The Roots of Replacement Theology
The true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham…are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.1
That erroneous statement was written by a Christian who addressed himself to a Jewish man as they debated about Christianity. He later added, “We who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the true Israelitic race.”2
The debate occurred almost 1,900 years ago (A.D. 155) between Justin Martyr and his Jewish opponent, Trypho. In a mere 50 years after the last book of the New Testament was written, Gentile Christians had already come to believe that their church had replaced the Jewish people in God’s program and that the only thing the Jewish nation could look forward to was condemnation.
Unfortunately, the roots of Replacement Theology, also known as “supersessionism,” run deep in Christian history.
Why did such a theology develop? After all, the first generation of Christians was Jewish and centered in Jerusalem. Jewish believers in Jesus participated in Temple worship, sharing common ground with other Jews (Acts 21:26; 22:17; 24:18). The city of Jerusalem maintained its Jewish leadership for one generation, while the message of faith in Jesus the Messiah moved out from Judea to synagogues across the Roman Empire.
However, as the apostle Paul took the gospel to his Jewish brethren, he found that Gentiles responded as well. The expanding church soon contained more Gentiles than Jews. In addition, the character of Jewish-led Jerusalem changed when Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70 (the First Jewish Revolt) and all Jews, including Jewish Christians, were forced to flee. The church’s new leadership came from its other centers in Antioch and, eventually, Rome—both Gentile cities.
Another event propelled Gentiles into church leadership. The Jewish people organized another revolt against Rome, hoping to regain the freedom they lost in A.D. 70. Their leader was Simon bar Kokhba, who had been proclaimed messiah by Rabbi Akiva, the most highly esteemed rabbi of that generation. Bar Kokhba considered Christians his enemies, since they rejected his revolt and messianic claims. When Rome crushed this rebellion in A.D. 135, Christians believed they saw God’s hand of judgment against the Jews, reinforcing their claim that they had become the “new Israel.”
The early church, now with a Gentile majority, defended itself against Roman paganism and Judaism. Its attack against paganism revealed the clear differences between the two; but its opposition to Judaism created complications, since both Christianity and Judaism shared the same Scriptures as well as other common beliefs.
In an attempt to define themselves as the true inheritors of Israel’s relationship with God, Gentile Christians eradicated the Jewish people from God’s plans, substituting themselves instead. The Gentile church claimed to displace the Jews as God’s people from that time on and forevermore and blamed the Jews for rejecting Jesus, which the church said led God to reject them.
How could the early Christians read the promises that God had made to Israel and justify this substitution? They found that they could do so only by spiritualizing the promises. This method of interpretation allowed them to replace Israel as the beneficiary of God’s unfulfilled promises. The words of these early Christian leaders reveal their theology of replacement.
Here is a sample of writings from the first 300 years of the church. The Epistle of Barnabas, written around A.D. 100, states that the Jews have no further claim to God’s promises:
Take heed now to yourselves, and not to be like some, adding largely to your sins, and saying, “The covenant is both theirs and ours.” But they thus finally lost it.3
Irenaeus, writing around A.D. 180, said, “They who boast themselves as being the house of Jacob and the people of Israel, are disinherited from the grace of God.”4
Origen, the most prolific writer of the early church (c. A.D. 250), grounded his Replacement Theology in allegorical interpretation. For instance, when explaining that Jesus was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24), he argued that the lost sheep are not Jews, who are “carnal” Israel, but Christians, who are “heavenly” Israel.5
John Chrysostom preached such a message in the capital city of the Roman Empire in A.D. 387:
It is because you killed Christ….It is because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore and no defense….You have committed the ultimate transgression. This is why you are being punished worse now than in the past….If this were not the case God would not have turned his back on you so completely.6
Although some Old Testament promises are fulfilled by the New Testament church, others will be fulfilled by Israel. For example, Jesus Christ taught that Israel has a future in God’s plan:
Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28).
Jesus spoke of the time when the entire earth will be regenerated and the Kingdom of God will come to Earth with Jesus as King. At that time Jesus will reign, along with the 12 apostles who will judge Israel’s 12 tribes.
Shortly before Jesus’ ascension, His disciples asked Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). These disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days, during which time He had taught them about God’s Kingdom (v. 3). Surely they would have known enough from those six weeks to ask an appropriate question about God’s Kingdom and Israel’s relation to it.
Jesus did not correct their view of a literal Israelite Kingdom; He left that untouched. He simply told them that the time of that Kingdom’s arrival is known only by the Father (v. 7). In this brief passage, Jesus affirmed a future Jewish Kingdom. Israel had not been replaced by the church.
In fact, in Romans 11 the Jewish apostle Paul warned Gentile Christians against being proud of their position. He declared that God intends for Gentiles to make Israel envious of the church’s relationship with the God of Abraham (v. 11). Sadly, Christian anti-Semitism has led to the opposite of God’s intent.
Paul stated that Gentiles are merely wild olive branches who have been grafted into the tree, which carries the rich sap of the promises God made to Abraham (vv. 17–19). He condemned the attitude of superiority that had already begun to rear its head against Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus (vv. 20–24). And he revealed the amazing truth that all the people of Israel living at the end of the age will be redeemed when their Messiah Jesus returns to forgive them (vv. 25–27).
Notice his conclusion: “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (v. 28). One day “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26).
Moses told the Israelites,
The Lᴏʀᴅ did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lᴏʀᴅ loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers (Dt. 7:7–8).
And though Israel rejects the gospel today, it still remains chosen and deeply loved by God because of His promises to Abraham.
- Justin Martyr, “Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), chap. 11.
