“Why the Term “Replacement Theology” Should be Replaced”

by | Apr 11, 2017 | Adult Christian Learning | 0 comments

This post is part II of: The Old and New Testament: Understanding Scripture with Scripture.


A significant structural feature of the biblical narrative is typology…typological features emerge naturally when the biblical text is understood as a Text.[1] This is an important point that I will come back to again and again. In part one of this subject, I wrote that there are two type of audiences to whom Scripture is aimed. This approach should not be interpreted as two completely distinct audiences that are entirely disparate from one another. Just as the book of Romans was intended for a community situated at a specific time and in a specific place while also intended for an audience not fitting that description, so too, is the Old Testament and every other document of Scripture. Bruce Waltke writes, “The Old and the New Testaments are unified by their common Author, their common audience, their common theme, and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the New Testament writers consistently understand the Old Testament as written to the universal, new covenant people of God.”[2]

The intent of this post is to interact with Dr. Paul Henebury’s post concerning the question of the legitimacy of use of the expression “replacement theology” to describe what is essentially reformed covenant theology and its position regarding the nation of Israel in God’s program of redemption. Paul affirms that the use is a valid expression for the reformed position, and denies that position is consistent with the Old Testament prophecies concerning national Israel. His ground is a relentless subscription to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. I deny that the term is helpful or valid if it is understood in the sense that the promises concerning Israel in the Old Testament were to be taken in a literal sense and applied to physical Israel as a nation, rather than in a typological sense, and referencing the New Testament Church. My ground is the New Testament hermeneutic that I believe is employed by the writers of the New Testament as they interpret these Old Testament prophecies.

On the positive side, I hope to show that the New Testament writers made use of Old Testament prophecies and events, interpreting them in a very specific way that seems to have required more than natural rules of grammar and historical context. On the more critical side, I hope to show that if one applies the grammatical-historical principle with the rigidity that my good friend wishes, one might conclude, as many liberal theologians have, that the NT writers were simply wrong in their interpretation of certain OT passages. Of course, Henebury would never accept such a conclusion about the NT writers. Nevertheless, the intent here is to demonstrate the inconsistency in the kind of hermeneutic rigidity employed in the dispensational scheme. I believe the issue is less complex than a mere difference in hermeneutics. The real disagreement is located in how we both approach Scripture. My approach is from a reformed Baptist covenantal position while Henebury’s is from a more modern, dispensational station.

Genesis 3 and The Gospel

The gospel was first given to Adam and Eve by way of the initial revelation of the Covenant of Grace in Genesis 3:15. Baptist theology subscribed full to the notion of their being only one Covenant of Grace in the Bible, which brings together all who are saved as one people.[3] This initial announcement serves as the very beginning of the progressive revelation of the Covenant of Grace. One people of God, entering into covenant relationship with God by way of one over-arching covenant promise. Guided by this approach to redemptive history, it is easy to see how one might question the idea of a divine revelation that shifts too much attention toward a type, away from its anti-type. The promise of the head-crushing, attacking seed of the woman was a promise of redemption for all God’s people, those whom God had already decreed to redeem before man was created, before the fall, before the curse, and before the promise. Everything that stood between the decree and the actualization of redemption were servants of communication, types, symbols, copies of the actual.

Abrahamic Covenant in the New Testament

The book of Genesis chapter twelve records the conversion of Abraham and a promise of the covenant arrangement that would shape redemptive history from that point forward. One of the things God promises Abraham in this pericope is that he will make him a great nation and that in him all the families of the earth will be blessed. In chapter fifteen, God enacts the promise by entering into covenant with Abraham: On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram. The covenant with Abraham included the physical aspects that related to the type but its primary aim was something far greater than the dispensational method of hermeneutics can explain. A straight grammatical-historical reading of the text would never deliver the same interpretation we see in Paul. To the Romans, Paul made this point: He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well. (Rom. 4:11) The purpose of Abraham’s faith was so that he would be the father of all who believe without being circumcised! Taking the account of Abraham on its own terms, one would never be able to understand the true significance of the what was taking place at that time. More light is needed. Paul continues in Romans 9:8 where he writes; This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. Paul is telling us that the offspring of Abraham was never physical Israel. It was always the children of the promise. This is the same promise originally given in the garden: the promise of the covenant of grace! God’s plan to redeem his children is in motion in his dealings with Abraham.

