What is Replacement Theology?
Replacement theology (or supersessionism) is the idea that the Christian Church has "replaced" Israel (or the Jewish people) in God's plan of salvation as His chosen people. In its simplest expression, replacement theology could be expressed as follows:
The Jews have rejected Christ; therefore God has rejected the Jews and the Church is now the 'New Israel.'
In the words of Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.):
We may thus assert in utter confidence that the Jews will not return to their earlier situation, for they have committed the most abominable of crimes, in forming this conspiracy against the Savior of the human race…hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.
Or, as someone once wrote to us:
We Catholics ARE the new Israel. Christ’s Church fulfills all the prophecies and makes the continuation of the old Israel historically out of date. The Church IS the Kingdom of God. Jews are the most tragic people in the world in that "they missed the time of their visitation."
Thus the main tenets of replacement theology are:
- The Jews were formerly God's chosen people at the time of the Old Testament until the coming of Christ, but because they did not accept Jesus as Messiah of Israel, God then rejected them and formed a new people instead of them - the Church.
- Jews, therefore, are no longer the chosen people, and God has no future plan or calling for the nation of Israel. The only role left for the Jewish people is to convert to Christianity and be incorporated into the Church.
- The promises, covenants and blessings ascribed to Israel in the Bible have been taken away from the Jews and given to the Church, which has superseded them. However, the Jews are still subject to the curses found in the Bible, as a result of their rejection of Christ. Consequently, the prophecies in Scripture concerning the blessing and restoration of Israel to the Promised Land are "spiritualized" or "allegorized" into promises of God's blessing for the Church.
We have discussed elsewhere the Scriptural basis for God's election and covenant with Israel. The present article is limited to the question as to whether God's election of Israel as His chosen people remains valid today or whether it has been abrogated by the New Testament. Keep in mind that we are not talking here about whether the Mosaic Covenant and observance of the Torah are still binding for Jews (See section on Torah and Gospel), or whether Jews in their present state are in a covenant with God that can be considered "salvific" (see: What is Dual-Covenant Theology?). Here we merely touch upon the issue of Israel's election and their continued role in God's plan of salvation.
What Scriptures are commonly quoted to support Replacement Theology?
Advocates of replacement theology often present the following Scriptures to argue that God has terminated his covenant with the Jews:
- The nation of Israel was only the seed of the future Church, which would arise and incorporate people of all nations (Mal. 1:11): "For from the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, My Name shall be great among the nations, and in every place, incense shall be offered to My Name, and a pure offering for My Name shall be great among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts."
- Rebuttal: This shows that the Jewish people and Israel fulfilled one of their callings to be "a light to the nations," so that God's Word has gone around the world. But it does not suggest God's dealing with Israel was negated because His Name spread around the world.
- Jesus taught that the Jews would lose their spiritual privileges, and be replaced by another people: "Therefore I am saying to you, 'The kingdom of God will be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it.'" (Matt. 21:43)
- Rebuttal: In this passage, Jesus was talking about the priests and Pharisees, who failed as leaders of the people. This passage is not talking about the Jewish people or nation of Israel.
- A true Jew is anyone born of the Spirit, whether he is Gentile or Jewish: "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." (Rom 2:28-29)
- Rebuttal: This argument does not support the notion that the Church replaced Israel. Rather, it simply reinforces what had been said throughout the Hebrew Scriptures [the Old Testament], that outward circumcision is not enough to be justified before God but that circumcision of the heart is also necessary.
- The promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham was only a "starter." The real Promised Land is the whole world, which the Church will inherit. "For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith" (Rom 4:13).
- Rebuttal: Where does this verse exclude Abraham and His natural prodigy, the Jews? It simply says that through the law, they would not inherit the world, but this would be acquired through faith. This is also true of the Church.
- "True Israelites" are not the physical descendants of Abraham ("children of the flesh") but rather believers in Christ ("children of the promise"): "For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but 'It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants" (Rom 9:6-8).
- Rebuttal: Paul is not transferring the meaning of Israel to mean the Church or implying that the Church replaces Israel. He is merely restricting the use of Israel to those who believe in the promises. In other words, it is not enough to be a physical descendant of Abraham to be a true Israelite; one must also have faith in God's promises. True, Paul also writes that others (Gentiles) may also be included to the promise made to Israel (cf. Rom 9:25-26)
- Paul apparently abolishes the differences between Jews and non-Jews: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28).
- If this passage were literally meant to abolish the distinction between Jew and Greek, it would also have to abolish the difference between man and woman. The passage is speaking of everyone's standing before God as equals, because we are all sinners saved by God's grace and Christ's Paschal sacrifice. But there is still a distinction in roles between Jews and Gentiles in God's economy of salvation, just as there remains clearly distinct roles between men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.
- To be a real son of Abraham is not be belong to the nation or people of Israel but to have faith in Jesus Christ. Sonship to Abraham is seen only in spiritual, not national terms: "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29).
- Rebuttal: While this is a wonderful inclusionary promise for Gentiles, this verse does not exclude the Jewish people from their original covenant, promise and blessing as the natural seed of Abraham. This verse simply joins Gentile Christians to what God had already started with Israel.
- The Church is allegedly the "Israel of God": "As many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, [and] upon the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16).
