Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, by Ronald Diprose, IVP Publishers, 2012, 276 pp.
Over the years, I have done my share of reading on the topic of Israel and the Church. While I am not Jewish, I have had years of experience with talking to Jewish people about the claims of Jesus. I also grew up in a predominantly Jewish community and have thought long and hard about the issue of replacement theology. At this point, I have grown and a bit tired of the “dispensationalist vs covenantal theology” debates.
It is for this reason that I found Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, by Ronald Diprose to be quite refreshing. If you are new to this discussion, Replacement Theology is a theological view that says the promises and covenants that were made with the nation Israel are no longer in the possession of national Israel. Thus, Israel’s promises and covenants now allegedly belong to another group which happens to be the Church. The ever popular N.T Wright (whom I actually agree with on many things) has provided a nice summary here. He says:
“Israel’s purpose had come to its head in Jesus’ work.”As a result, “those who now belonged to Jesus’ people claimed to be the continuation of Israel in a new situation.” Wright also argues that “Jesus intended those who responded to him to see themselves as the true, restored Israel.- N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 316.
Hence, there is no present purpose nor future restoration of Israel. I should note that some theologians like Wayne Grudhem, John Piper and others do affirm a national salvation of Israel (as mentioned in Romans 11). However, they do not think there will be a restoration of Israel in the sense of Israel playing a prominent role in the future.
What inspired Diprose to tackle this topic? He says:
“I have always been aware that Israel is important for Christian theology. However, for a long time it had seemed to me that the question of Israel had become some kind of theological football that two opposing teams of theologians kicked about in accordance with their particular agendas. For dispensationalists it was apparently important that ethnic Israel be given a high profile while for reformed theologians it was apparently important to show that, with the advent of the Church, ethnic Israel’s significance had been irrevocably eclipsed. The result was that to affirm that there are institutional distinctions between Israel and the Church was tantamount to declaring oneself to be a dispensationalist while denial of such distinctions was a sign of reformed orthodoxy. A few years ago I decided to consider Israel as a question in its own right and not as an adjunct to a given theological position. Following that decision, I made some interesting discoveries. For example, I discovered that two very different views concerning Israel have held sway in Christendom. During the early centuries, Israel was thought to be a renegade nation that should be treated with contempt. However, after the Shoah1and the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948, a new view developed xiii according to which Israel’s status as a visible, elect nation exonerated its members from the need to exercise faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. The antithetical nature of these two views puzzled me and suggested that factors other than the clear biblical message had determined their development. This was confirmed as I read many of the Church Fathers and then the literature pertaining to the current Jewish Christian dialogue. I also noticed that the neglect of the biblical message concerning Israel had repercussions on Christian theology in general. While both views have important implications for hermeneutics, the effects of the earlier view were particularly evident in ecclesiology and eschatology, whereas the new view is having serious repercussions in soteriology and missiology.”
It should be noted that many theologians/scholars now prefer to be called advocates of “fulfillment theology.” Hence, they’re not favorable to the “replacement theology” category. Nor do they like to be called “superesssionists.” In my view, whatever label you give it, the end result is the same.
Replacement Theology in the New Testament
Of course, it should be noted that there is no text in the NT that says the Church is Israel, nor are there any texts that say the Church is called “Spiritual Israel.” As we see below, Justin Matyr was the first Christian writer to explicitly identify the Church as “Israel.”This is why Diprose spends a good deal of time focusing on the supposed texts in the NT that are sometimes used by supersessionists to lend support to their view that the Church is the “New Israel.” Diprose discusses texts such as Matt. 21:43, Ephesians 2:11–22, 1 Peter 2:4–10, Galatians 6:16, and others. Exegetically speaking, none of these texts can be used to make a case that the Church is Israel. Dirpose also spends an extensive amount of time on Romans 9-11 which when looked at as a whole, makes a strong case against supersessionism. For example Dipose says:
“[Paul] denies that Jewish rejection of Christ implies God’s rejection of the Jews (Romans 11:1, 11). Although their rejection of Christ shows their current disobedience, the Jews remain included within God’s promises because God is faithful” (Romans 11:28–31). Romans 9–11 contains the only extended discussion of the problem posed by unbelieving Israel and the implications of such unbelief for the continuance of Israel as God’s elect people. However, there are other elements in the New Testament which appear to imply the permanence of Israel as God’s special, covenant people. Paul’s own apostolic ministry reflected his conviction that Israel continued to be unique among the nations. Despite the obstinate unbelief of many of his own nation, he continued to go to the Jew first (Acts 13:14, 46; 17:1–2; 18:4, 19–20; 28:16–17). That this custom was not only dictated by good missionary strategy is clear from the following passages of Romans: 1:16; 2:9–10; 3:1–4; 15:25–32. These passages demonstrate that Paul was fully prepared to make the supreme sacrifice in order to facilitate the conversion of his own race (Romans 9:1–5; 10:1). Furthermore, he described the Gentile Mission as an “offering” which he hoped would provoke envy amongst his own people in order to save some of them (Romans 15:16; cf. 11:13–14). There are other New Testament passages which seem to envisage a distinctive future for physical Israel as well, thus excluding the logic of replacement theology.”-Pg 64-65.