- , chap. 135.
- “The Epistle of Barnabas,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), chap. 4.
- Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 3.21.1.
- Origen, “De Principiis,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 4 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4.1.22.
- Quoted in Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 146–47.
9 thoughts on “The Roots of Replacement Theology”
William, great article. Thank you for your clarity. Almost a year ago I surrendered to the Lord and began studying feverishly. I’d spent my life in the Presbyterian Church and considered myself a happy Presbyterian, committed to a life that I was increasingly unable to live. My slavery to sin and worldliness left me lost, confused and miserable. All the things I’d placed my faith in, one by one, were being removed from my life. I was losing my identity. One day, when it seemed to reach a fevered pitch, I surrendered to God’s will for my life. I knew I was going to make a mess of things and He was my only hope. My wife encouraged me to begin studying the Old Testament. Our daily study, often 2-3 hours every evening, revealed the truth about God’s word, which neither of us had ever learned. At its core was God’s covenant with Israel. Fast forward a year, I find it challenging trying to introduce these new found truths to my fellow believers. Some of my friends of mine, true men of God, seem to want to understand what I’m talking about, but others reject my ideas outright. The more I learn, the more I understand how far off the rails the Evangelical Church has gone. I told my wife the other night that the contemporary church is where the Temple was during Jesus’ lifetime, which is why He fought against their false teaching so passionately. We’ve come full circle. One thought I had: The origins of Replacement Theology seem to rely upon two straw-man arguments, or maybe misunderstandings. The first is that Israel’s “chosen” status is somehow equivalent to a collective salvation. I know the Pharasees and the Sadducees believed this during Jesus’ lifetime, but my understanding is that God did not consider the Jews saved, only privileged (the Mosaic Law, the Torah, the Temple, grace throughout the OT, The Christ, etc). This leads into the second straw man argument, which attempts to distinguish Gentile surrendered believers from Jewish non-believers, not by their “believing” status, but by their “Jewishness”. It seems very strained logic when I break it down. I haven’t read “Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew”, but it almost seems as if they’d be talking past one another. Thanks for any feedback you might have. I’m still wrapping my head around many of these concepts and I appreciate hearing other perspectives, so I can explain them to others.
I grew up in a non-denominational evangelical church. Our present theological understanding varies from one church to another and one denomination to another. But I would be interested in your understanding and definition of “how far off the rails the evangelical church has gone.” I ask this only for enlightenment and a deeper appreciation for my own edification. Thank you.
We all have to go back to Gods written words. Romans 11 Paul the Apostle assigned to preach to the gentiles makes it very clear for the gentiles not to boast against the olive branch that they have been grafted into. The Lord Jesus himself in the gospel of John( John 10:16 ) said He had sheep from another flock that he had to bring in that were afar of. The gospel is written to the jew first and the gentiles according to the New Testament. Now we are all called to be one new man in Messiah ( Christ ) so its not about jews are more superior to God than gentiles , but the church for a long time has had a lot of antisemitism and picking whatever from the bible that suited the denomination instead of living by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God , for the word interprets the word which the bible states that scripture is not subject through private interpretation. God renewed his covenant with Israel and brought in the gentiles.
I never learned what you call replacement theology as you claim it to be, from any church, denomination, or person. Clearly I learned from study. But it seems you have some twisted thoughts taught by someone. If we are Abraham seed and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29) then what promise is not ours an followers of the way of The Christ?
Of course God has a plan for every nation including these that claim to be of Jisrael. Yet salvation did come from Judah, is not Christ the rock of our salvation?
Clearly we are not under the law but under grace.
Romans 11 has a lot more to say about this subject.
… They were broken off because of it unbelief..
…and if they do not persist in unbelief they will be grafted in…
…arouse my(the writer’s) own people to envy and save some of them….
And so no.
As a nation it is not clear to me but each human can turn form evil and towards God.
The clear point to me is to not boast as if we are greater than the jew, we all fall short and in following the way some may become envious and turn to God once more.
Charles Taze Russel said that he also learned from study. That’s why we need to be taught by others who are faithful (2 Tim. 2:2).
Yes, we are Abraham’s seed, but we are never called Jacob’s seed. The “promise” refers to Genesis 12:1–3, which said that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Yet God clearly limited the parties to the Abrahamic Covenant to the descendants of Isaac and Jacob only (Gen. 17:19–21). Thus, while the Ishmaelites and Edomites were of the seed of Abraham and would be greatly blessed through him, that did not mean they were parties to the covenant.
Romans 11 says “so all Israel will be saved.” Throughout the passage, Paul refers to Israel as a group (not individuals) that includes both believers and unbelievers (Rom. 11:25).
Although Israel includes unbelieving Jews, who are “enemies of the Gospel,” they are God’s elect (Rom. 11:28). As God’s elect, His gifts and calling to them are “irrevocable.”
Being “broken off” cannot refer to losing salvation since these Jews were unbelievers in the first place (not to mention the doctrine of eternal security). It also cannot refer to being removed from the Abrahamic Covenant since they are still God’s elect and presently possess the covenants (Rom. 9:5). It also cannot refer to being removed from Israel since, as we already established, Israel includes unbelievers. Paul provides the answer in Romans 11:22 when he says that those who were broken off are under God’s severity and those who were grafted in are under God’s kindness. Thus, unbelieving Jews were broken off from the place of special attention.
But Paul makes it clear that this is a temporary situation when he says that this “partial hardening” will continue “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). Thus, the people in view are believing and unbelieving Jews, who will eventually receive the covenant blessings (including spiritual salvation) when “the Deliverer” comes (Rom. 11:26).