How should the Church understand its identity in view of God's promises to Israel and the Jewish people? This paper will define what is called "replacement theology" and argue that Israel remains a distinct entity that is not superseded by the Church.
This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.
The meaning and status of the name “Israel” is a theological question that is perpetually being posed to the Church. Unfortunately, this question has too often been misinterpreted or answered wrongly. After the horrifying murder of millions of innocent Jewish people in the events of the Holocaust, the Church’s relationship to Israel and the Jewish people has become a fundamental concern with which we must grapple. How should the Church define its identity vis-à-vis its relationship to Israel and the Jewish people? How should the irrevocable covenant that God made with Israel thousands of years ago be understood in the twenty-first century? Pastors and theologians are now faced with these questions like never before. For this reason, it is essential to examine the relationship between Israel and the Church. This paper will define what is called “supersessionism” or “replacement theology” and argue that the name “Israel” represents a distinct group identity that is not superseded by the Church.
What Is Supersessionism?
The word supersessionism comes from the Latin supersedere—a compound of the prefix super, which means “above, upon, over, or beyond,” and the verb sedere which means “to sit.” The word thus expresses the superiority of one thing over another by nature of a sitting over or a sitting in place of another. For this reason, the English word “replace” is sometimes used interchangeably with supersede, and the popular term replacement theology has become roughly synonymous with the word supersessionism. As an unfortunate byproduct of the term’s increasingly common usage in Christian theology, it can be difficult to pinpoint a precise definition. In fact, relatively few pastors or teachers today would self-identify as being supersessionist or as believing in replacement theology. Nevertheless, it is possible that many of these same pastors and teachers innocently adhere to this unhealthy, incorrect theology without knowing they do. That is why it is important for us to advance a clear definition. For simplicity’s sake, we will from this point on only use the more precise word: supersessionism.
Those who hold to the classical view of supersessionism believe that, since the time of Jesus, the entity that Scripture calls “Israel” has been completely replaced by a new, universal entity called the Church. Simply, this suggests that wherever the word “Israel” is used in the Bible it now refers to the Church, for the Church is the inheritor of all the blessings and promises given to the Jewish people. Some scholars trace the earliest forms of supersessionism back to the second-century Church Fathers, particularly Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon. Indeed, Justin Martyr was one of the first to call the Church “the true spiritual Israel” (Dialogue, 11). This type of thinking only increased over time for reasons we have outlined in our paper on the Jewish foundation of Christianity.
Charges of “deicide” have also historically accompanied the classical view of supersessionism—or what can more specifically be called “punitive supersessionism” (Soulen 1996). This view argues that God has forever cursed and punished the Jewish people for being complicit in the death of Jesus. The fourth-century Church Father, John Chrysostom, was one of the first theologians to popularize the charge of deicide, citing Matt 27:25 as support, when the crowds in Pilate’s court demand Jesus’s crucifixion by shouting: “His blood be on us and on our children!” However, even Chrysostom recognized a tension in the fact that the Apostle Paul was himself Jewish and was not cursed. Considering this latter point, it is illogical to suggest that Matt 27:25 serves as a judgement sentence over all Jewish people until the end of time. Rather, Matthew speaks only of the specific crowd gathered there, since they and their children would soon witness the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Yet, as Jules Isaac once wrote, “The monstrous cry, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Matt 27:25), could not prevail over the Word, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34)” (Isaac 1971, 404).
After the horrors of the Holocaust, perpetrated by the Nazi state regime in one of the most “Christian” societies in the world at the time, Christian scholars and thinkers were forced to grapple with the harsh reality that punitive supersessionist thinking had continued to compel many Christians into an ugly form of anti-Semitism. (Adolf Hitler constantly accused the Jewish people of deicide.) This theological soul-searching, coupled with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, led to a decline in the classical view of supersessionism.
The last time before 1948 that a declared nation of “Israel” existed was the period of the Hasmonaeans in the second century BCE. Thus, in the absence of a nation called Israel, Christians throughout history commonly supposed that any instance of “Israel” in Scripture should be understood allegorically to refer to God’s universal people in every generation. But that is not necessarily the case today. Modern readers of the Bible are now faced with the remarkable fact that a physical nation of Israel exists once again. The existence of a nation called “Israel” presents numerous challenges to Christian theology. Now, more than ever before, the Church must define its relationship with Israel and the Jewish people.
