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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.

  5. 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) afterward.

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 is fulfilled “symbolically” and “spiritually” by the Church. The result is the annulment of all prophetic scripture that pertains to Israel.

A pertinent question arises, “Has the Church in her history ever been scattered and exiled 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.

The reader may ask, “If, since the Protestant Reformation, allegorization is no longer regarded as a valid method of interpretation of scripture, and evangelical scholars follow the Bible more literally, why hasn’t replacement theology been permanently rejected?” It is true that while many in these circles have rejected replacement theology, the belief continues to persist. How is this possible? Church doctrines that have originated with some of her most respected past theologians and leaders, and which have been accepted beliefs 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: replacement theology seems to be backed up by history.

I will explain. 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 land of Canaan, promised to Abraham and his seed has been forfeited and the Jews no longer have a legal 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, 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 was finished with Israel and that the Church had assumed Israel’s former role in the purposes of God.

The suffering of the Jewish people did not end with the cruelty of the Roman legions. Jewish history since that time has been filled with tragedy. For replacement theologians, this tragic history only confirms their belief that God is finished 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.

To demonstrate, let’s look at just a few examples from Jewish history:

In the wake of the Church’s greatest acceptance in the 4th century with Emperor Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as a legal and accepted religion, the most prominent leaders turned to express the worst prejudice and contempt toward the Jew. Justifying their anti-semitism, Christian theologians began to teach that the Jews held sole responsibility for the death of Christ. The Jews were declared “guilty” of the crime of “deicide” – the murder of God. Christians came to believe that a way of showing their loyalty to Jesus was to express their hatred toward the Lord’s “murderers”.

The most famous of early church theologians, Augustine (354-407) declared Jewish existence an act of Providence – a divine demonstration of the truth of Christianity – their humiliation a triumph of Church over synagogue. John Chrysostrom (354-407), the Greek theologian and archbishop of Constantinople, whose liturgy and prayers are still read today in the Orthodox Church, preached eight scathing sermons to the Church in Antioch. He states in Sermon VII:11: ‘I hate the Jews’ he exclaims roundly, ‘for they have the Law and they insult it’. Other excerpts from these sermons declare Jews “… murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil … They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, to get drunk, to kill and maim one another … ” And to think he was canonized a saint! Chrysostrom and other Church theologians would have a deep and powerful influence upon the attitudes of Christians for hundreds of years to come.

Six centuries later this kind of preaching bore the fruit of an ever-mounting psychological hatred. The Crusaders are often remembered in Christendom for their chivalry, faith and zeal. In reality, many of the Crusaders were cruel men who hated Jews with a passion. According to historian Paul Johnson2, the Crusades started an “assembling of a mass of armed men … produced a breakdown in normal order”. Crusaders borrowed money from Jews with working capital in their own neighborhoods,“but once on the march they readily turned on the Jews of other cities. Then Christian townspeople, caught up in the frenzy and lust for loot, would sometimes join in.”

Innumerable atrocities were committed against Jews by the Crusaders. From Rouen in France, through Germany, the Balkans to and including Jerusalem, Crusader mobs burned Jews alive in their houses and temples, and forced conversions. In Prague alone they murdered several thousand Jews [Poliakov I, 42-45]. The cry “Hep! Hep!”, an abbreviation of the Latin phrase: Hierosalyma est perdita, “Jerusalem is lost” originated with the Crusaders as they pillaged, and continued as a pogrom chant into the 20th century.

In 1000 AD, when the Crusaders first arrived in the Holy Land, there were 300,000 Jewish residents. When the Crusaders left the scene 200 years later only 1,000 Jewish families remained.

A shocking discovery of Church history is that anti-semitism was not confined merely to the Roman Church, which had lost touch with Biblical Christianity. Anti-semitism is also in the writings of Protestant Reformers – men who had supposedly cleansed the Roman Church of its corruption and theological error.

Initially, the reformer Martin Luther was sympathetic to the Jews and believed that they would be converted by the truth of his message of justification by faith. When they didn’t convert, he became deeply embittered against the Jewish people. In consequence, Luther became as severe as the Roman Church in his contempt. Luther advocated the expulsion of Jews from Germany as well as the destruction of their synagogues and religious books. In his pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies, published in Wittenberg, 1543, he wrote3:

“First their synagogues should be set on fire and whatever is left be buried in the dirt so that no one may be able to see a stone or cinder from it … Jewish prayer books should be destroyed … then the Jewish people should be dealt with, their homes smashed and destroyed. Jews should be banned from the roads and markets, should be drafted into forced labor and made to earn their bread ‘by the sweat of their noses’…”
“They live by evil and plunder; they are wicked beasts that ought to be driven out like mad dogs.”
“In the last resort they should be kicked out ‘for all time4’.

Logically, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they used the writings of Luther and other theologians to justify their anti-semitism. The infamous Nazi death camp, Dachau, greeted Jews arriving there with a sign that read, “You are here because you killed our God”. 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.

It is this writer’s contention that the history of the Jewish people provides a stronger argumentagainst 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