Antisemitism and “Replacement Theology”
Last summer, the murder of eleven Jewish people while at worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue stunned so many of us, not just because it represented an assault on religious freedom in the United States, but because it served as an ugly reminder that Antisemitism still lurks in the shadows of American life. In the last ten years, we have seen horrible Antisemitism manifested in Europe and the Middle East, but beginning with Charlottesville and the alt-right “tiki-torch” march through the campus of the University of Virginia in the summer of 2017 we were shocked to see it expressed in such hateful ways in our own country.
All of this has caused me to reflect on subtle ways that Antisemitism can shape even movements that I identify with, like American Evangelicalism. I had never heard the term “replacement theology” until I heard it used several years ago mostly in contexts related to forms of Dispensationalism. So at first, I was unsure of what those who used the term meant by it. I have heard a similar idea expressed as “succession” in terms that the church succeeded Israel as the people of God (something I have never ascribed to). Roman Catholicism sees the visible church centered in Rome under the Bishop of Rome as being the visible successor of Old Testament Israel. Luther and Calvin (and the movements they established) identified the church as primarily invisible made up of all Christians both past and present. Hence for many who identify as Protestants, this invisible church was the successor to Old Testament Israel.
My view is framed by the olive tree analogy that Paul uses in Romans (as well as Jesus’s description of the vine and branches in John 15)–there is one people of God made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Jewish followers of Jesus represent the true Judaism and are “natural” branches on the tree. Gentile followers (probably most of you who are reading this) are the “wild” branches grafted onto the same tree. So we have a tree (representing the People of God) with a strong trunk rooted in the Triune God with natural branches (Jewish followers) and wild branches (Gentile followers). Jews and Gentiles retain their distinctiveness but are one new people.
When Paul wrote Romans (I think around AD 55 or so), Christianity had begun its transition from being mostly Jewish in its first two generations, to mostly Gentile in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. In reading Romans, I think Paul is writing this to a church in the midst of this transition. He had spent the first eight chapters describing the essence of the Gospel and how it was available to Jew and Gentile alike through faith in Jesus Christ. So the question emerges among the Roman Christians, both Jew and Gentile, as to God’s intention for the Jewish people. And Paul was adamant that God was not yet finished with the Jewish people. Personally, I think that Paul is referencing Jewish Christians in Romans 9-11, and despite the shrinking number of Jewish believers for a variety of reasons, God will bring the gospel to bear once again among them.
I find it fascinating that in our day and time, we see two trends among those who trace their ethnic heritage to Judaism. First, so many Jews in Europe and America, and even in Israel, have become atheist or agnostic in their religious beliefs. I attribute much of this to the aftermath of the Holocaust. When I read Jewish writers like Vicktor Frankl, I hear deep pain in their words as they wrestle with what they perceive as the absence of God in the midst of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Antisemitism from which those horrors emerged. And there is little doubt that those who have claimed Christianity over the centuries have contributed significantly to Antisemitism becoming such a force in the world. The Holocaust raises theodicy to whole new levels–not simply intellectual but deeply personal. One cannot be a Christian and blow off profound questions regarding suffering and evil in the modern world.
But the second current gives me great hope. Today there are more Jewish followers of Jesus than at any time in human history. While still a small portion of the 13.5 million ethnic Jewish people in the world, the number of Messianic Jews is now in the thousands. And this even with the legacy of Antisemitism that has permeated much of the Western world and too large a portion of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. In one way, I hope that my dispensationalist friends are right, and that there will be a major movement to Christ among the Jewish people as we approach the end of history.
I am one who believes that the primary signal of the return of Christ to earth will be the preaching of the gospel worldwide. Even while society continues to become increasingly bound to sin and lawlessness, I think that God will bring revival like we have never seen before as the gospel is preached and people respond. And this great revival before the end of history will include a move of God among Jewish people, something that I think has already started in earnest.
For now, understanding that God is still at work among Jewish people must cause us to reject all forms of Antisemitism. We should never be afraid to speak in opposition to anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. We should recognize and repudiate the Antisemitism that characterized many who claimed Christianity throughout the past nineteen centuries. As the late Edith Schaeffer titled one of her books, “Christianity is Jewish.” The one whom we claim to follow as Messiah was a Jew as were almost all of his followers during the initial years of the Jesus movement.
Holy Scripture allows no room for Antisemitism. Neither should any of us who claim to follow the Messiah Jesus Christ.