Replacement Theology—Fact or Fiction?

By Wayne Hilsden, Lead Pastor, King of Kings Community in Jerusalem

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 is taught in “replacement theology.” Replacement theology teaches, “The Church is Israel”. 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 and 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, whether it be Italian, Indian or Chinese. Unless the Jews repent, come to faith in Jesus and join the Church, they have no future.

The term “replacement theology” isn’t found in most theological textbooks, although 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.

Replacement theology isn’t new; it can be traced as far back as the 3rd century. How did it enter Christian thought and come to dominate a significant portion of Church teaching? We will explore this in the following points:

  1. First, replacement theology is the natural by-product of allegorization, a of method scriptural interpretation employed by the Church for much of its history.

  2. Second, replacement theology appears backed by history.

  3. 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, than 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, Yeshua’s 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, while 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.

As questionable as this method of interpretation may be considered today, 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, allowing the theologian to make the Bible say nearly anything he wants it to say.

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 that rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context are followed, to regard historical accounts and prophecies as literal even if expressed in poetic or figurative language.

How can we be sure that interpreting the Bible literally is the best method? One argument is that hundreds of Bible prophecies have already been fulfilled literally, even to minute detail.

Consider a few predictions regarding the Messiah:

  1. Isaiah 7:14 predicted the Messiah would be born of a virgin.

  2. Micah 5:2 predicted that He would be born in Bethlehem.

  3. Psalm 22:7-8 and Isaiah 53:1 predicted He would face the ridicule and unbelief of the people.

  4. 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.