Replacement Theology: What is it?

We need to define our theological terms. Words are continually being sifted through a cultural filter in which they no longer hold to their original meaning.

It was once understood that a “fundamentalist” was an individual who held to the fundamentals of Scripture—that is, the principles found in the Word of God. Pretty simple, right? Wrong. Call yourself a fundamentalist and you are likely to be perceived as carrying dynamite and engaging in terrorist activity.

Another example is the term “evangelical.” It is used so broadly and loosely today that I have no idea what it means without first being able to determine its source. That’s because ecumenicals have co-opted the label for themselves, with mass media following suit. Sadly, it often has nothing to do with the gospel and everything to do with postmodern thought.

What was its original meaning? “Since the Reformation [it was] adopted as the designation of certain theological parties, who have claimed that the doctrines on which they lay especial stress constitute ‘the Gospel’… the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ” (Oxford English Dictionary).

9328203This same principle holds true when evaluating end times views. In Has the Church Replaced Israel?Dr. Michael Vlach wisely begins his book by defining the doctrine of replacement theology (also known as supersessionism).

What is it? It is “the view that the NT Church is the new and/or true Israel that has forever superseded the nation Israel as the people of God.” The supersessionist sees the Church as the “sole inheritor of God’s covenant blessings originally promised to national Israel in the OT” (12). This then rules out the view of restoration—whereby Israel returns to her land and is given a unique role in the millennial reign of Christ on earth.

What I most appreciated about this first chapter was the author’s commitment of space to further delineate how this term has evolved into three different perspectives. Akin to the examples above (fundamentalist and evangelical), supersessionism has undergone its own changes over time.

Here are the three major forms of supersessionism:

1. “Punitive” or “retributive” supersessionism emphasizes Israel’s disobedience and punishment from God as the reason for its displacement as the people of God… [they hold] that the rejection of Christ both eliminates Israel from God’s covenant love and provokes divine retribution… Hippolytus (c. 205), for example promoted punitive supersessionism… Origen (c. 185-254), too, espoused a form… [and it] was also held by Martin Luther. (13)

2. “Economic” supersessionism focuses on God’s plan in history for the people of God to transfer from an ethnic group (Israel) to a universal group not based on ethnicity (church)… [an] advocate of economic supersessionism is Karl Barth. (14-15)

3. “Structural” supersessionism is more of a hermeneutic or perspective concerning the Jewish Scriptures… whereby it renders the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about how God’s works as Consummator and as Redeemer engage humankind in universal and enduring ways. (16-17)

As stated in my previous post, I do not hold to the doctrine of replacement theology. However, it’s of paramount importance to grasp its usage and variations by those who identify with it.

Here we see that there are those who believe Israel is being permanently punished (punitive), others who see Israel as no longer having a role in God’s economy (economic), and another which ignores the Old Testament by giving priority to the New (structural).