If you lived five-hundred years ago, you would have thought the earth to be at the center of the universe. It would have been hard to convince you otherwise, for we don’t sense the earth moving beneath our feet, but we do see the sun, moon, stars and planets spin across the sky. While various cultures around the world followed the geocentric model, it was Claudius Ptolemy (100 – 170 A.D.) who formally explained the motion of the planets as a combination of their orbit around the earth, plus a mysterious epicycle to explain why the planets backtracked at times in the sky. His theory prevailed for over 1200 years, not just because it felt true, but because it worked: astronomers found it useful to predict the apparent motion of the planets in the sky.
But then Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543 A.D.) proposed a heliocentric model for the solar system, where the earth and other planets orbit around the sun. This explained the motion of the planets in a simpler way, eliminating the need for an epicycle. For a time, there was resistance to this view, especially in the Roman Catholic church 1, but eventually people saw Ptolemy’s model was wrong and went with Copernicus. Today, we realize the benefits of this in the science of space exploration. For example, we could never have sent the Mariner 9 and later spacecraft to Mars based on a geocentric view of the universe.
There is a theological parallel to this. Just as Ptolemy’s geocentric model prevailed among astronomers for hundreds of years, for almost 1900 years, a key doctrine of supersessionism (or ‘replacement theology’) prevailed over much of the church. Like Ptolemy’s geocentric model, this doctrine appeared to explain various things in the scriptures, and it profoundly affected the Church’s view of the Jews, end-times prophecy, and theology in general. It still does so today to some degree.
The doctrine of supersessionism became popular through something Justin Martyr wrote in 160 A.D, which Origen and Irenaeus also supported. Justin wrote:
“For we are the true and spiritual Israelitish nation, and the race of Judah and of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, who when he was still uncircumcised received witness from God for his faith, and was blessed, and was called father of many nations-we, I say, are all this, who were brought nigh to God by Him who was crucified, even Christ, …”
Dialog with Trypho, XI, 5
Justin was carrying on a debate with Trypho, a non-believing Jew, over how the new covenant superseded the old covenant law, and how Jesus fulfilled the old covenant law for us. While these points are true, Justin promoted an erroneous idea along with it. He said believers in Jesus Christ (including the Gentiles) have replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. In other words, national Israel is no longer God’s people. (In this series, when I mention supercessionism or replacement theology, I am referring to this tenet specifically.) To those who subscribe to this doctrine, the passages we are going to look at seem to directly support what they believe. But this is an eisegetical induction—something that came about by selecting scriptures to support an opinion, while ignoring other scriptures that oppose it.
In this series, we’re going to look at the most common proof-texts for replacement theology to see what they say in context. But first, we’re going to look at some other scriptures that directly contradict this doctrine, because the supersession proof-texts must be interpreted in light of what the rest of the Bible says. After this, I’d like to show the effects of replacement theology on church doctrine and practice.