually contending is that it is NOT appropriate to fill the term “replacement” with a dispensational meaning, then use that term to describe view within CT. It is a non-starter.

        I hope that makes sense.

  3. Ed,

    I want to be sensitive to this. Still, although I have no doubt that you know what you are talking about, and are thoughtful enough to make the necessary distinctions, I cannot say that for many other CT’s I have read or spoken with. I shall introduce a slightly different definition of supercessionism soon from a CT.

    I also intend to give more consideration to the “same people only expanded” teaching you refer to because that does impact the discussion. I think G. Vos articulates that teaching well.

    I think it is inevitable that we will see things differently brother. I do ask that you give me a little more time to advance my ideas. I shall make qualifications later on.

    God bless you and yours


      1. You are not rushing things. I just can’t address everything at once. My presentation IS from the perspective of Biblical Covenantalism. That slant is what you are sensing.

        I’m fine. BTW, I Googled you and saw that you have had issues with Messrs Hays and Holding 😦

      2. Holding and Hays are not the sort of people you want to disagree with if you have thin skin. Militant atheists have nothing on them where civility is concerned. It is sad and disturbing.

  4. I recall that exchange, Paul. Comes a time when conversation is unfruitful. Thought you did well to walk away from it.

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