The Danger of Replacing Israel (Part 2)

In Blogs by Paul Scharf2 Comments


In the previous installment, we considered the origin and nature of Replacement Theology, which involves understanding the church to be 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 when we encounter it within the text of Holy Scripture.

We briefly examined the development of this doctrine up to the time of the Reformation. This is where we will take up our historical journey in this article.

Replacement Theology—A Significant Issue

Someone might, first of all, be wondering whether Replacement Theology is really an issue deserving of this much of our time. The answer is that, indeed, it is.

As Replacement Theology is once again growing steadily in the churches of our day, we might wish that it were simply an aberrant concept—a recognizably false teaching that was of recent origin, and easily dismissed as having a limited influence.

The plain, literal interpretation of Scripture will never lead us to replace Israel with the church or any other group.

This, however, is not the case by any means. The proponents of Replacement Theology have been prolific, almost since the Apostolic period at the dawn of the Church Age. This is true to such an extent that those who follow it today can claim many of the most erudite and scholarly authors, teachers, and theologians in church history in support of their views. With such an auspicious background, not only does Replacement Theology have the appearance of sophistication but, in fact, its proponents may go so far as to paint its detractors as being simple, naïve, unorthodox—yes, even cultic.1

Yet, in spite of such austere claims, the truth remains that the plain, literal interpretation of Scripture will never lead us to replace Israel with the church or any other group. Scholarly opinions—no matter how numerous or impressive—cannot change that fact, nor can outrageous assertions of guilt by association.

That being said, we certainly realize that Replacement Theology had become the majority view in the centuries leading up to the Reformation. In fact, Thomas Ice summarizes the state of the church near the end of that time as follows:

For the most part, medieval European Christendom remained overwhelmingly anti-Semitic in thought, word, and deed, which would not lend itself to seeing a future for the Jews in Israel.2

But by the year 1500, the Reformation was just about to dawn in Europe. After centuries of darkness, there would be a brilliant new spiritual light. These Reformers would boldly base their claims on the authority of Scripture alone, and they would rediscover the importance of literal, grammatical, historical interpretation. We would hope that they might reclaim the understanding of the importance of Israel, along with the other key doctrines they began to reemphasize. But did they?

The Reformation—Hope!

At the conclusion of our first installment, we had seen that the teachings of Augustine remained incredibly significant during the nearly 1,100 years of darkness that plagued the earth between his time and the Reformation. Picking up right in that context, David L. Larsen states:

The Augustinian misinterpretation nearly blotted out the idea of a Messianic Kingdom and the restoration of the Jews. Although there were contrarians, it was not until the Reformation that any significant alteration took place.3

With regard to the issues of Israel and Premillennialism, the Reformation of the 16th century fell short.

What we will find ultimately, however, is that these brave Reformers—who preached so boldly about grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone, speaking truth before the mightiest worldly powers, and translating the Bible into the languages of the people—could recover only so much ground in their own lifetimes. With regard to the issues of Israel and Premillennialism, the Reformation of the 16th century fell short. The situation would call for others to follow the Reformers and apply their method of literal interpretation to the entirety of Scripture.

But exactly how did these circumstances unfold?

The Reformation—Frustration…

Once the Reformation had begun, we might wonder if Augustine, who had “erased national Israel from prophecy,”4 continued to tower above the theological landscape? Second-generation reformer John Calvin confirmed that, in fact, he did, when he stated:

Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.5

Walter C. Kaiser reminds us:

It was Augustine who, in the fourth century, introduced the allegorical method of interpretation. … many who espoused the Reformation continued in the Augustinian tradition of excluding the Jewish people from the ancient promises that God had made to the Patriarchs….6

In his classic work, The Millennial Kingdom: A Basic Text in Premillennial Theology, Dr. John Walvoord explained:

Because of the weight of Augustine in other major issues of theology where he was in the main correct, Augustine became the model of the Protestant Reformers who accepted his amillennialism along with his other teachings.7

He goes on to show how the Reformers’ ties to Augustine have led to the continued acceptance of Amillennialism in the centuries since that time:

It is quite clear from the literature of the Reformation that the millennial issue was never handled fairly or given any considered study. … It was customary to accept Roman teachings where the error was not patent. Premillennialism at the time of the Reformation unfortunately was expounded chiefly by small groups of somewhat fanatical enthusiasts who were often discredited by extreme doctrines.

Because amillennialism was adopted by the Reformers, it achieved a quality of orthodoxy to which its modern adherents can point with pride. … If one follows traditional Reformed theology in many other respects, it is natural to accept its amillennialism. The weight of organized Christianity has largely been on the side of amillennialism.8

Barry Horner concurs, stating:

In broad terms, the eschatology of the late sixteenth century perpetuated Augustinianism, the result being that chiliasm continued to be associated with certain extremist segments of Anabaptism.9

Thus, to our great disappointment, the Reformers actually cemented Amillennialism in place, rather than restoring the biblical teachings about a future fulfillment for Israel to the life of the church. By replacing Israel theologically, in their interpretation of Scripture, they blurred their senses to the immense importance of Israel in its prophetic future. 

Evaluating the Reformation

Having been raised in confessional Lutheranism, with a lifelong passion to study the Reformation—and still holding the Reformers up as heroes in many regards—it pains me to point out their significant flaws. Certainly, we could only expect them to traverse a limited amount of theological ground in their short lifetimes, and we must evaluate their lives and ministries in the proper and reasonable context. But we must also deal with the realities of history.

The Reformers rediscovered the literal interpretation of Scripture alone, and for that we laud them with the highest commendation. Yet, we also realize that they certainly fell far short in their own lifetimes with regard to applying that principle consistently, and thus bringing reform to the extent of restoring Israel to its rightful place in Christian theology. 