Paul provides us with his interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians as well. Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 3:7) The offspring of Abraham are the children of promise, the children of faith, not the entire physical nation of Israel. This nation was mostly idolatrous in its population and across most of its history. But God always had a remnant. Paul tells us that Gen. 12:1-3 is nothing short of the gospel being preached to Abraham. (Gal. 3:8) This is the same gospel preached to Eve in Gen. 3:15. The promises of God to Abraham, so often claimed by dispensationalists to apply to physical Israel, Paul says are made to Christ. (Gen. 3:15-16) The ethnic distinction of national Israel in the Old Testament seems to have served its greater purpose: for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. (Gal. 3:26) We are all one in Christ Jesus. If we are Christ’s then we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise made to Abraham. (Gal. 3:28-29) If we limit our interpretation of this passage to just the grammar and context, it would seem impossible to properly interpret the promises given to and the covenant made with Abraham. Galatians and Romans are essential to understanding Genesis 12-22. And since Genesis 12-22 lay the foundation for the rest of what is to follow in the Old Testament, it seems that understanding the New Testament interpretation of these events is necessary if one is to rightly understand the Old Testament.

Sinaitic Covenant in the New Testament

What place does the law have in the plan of redemption? We all know that the purpose of the law is to point us to Christ. The law was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made. The law was always only temporary and always served to point us to our need for Christ, the promised offspring who would redeem us and set us free from sin once and for all. The purpose of the law was to imprison everything under sin, so that the promise that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. It is always about the believing ones in Christ Jesus. It is never truly about a physical nation or an ethnic origin. The redemptive plan of God always concerns the “believing ones.” Surely Paul is alluding to this fact in Romans 11:32 where he again makes the point that God’s plan is not dealing with ethnicity primarily, but all humanity: For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Jew and Gentile alike are clearly in the same boat. There is no boasting for either Jews or non-Jews. We are all children of Eve in need of deliverance from the serpent. And in Christ, we are all children of the promise, offspring of Abraham.

Davidic Covenant in the New Testament

The Davidic Covenant is found in 2 Sam. 7:8-16. The covenant contains language that explicitly prohibits one from understanding it in a physical sense. There is no question that the throne of David and placement of Israel in place from which they can never be moved and so that violent men will never afflict them again cannot possibly be intended to apply to physical Israel. It must be the case that just as David’s Son is the One offspring of Abraham, so too, Israel in this case must be the children of promise as mentioned above. If we read the text simply in the grammatical-historical fashion, we would have to conclude that Israel is physical Israel and Solomon is the son about whom David is speaking and his sons after him. But we know this cannot be the case since it is clear that kings of Israel and Judah were mostly wicked and that Israel was in fact displaced from its land. We also see that to this day, violence fills the everyday life of the nation of Israel. How can the dispensationalist claim that Israel is physical while the Son is Christ? And how can they criticize the reformed interpretation for saying neither the Son nor the nation are physical in the sense that a plain natural reading would imply?

We see the promise of an eternal throne of David repeated in Jer. 33:14-26. This is nothing more than a restatement of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam. 7. It should be understood in the very same way. We should look through Christ, through the light of the New Testament to Gen. 3, to Gen. 12-22, to 2 Sam. 7, to Jer. 31 and 33, and Ezekiel 37. In other words, we should look through the lens of the New Testament in order to understand the covenants and promises of the Old. Matt. 1:1 calls Jesus the Son of David! Mark tells us that Jesus was the Son of David. Luke says that Jesus came from the house of David. Rev. 5:5 is clearly a reference to Jer. 33:15, “the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David.” The Davidic covenant was always a covenant that build upon the promises given in the garden and the covenant made with Abraham. It must be understood to pertain NOT to national Israel or to a physical son. Instead, it pertains to the Israel of God which consists of the children of promise, the believing ones and to the eternal King, the Son of David whom David himself called Lord!

