Replacement Theology: What is Supersessionism?
Typical Replacement Theology Teachings
Replacement theology isn’t new. We can trace it as far back as the 3rd century. How did it come into the Church and come to dominate so much of it?
A widely distributed Christian magazine published an article concerning Israel a number of years ago. The following are quotes from that article:
“It is a mistake for Christians to exalt Israelis to the position of being ‘God’s chosen people.’”
“The progressive revelation of Scripture makes it clear that, today, God has only one people, and it is the church.”
“We must not apply Old Testament prophecies to the State of Israel when Jesus, Peter and Paul have radically redirected our thinking concerning the covenants of promise. They are now directly to the Church.”
“The Israeli claim to Palestine as a Jewish State by divine right is incorrect, and their continued enforcement of this claim by military oppression is unjust.”
These statements are typical of what we call “replacement theology.”
Supersessionism: The Church is Israel
Replacement theology teaches that the Church is Israel. We know this concept as supersessionism. How is this substitution possible? Covenant theologians claim that because the nation of Israel did not accept Jesus as Messiah, she has been cast off. She has forfeited her pre-eminent position in the purposes of God.
The Church has become the rightful heir to the blessings once promised to Israel. From God’s perspective, the Jewish people today are no more significant than any other racial group... Unless the Jews repent, come to faith in Jesus and join the Church, they have no future.
You will not find the term “replacement theology” in most theological textbooks. But the idea that “the Church is Israel” is a foundation stone in what is commonly known as “covenant theology”. This teaching has dominated the history of Christian theology as well as the present day.
How Replacement Theology Began
How did replacement theology enter Christian thought and come to dominate a significant portion of Church teaching? We will explore this in the following points:
- First, replacement theology is the natural by-product of allegorization, a of method scriptural interpretation employed by the Church for much of its history.
- Second, replacement theology appears backed by history.
- Third, replacement theology appears logical and consistent with God’s character of justice.
Replacement theology teaches that “the Church is Israel.” How is this belief able to receive acceptance? Easily, if the scriptures are studied according to the method of interpretation known as allegorization.
What do I mean by allegorization? A person who “allegorizes” a passage of scripture is less concerned with what the words mean literally. Instead, he is concerned with what is the hidden meaning behind those words. To allegorize is to interpret a scripture analyzing every detail as symbolic of underlying, deeper “spiritual” meanings.
For a historic example of an allegorical interpretation of a Bible passage, let’s look at Matthew 21. It follows Yeshua’s (Jesus’) triumphal entry from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem upon a donkey and a colt. At the beginning of the 3rd century, one of the most famous Church fathers, Origen, looked at this passage of scripture and came up with an interesting interpretation.
Origen taught that the donkey in the story symbolized the harshness of the Old Testament. Meanwhile the colt or foal of a donkey (a more gentle animal) was symbolic of the New Testament. In addition to this interpretation, he added that the two apostles who brought the animals to Yeshua symbolized the moral senses of humanity.
This is a questionable method of interpretation today, to say the least. But by the 3rd century, allegorization of the Scriptures was a dominant method of interpretation by Christian teachers. This method prevailed throughout the Middle Ages.
If through allegorization one can determine that a donkey is the Old Testament, then it is possible to come to the conclusion that the “Church is Israel.” The allegorical method suspends literal interpretation of the Bible. It allows the theologian to make the Bible say nearly anything he wants it to say.
Martin Luther, Bible Interpretation and Replacement Theology
Eventually the allegorical method of interpretation was shown for what it is – dangerous and deceptive. By the 16th century, Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers began to question the validity of allegorization.
They argued that the general rule is to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning, with few exceptions. Literal interpretation of scripture requires us to follow rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. It is to regard historical accounts and prophecies as literal even if expressed in poetic or figurative language.
Interpreting the Bible with Messianic Prophecy
How can we be sure that interpreting the Bible literally is the best method? One argument is the hundreds of literally-fulfilled Bible prophecies, even to minute detail.
Consider a few predictions regarding the Messiah:
- Isaiah 7:14 predicted the Messiah would be born of a virgin.
- Micah 5:2 predicted that He would be born in Bethlehem.
- Psalm 22:7-8 and Isaiah 53:1 predicted He would face the ridicule and unbelief of the people.
- Psalm 22:16-18 predicted that His hands and feet would be pierced and that His clothing would be divided and lots cast for them.
- Isaiah 53:9-10 predicted He would be put to death with wicked men yet buried with the rich, and that He would prolong His days (resurrection)
Supersessionism and Who is Israel in the Bible?
If prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Yeshua were fulfilled literally… Shouldn’t the logical expectation be that Bible prophecy concerning Israel and the Jewish people will also be literally fulfilled? Those who teach replacement theology stubbornly insist that prophecy concerning Israel carries no weight. They say the Church fulfills these “symbolically” and “spiritually.” The result is the annulment of all prophetic scripture that pertains to Israel.
Pertinent questions arise. In her history, did anyone ever scatter the Church and exile her among the nations as the prophets foretold? Did the prophet Ezekiel really have the Church in mind when he stated “… they will live in their own land, which I gave to My servant Jacob”? (Ezekiel 28:25)
The conclusion that “the Church is Israel” is to interpret scripture allegorically, not literally. In answer to the first question, “How did replacement theology ever come to dominate the teaching of the Church?” – it is the natural outcome of allegorization.
Why Is Replacement Theology Accepted?
Since the Protestant Reformation, allegorization is no longer regarded as a valid method of interpretation of scripture. Today, evangelical scholars follow the Bible more literally. So then, the reader may ask, “why is there no permanent rejection of replacement theology?”
It is true that while many in these circles have rejected replacement theology, the belief continues to persist. How is this possible? Church doctrines have originated with some of her most respected past theologians and leaders. These beliefs, accepted over many centuries, rarely disappear overnight.
Replacement Theology is not merely the by-product of allegorization. This view was able to dominate the teaching of the Church for a second principal reason. Namely: history seems to back up replacement theology.
Does Israel’s Disobedience Nullify God’s Promises?
A fundamental assumption of replacement theology is that because Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah, God has cast off the Jewish people as a chosen nation. Consequently, in judgment, God has dispersed the Jews into the nations. The Jews forfeited the land of Canaan, promised to Abraham and his seed and relinquished their claim to it.
When we look at what has happened to the Jews since the first century, replacement theology would certainly appear to have history on its side. At least until recently. On the surface the evidence is substantial.
Within a generation of the crucifixion of Yeshua, the Roman army ransacked the city of Jerusalem. They totally destroyed the temple and with it the sacrificial system of worship. They uprooted the Jews from the land and carried them off to various parts of the empire.
To the early Church Fathers, these events were convincing proofs that God no longer wanted Israel. In their understanding, the Church had assumed Israel’s former role in the purposes of God.
Jewish Suffering and Replacement Theology
The suffering of the Jewish people did not end with the cruelty of the Roman legions. Tragedy filled Jewish history since that time. For replacement theologians, this tragic history only confirms their belief that God no longer is with Israel.
This is really a circular argument. The horrible suffering of the Jews has been a direct result of replacement theology, rather than a cause. If replacement theology had never been taught in the Church, the atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years would never have happened.
The question asked by those who defend replacement theology is this, “Considering the suffering the Jews have experienced over the centuries, doesn’t this indicate that God has rejected them?” But this argument inverts the reality that replacement theology was actually more of a cause of this tragic history than an effect.
Jewish History and Christian Supersessionism
It is this writer’s contention that the history of the Jewish people provides a stronger argument against replacement theology than for replacement theology. As horrible as the history of the Jews has been, I believe it is a sign of God’s absolute faithfulness, rather than a sign of His rejection.
The continued existence of the Jewish race in spite of numerous persecutions and threats and attempts at genocide throughout Jewish history is evidence of Divine intervention.
Outsiders stripped them of their homeland, and scattered Israel to the four corners of the earth. But despite repeated attempts at forced conversions and their own attempts of assimilation, the Jews have survived as a distinct nation. No other ethnic group in the history of mankind has been dispersed, faced such odds and yet endured.
What explains this apparent invincibility? The God of Israel. In the words of Malachi: “I the Lord do not change. So you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6
Establishing Modern Israel
The fact that the Jews have not disappeared despite numerous attempts to annihilate them is one of the strongest arguments against replacement theology.
Another fact of Jewish history that exposes the flaws of replacement theology is from the last century. The dispersed Jewish nation returned to their historic homeland, and established the State of Israel.
If God had cast off the Jews and no longer had any interest in Israel’s continued existence… How could the Jewish people have arisen from the ashes of the holocaust? And established a sovereign state on the very same piece of real estate they lost 2000 years ago?