Andy Woods explains how many who have followed the Reformers have likewise failed to properly understand their limitations when he states: 

The weakness of Reformed theology is that people took the progress made by the Reformers and presumed that there was no further progress to be made. They took that progress and froze it into creeds and confessions, such as the Westminster Confession, which became the authority.10

Later, Woods writes that “creeds … became the authority in place of the Scriptures.”11

Ice sums up the attitude of the Reformers and their followers with this concise comment:

… to date, I have not been able to find any reformers who supported the restoration of the Jews back to their land in Israel. Such views must await the post-Reformation era.12

“However,” Ice added, “the Reformation in many ways prepared the way for the later rise of Christian Zionist views.”13

Those views would be developed by others who came behind the Reformers and consistently applied the principles they had rediscovered.14 The movement that embodied the consistent application of literal interpretation became known as Dispensationalism. One of the direct fruits of that movement, born in 1938, was The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.15

It is my contention that if there had been no Reformation, there would have been no dispensational movement, either—even though the individual Reformers may have despised elements of what came to be known as Dispensationalism. Sinful man, perhaps, “meant evil … but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

If there had been no Reformation, there would have been no dispensational movement, either.

Ice shares how one of the most significant accomplishments of the Reformation—the translation and transmission of the Bible—would ultimately bring this about:

Thus, so it would come to be, that the provision of the Bible in the language of the people would become the greatest spur to the rise of Christian Zionism. The simple provision of the Bible in the native tongue of the people, which gave rise to their incessant reading and familiarization of it, especially the Old Testament, was the greatest soil that yielded a crop of Christian Zionism over time. It was a short step from a near-consensus belief in the conversion of the Jews by the end of the Reformation period to the widely held view among post-Reformation Puritans in the restoration of Israel to her covenant land.16

Indeed, God still has a future for Israel. He has watched over His Chosen People from their biblical past, through their strategic present, and will be faithful to fulfill every promise He has ever given to them in their prophetic future.

Next time, we will conclude this series with a practical case study, showing how these issues impacted the life, ministry, and influence of one of the greatest Reformers in the history of the church—remembering that it is always dangerous to replace Israel.

If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can read it here.

1 Bruce Gore, who served for many years as a lawyer and professor, is a very competent and engaging teacher of the Bible and church history, from a Reformed perspective. However, in his video lecture entitled “Dispensationalism in America,” he compares John Nelson Darby and Dispensational Theology to “all the other premillennial eschatologies,” by which he refers to Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. Sadly, Gore misses the point that the eschatological views of these latter groups are in error—not because they (like Darby and dispensationalists) take the text literally, but precisely because they take it non-literally. Thus, their connection to Dispensationalism is superficial; their connection to views often advanced by Reformed Theology, such as Amillennialism, is actually quite significant. See Bruce Gore; in “Dispensationalism in America;” Bruce Gore; 1 July 2015;; Internet; accessed 27 September 2021.
2 Thomas Ice, The Case for Zionism: Why Christians Should Support Israel (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Press, 2017), p. 186.
3 David L. Larsen, Jews, Gentiles & the Church: A New Perspective on History and Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1995), p. 124. Larsen has a remarkably positive view of the Reformation in this regard. On p. 123 he states: “John Wycliffe and John Hus, morning stars of the Reformation, were confirmed millenarians.” On p. 124 he writes: “The Jews and their future are alluded to in 108 Reformation writers up to the Peace of Westphalia.”
4 David L. Burggraff, “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.
5 John Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” in John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism, trans. Henry Cole (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1987), p. 38.
6 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “What Should We Think About Israel’s Right to the Land?,” in What Should We Think About Israel?, ed. J. Randall Price (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2019), p. 79.
7 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom: A Basic Text in Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 60. Burggraff quotes from Walvoord (relating to material quoted here and in the following footnote) and interacts with him in footnote no. 103 on p. 71.
8 Walvoord, pp. 60–61.
9 Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 151.
10 Andy Woods, Ever Reforming: Dispensational Theology and the Completion of the Protestant Reformation (Taos, NM: Dispensational Publishing House, 2018), pp. 87.
11 Woods, p. 98
12 Ice, p. 186.
13 Ice, p. 187.
14 For much greater analysis of this subject, see Brian Moulton and Cory M. Marsh, “How Dispensational Thought Corrects Luther’s View of Israel,” in Forged from Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy, eds. Christopher Cone and James I. Fazio (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2017), pp. 179–222.
15 The study of the historical development of Dispensational Theology is another massive undertaking, and well outside the scope of this series of articles. One excellent source to consult for more information is David L. Larsen, The Company of Hope: A History of Bible Prophecy in the Church (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2004).
16 Ice, p. 188. It has become a passion of mine to seek to unearth more of the details of this “crop of Christian Zionism” in the post-Reformation era. It appears to me that the explanatory notes in the Geneva Bible are clearly a major factor in this period of doctrinal development. For an introduction to this topic, see my article on the Geneva Bible titled “The Source of America’s Love for Israel;” The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry; 23 August 2019;; Internet; accessed 27 September 2021. For more on these topics, see Thomas Ice, “Dispensationalism and the Reformation,” in Forged from Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy, eds. Christopher Cone and James I. Fazio (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2017), pp. 19–43; and William C. Watson, Dispensationalism before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism (Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2015). See also Vlach, who states, “Fortunately, in the aftermath of the Reformation, many rejected (Replacement Theology) and returned to the biblical view of Israel’s significance in God’s purposes. This was true for many English Puritan and Dutch Reformed theologians.” (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. 192.)

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Paul Scharf

Paul is a Church Ministries Representative in Columbus, Wisconsin. You can support his ministry here.

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