Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.5)

Part Four

Incipient Supercessionsm

So far I have tried to show that replacement theology exists and that it is a coinage of at least some covenant theologians, and also that it can take the shape either of direct replacementism (i.e. the church replaces Israel), or else conceptual replacementism (aspects of Israel’s promises are superseded by antitypes in the church).  However, there is no shortage of men who vehemently deny that their theology is replacement theology.  Sam Storms has stated,

Replacement theology would assert that God has uprooted and eternally cast aside the olive tree which is Israel and has planted, in its place, an entirely new one, the Church.  All the promises given to the former have been transferred to the latter.  But this is not what Paul says.  He clearly states that there is but one olive tree, rooted in the promises given to the patriarchs.  In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God) there are both believing Jews (natural branches) and believing Gentiles (unnatural branches).  Together they constitute the one people of God, the one “new man,” the true Israel in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled.  This one people, of course, is the Church. – Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 195 (my emphasis)

Just notice how the second line supplements the first, and Storms rejects them both.  But the second sentence is almost a word-for-word what I have heard and read many covenant theologians actually teach.  For sure, many do not say it in such stark terms, but they come close.  In Part One I cited Gerald Bray’s opinion that, “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.  In Part Three Edmund Clowney was quoted as saying that the greatest promises to Israel in the OT are fulfilled in the church.  We have seen Bruce Waltke’s assertion that the church fulfills God’s purpose for Israel, and R. Scott Clark’s insinuation that national Israel was never intended to be the permanent arrangement, but rather was only a means to an end (which is the church).

This same thesis is plainly set out in chapters 20 and 21 of G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology.  For instance, he teaches that the church fulfills Israel’s “restoration promises” (680). He says of Matthew 21:43 that,

Israel’s stewardship of God’s kingdom will be taken away from it, and the gentiles will be given the stewardship. (681).  

If the stewardship of the kingdom has been taken from national Israel and given to the gentiles, then how is it that we are wrong to label this as a replacement of national Israel with the church?  Beale follows this with a question based upon his understanding of Psalm 118:22:

But how does the psalm quotation offer a reason for this transferal of kingdom stewardship? (Ibid. my emphasis).

He is quite sure that the church fulfills Israel’s end time prophecies (e.g. 724).  The church fulfills these prophecies only because the promises have been transferred from Israel to the church.  All that is needed is to follow the logic. Adherents of covenant theology, of dispensational theology, or of other persuasions, have done this and they have come out where Storms and others have gone in; that is, with the understanding that indeed, as Storms put it, “All the promises given to the former [Israel]have been transferred to the latter [the church].”

Storms says he doesn’t believe this, as this would be “replacement theology.”  Well, I think he needs to do much more to disentangle himself from the mess his own theology places him in.  And I think it is not unfair to say that there is an intrinsic supercessionism within the genetic makeup of covenant theology.   This is not the same as saying that all covenant theologians believe that they are supercessionists; something I will address soon.Let us have one more example:

Jesus accomplishes in his person and work what God intended for Israel as a people. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 228

These men lean toward New covenant theology, but they are the same animal when it comes to replacementism.  But think about it, if what God intended for Israel was brought to fruition in Jesus; if Israel is rejected by God and the kingdom given to the church; if the locus of God’s OT kingdom promises to the nation of Israel are fulfilled in a reconfigured form by the church; if Israel is treated as a type of the church in Jesus; if the land of Israel is a type of the New Earth (and sometimes of the whole Universe as a temple), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a large dose of replacementism, at least of concepts, resident within this way of reading the Bible.

Those who are more careful in their explanation of Israel and the Church

Having shown why Sam Storms’ ideas about replacement theology hardly get covenant theologians off the hook, I do want to concentrate on his main point, which is that in his theology the church grows out of the elect of Israel.

I think we need to treat this approach differently.  While I do not think even this point of view can escape the association with replacement theory, I am inclined to give it a conditional pass.  I say conditional because, of course, I have already said the seed of supercessionism lies within covenant theology.  I want to give it a pass because I believe the reasoning set out in the Storms quote given above (omitting the first two lines), is more rooted in the ground of a particular approach.

For an example of this sort of holistic thinking spelled out in a way that one must take seriously I give two quotes from the great John Owen:

Instead of inheriting all the promises merely upon their carnal interest and privilege, – which they looked for, and continue so to do unto this day, – they found that themselves must come in on a new account, to be sharers in them in common with others, or to be rejected whilst those others were admitted unto the inheritance.  – John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 1, 119

The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. – Ibid, 124

Owen sees the church as the plan of God between creation and new creation.  It is the plan through Jesus Christ.  Viewed this way it only makes sense to see that the nation of Israel and the covenants with Israel, and all the prophecies that are rooted in those covenants are, as Scott Clark says, a means to a greater end.  From that position it also makes sense to read the Bible, the Old Testament especially, as likewise a means to an end.  The chief idea is not God replacing Israel in one way or another, but rather the whole vista of redemptive-historical thinking creating an imperative reading of the Bible which can only bring about one redemptive community.

more to come…



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