“Covenant” Theology Really is Replacement Theology

The term, “Replacement Theology” is most commonly used by the critics of those who believe that the Church (or Body of Christ) has replaced Israel in God’s prophetic plan.  The promises made to Israel in the covenants are now transferred to the Church.

Those who are accused of holding to, “Replacement Theology” (especially those in the, “covenant theology” camp) often say that the charge is unfair and one that springs out of ignorance.  The following serves as a fine example of what is commonly argued in response to the designation:

…this term is an inaccurate and unfair representation of Covenant Theology: while it is true that Covenant Theology emphasizes the unity of God’s people throughout redemptive history, and denies that the Church is a distinct people of God that exists alongside his other people, ethnic Israel…; yet it most certainly does not teach that the Church “replaces” Israel. Quite to the contrary, it teaches that the Church has been in existence ever since God first established his Covenant of Grace with Adam, and that, while the Church was composed of the believing remnant of national Israel during the Old Testament era, God’s design was always to expand it and bring all the nations into its fold, just as he promised Abraham (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:7-9).[1]

While some may utilize the term, “Replacement Theology” out of ignorance or even malice, it is incorrect to say that the term is inaccurate or unfair.  Many critics of the covenant hermeneutic understand full well that the position teaches that there has always been just one people of God.  It is also understood that the covenant position teaches that this one people of God is one in the same (though modified and expanded) as the Church or Body of Christ in the New Testament.

So why do the critics continue to use the designation, “Replacement Theology?”  It is simply that the critic is describing the functional reality of the covenant position.  The critic does not believe that the Body of Christ existed before Pentecost.  Therefore, when the critic wishes to identify the covenant position, he may not feel comfortable using an egregious misnomer or capitulate by using the language of a position he feels to be highly inaccurate.  Put simply; the critic is just calling it like he sees it.  And it is important to control the narrative in the ongoing debate.

A comprehensive argument in favor of the birth of the Body of Christ being at Pentecost cannot be provided here.  However, a brief explanation and some Biblical examples are all that is needed.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. Col. 1:18 (ESV)

Here the church of believers under the head (Jesus) is referred to as the, “body.”  But what is this, “body?”

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. Eph. 2:11-12

Notice that initially the body of the Gentiles was separate from the body of the Jews (the uncircumcision  vis-à-vis the circumcision).  The Gentiles are said to have been separated from Christ and alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.  The Gentiles were strangers to the covenants of promise and therefore had no hope or true knowledge of God.  No longer must the Gentile completely convert to the Mosaic system and live as a Jew to enjoy the blessings of the covenants.

by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Eph. 2:15-16

This phrase, “new man” speaks to a new entity that replaced and is therefore distinct from the two (Gentile and Jew) spoken of just a little earlier in the narrative.  Clearly this, “new man” cannot be a continuation of just one people of God or it would hardly be new.  Nor could the one people of God somehow replace itself.

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Cor. 12:13

One can only become part of this one unified body by being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Acts 1:5

Here the baptism of the Holy Spirit was a soon but future event.  Therefore, the new body was not yet in existence.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and restedon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:1-4

Here is when the spirit baptism expected in Acts 1:5 finally took place.  Believers for the first time were baptized into this one new man, the Body of Christ, the Church. While this is a straight forward and logical explanation some people require even more succinct proof.  Thankfully, we have just such a verse.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matt. 16:18

Jesus flatly says that He WILL build His church.  If Jesus was yet to build His church in the time of the Gospels then it would be not only outrageous but ludicrous to claim that this church existed even earlier.  And yet, this is exactly what those who hold to the covenant position do.  As seen above many of them even believe that this church began at the time of Adam!

Any position that argues for the Church of Christ existing before Pentecost is incorrect.  It follows that promises given to Israel were not one in the same as giving promises to a church that was yet to exist.  Though those who hold to a pre-Pentecost Church or Body of Christ may not believe it, they are functionally supporting a view that results in the promises of Israel being transferred to the Church.  It does not matter that the proponent of the replacement does not choose to couch his belief in such language.  The logical consequence of the covenant belief is that Church has in effect replaced Israel.


[1] “Is Covenant Theology the same as Replacement Theology?,” Monergism, , accessed July 9, 2013, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/qna/replacement.html.

Comments

  1. Bob Butler DTS 1976 says:

    Thank you for an excellent and helpful article.
    -Bob Butler
    St. Francisville, Illinois
    Pastor DTS 1976

    • That’s very kind of you to say brother. I’ll be adding your ministry to my prayers this evening.

      In Christ,
      Ervin

  2. That was awesome. Rereading that passage in Ephesians really, really, really sank it in for me, that the distinction was always there, between the circumcision, and the uncircumcision…which means that a covenant of grace and the one body of believers from Adam is a fallacy. Thanks.