If classical supersessionism is all that the Church had to grapple with, then GCFI would probably not exist. This erroneous theological framework has become far more complex, and for this reason, we must carefully examine all derivatives. If supersessionism involves the wrong belief that “the Church has replaced Israel,” then it is all the more important to define precisely what each of the individual words in that statement mean. What does “replace” mean? And how should we define the identities of the “Church” and “Israel?” More often than not, correcting the definitions of these latter two concepts will eliminate any possibility of developing a supersessionist theology. In the next section, we will spend some time considering how the New Testament defines both the “Church” and “Israel,” followed by a comprehensive look at various meanings of “replace.”
The Church and Israel in the New Testament
The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), the noun form of the verb ekkaleo (ἐκκαλέω), which means “to call out.” By the first century, it is more accurately translated by the English word “assembly,” because it was used to refer to many types of gatherings, whether communal, political, or religious. For example, in Acts 19, the unbelieving mob gathered in the theater of Ephesus is called an ekklesia. Therefore, the word does not have an essentially Christian meaning, though it was used by Christians. In contrast, the word synagoge (συναγωγή), from which the English word “synagogue” comes from, is used in the New Testament almost exclusively to speak of Jewish assemblies who do not believe in Jesus. Only James 2:2 possibly uses it in reference to Jesus-believing Jewish assemblies.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, also uses the word ekklesia frequently to refer to different types of assemblies, most often in translation of the Hebrew word kahal (קָהָל). That is likely one reason why Jesus and his Jewish followers felt comfortable using the word to refer to their own gatherings: both of the words ekklesia and synagoge were used to speak of Jewish congregations. Nevertheless, although ekklesia was not a strictly Christian or even Jewish word by any means, its frequent use in the New Testament and by the early Church sealed its fate. Eventually, it was used to refer only to Christian communities and came to be associated only with Gentile Christianity. For this reason, many Jewish-Christian organizations discourage using the word “church” when speaking with Jewish people and instead use the word “congregation.”
What, then, is the ekklesia according to the New Testament? In large part, this question leads us to consider the essential identity of the earliest Jesus-believing communities and what it meant to be an “assembly” united by faith in Jesus. In the time that many of the authors of the New Testament lived, there were no separate religions called “Christianity” and “Judaism.” The early Church was predominantly Jewish, and Gentiles were only later permitted to join without needing to be circumcised (Acts 15). Since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and all of his disciples were Jewish, there was no conceptual way to argue that being Jewish and simultaneously believing in Jesus were incompatible. Rather, according to the New Testament, the bigger question was whether one could be Gentile and believe in the Jewish Messiah.
The Apostle Paul focused intensely on the question of Gentile inclusion. Writing in a time when there was no separate Christian “Church,” his theological attention centered upon how the Gentiles could be grafted into the covenants and promises God made with Israel. Therefore, according to Paul, the matter of defining the “Church” had more to do with defining who could belong to “Israel” than anything else. If all who believe in Jesus belong to the Church, then what about Israel? Does anyone belong to Israel anymore? Does the Church now equal Israel? This can easily digress into the association fallacy: Just because A belongs to both B and C does not mean that B is equal to C. In other words, just because the Church consists of both Israel and the Nations does not mean that Israel and the Nations are equivalent. There must be a distinction between the two. So then: What does “Israel” mean in the New Testament?
The Hebrew name Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) occurs for the first time in Gen 32:28, when God renamed the patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Over the course of many centuries, the descendants of Jacob began to be identified as “Israelites.” There are over two thousand occurrences of the name Yisrael in the Old Testament, but only around seventy in the New Testament. Even when factoring in that the Old Testament is three times the length, the name Yisrael clearly does not have the same prominence in the New Testament. This is partly due to the fact that the boundaries of an “ethnic Israel” were already quite ambiguous in the first century. Some scholars suggest that Israel’s long history of tribal conflict, dispersion, and cultural assimilation produced a blended or “multi-ethnic” Israel that could more accurately be described as the peoples of Israel, rather than a singular people.
When the northern tribes broke away from Rehoboam (1 Kgs 12), the birth of a southern Kingdom of Judah caused a new semantic distinction between Israel and Judah to emerge, from where the Greek word Ioudaios comes, and from where we get the English word “Jew.” Despite this semantic divide, Ezekiel prophesied that the conflict between Israel and Judah would one day end, and the two groups would become one Israel (Ezek 37:15-28). After the fall and exile of both kingdoms, this distinction did indeed begin to fade. By the first century, belonging to Israel and being “a Jew” were somewhat interchangeable in meaning, with the qualification that references to Yisrael were often used in more religious contexts, whereas the identifier Ioudaios usually had ethnic or national connotations (TDNT). In the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels address “Israel” and rarely speak of “the Jews,” while the Gospel of John is the opposite; there are at least seventy instances of the name Ioudaios and only four of Yisrael in John. The book of Acts uses both titles but nevertheless prefers Ioudaios in proportion.
