My adventures with replacement theology
As discussed in my previous post, the role of Israel today was one area where I came to different conclusions from many Christadelphians. This led me to accept the much-vilified “replacement theology”.
Over the years, I came to realise that my traditional understanding didn’t match what I saw in scripture. While this was a gradual discovery, there were a few particular waypoints I remember:
- There was a question I answered on BibleQ, where I decided (a little to my discomfort) that while Jews were still God’s chosen people, they had to become Christians to be saved.
- There was a “Lovers of Zion” fraternal I attended to understand the “Hope of Israel” (as described in my previous post, I concluded that none of the verses used required Christadelphians to support Israel today).
- There was a talk about the history of Jerusalem where I questioned the role of Jerusalem today, and whether we should continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
- There was an exhortation about Psalm 69 that turned unexpectedly into a full-on proclamation of replacement theology.
- Finally, there was a carefully worded letter to the editor of The Christadelphian.
Mostly, I kept quiet about it outside my home ecclesia, particularly when talking with people from more conservative ecclesias. My problem was that I wanted to be true to scripture, but didn’t want to get in trouble. Since I didn’t really understand the “official” position, I wasn’t sure whether I’d found a significant Christadelphian blind-spot or was just skewering a straw man. What would be the consequences if I turned out to be attacking a core belief?
A letter to the editor
About the same time as my exhortation on Psalm 69 went spectacularly off-track, The Christadelphian carried an editorial that I strongly disagreed with. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to it, but from memory, it argued that we were the only ones who properly understood the hope of Israel and that replacement theology was terrible (this is the “Christadelphian exceptionalism” I wrote about last time). After a lot of thought I decided I couldn’t let it slide, and responded with a very carefully worded letter (subsequently published):
I am concerned that an over-emphasis on the nation of Israel as it is now detracts from one of our fundamental doctrines: that Jesus Christ is the only name given by which we may be saved. When Paul said that God had not rejected his people, he was talking of the remnant chosen by grace - those Jews who had chosen to believe in Christ. The rest of the nation have rejected God by rejecting the way he has appointed to approach him, and have been broken off the olive tree.
Yes, in future those Jews still living may have an opportunity for mass repentance - but right now, if they want to be grafted back in they need to leave their unbelief and accept Jesus as the Messiah, just as Paul did. The hope of Israel is realised through Jesus, as are the promises to Abraham. Our message to them should not be “You are the chosen people of God”, but “Come join the chosen people of God”.
Given this letter was written a year before I quit, I’m not sure how much of what I wrote I actually believed. But this I do know: I was convinced that replacement theology was a better understanding of scripture, and I was encouraged by how positively my exhortation had been received by a few people I trusted (for the record: Discovering the truth of replacement theology did nothing to cause me to quit).
Thinking of quitting had also had a freeing effect - after all, what was the worst that could happen if the letter raised controversy? Even if others had objected to it, I didn’t think my ecclesia would have a problem with it (after all, they had already heard me talk about it…)
Subsequent issues of the magazine contained critical responses, with the strongest coming from someone I knew well. In my opinion, those responses were misguided, but I wasn’t interested in taking the fight further. My aim was to raise consciousness and provoke thought, not to lead a fight to re-orient the denomination around replacement theology. And given the magazine is (I think) read more in conservative circles, I had no idea how well that response represented the denomination as a whole anyway.
More interesting were the “in person” responses, beginning with “I saw your letter in The Christadelphian…”. I quickly decided it was best just to ask people whether they disagreed. The usual response was something like “Well, no” (in other words, they would like to disagree, but I had worded it too carefully). Or perhaps they would concede that it was “an interesting point of view”. But there were only a few who were willing to accept it as a possible interpretation.
Has God rejected his people Israel?
Romans 11 is one of the key passages Christadelphians relied on, so it was unsurprising that some of the letter-writers referenced it. But apparently they hadn’t recognised how strongly my letter drew on it (such are the joys of Biblical interpretation!)
