Resurgent replacement theology

As I’ve been speaking and writing lately against the new wave of replacement theology (the idea that the church replaces or supersedes Israel in God’s purposes), a few people have asked me why I think this old doctrine seems to be making a comeback today. I’ve referred to this comeback in passing in several of my recent blogs, and you can do your own research to verify that it’s really happening. But why is it happening? I can identify three major reasons.

  1. Resurgent replacement theology is linked to Reformed Christian theology, which is gaining in popularity and influence today. A couple of blogs ago, I quoted Gary Burge, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, who makes this linkage explicit:

Reformed theologians (like myself) believe that something decisive happened in Christ. His covenant affected not simply the covenant of Moses – making a new and timeless form of salvation – but it also affected every Jewish covenant, including Abraham’s covenant. Christ fulfills the expectations of Jewish covenant life and renews the people of God rooted in the OT and Judaism. Thus Jesus is a new temple, the new Israel… Reformed theologians are not at all convinced that the promises to Abraham much less Moses are still theologically significant today.

In his book Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007), Barry Horner demonstrates that supersessionism doesn’t have to be linked to Reformed theology, and warns his neo-Reformed colleagues, “If a Christian’s eschatology produces an indifference, detachment, or even antagonism towards things Jewish . . . there is most likely something fundamentally wrong with that eschatological expression. True doctrine, rightly comprehended, does not produce bad attitudes . . .” (p. xix). In other words, we can argue that supersessionism is wrong not only because it seems to ignore the plain sense of so many biblical passages, or rather to favor a strained interpretation over a straightforward interpretation of so many passages, but also because it has led to contempt and oppression of the Jewish people over the centuries. Nevertheless, it’s usually part of the package for those who are embracing Reformed or neo-Reformed theology.

Horner also points out the irony that Reformed theology—which expresses great confidence in the sovereignty of God and salvation as a free gift of God apart from human merit—remains firmly supersessionist in its view of Israel. It speaks of the irresistible grace of God and the eternal security of the redeemed, but maintains at the same time that the Jewish people lost their standing with God irretrievably because of disobedience. And he deals at length with the corollary: If the Jewish people no longer have any claim to be God’s chosen, they therefore have no special claim on the land of Israel today. Thus, for example, Horner quotes Burge, who “erroneously proposes, ‘Possession of the land is tied to obedience to the covenant.’” Horner responds, “In other words, Israel lost its inheritance because of disobedience while Christians gain this inheritance, spiritually speaking, strictly by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ” (Horner, pp. 53-54). In place of this inconsistent theology, Horner calls for “the acknowledgement that while grace has blessed the Gentiles in a grand manner, so too will that same grace of God, according to the same sovereign purpose, ultimately bless the Jewish people in a most climactic and triumphant sense” (Horner, p. 11).

2. Resurgent replacement theology reflects disenchantment with the slow and troubled pace of restoration in modern Israel. This theology has roots all the way back to the first centuries of our era, but it was dealt a decisive blow in the twentieth century as Christian thinkers considered the implications of both the Holocaust and the rebirth of the Land of Israel. If the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews after their wars against Rome in the first and second centuries meant that they had been replaced in God’s plan, what did it mean when Jews were regathered to the land of Israel and gained sovereignty over it? If Jerusalem destroyed was a sign of God’s judgment, as Christians claimed in the second century, what did a unified Jewish Jerusalem signify in the twentieth century? But the impact of these events, which reached a climax in 1967, has diminished over the decades, especially with the ongoing tensions in Israel and Israel’s loss of status among the nations. Replacement theology today reflects disenchantment with Israel and especially its handling of the Palestinian conflict.

3. Resurgent replacement theology is a push-back against Christian Zionism, which has taken on extreme and imbalanced forms in recent years. In an article on (, Israeli Messianic Jew Hannah Weiss refers to “one form of Christian Zionism . . .: the extremist type that gives uncritical support to Israeli government policy and doesn’t care a fig for Palestinian rights.” In addition to this sort of extremism, which undoubtedly characterizes some of contemporary Christian Zionism, there’s also a tendency to downplay the relevance of the Gospel for Jewish people. Like the shortcomings of modern Israel, the imbalances of Christian Zionism have fueled the renewal of replacement theology in recent years.

All this means that replacement theology isn’t growing in a vacuum, but in response to circumstances that we can address. We need to frame our defense of Israel, as I argue below in “Israel – a just cause,” not only as a biblical issue, but also as a justice issue (and of course justice itself is a biblical issue). We need to acknowledge Israel’s shortcomings and advocate for improvements at the same time that we insist that these failures don’t invalidate Israel as a Jewish state. The state of Israel reflects biblical prophecy to be sure, but it’s also a just outcome of the Jewish story. And claiming that Israel—the Jewish people—has been replaced and stripped of its identity is not only unbiblical but unjust as well.

(Parts of section one first appeared in a review of Future Israel that appeared in Kesher: a Journal of Messianic Judaism, Issue 24, summer 2010.)


8 thoughts on “Resurgent replacement theology”

  1. Russ, thanks for this thoughtful post. We need to be addressing this topic as a movement from many angles. However, I would have listed slightly different points, or a different emphasis on the same ideas.

    In particular, I think your third point is perhaps not exactly right. In our experience, speaking directly with pastors and other christians who have recently backed off from their support for Israel, the “push-back against Christian Zionism” is not primary in most cases, but rather part of a larger push-back from what is seen as the excesses and conservativism of American evangelicalism. The “excesses” of Christian Zionism are seen merely as part of a larger conservative political agenda.

    The new social justice movement is the result of this push-back from evangelicalism. Christian Zionism is viewed as part of the hyper-spiritual evangelical package that is being pushed aside. I am sure that in some cases the reaction to Zionism is primary, but in the several pastors we associate with who have made this shift, and I think in the mega-churches such as Willow Creek or Saddleback, it is secondary– just a part of the old conservative platform they are rejecting in favor of a newer platform friendlier to minorities, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims and many liberal causes. This is part of the seeker-sensitive model. And because the theology of these churches is basically Reformed (and in some cases, like a local Vineyard, not well thought-out at all) it is easy to let support for Israel go; its barely noticeable. Plus, it is very appealing for these wealthy churches to support the poor down-trodden Palestinians who are more third-world than the high tech in-your-face Israelis. It goes with the multi-cultural program.

    So I have been thinking about how to position Zionism within the Justice Platform. I have worked a bit on a teaching that seeks to show why Justice demands support for Israel. I wonder what you think about this.

    There is something inevitable imo about the church (and the world politic) turning against Israel, but I think we all want to do all we can to avoid that for as long as we can.

    1. Great comment, Rachel, and I would agree entirely. In my earlier post, “Israel–a just cause,” I argue that we need to defend Israel not just on the basis of biblical promises and their fulfillment, but also on the basis of justice. I like to say that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there are two claimants to justice. This stance also means that we need to be genuinely concerned about justice toward the Palestinians, even to the point of opposing specific Israeli policies at times. Personally, I believe it also means that we have to be open to the possibility of self-determination for the Palestinians, rather than holding to some kind of Book of Joshua vision of greater Israel.

      1. “Personally, I believe it also means that we have to be open to the possibility of self-determination for the Palestinians, rather than holding to some kind of Book of Joshua vision of greater Israel.”

        It sounds nice in theory, but to support another Islamic dictatorial terrorist state with its own standing army (funded by Islamists in other nations such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) directly next to Israel is suicidal (for Israel). You just can’t negotiate with people who are ideologically committed and have sworn to cleanse “their” land of you – they will not be satisfied until they have pushed every last Israeli Jew into the sea (as they openly stated as being their intention, over and over).

    2. “the “push-back against Christian Zionism” is not primary in most cases, but rather part of a larger push-back from what is seen as the excesses and conservativism of American evangelicalism.”

      Rachel, this may possibly explain the American side, but how does this relate to the wider international “push-back”, e.g. CaTC 2012 and Stephen Sizer (a conservative Anglican Evangelical) ? Also organizations such as the World Council of Churches have been anti-Zionist almost from their very inception.

      1. Shalom Gene. Regarding your comment on Palestinian self-determination, you’re raising pragmatic objections, which sadly may well be correct. My problem is with those who raise dogmatic objections, claiming that it violates Scripture for Israel to consider relinquishing any of the land originally promised to Abraham, even for the sake of peace. I believe that Israel will have sovereignty over all the land in the end, but the pattern we see in Scripture is that Israel only rarely possessed the full inheritance. Possession of all the land in peace was tied to faithfulness and obedience. It’s not realistic, or biblical, to rely on military and political means for Israel to possess the whole inheritance. We should be emphasizing the need to return to Hashem and his ways through Messiah Yeshua.

  2. “ ‘In other words, Israel lost its inheritance because of disobedience while Christians gain this inheritance, spiritually speaking, strictly by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ’ ”

    This is interesting. I wonder if they read the story of Esau’s birthright in this light; likening Christians (and Christianity) to Jacob (and his decendants).

  3. Hey, Russ! Your article has me thinking hard, because Christian Zionism and Reformed theology are both important to my identity. On the first point, you borrowed Hannah Weiss’s description of Christian Zionism in extreme, but her point was that the CatC conference was not a moderate correction of that extreme response, but a fundamental resistance to Zionism itself. So I join those here who said that the “push-back” goes deeper than the correction of the extremists.

    Even those extremists may be more right than you and I are eager to allow–since we both believe that a two-state solution is fair–because the way things are going Israel may permanently claim the West Bank, out of necessity. I see that as more likely now than I did some years ago. It is not that they have the biblical right to it, exactly, but that God is sovereignly delivering it to them through the responses of their adversaries.

    As for “sovereignly”–the Calvinism of the Reformed should make them consider this outcome as a possible will of God. Frankly, I am disturbed that Reformed thinking is so much connected to anti-Zionism. In my mind, a healthy believer will emphasize the sovereignty of God in his election and in all the growth experiences of his life, and a healthy believer will love Israel. As Horner said, something is just missing if a theology is not producing love and respect for God’s people. I can only think that Reformed thinking has been turned into something dry and “correct” so that people can pride themselves on holding it, thus no longer walking in the Spirit.

    Blessings! Jerry Sherman

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