New Covenant: In the Old Concealed, in the New Revealed

The dispensationalist position is that a plain reading of the Old Testament text employing a grammatical-historical method is the only way to truly understand the text and as such, is the desired way to understand the New. I contend that not only is such an approach far too rigid, it is simply false on the face of it. It seems to me that the New provides a clearer light in which the Old is even better understood. I believe Paul made this point very clear in his second letter to the Corinthians: But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. (2 Cor. 3:14) The minds of unbelievers, including the Jews were and are hardened. Paul says that it is a necessary condition of understanding the old covenant is to read it through Christ. To read the old through Christ is the only way to understand it. In other words, there is a supernatural component involved in reading the Old for which the dispensational hermeneutic does not account. The veil remains so long as the unregenerate heart remains.

Conclusion: Replacement Theology Ignores the Divine Council

The dispensationalists want to read Christ into the text where He must be read into the text, but then claim at the same time claim that they are just employing a plain grammatical-historical reading when that is simply not the case. The fact is that in order to get Christ into many of these texts, the plain grammatical-historical method has to be suspended to make room for him. So the question arises, why can the G-H method be suspended for Christ but not the Church? At a minimum, this is a glaring inconsistency in the method.

Since the purpose of God from eternity past was to redeem his people according to the purpose of his own will, we should genuinely pause and ask, in what sense is the New Testament Church as we understand it, replacing national Israel? If you believe, as I do, that national Israel was never the true object of God’s promises, that she was never the godly nation that many dispensationalists wrongly think she was, then the idea of replacement, if appropriate at all, must be very narrowly defined. I am not disputing the language that has been used around this topic in the history of reformed thought. I am also not disputing that God covenant included the physical seed of Abraham. What I am arguing is such arrangements are better understood as types, copies, and shadows that serve to point to the anti-type. I do think that an understanding of reformed covenant theology is critical if we are to understand what is meant by the idea of “replacement.” It is true that God elected national Israel from among all the other nations of the earth for his own purposes. It is true that Israel has played a significant role in redemptive history. I do not wish to diminish that fact, and neither does reformed theology. But the question as to a future place for national, ethnic Israel is dubious at best for the very reasons mentioned above. The promises and prophecies are forced into a scheme supported by a hermeneutic that is at best highly inconsistent and at worse extremely biased by the theological system from which it originates. If we mean replacement from the standpoint that the anti-type always replaces the type, then I am agreeable to that definition. But if we mean that God’s plan includes a significant role for national Israel, that the covenants and promises guarantee as much and that reformed theology has somehow hi-jacked God’s intentions, then I could not disagree more. It seems clear that the NT writers did not approach the Old Testament with this sort of hermeneutic.

Finally, we know that faith is a gift from God according to Eph. 2:8-10. God dispenses the gift of faith to those whom He has been pleased to call to himself. It has been this way from the beginning. The offspring to whom the promises and prophecies belong has always been the believing ones. And one can only believe if God acts to regenerate. The promise of the covenant of grace in Gen. 3, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant all serve as covenantal signposts pointing us toward the new covenant established in the blood of Christ, an eternal covenant between God and the believing ones, the offspring of Abraham, the children of promise.

What is the future of national Israel? Will all Israel then be saved? The famous text used to affirm this is found in Romans 11:26: And so all Israel will be saved. The future salvation of the entire nation is held by people from both camps. It is one thing to say that national Israel has a future as national Israel and quite another to say that all of Israel will be saved. Even if one interprets Paul as saying that all Israel will be saved, that does not mean they must accept the dispensational idea that the covenants and promises of the Old Testament pertain to physical Israel. In the end, the dispensational scheme is simply wrong to claim that you cannot read the New back into the Old. If you do not do this, you are left with a lot of explaining to do, not to mention that one of the things that will need to be explained is how they read Christ where the GH method cannot deliver Christ. If one carefully examines the NT texts and arguments that I have mentioned in this post, they should be able to see that the NT writers surely approached the OT texts with a method that is out of step with the claims of the Dispensational approach. It also seems clear to me that reading the Bible backwards produces tremendous exegetical fruit.


[1] Dempster, Stephen, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, 231.

[2] Waltke, Bruce. An Old Testament Theology, 45.

[3] Denault, Pascal. The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 56.

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