Consider this fundamental passage:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.Romans 11:1 - 2a (ESV)
My working paraphrase was:
God has not rejected his people - he tells them to become Christian like Paul.
Christadelphians then tended to jump to the picture of the
fig olive tree. Yes, Jews had been broken off and Gentile believers grafted in, but it was still possible for unfaithful Gentiles to be broken off and faithful Jews to be grafted back in.
Paul obviously expected that at some future time all Jews would be saved. This was tied to a deliverer coming from Zion, and was probably referring to the return of Christ (expected in his lifetime).
This led to the other key verse quoted (my emphasis):
As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.Romans 11:28 - 31 (ESV)
Again, though, I thought these verses were completely consistent with replacement theology. I acknowledged that Jews had an opportunity of salvation - but that opportunity came through True Christianity (which for me meant Christadelphian teaching). This is even hinted at in the above passage: the Jews were to receive mercy by the mercy shown to the Gentiles. Surely in Paul’s mind this “mercy” is accepting the saving death of Jesus Christ and converting to Christianity?
If so, it really is replacement theology: Christians, not Jews, were the people who received God’s favour. Rather than being part of the chosen people by default, Jews had to specifically choose to join Christianity.
Praying for the peace of Jerusalem
Sometimes, rather than praying for the return of Christ, people would pray for the peace of Jerusalem. It was even made into a hymn (trivia: One of the few I could play on the piano).
And yes, I expected a future world kingdom ruled from Jerusalem, not a kingdom established in the hearts of believers. However, I came to question whether that was an appropriate prayer for today. According to at least some of the prophecies, Jerusalem was to be captured and partially destroyed before the return of Christ. Peace, you say? That’s a lot of collateral damage you’re asking for…
Here’s the original quote:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
May they be secure who love you!Psalm 122:6 (ESV)
As a verse by itself, it sounds like it should apply today. However, the context makes a big difference. This is a Jewish hymn, sung by Jews going up to the temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was their capital, a place for the nation to celebrate their feasts, and, most importantly, the site of the house of God.
However, the temple is no longer there, and the Christian message has left the Jewish people and gone out into the Gentile world. None of the context of this Psalm applies to Christians today - so why were we still praying from it?
In the new dispensation, the temple was now supposed to be all believers. Ultimately, we were supposed to end up part of the New Jerusalem, the spiritual Jerusalem, the place where righteousness dwelt (if I been completely consistent with this thinking, I would have rejected the Old Testament visions of physical Jerusalem as the centre of God’s kingdom on earth - but that concept was too deeply embedded in my Biblical understanding to question).
Paul underlined this in Galatians 4, as part of his rejection of applying Jewish customs like circumcision to Gentiles. Though the letter was probably written before the destruction of the temple, it was clear that in Paul’s theology Christianity had replaced Judaism. So he contrasts “the present Jerusalem” (still in slavery) with “the Jerusalem above” (whose children were free). This was pretty clear replacement theology, coming only a chapter after the Christadelphian-approved appropriation of the Promises to Abraham. Christadelphians were just unwilling to accept how fundamental this message was to Paul’s letters.
As a result, I concluded that believers shouldn’t be worrying about current disputes over Jerusalem, the nation of Israel, or whose land it really is. Instead, we should accept that God’s focus had shifted to Christian believers (at least for the time being). Rather than being tied to a particular physical location, we should be behaving as citizens of spiritual Jerusalem under the New Covenant, keeping separate from the world, and generally acting in a way that befitted us as God’s dwelling place.
One common Christadelphian criticism of replacement theology was that it was a slippery slope leading directly to anti-semitism. But their starting point was the assumption that the Jews were still God’s chosen people and entitled to complete control of the promised land. Anything less might be considered anti-semitism.
However, while I questioned that privileged position, that didn’t make me anti-semitic. As described above, I thought Jews and Gentiles had exactly the same hope: access to God through the sacrifice of Jesus. There is nothing in taking them off their pedestal that requires trampling them underfoot. And if anyone comes away from this thinking I’m encouraging anti-semitism then I will have failed as a communicator.