As mentioned above, the Apostle Paul focuses on the issue of ethnic identity more than any other New Testament writer. He refers to both Yisrael and Ioudaios in his letters, but he shows flexibility in his usage. In 1 Cor 9:20, he says that he became “like a Jew,” and in Gal 1:13-14 he speaks of his former life in Ioudaismos, an abstract term that can be translated into English as “Judaism.” Most significantly, in Rom 9:6, Paul makes a challenging statement that, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Supersessionists often combine this verse with Gal 6:16, where Paul uses the phrase “the Israel of God” and 1 Cor 10:18, where he speaks of “Israel according to the flesh.” It could appear to some that there are two Israels: a spiritual “Israel of God” and a physical “Israel according to the flesh;” the Israel of God is superior and raceless, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, whereas the Israel according to the flesh has been rendered obsolete. This would lead us to conclude that Paul saw no ongoing value or purpose for an Israel according to the flesh, but is that really the case?
Paul does not choose to redefine Israel but rather continues to uphold the distinction between those of Israel (of whom he includes himself) and those of the nations, the Gentiles (You can read more in our paper on Jewish Identity). He repeatedly speaks of his own identity as a “Jew” (Gal 2:15), as an “Israelite” (Rom 11:1), and a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5), and he also speaks of his own intercession and prayers for Israel, wishing that he himself were “accursed” if it could result in their salvation (Rom 9:3). It is to the circumcised of Israel that Paul says, “Remain in your calling” (1 Cor 7:20), knowing full well his own calling as a circumcised, Torah-observant follower of Jesus. In fact, the entire notion of his gospel being “to the Jew first and also to the Gentile” (Rom 1:16) rests upon his refusal to allow any supposed “spiritual Israel” to replace or redefine a literal Israel. Out of the eighteen times that the word “Israel” (Ἰσραήλ) occurs in Paul’s letters, only two times could possibly be understood metaphorically (Rom 9:6 and Gal 6:16). This means that the vast majority of the times that Paul speaks about Israel, he is referring to the literal, physical people of Israel.
Gal 6:15-16 states “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And all who will follow this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (NASB). In context, it might seem that Paul is using the terms “new creation” and “the Israel of God” synonymously. In this sense, those who are in Messiah—whether Jew or Gentile—are all considered to be the “Israel of God.” Douglas Moo (2010) argues that, due to the unique double conjunction and double preposition construction in 6:16 (“and” and “upon”), there are at least three interpretive options, demonstrated by the below common translations:
- Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God (NIV).
- And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God (ESV).
- May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy [also] to the Israel of God (HCSB).
In the first option, the “and” is removed in order to communicate that “all who follow this rule” and those of “the Israel of God” are the same entity. Paul is thus understood to be redefining Israel for the Galatians, or at least identifying a new kind of Israel for them. The above second option, however, is slightly more ambiguous. In this reading, it is possible that the “Israel of God” is an overlapping group with “those who walk by this rule,” or it is possible that they are two separate groups. The interpreter is left to decide whether Paul is creating a new category or not.
Finally, in the third option (the HCSB translation), the separateness is emphasized even more by keeping “peace” and “mercy” in separate clauses. Whether or not the blessing of mercy over the Israel of God is contingent upon the keeping of the “rule” is not as important as answering the question of the particular group identity that Paul has in mind here. Concerning this, Jonathan Pratt has recently outlined the various positions of scholars on Gal 6:16 and convincingly argues that the Greek syntax and Paul’s wider usage of “Israel” throughout his writings strongly favors understanding the “Israel of God” as Jewish believers in Jesus and not as a combined entity of Jewish and Gentile believers (Pratt 2018). The Israel of God is the historic, ethnic Israel of God’s making and choosing—not the Israel that the Galatian Gentiles supposed they could contrive in their own flesh by being circumcised. Therefore, even in Paul’s letters, “Israel” continues to refer to the genealogical descendants of Jacob to whom God has promised to remain faithful.
