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.
- 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. http://www.christianzionism.org/Article/Burge02.pdf
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 umjc.org (http://umjc.org/home-mainmenu-1/news-mainmenu-40/1-latest/754-israeli-commentary-on-qchrist-at-the-checkpointq), 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.)