As Bible-believing Christians, we must maintain a keen focus on the importance of Israel—from its biblical past, through its strategic present, to its prophetic future.
And, indeed, we must always remember that God still has a future for Israel! Proclaiming this truth—and acting on it—is the very reason The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry came into existence almost 83 years ago.
The tendency to replace Israel—counting the church as the new Israel or the spiritual Israel, or otherwise taking the concept of Israel (the people, the nation or the land) in some non-literal sense—is a trend that is growing rapidly in our time. But it is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination.
Proponents of this form of interpretation can, in fact, reference a vast web of theologians and statements which span much of the history of the church—going back near its beginning—as support for their view.1
However, the fact that there is such a body of evidence also allows us to test the results of this strain of doctrine.
Over the course of three installments, I hope to show what Replacement Theology is, how it began, and what type of fruit it bears. We will do this by examining church history to the time of the Reformation, then from the Reformation onward—concluding with a practical case study of how this worked out in the life, ministry, and influence of one of the greatest Reformers in the history of the church.
I believe we will find that when we replace Israel theologically, by means of employing a non-literal, spiritualized or allegorical interpretation of the word Israel (which is always used to speak of the people, nation, or land of God’s Chosen People), at least two negative things begin to happen.
First, if we succumb to the errors of Replacement Theology, we will dull our consciences to the imperative of understanding and transmitting the gospel “for the Jew first” (Romans 1:16).
When we replace Israel, we miss the true, literal intent of the inspired author and minimize its biblical importance in every way.
Secondly, we will ultimately blur our senses to the immense importance of Israel in its prophetic future, as God has revealed in His Holy Word.
When we replace Israel, we miss the true, literal intent of the inspired author and minimize its biblical importance in every way. Ultimately, left unchecked, such minimization will lead to anti-Semitic sentiments, if not worse.
What Is Replacement Theology?
Theologian Michael Vlach provides a succinct definition of Replacement Theology. Calling it a “false doctrine,” he explains it as:
… the view that Israel as an ethnic, national, and territorial entity has been permanently replaced or superseded as the people of God.2
I should state at the outset that the term Replacement Theology is generally regarded as derogatory by those who adhere to the theology which the term describes.
Historically, the term supersessionism has been more widely used. Currently, the expression fulfillment theology is in vogue by its supporters, and there is even a newer term called remnant theology.
However, all of these labels—although each may be intended to describe a particular nuance by its advocates—ultimately convey essentially what we mean when we speak of Replacement Theology. That is, something less than a full, national conversion of the people and nation of Israel to their Messiah is to be expected in the prophetic future (see Isaiah 4:3; Romans 11:26). Or, we should be looking for something other than the absolute centrality of the land of Israel in the coming Kingdom of Christ (see Ezekiel 5:5; 38:12). In their thinking, at least some of the aspects of the blessing promised to the people of Israel will instead fall to the Christian church (see Genesis 12:1–3).
Thus, with all due respect to our Christian friends who hold some form of this view, I will continue to speak of Replacement Theology.
Replacement Theology to the Time of the Reformation
The study of the history of Replacement Theology is a massive undertaking, and its beginnings take us back to the very early church and the church fathers. As Vlach states, “It was not long before replacement theology took root.”3
Although the beginning of Replacement Theology is commonly traced to Origen of Alexandria (185–254), he was really not the first one to espouse such ideas.
It is noteworthy that the apostle Paul pressed “the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17) of Ephesus with the following warning:
Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28–31)
With Paul’s words of caution firmly fixed in our minds—remembering that various controversies were already troubling the church during Apostolic times—it should not surprise us to learn that Replacement Theology began to infect the thinking of church leaders in the very earliest days.
It should not surprise us to learn that Replacement Theology began to infect the thinking of church leaders in the very earliest days.
Vlach suggests that it commenced officially “in the middle of the second century AD,” when “Justin Martyr became the first person to explicitly identify the church as ‘the true spiritual Israel.’”4
Diprose even traces the history of Replacement Theology back to the extra-biblical Epistle of Barnabas, stating:
Barnabas shows little respect for Old Testament institutions…. The writing, as a whole, manifests the latent presupposition that the Church, the true heir of the promises, occupies the place that Israel had always been unworthy of occupying.5
Thus, depending on the date of that writing, this teaching may have begun to make its way into the church even before the end of the first century.