God’s Promises to the Jewish People
Is this an accident? Absolutely not. It is a miracle of the first order, and a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The following are a few examples of many fulfilled prophecies literally fulfilled:
“When the LORD will have compassion on Jacob, and again choose Israel, and settle them in their own land, then strangers will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.” Isaiah 14:1
“Therefore behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be said, “As the Lord lives, who brought up the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but, “As the Lord lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the North and from all the countries where He banished them.” For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers.” Jeremiah 16:14-15
Until the return of the Jews to the land and the establishment of the State of Israel, replacement theology appeared to have history on its side. This dramatic new chapter in Israel’s history is still unfolding and renders the argument of history null and void.
Has God rejected the Jewish People?
We’ve seen that the history of the Jews, rather than proving that God has cast them off, actually proves the opposite – that God still holds His chosen people in the palm of His hand. He has preserved her as a nation in spite of every imaginable threat to her existence.
Why hasn’t replacement theology died once and for all? How can it be that in recent years replacement theology seems to actually gain an even wider following? The answer: Replacement theology appears to be logical and consistent with God’s character.
A Question from Replacement Theology Today
Replacement theology asks a logical question: How could a just God contradict His nature by bringing the Jews back to their land? After their banishment into exile the vast majority still haven’t changed their “stiff-necked” ways and accepted Jesus as Messiah.
In addition, agnostic, even atheistic, secular Zionists – not the redeemed of the Lord! – established the State of Israel. A popular view of modern Israel sees the state as cheating Palestinians of their property and denying their rights. How could God be a party to such injustice?
It appears logical to conclude that a just God could not bring the Jews back to the land and re-establish a political state under these circumstances and remain true to His justice.
God’s Unconditional Love for Israel
I admit, as sympathetic to the Jewish people as I am, one would have to be blind to not recognize that the Jewish Nation is far from perfect. I do not condone every policy of the Israeli government, nor every action of the Israeli Defense Forces. Yet, we must not forget one important fact: while God is a God of justice, He is also a God of mercy.
Paul answers those who asked similar questions concerning Israel’s election, a matter that seemed to defy God’s justice. In Romans he asks:
“What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Romans 9:14-15
Do Christians earn God’s love?
A question I would like to ask every Christian who believes in replacement theology: “Did God save you and restore you because you deserved it – because you earned it?”
We need to remember Ephesians 2:8, which says: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith – and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” If the Lord saved only “good people” none of us would be saved. Likewise, if Israel does not deserve her ancient homeland, then neither do we deserve to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
God has chosen Israel in spite of Israel, just as He has chosen me in spite of me, and chosen you in spite of you. The Jewish people are the “apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8). They are uniquely called. In Romans 11:28-31, Paul addresses those in the church of his day that believed God finished with Israel. Speaking of those still unredeemed, Paul says:
“From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy.” Romans 11:28-31
Replacement Theology and the Justice of God
God is just – He must punish the unrighteous. But the Bible tells me that justice has already been meted out. God Himself provided the atoning sacrifice to take the punishment that each of us deserves, Jew or Gentile. Paul says in Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners, Messiah died for us.”
Not after we got our act together or after we started living a righteous and holy life. No, God in His grace and mercy, and as a result of His sovereign election, took the initiative and saved us in spite of ourselves. Hallelujah!
Why should we imagine that God would treat His chosen people Israel any differently then He treats you and me? We should be praying on behalf of Israel to our Righteous Judge, with the prophet Habakkuk:
“O Lord, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.” Habakkuk 3:2
The Implications of Replacement Theology
The implications of replacement theology are frightening. If God has changed His mind concerning His promises to Israel, then how can we be sure He hasn’t changed his mind concerning His promises to us? Praise God, He is the same yesterday, today and forever. God never changes; His gifts and callings are irrevocable.
The following passage from Jeremiah 33:25-26 should be sufficient to demonstrate replacement theology as fiction, not fact:
“Thus says the LORD, “If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and I will have mercy on them.” Jeremiah 33:25-26
True Israel of God
We still have day and night and the “fixed patterns” of heaven and earth. Therefore, God has not replaced His covenant people; He is restoring Israel in faithfulness to His eternal covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Fellow Christian, as we observe the enduring existence of Israel we have reason to rejoice. God continues to be faithful to His covenant people Israel. In the same way, He will also be faithful to those grafted into Israel by faith in Israel’s Messiah, Yeshua. Amen!
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Articles Related to Replacement Theology
Estimated reading time: 19 minutes
1 James Parkes, The Conflict of Church and Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Anti-Semitism (New York: JPS, 1934)
2 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York, Harper & Rowe, 1988) p.207-208
3 Cf. W. Linden (ed), Luther’s Kampfschriften gegen das Judentum (Berlin, 1936)
4 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, (New York, Harper & Rowe 1988) p.241