Should We Replace the Term Replacement Theology?

Words, as every one  knows, ‘mean’ nothing by themselves although the belief that they did…was once equally universal. It is only when a thinker makes use of them that they stand for anything, or, in one sense, have ‘meaning.’[1]

Donald Davidson: An utterance can no doubt be interpreted by a correct theory, but if the problem is to determine when an interpretation is correct, it is no help to support the theory that yields it by giving samples of correct interpretations. There is an apparent impasse; we need the theory before we can recognize the evidence on its behalf.[2]

Biblical interpretation has generally been dominated by religious interests. Not all these, however, are theological. That category embraces different levels of sophistication, but properly refers to the intellectual process of articulating a religious belief and practice by relating an authoritative religious tradition to contemporary knowledge and experience, and vice versa.[3]

Premodern hermeneutics recognized clearly that a self-understanding requires a careful balance of self-knowledge with a transcendent source of knowledge. Without one eye on the interpreter’s human nature and another on the transcendent structures that make interpretation possible, genuine reciprocity in interpretation soon collapses into subjectivism, no matter how much we insist on reason as a universal measure for truth.[4]

 A doctrine of Scripture is therefore right to conceive of the Bible as God’s mighty speech acts: “not merely as the record of the redemptive acts by which God is saving the world, but as itself one of these redemptive acts, having its own part to play in the great work of establishing and building up the kingdom of God.”[5]

On the surface, grammatical constructions, such as the context of a passage and the viewpoint from which it was written, play important roles. But on a deeper level, understanding depends not on technical rules but on a relation to the divine, namely, the communion with Christ.[6]

We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being. Out main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them.[7]

Since nothing is being replaced from a covenantal standpoint, then the answer is yes, the term ‘replacement theology’ should be replaced with something more precise. As soon as Adam rebelled, God’s decretive purpose in election began. He chose Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. From within the natural offspring of Abraham, there would always exist a true offspring to whom the promise belonged. This offspring would come to be counted as the sands of the sea and the stars of the heaven. There would be a proliferation of this offspring in what is also known as the elect.

The question with which dispensationalists and others are dealing is a question of theological hermeneutics. After all, hermeneutics apart from theology is impossible. And theology without hermeneutics isn’t theology. The two fields are interdependent on one another. There is a forest before us. There are two ways to approach, and explore the forest. The first is to enter the forest on foot. With this approach you trudge through thickets, briars, weeds, up and down ravines, across rivers and creeks. But the overall landscape of the forest, how it connects one mountain with another, one stream with another, is missed. Another way to enter the forest is from above. In this approach you can see how everything connects. There is a sense of order and beauty that is quite different from the other approach. I believe the dispensationalist walks into the forest of Scripture and fixates on a tree, a stream, a field and because he does so, he misses the forest for the trees. The best way to explore the forest is to get a birds-eye view first and then to let down and set off on foot. The advantages of such a synergistic approach are immeasurable.

We rarely read the Bible to discover truth; more often, we wish to harmonize it with our belief system and see its meaning in light of our preconceived theological system.[8] This is a problem with which every student of Scripture must struggle. This has been the case from the very beginning of written communication. So where does one begin? Every hermeneutic text worth its salt tells us that context determines meaning more than any other single factor in the interpretive project.

It is only human nature for any person receiving and conveying important traditions to view them from the perspective that most clearly makes sense in the context of that person’s particular religious, cultural, social, economic, and intellectual milieu, which often will not be the same as the milieu presumed earlier by the person or group that created or previously transmitted the tradition(s).[9]

There are two fundamental points that are necessary to a biblically faithful theology of hermeneutics. The first is a theology of Scripture (birds-eye view) and the second is a proper exegesis (setting off on foot). Both of these are essential ingredients to the interpretive process. We begin with one’s view of the Bible. What is the Bible? We look at the sacred Scripture as a whole. That is to say, we begin with the Bible as God’s revelation as a whole. Everything else within the text is interpreted through our view of the nature of Scripture and what God is doing. Why does the Bible exist? What is the Bible really doing? Galatians apart from the rest of Scripture is hardly intelligible. So it is with any other piece of Scripture. The quilt of Scripture is intended to remain stitched together. What jigsaw puzzle is discernible until it is put together. Take one piece at time it seems fit for nothing. But when it is pieced together as intended, the scene can often be quite moving.

Charles Hill writes, “Yet it would be correct to say that the church received its conception of Scripture from Scripture itself, and from Jesus and his apostles in what soon become a new body of Scripture.”[10] The nature of Christian belief itself requires a self-attesting, self-authenticating, and self-interpreting Scripture. Nothing less will do. This is the nature of the Christian Text. From Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, God is doing something very specific. And the goal of hermeneutics is to understand what God is doing so that we might be what God has intended us to be through the work He is doing in Scripture.

Immediately after the fall, God promises redemption. He proclaims the gospel to the first family in Genesis 3:15. This is the gospel of grace! In Revelation 22:21, John writes, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Divine favor can only be extended if divine wrath has been turned aside. And divine wrath can only be turned aside if divine justice has been satisfied. Revelation 22:21 ends where Genesis 3:15 began: The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the context of the Bible. To be sure, the Bible is really about God revealing Himself to humanity through the story of the gospel of redemption in order to display his glory and to be glorified by all his creation. The doxological purpose is accomplished through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemption of God’s elect. That is what the Bible is all about. To be sure, there are many trees in this forest but none of them ought to distract us from the overall beauty of the forest itself.