Horner offers the following overview of the earliest centuries of church history: “… following years of development, it was eventually believed that Israel had been replaced or superseded.”6 Speaking also of Justin Martyr, Horner states:
… for the first time in extant literature, the church was plainly described as the new spiritual Israel, as well as the new custodian of Scripture.7
In Origen’s understanding, the only positive function of physical Israel is that of being a type of spiritual Israel.
Diprose then delivers the following synopsis, taking us up to Origen:
An attitude of contempt toward Israel had become the rule by Origen’s time…. In Origen’s understanding, the only positive function of physical Israel is that of being a type of spiritual Israel. The promises were not made to physical Israel because she was unworthy of them and incapable of understanding them. Thus Origen effectively disinherits physical Israel.8
According to Diprose, Origen “considers” “the Church … to be the true Israel.”9 Diprose sums up as follows:
Origen’s contribution to replacement theology is particularly incisive because of his exegetical prowess and because he was the first Christian writer to attempt making a complete statement of the Christian faith…. Thus, for churchmen who read his commentaries and homilies during subsequent centuries, the idea that true Israel had always been the Church appeared to be something taught by the Bible itself.10
This stream of thinking persisted until the days of Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Burggraff condenses from there, stating: “Augustine of Hippo … would have the greatest impact on Christianity’s understanding of the kingdom and its constituents for centuries to come.”11 He reduces those following centuries to one short sentence, stating: “Augustine’s influence was and is immense.”12
And what was it exactly that Augustine believed and taught? Burggraff explains:
Not only did he reject a literal one-thousand year kingdom on the earth after the Second Coming, he, like the church fathers before him, erased national Israel from prophecy.13
Meanwhile, events in the land of Israel during the early centuries of the church age seemingly gave the theological proponents of Replacement Theology ever greater encouragement. Hindson and Ice describe some of the happenings during the first stage of Israel’s Diaspora:
Under the direction of the Roman emperor Hadrian, Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city and renamed Aelia Capitolina. A pagan temple was constructed on the Temple Mount and the province of Judah was renamed Palestina in a deliberate attempt to remove all Jewish identity from the region.14
But following a millennium of theological darkness, new light was about to burst on the scene in the form of the Protestant Reformation. How would this affect the course of church history, with regard to Replacement Theology, from that point forward?
This is where we will take up the discussion in the next installment.
1 David L. Burggraff discusses this concept in footnote no. 103 in “Augustine: From the ‘Not Yet’ to the ‘Already,’” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, ed. Larry D. Pettegrew (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2020), p. 71.
2 Michael J. Vlach, “What Should We Think About Replacement Theology?,” in What Should We Think About Israel?, ed. J. Randall Price (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2019), p.187. Interestingly, on the same page, Vlach proposes the idea that “Islam,” as well as “the church,” can be taken to be the body that replaces Israel in the wake of her unbelief. Vlach discusses “Islamic replacement theology” on p. 188, stating: “Muslims perceive Islam as superseding both Israel and the church.”
3 Vlach, p. 190.
4 Vlach, p. 190. Larry D. Pettegrew concurs with this conclusion regarding Justin Martyr. See “The Curious Case of the Church Fathers and Israel,” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, ed. Larry D. Pettegrew (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2020), p. 32.
5 Ronald E. Diprose, Israel and the Church: The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theology (Waynesboro, GA:
Authentic Media, 2004), p. 73.
6 Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 19.
8 Diprose, p. 84
9 Diprose, p. 86
10 Diprose, p. 87
11 Burggraff, p. 43.
12 Burggraff, p. 70. Pettegrew continues in the next chapter, “After Augustine, theology was essentially static for over one thousand years.” Pettegrew, “Israel and the Dark Side of the Reformation,’” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, ed. Larry D. Pettegrew (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2020), p. 73.
13 Burggraff, p. 71.
14 Ed Hindson and Thomas Ice, Charting the Bible Chronologically: A Visual Guide to God’s Unfolding Plan (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2016), p. 63. Horner discusses more events in Israel that tie into “the hermeneutical shift … to dominant allegorical interpretation” (p. 19) on pp. 16–19. There were fascinating developments during this time period that are rarely discussed. Vlach also probes their impact on p. 191.