Over the years, though, I had come across verses that made me uncomfortable, because they could seem to justify anti-semitism. For example, the Galatians passage I mentioned above said of “the present Jerusalem”:
But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”Galatians 4:30 (ESV)
Can I see this being used to justify expelling and persecuting Jews from Christian communities? Of course I can. Particularly when there were stronger verses available to back it:
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”Matthew 27:24 - 25 (ESV)
It was from this verse in particular that Jews became known as “the Christ-killers”. Curious, really, since the Christian texts claimed that Jesus, his twelve disciples, and Paul were all Jews. But perhaps it was inevitable that Judaism and Christianity came to view each other as rivals.
However, while exploring Psalm 69, I chanced to turn up connections to the crucifixion which then led straight to Romans 11. That’s right - the Christadelphian set text for “Israel as God’s chosen people” that I had already questioned. Paul quotes the Psalm as referring to the non-Christian majority of the Jewish race:
And David says,“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”Romans 11:9 - 10 (ESV)
It sounds pretty final, as if God has deliberately hardened the Jewish people so they couldn’t come to knowledge of God’s new plan of salvation. Paul then seems to suggest that this was part of God’s great plan for the world: Jews were deliberately being kept ignorant of the salvation available through Jesus. But it’s even worse in the source Psalm:
For they persecute him whom you have struck down,
and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.
Add to them punishment upon punishment;
may they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.Psalms 69:26 - 28 (ESV)
It’s a long way from “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Not quite our image of gentle Jesus freely giving his life for the world. But could we conclude from this Psalm that Jesus on the cross was praying for God to punish the Jewish nation for killing him? To exclude them from the roll of the righteous forever?
That is what I presented in my exhortation, and I still think it’s at least as valid as the many problematic ways the New Testament uses the Old Testament. But I also tried to redeem those verses as part of God’s overall plan as I saw it. Whether or not the Jews had cursed themselves by taking responsibility for the death of the son of God, I wanted to offer them hope - the hope of salvation through Jesus Christ (in fact, the same hope as I was offering Gentiles).
Though many past Christians had used anti-semitic texts in support of their anti-semitic agenda, I was unwilling to interpret the texts that way. As it was, I might have been more troubled by the texts if I had come upon them earlier and had more sleep.
But that was then, and this is now. Right now, I find it ridiculous for an entire nation to be considered responsible for the alleged actions of their distant ancestors, while the Romans present were allowed to literally wash their hands of responsibility. Particularly when the call to crucify Jesus was also alleged to be part of the fulfilment of God’s marvellous plan. But perhaps it’s par for the course, given that same God declared that he would punish future generations for the sins of their fathers (and those were from the verses we went to to establish “the character of God”).
My version of replacement theology had absolutely no anti-semitism: Jews were on exactly the same level as Gentiles, and there was no more excuse for anti-semitism than there was for any other racial prejudice. It all went back to the positive part of Paul’s Galatians message: We were all one in Christ Jesus.
So that’s my part in the replacement theology debate: As a Christadelphian, I came to conclude it was the best interpretation of the New Testament generally, and Paul’s epistles in particular. This was a genuinely held belief, not a cunning plot by a former Christadelphian to sow confusion or to discredit the witness of Israel.
I was very close to not writing about this at all. After all, there doesn’t seem a lot of point arguing about the correct interpretation of certain parts of the New Testament text when I don’t accept any of it as authoritative. However, the more I read the relevant passages, the more I began to see how fundamentally Christianity relies on it. I now see in replacement theology an attempted hostile takeover of Judaism, a takeover which Christadelphians disclaim while still benefiting from it. And that concept seriously annoys me.
So in the next few posts I’ll be trying to disentangle answers to some important questions: If Christianity is the logical conclusion of Judaism (Judaism Plus), why don’t Jews accept Christianity? And why do Christian texts show such contempt for their Jewish source material and culture? Is Christianity truly the final revelation of God, or is it too to be replaced by Christianity Plus? And where does all this leave the chosen remnant known as the Christadelphians?