The basic problem that I see in the dispensationalist’s insistence that there is a literal kingdom-type future for national Israel is located in its hermeneutic; a hermeneutic that is driven primarily by intense theological and philosophical commitments. I have said that the GHM is a necessary condition for understanding the biblical text on several occasions. However, I have also said that this method nor any other single method is sufficient for understanding it. In all of my good friend’s remarks on the subject of replacement theology I have discerned what Vern Poythress calls the elimination of the divine author. Henebury et al seem all too eager to pay close attention to the human author while ignoring the possibility that the divine author has more on his mind in a particular text than they care to admit. However, if we approach the Scripture for what it is, in its proper context, the context of the whole, we are in a much better position to benefit from its content and to experience both the human and the divine author’s intention.

It seems to me that the NT authors employed numerous tactics in how they read the OT. Certainly they cannot be said to have been faithful to the GHM in any sense of how we understand that method. Midrashic exegesis, typology and pesher patterns are utilized by the New Testament writers and permeate the pages of the New Testament.[11] This is hardly news to anyone who takes biblical hermeneutics seriously. Because of the complexities this tends to introduce to modern readers, appropriate caution is in order. Let the reader not just beware, but let him be aware!

There is a significant role for biblical theology to play in hermeneutics. Biblical theology looks for the relationship between the truths uncovered in the exegetical process and the larger truths that serve to underpin the movement of God’s progressive revelation. In this way, biblical theology plays a regulative role in the process of exegesis.[12] This brings us back to the principle that Scripture is self-interpreting. In his article, Henebury continues to come back to God’s original communication to an original audience. Silva observes, “On the other hand, the effort must be made to discover whether God has revealed basic principles that are applicable to our understanding of what language is and how it works.”[13] After all, can it be shown that the NT authors are also guilty of violating the rules of the GHM? I think there is no question that this is easily demonstrated.

The issue with which this whole replacement theology matter is concerned is really how the NT writers interpret the OT revelation. The divine author very often, even typically, had a deeper meaning than the human author involved in the revelation with which the human author had to do. This deeper meaning was not understood by the human authors of the Old Testament but is clearly understood when seen in the light of the further revelation of the New Testament.[14] To be fair to Henebury et al then, one might say that replacement theology could be appropriate if we eliminate the divine author, but not so if we consider Him. This would mean that replacement theology is an appropriate concept prior to the completion of New Testament revelation, but not so much after the fact. Rather than a deeper meaning, we may be better off referring to this phenomenon as typology.

For example, in Hosea 11:1 we read the following:  When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Would anyone at the time of this writing, including the human author, dispute that this text is referring to the Exodus? Clearly not! But somehow, Matthew connected this passage to Christ. Matt. 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” And then again we see Matt. 2:18 linked to Jer. 31:15. Clearly, Jeremiah was talking about the exile of the Northern Kingdom. Rachel was an ancestress of the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manneseh, as well as of Benjamin in the south. Ramah was a town five miles north of Jerusalem, the very place where exiles were gathered before deportation to Babylon. Now, Matthew takes this text and says that Herod’s actions were in fulfillment of Jer. 31:15. There is no sense in which the Hebrew audience would have understood this text this way. We have no choice but to conclude that the original Hebrew audience would not have read Hosea’s reference to the exodus nor Jeremiah’s reference to the exile the way that Matthew read it. Therefore, Henebury’s rule regarding how the original audience would have understood something seems dubious at best. The point is that they did understand the text from one standpoint, but they did not understand it in the larger theological context of which it appeared.

What are we to conclude so far? I think it is safe to say that if one eliminates the divine author from the scene and if one ignores the Jewish methods employed by the NT writers to interpret the OT, we can say that it is appropriate to use the term replacement theology with respect to national Israel as she relates to the overarching program of the redemptive plan. In that sense, it would appear as if the NT Church has replaced national Israel as God’s covenant people. However, if Matthew can apply the exodus event to Christ as a babe being called out of Egypt, and if he can apply the exile to Herod’s murderous expedition in search of the new King, surely Paul was not off base when he interpreted the covenants and the promises to be intended for a true, faithful Israel rather than the national entity. If this is true, it would seem to me that the concept of replacement theology is constructed on only a partial understanding of the voices we hear in the OT. And that is only true when we ignore the clearer voices of their NT colleagues.

[1] C K. Ogden and I A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language Upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ©1989), 9-10.

[2] Aloysius Martinich, ed., The Philosophy of Language, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 577.

[3] John Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, Cambridge Companions to Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 114.

[4] Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2004), 29.

[5] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©2002), 158.

[6] Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2004), 84.

[7] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Duane Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, Invitation to Theological Studies Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011), 694.

[8] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2006), 29.

[9] Hauser, Alan J., and Duane Frederick Watson, eds. A History of Biblical Interpretation. 4 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., ©2003- 2009, 2.

[10] D A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 44.

[11] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2006), 343.

[12] Ibid., 350-1

[13] Mosés Silva, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, ©1996), 205.

[14] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2006), 328-9.

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One Comment

  1. Ed, I want to thank you for this response to my pieces. I shall try to write a kind of Rejoinder when time allows. At present I have to prepare some Apologetics lectures for a class next month. I also need to listen to a radio broadcast that interacted with some of my material. But I will respond when I ca.

    God bless you and yours,

    Paul H

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