Reprinted from a previous copy of The Evangelist
Does the church replace, supersede, or fulfill the nation of Israel in God’s plan? Is the church the “new” Israel? This theory is also called “replacement theology” or supersessionism. A modern term now used that makes this idea more palatable is “fulfillment theology.”
It may surprise many Protestants to know that there has been, and still is, a large group that believes the church inherits the promises that God gave to Israel. Roman Catholicism has embraced this thought process from its genesis. The term supersessionism comes from two Latin words: super (on or upon) and sedere (to sit). It conveys the idea of one person sitting on another’s chair, displacing the other. There are many variations of supersessionism, as there is with all error. It is not a one-size-fits-all teaching.
“Punitive” or “retributive” supersessionism deals with God’s punishment of Israel for her disobedience. The church replaces Israel because Israel forfeited the right to be the people of God by not accepting Jesus Christ as Messiah. This teaching was common during the patristic (early church) era.
An example of this was Origen. He said, “And we say with confidence that they (the Jews) will never be restored to their former condition. For they have committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind.”
Roman Catholic priest and reformer Martin Luther embraced punitive supersessionism. For Luther, the destruction of Jerusalem was proof of God’s permanent rejection of Israel: “Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is He any longer their God.”
Adolph Hitler used Martin Luther’s disdain toward the Jews to his advantage by persuading many Protestants and Roman Catholics to support his ethnic cleansing of exterminating Jews. Replacement theology removes the significance and importance of Jews, and for that matter, God’s promises.
“Economic” supersessionism excludes Israel’s disobedience and subsequent punishment by God for rejecting Christ. In this view the church was seen as prefigurative in a carnal way in Israel. Israel’s role in history is said to have expired with the coming of Jesus. It is now superseded by the arrival of a new spiritual Israel—the Christian church. All of those who are in Jesus, then, are the true Israel. Some of the early church fathers also espoused this view of supersessionism. Modern popularity of the view was advanced by Christian philosopher Karl Barth.
“Structural” supersessionism focuses more on God as a redeemer and largely ignores the Hebrew Scriptures. It renders them indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about God’s work in redemption.
The “New Testament priority” is viewed as superseding the original meaning of the Old Testament passages. Because of this teaching, many Christians have little interest and, therefore, little understanding of the Old Testament.
The doctrine of supersessionism is explained by our asking these questions:
What is the future of Israel as a nation of Jews?
Does the future of Israel include restoration and repatriation to the land God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Most supersessionists believe that there will be a future salvation of Israel, but there aren’t any who believe there will be a restoration of the nation of Israel. Salvation means that many Jews will believe in Jesus Christ and be saved. The concept of restoration includes the idea that Jews will be replanted in their land and given a unique role and mission to the nations of the world.
HISTORY OF SUPERSESSIONISM
Once again, the early church fathers had a big influence on shaping attitudes toward the Jews. Justin Martyr is considered very important in the history of supersessionism because he was the first one to identify the church as Israel. He would go as far as to say this: “How is it that you (Jews) repent not of the deception you practice on yourselves, as if you alone are Israel? ... We, who have been carried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race.”
Origen said, “The Jews were abandoned altogether, and possess now none of what were considered their ancient glories, so that there is no indication of any Divinity abiding amongst them.”
Augustine made some strong statements affirming the future salvation of Israel. He credits that this view was “familiar” to believers of his day. Salvation and restoration though are two different thought processes.
Thomas Aquinas adopted the views of Augustine and by the time of the reformers, there arose much confusion over Israel. As far as her restoration is concerned, it wasn’t until dispensationalism came to light.
Today we have another miracle to look upon. In spite of every effort of Satan to kill the Jews, God would fulfill His promise to restore them to their land.