    • Matthew Ervin says:

      Thank you for letting me know that the article had an impact. Of course we are both in debt to the apostle Paul for his clear and powerful teaching. I’ll be praying that Messiah may use you even more brother. Blessings to you.

  3. Jan Holland says:

    The Greek word translated “nation” in Matt 21:43 is ethnos. “Paul uses the term for Gentile Christians” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexi…/greek/kjv/ethnos.html). Is ethnos ever used in reference to the Jews (Ioudaios?

    There does appear to be the rejection of the Jews who reject Jesus as noted in the following Scripture references. Of course the destruction of the temple etc. in 70 A.D. is further support for Rejection Theology. Judaism has been rejected by Jehovah.

    “14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: 15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:14-15).

    It does appear God will save a remnant, a tenth, of the Hebrews (Isa. 6:9-13).

    Personally, I believe the ethnos referred to by Jesus in Matt. 21.43 is the New Man, the New Creature referred to by The Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3.28; Eph. 2:15; Col. 3:10).

    The word ethnos is used in the Septuagint for God’s promise to Abraham in Gen. 12.2.
    http://www.septuagint.org/LXX/Genesis/12

    And I will make of thee a great nation (ethnos)Gen. 12.2

    Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you (the Jews), and given to a nation (ethnos) bringing forth the fruits thereof. Matt 21:43

    Be it known therefore unto you (Jews in Rome), that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles (ethnos), and that they will hear it. Acts 28.28

    As noted above, the Greek word translated “nation” in Matt. 21:43 is ethnos. “Paul uses the term for Gentile Christians.” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexi…/greek/kjv/ethnos.html).

    Here are some interesting comments concerning “replacement theology” taken from “John MacArthur on Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Israel and Hermeneutics: A Few Comments” by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger.

    Given all the “replacement theology” charges made by popular dispensational writers like John Hagee, it is sad that this same charge now comes from Dr. MacArthur. Let me put it simply so as not to be misunderstood. Reformed amillenniarians do not believe that the church “replaces” Israel. Repeat, we do not believe that the church replaces Israel.

    Rather, we do believe that there is one people of God, the elect. In the Old Testament most of the elect are members of the covenant line, culminating the formation of national Israel at Mt. Sinai–although there is some evidence of true believers outside the covenant people (Melchizedek and those who truly repented in Ninevah come to mind). Likewise, there is much biblical evidence that unbelievers are present within the national covenant, hence the distinction made between the visible and invisible church.

    As I have argued in this response and elsewhere, the national/temporal promises of a land, a temple, a priesthood, the sacrifices and so on, made to Israel under the old covenant actually point to something far greater (heavenly promises) and which are fulfilled in Christ. Thus under the New Covenant believers are now called out from among all nations (including Israel) to belong to Christ’s church, which is the visible manifestation of the New Covenant people of God.

    Therefore, Israel is not “replaced” by the church. Rather, the people of God (believing Jews and Gentiles) in the Old Covenant era are vastly supplemented by believers from every nation tribe and tongue in the New Covenant. This is not “replacement theology.” It should be called “expansion theology” since the people of God become so numerous after the coming of Christ that the multitude in heaven cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9-10). In fact, that multitude encompasses people from the ends of the earth, including many ethnic Jews who are among the elect and believe in Jesus, because Jesus Christ has been revealed to them by a gracious God. ~ Kim Riddlebarger. Read more at
    http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/a-reply-to-john

    REJECTION THEOLOGY is my terminology for God’s rejection of Pharisaism i.e. Talmudic Judaism.

  4. Matthew Ervin says:

    Matthew 21:43 refers to the Body of Christ which is mostly comprised of Gentiles. Compare this with Romans 11. Beginning with verse 11 itself you will see that it is during this time of Gentiles where Jews will become jealous leading to some of them being saved. Finally the last remnant of Jews will be saved or, “all Israel” (v. 26). Those in the covenant camp cannot even reasonably deal with this or Matt. 21:43 as they believe that Israel was always the Body of Christ. Take special note of Romans 11:28-29:

    “As regards the gospel, they are enemies 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.”

    You cannot build your entire ecclesiology or Israelology on just a few verses. It is absolutely true that Israel rejected Messiah and were thus dispersed. However, the promises to the patriarchs remain or God would be a liar. Thus the promises that the Jews would once again be brought into the Holy Land (e.g. Is. 11:11). Simply saying that God rejects a belief system that rejects His son is something that I and those like Riddlebarger agree with.

