Replacement Theology: The Black Sheep of Christendom Part Two
The church is not Israel, and Israel is not the church. However, more and more Christians today fail to see the distinction. They have been so indoctrinated into Replacement Theology that they see themselves as the “new Israel” and the Jewish people as forsaken.
How did this belief become so deeply established in the church, particularly when it was not the theology of the apostles or the first- or second-generation church leaders? Because it justified prejudice against the Jewish people.
Replacement Theology began developing in the second and third centuries of the church, becoming established about 200 years after the church began. It did not arise from a careful study of Scripture. In fact, the position was formulated first, and then Scripture was located to support it. This is the wrong way to devise a theology. Theology should result from a thorough study of God’s Word. People should not define their theology first and then go on a Scripture hunt to find justification for it.
One reason Replacement Theology has become so prevalent is its great intellectual charm, so to speak. Arguing for it requires doing mental gymnastics with God’s Word to develop a complex argument. Even then, Scripture does not fully support it. But for many people, the exercise is appealing.
Initially, Replacement Theology developed to justify prejudice against the Jewish people in the years of the early church. It became a core doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church; and though the Reformation fathers corrected much bad theology when they formed the Protestant movement, they brought Replacement Theology with them.
From Jewish to Gentile
The church began in Acts 2 in Jerusalem with the coming of the Holy Spirit, and its early leadership was Jewish. It was a Jewish body composed primarily of Jewish people who had placed their faith in Jesus the Messiah. But around AD 70 a transition began. Jerusalem and the second Temple were destroyed, the church in Jerusalem was scattered, and Gentile leaders began to take over. By the end of the first century, there were an estimated 100,000 Christians in the Roman Empire and about 6 million Jewish people.
But by the end of the second century––a mere 100 years later––the church had grown to about 7 million Christians, equal to the number of Jews then. Almost all church growth had occurred among the Gentiles, who were now dominating Christianity.
Meanwhile, a Roman law contributed to the Christian animosity toward Jewish people. According to the law, any religion that predated the Roman Empire was legal and could function openly. But any religion that began afterward was illegal and needed to be snuffed out. Christianity began long after the Roman Empire, but Judaism predated it by many centuries. So Rome considered Judaism legal but Christianity illegal and began to persecute the Christians.
Christian leaders argued that Christianity was merely a sect of Judaism. But since Jewish leaders did not support the position, Rome disagreed; and great persecution came on the church. Christians resented the fact their Jewish neighbors did not come to their defense and began to view Judaism as a threat. They thought all Jews should embrace Jesus Christ as Messiah and that Judaism should cease. Their animosity grew; and about 150 years after the church began, it clearly manifested itself within the church leadership.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), told the Jewish people, “The Scriptures are not yours but ours.” He claimed the Jews were disinherited from God’s grace and that the church was the new, or true, Israel.
A few years later Tertullian (c. AD 160-225) wrote Answers to the Jews, where he said God had rejected the Jewish people and made Israel a servant of the church. Based on his bizarre interpretation of the phrase the older will serve the younger (Gen. 25:23), he wrote that God rejected the Jews and concluded that, if Israel has any continuing role, it is as a servant of the church. The verse has nothing whatsoever to do with the church and, in fact, really means Esau’s descendants would serve Israel.
Three hundred years after the church began, Eusebius (fourth century AD) wrote that the Hebrew Scriptures were for Christians, not Jews, and that only the curses to Israel. Everything else applied to the church because, according to him, the church was the continuation of the Old Testament and thus superseded Judaism.
The Rise of Allegory
The early church fathers distanced themselves from everything Jewish, seeing the Bible as a wholly Gentile document. And they searched Greek culture to find a way to take Scriptures that clearly show God still has a plan for Israel and use them to argue exactly the opposite. To accomplish this feat, they turned to allegory.
Allegory ascribes nonliteral, spiritualized meanings to literal words and phrases. It became popular in the Roman Empire when intellectuals began using it to reinterpret various Greek classics, like Homer’s Iliad, to make them more appealing to the society of the day. Some church fathers began applying the same method to Scripture, especially unfulfilled prophecy. Origen (AD 185-254) was the first to develop a system that systematically applied allegory to unfulfilled prophecy. He argued that Scripture has two meanings: the literal and the so-called spiritual; and he gave higher value to the “spiritual.” Consequently, literal interpretation became associated with weaker Christians, and allegorical interpretation became associated with “deeper,” more “intellectual” Christians.
Unfulfilled prophecy, taken literally, threatened Replacement Theology because it speaks of a glorious future for Israel and a coming Tribulation and Millennial Kingdom on Earth.
A problem with allegory is the absence of uniform rules for applying allegorical interpretation to literal Scripture. One person may say a passage means one thing, and another may say it means something else. And neither individual can prove the other wrong.
In the fourth century, Augustine (AD 354-425) came along. He was strongly influenced by both Ambrose of Milan, a church leader who argued that the Jewish people were irrevocably perverse and not worthy of any good thought, and Origen’s use of allegory to interpret Scripture. Augustine used allegory to formulate the system we today call Amillennialism.
Augustine’s book The City of God still influences the church today. He also wrote Tract Against the Jews in which he argued that Jewish people should be treated unmercifully because they have no value and deserve no consideration.
Augustine’s contemporary, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), a famous preacher and great orator, preached a series of sermons against the Jewish people, accusing them of murdering their offspring and worshiping devils. He called their synagogues brothels and dens of robbers and claimed God hated the Jewish people because, in his view, they murdered Jesus. Here was his conclusion: since God hated the Jews, Christians are obligated to hate them as well. Do you want to be a good Christian? Then you had better hate the Jews, he said, because God does. Sadly, anti-Semitism and Replacement Theology overtook the church.
However, until this point, Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire. The church had no power to do anything about what it believed. But all that was about to change.
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