- Some translations (e.g. RSV) omit the Greek word kai (and) that is found in the original text. This is a serious ommission, because without the kai the verse would imply that all who "walk by the rule" - that is, all Christians - are the Israel of God. But when the kai of the original text is preserved, the verse implies that there is a distinction between "those who walk according to the rule", the Christians, and the "Israel of God" - the remnant of natural Israel who have accepted God's promises in Christ.
The Problem with Replacement Theology
If God rejected Israel as His chosen people it would constitute a real failure on His part. It would mean that He chose a people to be his witness to the world, but in the end He was unable to get them to accomplish his purposes. God married Israel, but she proved to be such a problematic bride that she stretched her divine husband's patience beyond the breaking point until He could not stand her any more and divorced her, thus violating His own promise to betroth her forever:
"I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD." (Hos 2:19-20)
The prophet Jeremiah compares God's covenant with Israel to the cosmic order and to the permanent natural laws of the universe. The covenant is as firm and unshakeable as the cycle of day and night and the foundations of heaven and earth:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. Thus says the LORD: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the LORD. (Jer. 31:35-37)
A major practical problem with replacement theology is the continuing existence of the Jewish people throughout the centuries and especially the revival of the modern state of Israel. If Israel has been rejected and condemned by God, and there is no future for the Jewish nation, how do we explain the remarkable survival of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years despite the many attempts to destroy them? How do we explain why Israel reappeared as a nation in the 20th century after not existing for 1900 years? Can the return of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers, in accordance with the writings of many of the prophets, be a mere "accident of history"? Can the miraculous rebirth of Israel, the nation that is at the center of salvation history in every page of the Bible, be but the result of a clever human enterprise that has nothing to do with God's plan of salvation?
What do the New Testament and the Catholic Church say about Replacement Theology?
The Covenant with Israel is indeed fulfilled in the New Covenant, but this does not mean that the former is abolished or dissolved. The Church is indeed the "New Israel" (LG 9), but this does not imply that Israel "in the flesh" has been dispossessed of their divine election and promises. The New Testament never claims that Israel's special role should come to an end after the coming of Christ. On the contrary, it affirms the permanent validity of their covenant with God. Neither do we find a confusion of identity between Israel and the Church in the New Testament; the two remain distinct although closely related.
There are 77 references to Israel in the NT and none of them refer to the Church. Try replacing the words "the Church," where Israel is mentioned and the passage is rendered unreadable and incomprehensible, e.g., Rom. 10:1, "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved." If you put "the Church" where Israel is mentioned, then it is redundant. The Church is the body of saved believers, so how could Paul's prayer be for the Church to be saved?
Jesus himself said that he had not come to abolish the Torah and the prophets, which are the heart of God's covenant with Israel:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Mat 5:17-18)
Moreover, the Church affirms the permanent validity of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) as source of Divine Revelation:
The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value, for the Old Covenant has never been revoked. (CCC 121)
Christians venerate the Old Testament as true Word of God. The Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void (Marcionism). (CCC 123)
This means that the promises and end-time prophecies to Israel in the Old Testament, many of which have never been fulfilled, cannot be easily dismissed. Particularly remarkable are those which speak of the return of the House of Jacob to their land (Israel) and its restoration, words that have largely been fulfilled in Israel and the Jewish people in the past century (See Isa. 11:11-12; 43:5-6; 49:22-23; Isa. 60:9-11; Jer. 16:14-16; Eze 35:1; 36; 37:1-14).
The magisterial documents of the Church, following St. Paul, confirm that even after the Incarnation, Israel and the Jewish people somehow remain the root and sustenance of the Church. The Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, echoing chapter 11 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, declares that the Church "draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree [Israel] onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles." Paul's warning to the Gentile Church in the illustration of the olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24) is remarkably prophetic: Though natural branches (Jews) were broken off the tree of Israel because of their unbelief, and wild branches (Gentiles) were grafted in their place, he warns the Gentiles not to become proud or arrogant towards their roots, lest they too be cut off:
Do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you (Rom 11:18).
Moreover, God has the power to graft the natural branches of Israel back into their own olive tree. In light of the Church's contemptuous treatment of the Jews over the greater part of Christian history, Paul's warning went unheeded. Indeed, his warning was prophetic: The arrogance of the Christian nations towards the Jewish people throughout the ages - in some circles even persisting to our own day - shows to what extent they had forgotten and despised the root that was meant to support them.
Nostra Aetate also reminds us of Paul's words about his Jewish kinsmen: "theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:4-5). The declaration continues:
As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues (NA 4; cf. Rom 11:28-29)
Paul could not be clearer: Despite Israel's unbelief, God's gifts and calling to them are "irrevocable." The declaration also unequivocally opposes attributing guilt to the Jews for the death of Christ or claiming that God has somehow rejected them because of their non-acceptance of Jesus:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures." (NA 4)
Finally, consider this beautiful paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which affirms that Gentiles can discover Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, "only by turning towards the Jews":
The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East... In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi's coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that "the full number of the nations" now takes its "place in the family of the patriarchs", and acquires Israelitica dignitas (is made "worthy of the heritage of Israel") (CCC 528).
In conclusion, replacement theology or supersessionism is a theological error that has no foundation in the New Testament or teachings of the Church. Even though this error became widespread and was taught by many influential Christians beginning with the Church Fathers, it was never an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.
On the other hand, the fact that God's election of Israel remains valid does not mean that His covenant with them is "salvific," or that they can be fully justified before God while they continue to reject the Gospel. This opposite error, called dual-covenant theology, is treated in another article.