    Your comments from Riddlebarger are appreciated. They serve as a fine example of what this very article is about. I could scream from the mountaintops that I am not bald. But everyone can plainly see that I am. I could insist that my condition has a different name like a, “reverse comb-over.” But at the end of the day I simply don’t grow much hair on my head regardless of how I wish to describe that. It’s the same with Riddlebarger. He and those in his camp functionally believe in Replacement Theology no matter what they call it.

    And please note that the first part of the Talmud was not even written until 200 AD. with the second not until 500. The beliefs of the Pharisees from the first century were hardly synonymous with the Talmud.

  5. Wait, I’m a little confused. Though a Christian, I’m not terribly familiar with the differentiation between covenants. But, if the Body of Christ includes only people saved after Jesus’ time. . . then how does that square with the many faithful followers of God who lived beforehand? I mean, people can only be saved by Jesus, and don’t all people saved by Jesus constitute the Body of Christ? Was Abraham saved some other way? If not, how is he not a member of the Body? Doesn’t the salvation of Jesus apply also to people who lived before His time? How else could they be saved if salvation comes from Jesus alone? Like I said I’m a little confused here.

    Also, while I don’t really know anything about Covenant Theology other than what you’ve said here, I don’t understand why you think the logical conclusion is replacement theology. I mean, even if it’s the same covenant, only altered and/or expanded, or even a separate covenant that’s been there all along, I don’t see as it demands that the promises of Israel be passed on to the new members of the body, the Christians. Let’s say Israel was an arm, from which the rest of the body later grew. The older promises were given just to the arm, not to the rest of the body, while the new promises were given to the entire body. Yet the old promises still only apply to the arm. Actually, I think a better analogue for Israel would be the very heart of the body. I think that’s fair.

    Besides, the Bible does confirm that Christians were “grafted in” to the “olive tree of Israel”, right? In Romans 11.

    • Matthew Ervin says:

      Jordan,

      People were always saved by trusting in the LORD and nothing else (e.g. Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3-8). So the blood of Jesus was applied to Abraham and any of those saved before the death of Jesus as well. The Body of Christ is a technical term that refers to all of those who were baptized into this new entity. I’ll refer you back to all the verses I provided here that demonstrate this. Scripture does not use the term to identify all those ultimately saved by Jesus. Covenant Theology traditionally holds that the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the the Body of Christ. This results in a functional replacement theology because those born of Abraham now no longer have the promises assured to them.

      Your analogy of the heart is not what Covenant Theology holds to. They hold that all believing persons in the Old Testament “spiritual Israel” constitute the same body as that which represents the Body of Christ.

      The olive tree in Romans 11 is never said to represent Israel. The natural branches of the olive tree represent Israel while the grafted in represent believing Gentiles. In fact, Paul’s very differentiation of the kinds of branches militates against the “covenant” view that believing Gentiles are true Israelites. Note that Paul even believes that one of the purposes of the Body of Christ is to make Israel jealous (v.11). This would be nonsensical if the tree was Israel. That would mean that the olive tree was to make the olive tree jealous thereby saving some of the olive tree. The tree itself represents covenant blessings, with the Abrahamic Covenant as the root.
      Thank you for the question and a chance for me to interact.

      • I am very sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to this. I meant to do so a lot sooner, but I kept getting distracted.

        Okay, I see what you mean. If the promises to Israel were all “fulfilled” in Christ, well… Israel was promised a restoration of the kingdom of Israel, right? And that the temple would one day be rebuilt and people from all nations would come to worship there, etc. If I have that right. I don’t remember what all promises there were, though. But how can Christianity count as a restoration of the kingdom of Israel, unless covenant theology would hold that the restoration was referring to something spiritual, not physical, i.e. the kingdom will be/has been restored up in Heaven, not on Earth, but… I don’t think that’s what it means. And that goes for the temple, too, although Paul did admittedly mention a heavenly temple, which the earthly temple was a reflection of, once… But you’d think the promises might’ve been said differently, in a way that implied they meant something spiritual, not physical, if in fact they did. But I don’t think they do.

        I suppose there may be some disagreement as to specifics even amongst those who hold to covenant theology, as there generally is among all groups, but point taken. I don’t think I believe that the promises given to Israel apply to Christians, nor vice versa, although some promises might be the same, or defaults of Abrahamic covenant, or whatever. I don’t even remember them all.

        Sure thing, and thank you for the reply.

  6. What I really hate is when Westcott-Hort are used as a reference for scripture; note “Christianity is always progressive in its principles and doctrines”:

    Westcott: “Do you not understand the meaning of Theological ‘Development’? It is briefly this, that in an early time some doctrine is proposed in a simple or obscure form, or even but darkly hinted at, which in succeeding ages,as the wants of men’s minds grow, grows with them – in fact, that Christianity is always progressive in its principles and doctrines” (Life, Vol.I, p.78).

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