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.
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.