Very few theological issues have been so contentious and hotly debated as the relationship between the Church and Israel. Wishing to preserve the integrity and significance of historical Israel (or the nation of Israel), some Christians have argued that God has established two separate covenants, one with Israel and the other with the Church. This view, however, has very little warrant in Scripture, a close reading of which will show that it in fact speaks only of one divine electing and saving activity.
Others maintain that the Christian Church has succeeded and therefore replaced Israel as Abraham’s true spiritual seed. This view is variously labelled as ‘replacement theology’, ‘fulfilment theology’ and ‘supersessionism’. The last is the commonest and oldest of the three labels and the one that I will use in this essay. The term ‘supersessionism’ comes from two Latin words: super (on or upon) and sedere (to sit). Therefore the term suggests the idea of one person sitting on another’s chair, thus displacing the other person. A supersessionist theology of the Church in relation to Israel therefore maintains that the Christian Church, which comprises both Jews and Gentiles, has replaced historical Israel as the people of God.
Although there are many versions of supersessionism, this view in the main has the support of the Bible’s most significant passages on this subject. The New Covenant inaugurated by Christ introduces a new understanding of the people of God, which is not established on ethnic or national grounds. In Romans 4:16, Paul maintains that the ‘seed of Abraham’ includes people who are ‘not only of the law, but of the faith of Abraham’. In addition, for Paul, the Jew is not defined as someone who has been physically circumcised, but he who has undergone the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit of God (Rom 2:28, 29). More explicitly, the Apostle in Galatians 3:29 teaches that those who ‘belong to Christ’ are ‘Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’. Thus by these and many other imageries, Paul seeks to show that the ‘seed of Abraham’ are those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul also takes great pains to show that all the privileges and blessings that were promised to Israel are now directed with renewed force and significance to the Church, the new people of God. The Church is therefore described as the children of God (Rom 8:14ff.; Eph 1:5), heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29; 4:7), and sharing in the inheritance promised to Abraham (Rom 8:17; cf. 4:13; Col 1:2). Because of this, the Church may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2; 8:21; 2 Cor 3:7ff., 18; Phil 3:19), and enjoy the splendour and majesty of the very presence of God (Rom 9:4). Because all the variegated designations of historical Israel as the people of God are now applied to the Church, the latter may be called the new or true Israel.
If the ‘seed of Abraham’ are those who have faith in Jesus Christ, then, as Herman Ridderbos has put it, ‘only insofar as it believes in Christ may it lay claim to the name of Abraham’s children and to the promises given to Abraham and his seed. And insofar as it rejects Christ and trusts in the possession of the law, circumcision, and its own righteousness, it can no longer assert its right to the name and privilege of Israel in the redemptive-historical sense’. But does this mean that God has abandoned historical Israel and revoked his promises to them?
In order to answer this question, we must look at the whole expanse of salvation history revealed in the Bible and which is still unfolding today. Despite Israel’s unbelief, Paul is confident that God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew (Rom 11:1-5). This means that although Israel has rejected the Gospel, there is a remnant that will, in the end, through faith appropriate God’s promises. There is therefore, in the mind of the Apostle, a tension-filled unity in the rejection of Israel as God’s people on the one hand, and her election on the other. The Apostle emphasised this tension emphatically when he insisted that ‘God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:28, 29).
For Paul, the hardening of Israel, her unbelief, has resulted in God’s redemption being extended to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11). But just as the stream of God’s saving grace flows from unbelieving Israel to the Gentiles, so now this grace must flow from the believing Gentiles back to unbelieving Israel. The salvation that has gone to the Gentiles will stir disobedient Israel to jealousy, and by the preaching of the Word by the Gentiles Israel will abandon their unbelief, put her faith in Christ and so obtain salvation from God. Thus, it was because of the hardening of historical Israel that the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ will come into the kingdom. And when this has happened ‘all Israel’, that is, the true, spiritual Israel, comprising both Jews and Gentiles, will be saved (Rom 11: 26). There is therefore no contradiction in maintaining that the Church is the people of God on the one hand, and holding that Israel is the object of God’s irrevocable gift and promise on the other.
Millard Erickson has summed up this view well: ‘the church is the new Israel. It occupies the place in the new covenant that Israel occupied in the old … There is a special future coming for national Israel, however, through large-scale conversion to Christ and entry into the church … [Israel is] still the special people of God’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Methodist Message.