Different Forms of Supersessionism
The above discussion about the redefinition of Israel has revealed a distinction between two different broad approaches. As we have seen, the classical view of supersessionism says that Israel has been replaced. But there are many other forms of supersessionism that say Israel has not been replaced but rather redefined. It is important to recognize that both redefinition and replacement often amount to the same thing. If an entity is redefined, then its old definition is replaced by its new definition. Arguments based on replacement are typically more blatant, whereas arguments based on redefinition are far more subtle. In a certain sense, there are endless varieties of supersessionism, with newer “forms” continually succeeding older forms. But we will nevertheless take the time to explain a few of the most common forms one might encounter in the Church today, as well as provide links to other papers that elaborate our perspectives more fully.
Third Race Theology
The first common approach is to argue that there is no such thing as Jew or Gentile, but all who believe in Messiah are a “new creation” (Gal 6:15). This is equivalent to arguing that both Jews and Gentiles have now been redefined into a new, third category, which is sometimes called “third race” theology. Already in the second century, the Apology of Aristides refers to Christians as a third race, separate from the other two races of “Jews” and “pagans.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that it collapses the New Testament’s distinction between Israel and the Nations mentioned above. Saying that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile results in erasing Israel’s particularity. In Gal 3:28, Paul also argues that there is no such thing as “male and female.” Does this mean that God desires for humanity to exist in a state of biological limbo, without the male and female gender? No! It is crucial to understand that Paul’s argument in Galatians centers on soteriological equality and not upon some gnostic ideal of being genderless or raceless. It is rather more significant that Paul juxtaposes “male and female” next to the idea that all are “one” in Messiah. Is it possible that Paul has Gen 2:24 in mind here? The unity that happens in marriage, when two become “one flesh,” upholds the distinction between husband and wife while simultaneously emphasizing their oneness in mutual interdependence.
Not only is “third race” theology contrary to Scripture, it also does not make logical sense. Can we actually exist in a world without particularity? Non-particularity is itself an identity that inevitably takes on a particular culture and a particular religious tradition. Ironically, when Christians demand that Jewish people lay aside their ethnic identity, they are really asking for them to adopt a particular Christian identity that looks more American or Protestant or even Caucasian. Recent critical race studies have shown that Christian missionaries often harmfully influence the cultures they visit by conflating “biblical” culture with Anglo-Saxon, Western culture. This is not contextual evangelism; it is cultural colonialism. You can read more in our paper on Jewish Identity. The reality is: Jewish particularity is significant and valuable according to Scripture. Jesus’s disciples were thoroughly Jewish. They looked, talked, and acted like first-century Jews, and the New Testament reflects this! The only way forward is to embrace Jewish particularity as fundamental, not to erase it.
A second common approach for those who believe in Israel’s redefinition is to suggest that Jesus fulfilled the calling of Israel: Because Jesus was Jewish and satisfied the righteous requirement of the Law, He was the perfect representative of Israel and therefore summarized the destiny of Israel in Himself. However, the problem with seeing Jesus as the complete fulfillment of Israel is that Jesus then becomes the “true” Israel. The gifts and calling of Israel are taken up by Jesus to where only his fulfillment of them matters in the end. Jewish particularity is replaced by the once-for-all act of Jesus, who became Jewish flesh so that no one else would ever need to again. Is this really the case? (A similar argument is to say that the “root” of the Olive Tree metaphor in Rom 11 can only be Jesus—you can read more in our paper on To the Jew First).
If so, then what was the purpose of Israel in the first place? Was Israel merely the cosmic postal worker, called to deliver Jesus to the world and then step back and disappear from the neighborhood? If so, harsh implications cannot be avoided. Fulfillment theology argues that there is no longer a “Holy Land” (of Israel) but that all land has been made holy through Jesus, and it similarly universalizes numerous other promises given to Israel throughout Scripture. However, we know that all of the promises God made to Israel will be consummated at Jesus’ second coming when He inaugurates the Kingdom of God on earth in its fullness. Jesus will return to Jerusalem, because God specifically promised his eternal Kingdom to be seated in that city. Fulfillment theology erases the particularity of God’s promises, once again proposing a disjointed image of God’s faithful character.
Ultimately, believing Jesus fulfills Israel can too easily amount to believing that Jesus replaces Israel. We must affirm about the calling of Israel what Jesus himself said about the Law and the Prophets: “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Who can argue that since Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets that they no longer have a purpose? What of the prophecies in the Old Testament that remain unfulfilled to this day? Although Jesus is the one in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen (1 Cor 1:20), His fulfillment of these promises does not eliminate the distinctiveness of Israel nor the future role of Israel in God’s plan for world redemption. Rather, Jesus stands as the head and King of Israel, as Messiah and God, not replacing His people whom He foreknew (Rom 11:2).
