Michael Vlach, professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary, addresses thoroughly and with clarity one of the major debates within conservative evangelical theology: Has the church replaced Israel? “The position that the church is the ‘new’ or ‘true’ Israel that replaces or fulfills national Israel’s place in the plan of God has often been called ‘replacement theology’, or ‘supersessionism’ (p. 1).”
More recently, some have argued for the title “fulfilment theology” as well (p. 1). The main issue the book analyzes is the biblical case for supersessionism. Vlach identifies three forms of supersessionism (pp. 12-17):
- Punitive or retributive: due to Israel’s disobedience, God has punished the nation by displacing them as the people of God.
- Economic: it was God’s eternal plan to transfer Israel’s role as the people of God to the church when it was established.
- Structural: when Scripture is not read through Jewish eyes, and the NT is viewed as interpreting and even changing the original meanings of OT texts, supersession will be the result. Structuralism is primarily a hermeneutical perspective.
It should be recognized that while some supersessionists view Israel as totally absorbed into the church, others believe in the future salvation of Israel but reject its restoration as a nation and the literal fulfillment of its land promises (p. 19).
Part two of the book (chapters three through seven) traces this debate back through the first century concluding that supersessionism has deep roots in church history and until recently has been the majority view (pp. 75-76), however since the rise of dispensationalism in the 19th century many have retreated from this position.
Hermeneutics is the subject of part three (chapters eight through ten). Chapter eight presents the hermeneutical system of supersessionism which is wrapped around three interrelated beliefs: 1) belief in the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT, 2) belief in nonliteral fulfillments of OT texts regarding Israel, and 3) belief that national Israel is a type of the NT church. Within this chapter Vlach also handles typological interpretation (p. 86 cf pp. 104-107, 115-117).
Chapter nine offers an evaluation of supersession’s hermeneutics followed by the hermeneutic of nonsupersessionism (chapter 10). One of the key distinctions between the two approaches is the nonsupersessionist insistence that the OT promises to Israel are still in effect unless the NT states otherwise (pp. 111-113). NT use of OT passages that seem contradictory are not (p. 163), but there may exist more than one fulfillment or application of some OT texts (p. 117). Historical redemptive hermeneutics, often used by supersessionists as they see the fulfillment of the OT details found specifically in Christ, is also briefly discussed (pp. 119-120).
The book concludes with six chapters devoted to the theological arguments pertinent to the subject matter. Some of the central biblical texts are addressed such as Matthew 21:43, Galatians 6:16, Romans 9:6, Romans 2:28-29, 1 Peter 2:9-10, Galatians 3:7, 29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Romans 11:16-24, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Revelation 21-22. Since Romans 11:26 is pivotal to either argument, chapter twelve discusses three approaches to this verse held by supersessionists: 1) that “all Israel” refers to all the elect, including believing Jews and Gentiles, 2) that “all Israel” refers to the sum total of elect Jews throughout history, and 3) that Paul is speaking of the future large-scale conversion of the Jews into the Christian church.
Chapter thirteen provides an excellent evaluation of the theological arguments of supersessionism in which many of the scriptures mentioned above are examined. Vlach concludes with two chapters presenting a biblical case for the restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of land promises given in the OT. A valuable appendix is added discussing the origin of the church and the use of ekklesia in both secular and sacred works.
Has the Church Replaced Israel? is a most useful guide in evaluating the issues related to supersessionism and supporting the nonsupersession view. Highly recommended.
Has the Church Replaced Israel? A Theological Evaluation by Michael J. Vlach (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010) 224 pp. + VIII, paper $19.99.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel