Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.7)

Part Six

Gary Burge: Replacement Theologian

The name of Gary Burge  of Wheaton College is familiar to many Christians who teach eschatology that includes the restoration of the remnant of the nation of Israel, but not for positive reasons. His positions on Israel, fueled in large part by his associations with the anti-Israel group Kairos USA, Naim Ateek, Stephen Sizer, and Pro-Palestinianism in general, hardly encourage fuzzy feelings.  On the theological front, Burge freely speaks of spiritualizing and reinterpreting Scripture.  Not surprisingly, Burge is a convinced replacement theologian.

For as we shall see (and as commentators regularly show) while the land itself had a concrete application for most in Judaism, Jesus and his followers reinterpreted the promises that came to those in his kingdom. – Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land, 35

In this quote Burge claims that although the land given to Israel was “concrete” for Jews in ancient times, still the OT covenant promises to Israel were reinterpreted by Jesus.  How were they reinterpreted?  In an article written for the I. Howard Marshall festshrift, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, (edited by Joel B. Green and Max Turner), Burge enlarges on this theme.  His piece is entitled, “Territorial Religion, Johannine Christology, and the Vineyard of John 15.”  In this article Burge starts off writing about the importance of land ownership in the ancient world (386).  His introduction is a restatement of the work of W.D. Davies’ called The Gospel and the Land.  Basically, the idea is that in Jesus the “landless” become the “landed” and the other way round.  There is very little appeal to Scripture in these pages (e.g. 384-388), and what is used is misused.  But he procures a thesis:

For the most part the NT does not view The Land as the object of messianic promise.  Typically, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seems to reject ‘land messianism’ outright.  Revelation and salvation can be found anywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia, according to Stephen. – Gary M. Burge, “Territorial Religion”, 388

He continues by claiming that the Land is frequently “spiritualized” (his word), giving Hebrews 4 as an example, where, as Burge thinks, the land of Canaan as a type of heaven receives such treatment (Ibid).  According to Burge,

John uses the concrete gifts of The Land (Jerusalem’s temple with its festivals, Israelite cities, and holy places) in order to show that what these places promise can be found in abundance in Christ… Jesus replaces the temple and its festivities as the place where God is revealed.  Simply put, Jesus is the new “holy space” where God can be discovered. (388).

This sets him up for his study of the Vineyard in John 15.  His approach is summarized when he says, “The crux for John 15 is that Jesus is changing the place of rootedness for Israel.” (393, emphasis in original).  This means that instead of the land of Israel being the place of “revelation and salvation” and “rootedness”, these are to be found in the “one vine growing in [God’s] vineyard” (393), therefore, “Attachment to this vine and this vine alone gives the benefits of life once promised through The Land.” (394).  From this theological springboard we are told that,

In a way reminiscent of diaspora Judaism, Jesus points away from the vineyard as place, as a territory of hills and valleys, cisterns and streams.  In a word, Jesus spiritualizes The Land. (395, emphasis in original).

No one will disagree that Jesus is the one vine through whom salvation comes, but whether this leads one to spiritualize the land (and the covenants) is another matter. Not surprisingly, Burge utilizes Mark 12:9 to teach that “Israel’s vineyard is devastated… [and] given to others” (396).

What is one to make of this?  Well, the first thing that should be noticed is that Burge is at least candid enough to admit that this way of reading the Bible is spiritualizing.  (Naturally, he claims this is what Jesus does).  Secondly, the argument that Israel’s land has been replaced by and in Jesus is not made exegetically, but inferentially, with the help of evidence from the Jewish Diaspora – especially allegorizers like Philo.  Thirdly, Burge’s contention depends on seeing the land of Israel as the place of “salvation and revelation.”  But this is nonsense.  The land is never viewed as the place of salvation and revelation, and “the benefits of life once promised through the land” did not guarantee either; the land itself was never viewed as sacred as such.  It is called “the Holy Land” (Zech. 2:12) in view of the eschaton.  What was guaranteed is possession of the land in peace and prosperity (e.g. Deut. 4:29-31; 28:40-41, 44-45; 30:1-2, 10; Jer. 16:14-15; Ezek. 11:14-20; Amos 9:14-15 with Deut. 15:6; 28:1,13; Isa. 60:10-13; 62:1-12) with salvation (e.g. Isa. 45:17, 25; 49:5; Ezek. 36:22-29; Hos. 2:14-20).

God is always the locus of both salvation and revelation in the Bible.  Whatismore, although there is a limited but necessary case for Jesus being identified with “Israel” (e.g. Isa. 49:1-8), it is a giant leap to turn Israel into Jesus the way Burge and most CT’s do. That switch can only be undertaken through a good deal of inference, and inferences can easily dictate hermeneutical choices:

Certainly,the more an interpretation depends on inferences (as opposed to explicit statements in the text), the less persuasive it is. If a historical reconstruction disturbs (rather than reinforces) the apparent meaning of a passage, we should be skeptical of it…A good criterion for assessing the validity as well as the value that a theory [i.e. a historical reconstruction ] may have for exegesis is to ask this question: Could the interpretation of a particular passage be supported even if we did not have the theory? A good interpretation should not depend so heavily on inferences that it cannot stand on its own without the help of a theoretical construct. A theory about the historical situation may help us to become sensitive to certain features of the text that we might otherwise ignore, but it is the text that must be ultimately determinative. – Moises Silva in Walter Kaiser & Moises Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (2nd edition), 179. 

I couldn’t say it better myself.  And even though the man who said it is a covenant theologian, he hits the nail squarely on the head.  Turning the nation of Israel into Jesus, and importing liberal scholars such as W.D. Davies (and Walter Brueggemann), and then casting around for Philonic (and apocryphal) readings to shore up a certain understanding of John 15 is not the right way to read the biblical text.  The premise that Jesus can stand for Israel in some texts (though not in many which CT’s refer us to), and that the church is “in Him” does not logically connect to the conclusion that all the covenanted promises of God to the remnant of Israel are transmogrified and appropriated by the church.

Jesus is Israel (on rare occasions), but Israel isn’t Jesus

A derivation of the Jesus-is-Israel-is-the-church way of thinking is found in the statement of R. Scott Clark in Part Two of this series.  Clark pointed to Genesis 3:15 and from it concluded that a permanent promise to a national people was contrary to that verse.  He wrote,

the very category of “replacement” is foreign to Reformed theology because it assumes a dispensational, Israeleo-centric way of thinking. It assumes that the temporary, national people was, in fact, intended to be the permanent arrangement. Such a way of thinking is contrary to the promise in Gen. 3:15. The promise was that there would be a Savior. The national people was only a means to that end, not an end in itself.  According to Paul in Ephesians 2:11-22, in Christ the dividing wall has been destroyed. It cannot be rebuilt. The two peoples (Jews and Gentiles) have been made one in Christ. Among those who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, there is no Jew nor Gentile (Rom. 10:12; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

But Genesis 3:15 does not even mention a Savior!  For sure, we know that Christ is the Seed, but that text is a threat directed to Satan that he is doomed.  It says nothing about the status of national Israel in the plan of God.  Clark’s passages from Paul’s epistles are true of the church, but they do not prove that the church is all there is.  Yet this seems to be the motivating factor behind the various forms of supercessionism.


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