Dirpose devotes a good deal of space of the development of replacement theology/supersessionism, in post Apostolic thought. Of course, reading the anti-Israel quotes by Christian thinkers/apologists is never a faith building experience. Let me show a few of them:
Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), was an early Christian apologist).
1. He was the first Christian writer to explicitly identify the church as “Israel.”
2. Justin declared, “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”
3.He also said, “Since then God blesses this people [i.e., Christians], and calls them Israel, and declares them to be His inheritance, how is it that you [Jews] repent not of the deception you practice on yourselves, as if you alone were the Israel?”
4. Justin also announced that “we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race.” (See Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 11, ANF 1:200. 17. Ibid., 1:261; 18. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 135, ANF 1:267).
Irenaeus (130–200) wrote, “For inasmuch as the former [the Jews] have rejected the Son of God, and cast Him out of the vineyard when they slew Him, God has justly rejected them, and given to the Gentiles outside the vineyard the fruits of its cultivation.”-Irenaeus, Against Heresies 36.2, ANF 1:515.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) claimed that Israel “denied the Lord” and thus “forfeited the place of the true Israel.”-Clement, The Instructor 2.8, ANF 2:256.
Tertullian (c. 197) declared, “Israel has been divorced.”-Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 1, ANF 3:152. 12.
Cyprian (c. 250), “I have endeavoured to show that the Jews, according to what had before been foretold, had departed from God, and had lost God’s favour, which had been given them in past time, and had been promised them for the future; while the Christians had succeeded to their place, deserving well of the Lord by faith, and coming out of all nations and from the whole world.”- Cyprian, Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews, ANF 5:507.
There are many more than the ones mentioned here. But suffice, to say, one would think these so-called heroes of the faith never read Romans 9-11.
The Need to Link Israel and the Mission of Jesus
Another important outcome of supersessionism is the ignorance about the relationship with Jesus and and His mission to Israel.
“Whoever denies that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah is in fact denying the gospel which was announced to Abraham (Galatians 3:8–16; Romans 1:1–5, 16–17). Hans Joachim Krau makes a different but equally radical proposal for modifying the Church’s concept of Christ. Instead of the traditional concept of a distinct person with supernatural attributes who came to fulfill the promises made to Israel, Krau proposes a kind of mystical Christology. According to this concept the Messiah and the people of the Messiah are inseparable. I propose that, instead of avoiding Christology, Christian partners in the Jewish-Christian dialogue would do well to distinguish between the relevant biblical data and the “theological embroidery”dating from post– apostolic times. In particular they should disassociate themselves from the triumphalism of the Medieval Church. In its place they should underline the Jewishness of Jesus and make clear what both Jesus and the apostles taught concerning the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic hope.”-Page 182.
Why does this topic matter?
From what I have seen, it seems that within the social justice crowd (not that I am against social justice), Israel is not viewed in a positive light. Hence, Israel is demonized in the media as well as in the Christian crowds that tend to fall into the pro- Palestinian movement. Sadly, many Christians are theologically illiterate which means have no concept of the role of Israel in the Bible. When you are told all that matters is that Jesus has saved you from heaven or hell, it is no wonder that many Christians don’t even know the Biblical narrative. Furthermore, with the over- reaction to The Left Behind Series, any mention of Israel as having a present or future role is automatically labeled as “dumb dispensationalism” or something worse. Sadly, in my experience, many of the points leveled against Israel are almost always straw man arguments and don’t have any exegetical basis to them. So the way I see it, this topic is important for the following reasons:
1. It impacts how we read the Bible. Hence, do we read the Bible as one continuous story (from Genesis to Revelation), or do we just read the New Testament and skip the Scriptures that both Jesus and Paul read?
2. It impacts our view of the character of God.
3. It impacts our view of ecclesiology (the study of the ekklesia).
4. It impacts our missiology: the area of practical theology that investigates the mandate, message, and mission of the ekklesia.
5. It impacts our view of eschatology.
6. It impacts our view of Israel today and the Middle East situation.
If these issues are important to you, then I recommend you read this book.