I had just finished speaking at a Bible conference when a group of Christian men confronted me. They were upset about what I reported as a plain fact: On Nov. 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved dividing the land the Romans called Palestine into two divisions—one division for an independent state of Israel, and the other for an independent Arab state.
“The United Nations never approved the Jews being given a division of the land of Palestine for an independent state of Israel in the Middle East,” the group of men said.
“How can you say that?” I asked. “The history books record that United Nations approval.”
But they countered by claiming the historical record did not matter, and neither did the official documentation on file at the United Nations headquarters.
“It never happened,” they said. “The Jews had no governing authority to enter Palestine and establish a new state of Israel. They went there on their own initiative and drove out the Arab people already there. As a result, the State of Israel has no legitimate right to exist in the Middle East. It should be driven into the Mediterranean Sea.”
These statements by Christian men were the result of their belief in replacement theology.
Replacement theology rejects the Biblical revelation concerning the Abrahamic Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel as an everlasting covenant with everlasting ownership of the land of Canaan (Genesis 13:14, 15; 17:7, 8, 19). Replacement theology claims that Israel broke the Abrahamic Covenant when it rejected Jesus Christ at His first coming. As a result, the covenant was repealed, and God forever rejected Israel as a nation. Israel lost ownership of the land and the everlasting nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. God will save individual Jews, but He has no present or future program for Israel as a nation. He has rejected Israel as His people and replaced it with the church. The church is now the Israel of God.
Replacement theology has immediate political implications. Some church denominations have even petitioned businesses to cut off trade with Israel so it cannot exist as a nation in the Middle East. Some groups have tried to influence the United States government to change its policy of support for Israel that has been in effect since 1948.
Replacement theology is more than another buzzword or mere theological hairsplitting. While we must respond with charity toward Christians with differing views and work to characterize them correctly, we must also study how our Biblical beliefs have practical implications.
Beginnings and Early History
For several years after the church was born in Jerusalem, it was exclusively Jewish in membership. The Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and Savior were persecuted severely by Jews who rejected Him. That persecution prompted Jewish believers to scatter to areas where Samaritans and Gentiles were predominant. Through their witness, Samaritans and many Gentiles became believers in Jesus and part of the church. Before the end of the first century of its existence, the church had become predominantly Gentile in membership.”1 As a result, the church began to experience significant changes from what it had been when it was mainly Jewish in membership.2
Within one hundred years after the apostles of Christ were gone, the “majority of Gentile Christians regarded the Jewish Scriptures as authoritative,” but began to think “of themselves as the true spiritual heirs of Israel,” and “claimed for themselves the promises which the Hebrews held that Yahweh had made to them.”3 According to Adolph Harnack, “The Christians held that, the Jews having been rejected by God, they themselves had become the chosen people.”4 They claimed that God permanently ended Israel’s unique relationship with Him as a nation, and replaced it with the church as His unique people. Thus, the Christians had become the Israel of God.
Some anti-Semitic Gentile church leaders played a key role in this significant shift from the original understanding of the Scriptures regarding the nation of Israel’s relationship with God. In response to Jewish attacks against Christian beliefs, some resorted to new methods of Biblical interpretation and wrote rebuttals with varying degrees of anti-Semitic content.
For example, Justin Martyr (AD 100–165), who defended Christianity against a Jewish enemy, claimed Christians “are the true Israelitic race,”5 and asserted that the Biblical expression “the seed of Jacob,” when properly understood, now refers to the Christians, not the Jews.6 Tertullian (AD 145–220), prominent church theologian from North Africa, interpreted God’s statements to Rebekah concerning the twins (Esau and Jacob) in her womb (Genesis 25:23) in the following manner: Esau, the older brother, represents the Jews; and Jacob, the younger brother, represents the Christians. He indicated that God thereby revealed that the Christians would overcome the Jews and that the Jews would serve the Christians.7 Origen (AD 185–253), the president of the school of theology in Alexandria, Egypt, greatly influenced the church’s acceptance of the allegorical, or spiritualizing, method of interpreting the Bible in contrast to the literal, historical-grammatical method. This method allowed him to claim that the word “Israel” in the Bible can mean the church, not national Israel.8 Cyprian (AD 195–258), bishop of Carthage, stated that he “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.”9
Effects on the Church
Replacement theology played a significant role in producing major changes in two areas of organized Christendom: ecclesiology and eschatology.10
Ecclesiology (the nature and function of the church). Replacement theology contributed significantly to the development of Roman Catholic views on the nature of the church. Because Gentile leaders concluded that the church is now the Israel of God, they began to appropriate to the church things that God had instituted specifically for the nation of Israel. Since God gave Israel priests, early Gentile church leaders began to call church leaders priests.
Since God gave Israel a multitiered priesthood, with one high priest at the top, regular priests under him, and Levites under them, church leaders progressively built a multitiered priesthood for the church with bishops, monarchal bishops, metropolitan bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and one high priest, the pope.
Since God gave Israel continuing blood sacrifices with animals, church leaders progressively changed the significance of the church’s communion service from a memorial of Christ’s death for the sins of mankind to a continuing sacrifice for sins.
Eschatology (the final events of the world and humanity). Replacement theology prompted the rejection of Chiliasm, the church’s original view of eschatology. Chiliasm taught that Jesus Christ will return to the earth in the Second Coming, establish God’s earthly political Kingdom, and administer God’s rule for the last one thousand years of this present earth’s history. (Today this view is called premillennialism.) Chiliasm was the predominant view of orthodox Christianity from the first to the third centuries AD.
Ancient Jews believed and taught that in the future, God’s Messiah would establish God’s earthly political Kingdom and administer God’s rule over the world for the last age of this present earth’s history. Although this view of eschatology was based on Old Testament prophecies, was taught by Christ and His apostles, and was the original view of the church, the replacement theology of some anti-Semitic Gentile church leaders prompted them to reject Chiliasm because it was a Jewish view.
Augustine (AD 354–430), bishop of Hippo, published the influential Tract against the Jews.11 The influence of anti-Semitic views and Greek philosophy upon his thinking prompted him to reject Chiliasm. Augustine applied the allegorical method of interpretation to the prophets and The Revelation of Jesus Christ, avoiding the implications of some of the millennial passages in the Bible.12
Augustine developed a new eschatological view called amillennialism. This view denied a future earthly political Kingdom of God over which Christ will administer God’s rule for the last one thousand years of this present earth’s history. Augustine introduced the idea that the church is the Kingdom of God foretold in Daniel 2 and 7 and Revelation 20. He was the first person to teach the idea that the organized Catholic (universal) Church is the messianic Kingdom, and that the Millennium began with the first coming of Christ.13 He stated that “the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven.”14 According to this view, the history of this present earth will end at Christ’s second coming, and the future eternal state will begin.
Augustine’s allegorical amillennialism “became the official doctrine of the church,” and Chiliasm went underground.15 The Roman Catholic Church adopted, strongly advocated, and maintained replacement theology and Augustine’s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages. Believing that it was the kingdom of God on earth foretold in the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church asserted that it had the right to enforce its beliefs and policies on all people, including political rulers, pagans, and Jews. As a result, it developed into a powerful religious political machine that dominated every aspect of life in western Europe.
Effects on the Jews
Replacement theology played a key role in the persecution of Jews by the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic political rulers for centuries to come. In the name of Jesus Christ, hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered as “Christ killers,” and numerous others were uprooted and forced to move to other countries.
Recent Catholic leaders have worked aggressively to reverse their historical antipathy toward Jews, starting with Nostra Aetate, a 1965 Vatican II document often credited as a breakthrough in Catholic/Jewish relations. John Paul II promoted Jewish relations and Holocaust awareness as major tenets of his papacy. Pope Benedict XVI, a German who grew up during World War II, shows similar interests. But in February 2009, Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson was widely quoted as denying the Holocaust occurred, provoking another break in Catholic/Jewish dialogue.
Though the 16th century Protestant reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in several key areas of ecclesiology and doctrine, many of them continued to reject Chiliasm as being “Jewish opinions.” Many of the reformers maintained the amillennial view that the Roman Catholic Church had adopted from Augustine. As a result, in much the same manner as the Roman Catholic Church, they believed that they had the right to enforce their beliefs and policies upon all people, including Jews. This does not mean that all the reformers advocated persecution of Jews. However, one certainly did.
Martin Luther adopted a strong anti-Semitic disposition toward Jews, and wrote and preached extremely vitriolic statements of hatred against them.16 Adolph Hitler read Luther’s statements to the German people to justify the systematic elimination of millions of Jews in the Holocaust of World War II. Today such views are not regarded as mainstream Lutheran thought; some conservative Lutheran groups sponsor outreach ministries to Jews.
Covenant theology began to develop as a system of theology in the Reformed churches of Switzerland and Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries; passed to the Netherlands, Scotland, and England; and eventually came to America.17 Advocates of covenant theology adopted replacement theology in relationship to the nation of Israel. As a result, they claimed that, because Israel rejected Christ as its Messiah, God forever rejected the nation of Israel as His people and replaced Israel with the church as His people. Thus, the church is now the Israel of God and has inherited the blessings that God originally promised to national Israel. This meant that national Israel lost forever its rightful claim of ownership of the land that God gave to it in ancient times. If carried to its logical conclusion, this would mean that the church is the rightful owner of the land.
Dispensationalism, with its roots in the early church’s original view of eschatology, provides clear and consistent methods of interpretation—methods that will lead believers to understanding Israel’s continued place in God’s plan for the ages.
Renald E. Showers (ThD, Grace Theological Seminary) represents the church ministries division of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. He is a guest speaker at the 2009 GARBC Conference. This article is an excerpt from Dr. Showers’ new book on replacement theology, to be released this summer.
1. Kenneth Scott Latourette, The First Five Centuries, vol. 1 in A History of the Expansion of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), 74.
2. Ibid., 84.
3. Ibid., 84.
4. Adolph Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, translated and edited by James Moffatt, vol. 1 (N.Y.: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2d ed., 1908), 69; quoted by Latourette, The First Five Centuries, vol. 1 in A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 84.
5. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 267.
7. Roberts and Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 151, 152.
8. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), 791.
9. Roberts and Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, 507.
10. For a thorough, scholarly treatment of this subject, read Ronald E. Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought (Rome: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000).
11. Ibid., 94.
12. Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chap. 6, trans. by Marcus Dods (N.Y.: Random House, Inc., 1950), 717.
13. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed. s.v. “Millennium.”
14. Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chap. 9, 725, 726.
15. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Millennialism.”
16. The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. VIII, Isidore Singer, managing ed. (N.Y.: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1904), s.v. “Luther, Martin.”
17. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007), 214-218.