In this post I’m not going to adjudicate the pros and cons of supersessionism. Instead, I’m going to discuss crucial ambiguities in the debate. Fact is, we can’t evaluate a position until we’re clear on what the position represents.
I. What replaces what?
A popular synonym for supersessionism is replacement theology. And that synonym raises a question: what replaces what?
A simple formulation is to say the “church” replaces “Israel.” However, that claim doesn’t mean very much unless we define the key terms.
Does it mean one people-group (i.e. Gentiles) replace another people-group (ethnic Jews) in God’s program? But it can’t be that simple.
i) On the one hand, Gentiles could already convert to Judaism under the Mosaic covenant.
ii) On the other hand, God has elect Jews in the church age. Messianic Jews. They, too, belong to the church.
Does “Israel” stand for the Mosaic covenant? Perhaps. But that raises the hotly contested issue of how much carryover there is between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.
Moreover, even if you think the Mosaic covenant was abrogated in toto, that still leaves open the question of how the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled.
Does “Israel” stand for the theocratic nation-state of ancient Israel? Perhaps.
But the degree of continuity or discontinuity depends on your eschatology. Dispies believe that God will reinstate a Davidic theocracy during the millennium. Christ will reign both in and from Jerusalem.
By contrast, amils believe that in the New Jerusalem, the entire world will be a theocracy. God will dwell with his people on the new earth. God will reign over his people.
In that sense, there will be a reinstated theocracy. A global theocracy.
Of course, one sense in which the Mosaic covenant is obsolete is the termination of the Mosaic cultus to atone for sin. That’s behind us, not before us.
II. The Church
Ironically, supersessionism and dispensationalism share a key assumption: the new covenant inaugurates the church.
In supercessionism, Israel and the church represent two successive, disjunctive stages in redemptive history. Israel is phased out when the church is phased in.
In traditional Reformed theology, by contrast, the church comprises the people of God throughout all ages. You don’t have two different entities (Israel, the church) which represent respective stages in redemptive history. Rather, the same entity (the church) goes passes through various stages throughout the course of redemptive history.
On that definition, supersessionism is moot. For supersessionism accepts a necessary condition which traditional Calvinism rejects.
Of course, we can debate the pros and cons of traditional Reformed ecclesiology on this point, but for now I’m merely drawing attention crucial ambiguities in the debate.
III. Fulfillment in Christ
Supersessionism says the promises God made to Israel were fulfilled in Christ. And, of course, there’s a fundamental sense in which that’s true.
However, that doesn’t resolve the issue. Although the promises are fulfilled in Christ, they are not fulfilled for Christ. Christ is not the direct beneficiary. Rather, he fulfills the promises on behalf of his people. They are the beneficiaries. So who are his people, and what benefits accrue to his people?
There is more than one way in which one thing may fulfill another.
i) A shell fulfills its purpose by protecting what’s inside (i.e. the seed, the chick) until what’s inside has matured to the point where it can survive outside the shell.
In supersessionism, Israel is like the protective shell or cocoon during the gestation phase of redemptive history. But once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, the chrysalis has served its purpose.
ii) However, fulfillment can also take the form of restoration. You can be unfulfilled if you need something you never had, yet you can also be unfulfilled if you had something you need but no longer have. On this definition, fulfillment is a type of restoration or renewal. Promised restoration.
The Bible contains many restoration motifs: lost and found, exile and return, disease and healing, apostasy and restoration, blindness/sightedness, old Eden/new Eden, old Jerusalem/new Jerusalem, old Mt. Zion/new Mt. Zion, rebirth, resurrection, reunion, and remnant theology.
Indeed, that’s the basic narrative underlying the story of salvation, viz. leaving home, returning home.
The parable of the prodigal son is a classic example. What has changed is not so much home, but the traveler. The journey changes the traveler. The outward motion of leaving home enriches the inward motion of coming home.
In a sense, what he comes back to is the same, but he is different. Time away from home was a maturing experience. A refining process.
This is not enough to disprove supersessionism. It does, however, present an alternative definition of fulfillment. Whether that’s true, false, or a just half-truth in reference to the fate of Israel demands more argument. But it’s something we need to explore.