The systematic theologian, R. Kendall Soulen, has rightly argued that supersessionism exists even in the way that Christians tell the gospel and perceive salvation history. The above “postal worker” metaphor strikes an important note. Did God always intend that his promises to Israel would have a target date? Does Israel still have a claim on those promises or did they expire with the birth of Jesus? Many Christians don’t consider these types of questions because Israel remains peripheral or inconsequential in their understanding of the gospel. But this was not the case for the earliest followers of Jesus. The gospel defense of Stephen in Acts 7 is a relevant example. In his fifty-two-verse sermon, the history of Israel is center stage. He only mentions Jesus in one line at the very end! This is the complete opposite of many gospel messages presented today. How is this possible?
The Word of God does not, by itself, tell a single story. It is a library of books, made up of various literary genres (history, poetry, letters, etc.) and dated from vastly different time periods and geographic contexts. In order to make sense of all 66 books of the Bible, Christians believe that there is an overarching story. In theological terms, this is called a “canonical narrative.” Kendall Soulen has argued that supersessionism lurks in the standard Christian canonical narrative, which he summarizes as having four main movements: (1) creation, (2) fall, (3) redemption, and (4) consummation (Soulen 1996). The main error with this narrative is the gap between numbers two and three. God’s dealings with Israel and all the writings of the Old Testament after the Garden of Eden (Gen 3) are rendered inconsequential in God’s wider plan for humanity. If anything, the historical Israel only exacerbates the problem and serves as a negative foil by which to highlight the solution of Jesus in the New Testament.
By attempting to articulate what the core message of the gospel should be, we expose our deepest theological convictions and presuppositions. How important is Israel to God? How necessary is Israel in the divine economy of salvation? Did Israel only have a temporary importance to God, but that time has long passed? These questions are essential for the Church to answer. Despite the examples in the book of Acts, the modern Church usually presents the gospel message in the following way: God created mankind to experience eternal communion, but mankind sinned and was separated from God through death. God’s solution was to become man and conquer sin and death so that all the world could be reconciled and experience eternal communion with Him. While that narrative is true in one sense, it is nevertheless not the entire truth, for Jewish particularity is ignored and laid aside. Certainly, an “Israel-forgetfulness” has resulted from the Church’s long history of supersessionism. We at GCFI believe that Israel continues to remain central in God’s plan for world redemption, and it is imperative that the Church reformulates its understanding of the gospel message to reflect this.
A fourth common approach is to elevate Paul’s statement in Rom 9:6, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” and to argue that even in the Old Testament there was a “true Israel” and a “national Israel.” By distinguishing between the two, interpreters are then subtly able to argue that the Church is just another word for the true believing remnant of Israel, which now consists of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus, united in the one body of Messiah. For example, John Calvin argued that the “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 refers to a certain full number of both Jews and Gentiles who make up the believing community of the Church. This approach is detailed in Richard Pratt’s chapter in the book, To the Jew First (Bock and Glaser 2008), which he titles “unity theology,” stemming from a particular interpretation of the “one new man” in Eph 2:14. You can learn more about how we interpret Eph 2 in our paper on Jewish Identity.
While it is true that all believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, are united in the one body of Messiah, it is also true that the distinction between the two groups continues to exist and the unique calling of Israel remains differentiated. Any theology of “unity” that erases distinction does not take into account the importance of unity in diversity within the Body of Messiah and the twofold identity of the Church consisting fundamentally of both Israel and the Nations.
The opposite of the above “unity theology” is to suggest that there are two separate peoples of God. This view is represented by Arnold Fruchtenbaum immediately after Pratt’s chapter in, To the Jew First, with the given subtitle: “A Dispensational Perspective” (Bock and Glaser 2008). Traditional dispensationalists divide salvation history into multiple periods or “dispensations,” and argue that the age of the “Law” ended when the age of the “Church” began (whether its beginning was in Acts 2 or Acts 28 is debated). Theologically, the teaching is rooted in a literal reading of biblical prophecies about a future kingdom of Israel. The benefit of this literal reading is that dispensationalism affirms God’s eternal covenant with Israel and maintains the distinction between Jew and Gentile. However, classic dispensationalism takes the separation between the Church and Israel too far, arguing that God’s program for the two entities exists apart from one another and on separate timetables. This is the opposite of what Eph 2 says about the “one new man” of Jewish and Gentile believers who have been made “joint-partakers” of the commonwealth of Israel. It also does not properly account for how Rom 11 portrays both Israel and the Nations as intertwined, grafted into the same root, and called to provoke one another in the mercies of God.
Nevertheless, dispensationalist interpretations shine a light on further nuances of supersessionism from the perspective of time. In the original statement that we have been critiquing, “The Church has replaced Israel,” there is still one element that we have not discussed: The tense of the verb “replaced.” In grammatical terms, the tense of a verb is what expresses time reference. The English language has three primary tenses: past, present, and future. There are thus a number of ways to understand supersessionism from the perspective of time.
The first is permanent supersession, which means that Israel has been permanently replaced by the Church. We have already reviewed this idea through what we have termed “classical supersessionism.” But a second possibility in relation to time is a temporary supersession, that Israel has only been temporarily superseded. Within this second category is then the question of whether Israel’s replacement is relegated to the past, present, future, or some combined timeframe, and whether that temporary replacement is partial or total. Paul speaks of the “partial hardening” of Israel in Rom 11:25, and the olive tree metaphor seems to divide the people of Israel into different “branches,” some of which were cut off and some of which remained. It is interesting to note that, while adamantly rejecting permanent supersessionism, some forms of dispensationalism ironically promote total, temporary supersessionism, believing that evangelism to Jewish people should be limited in the current age. We do not believe that either approach is correct.
Lastly, covenant theology (the antithesis of dispensationalism) has ironically also been guilty of dividing salvation history into its own periods, namely, the notion that the Old Testament period of “Law” ended with the introduction of the New Testament period of “Grace.” In this spirit, many Christians throughout history have associated the word “Judaism” with legalism and works-righteousness. The oft-repeated misconception is that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries represented an outmoded, ethnocentric, law-based religious system that was devoid of grace, the Pharisees being the exemplars of this image. After all, Jesus rebuked them for not heeding the weightier matters of the Law—”justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23). The Apostle Paul has also been understood to portray the Law in a negative light in numerous places in his letters: He wrote that no one can be justified by the works of the Law, so we must therefore become “dead to the Law” (Gal 2:19; Rom 7:4). Moreover, Messiah redeemed us from the “curse of the Law” (Gal 3:13), and anyone who seeks to be justified by the Law is “cut off from Messiah” (Gal 5:4). If Judaism is a religion of “Law,” then Christians should have nothing to do with it. But these caricatures of a Law-free Paul and an anti-Pharisee Jesus are misguided.
In summary, supersessionism is therefore more than just the belief that the Church has replaced Israel or that Israel has been redefined to include all Christians. Any theology that results in the elimination of the ongoing distinction between Jew and Gentile is ultimately supersessionist. The repression of Jewish identity almost always results in the theological supersession of Israel. You can learn more by reading our paper on Jewish Identity. But we at GCFI believe that the corporate election of Israel still remains as valid today as ever before. Gentile Christians have been grafted into the same root, but the distinction remains. The Church is one body, consisting of both Israel and the Nations.
The issue of supersessionism is not a minor one, as if it pertained to non-essential matters of the faith. Rather, it relates to the core convictions of Christian theology. Dr. Ray Gannon, a close friend of GCFI, has accurately labeled it “the mother of all heresies.” Why? Because it calls into question the very character of God. Is God faithful to His promises? If God can change His mind with regard to His chosen and beloved people, Israel, then how much more easily can He change His mind about those of us who are Gentiles? Moreover, we are challenged to consider the identity of our God. The Christian conception of God is entirely built on the notion that the God of the New Testament was first the God of the Old Testament—the God of Israel. Does He still primarily remain the “God of Israel?” Or is that only His secondary identity now? The scandal of particularity reminds us that Jesus forever remains a Jewish man. We, as the corporate body of Messiah, cannot ignore this Jewish particularity. We must continue to resist supersessionism in all its various forms.
- The God of Israel and Christian Theology, Kendall Soulen. Fortress Press, 1996.
- Jesus and Israel: A Call for the Necessary Correction of Christian Teaching on the Jews, Jules Isaac. Translated from French into English by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
- Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, edited by David J. Rudolph and Joel Willits. Zondervan, 2013.
- Has the Church Replaced Israel?: A Theological Evaluation, Michael J. Vlach. B&H Publishing, 2010.
- “The ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16,” Jonathan Pratt. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 23 (2018): 59-75.
- See also the website: www.post-supersessionism.com