Michael Vlach: Has the Church Replaced Israel?


A friend sent me a copy of Vlach’s recently published book, “Has the Church Replaced Israel?”  I don’t often have opportunity to read current books, and so I’ve enjoyed reading this one.  Vlach’s book is one of only a few that give serious treatment to the scriptural and theological issues of biblical dispensationalism. I’ve read some of his online articles at his website (Theological Studies.org), so it was nice to read this book also.  I’ve not completed the book yet, just the first ten chapters, and so the following is from my observations thus far.

Vlach notes the standard objection from those who don’t like to use the term “replace,”  and establishes the definition from the fact that, regardless of what term people want to give for their belief, that belief does involve replacing one promise to one people group with another promise to a different group.  The well-known amillennialist story of a dad promising his son a set of wheels, so that he expects a car, and instead gets a super-duper sports car, is told here, with the clear point that the illustration is not accurate.  In supersessionism, the dad gives the fancy sports car to someone else instead of to his son.

After establishing the definition, several chapters cover church history, from the 1st century to the present, and provide great detail concerning the church-replacement views of various theologians.  The basic content here is similar to Barry Horner’s coverage in his “Future Israel” book (which Vlach also mentions among his sources), though with different coverage in some of the details.  I had forgotten some of the details from Horner’s book, and Vlach’s material is likewise refreshing.  Among the important points, Vlach brings out the fact that church replacement was already well entrenched by the time of Justin Martyr, who was only saying in his own words an idea not original with him.  Vlach also emphasizes the difference between “strong supersessionism” (no future for national Israel) with “moderate supersessionism” (future large-scale salvation for Israel, associated with the Second Coming), and he presents good evidence that throughout history the majority of the church have held to moderate supersessionism.  Only Martin Luther, in some of his later writings, is especially noted as taking a strong supersessionist view.  From the historical case Vlach further suggests that strong supersessionism is a minority view.

Next, Vlach considers the theological and hermeneutical issues, including treatment of specific passages.  This book covers very well the overall distinctions, such as the difference between the supersessionist  “either-or” and the “both-and” view of non-supersessionists.  A NT passage can have application to us in the church age, but that in no way negates the original prophecy and its meaning.  Vlach also discusses the idea of partial-fulfillment, and so it appears he takes more of a “progressive dispensationalist” approach regarding some of the specific texts he addresses:  partial fulfillment of a text “in some way” by the church, with future complete fulfillment.

Another good topic covered is typology, an issue which supersessionists rely heavily on for support of their replacement view.  Again, Israel is not a type of the church, even if some aspects of Israel’s experience have application for us in the church today.  Vlach (like John MacArthur) takes the more limited definition of typology, that only those things explicitly revealed in the NT as “types” can be called types – and “types” are something different than illustrations.  I considered this matter last year (this post), and now better understand the different definitions of “types.” Vlach is among those who see two categories, “types” versus “illustrations,” whereas some like-minded teachers view all illustrations as types (the words being synonymous): regardless of whether an explicit mention is made in the NT, a type/illustration follows the rules regarding the parallel correspondences.  The main problem with supersessionist typology, as I see it, is the broadbrushing without addressing specific passages.  It’s not enough to just say “Israel is a type of the church, God’s people” and disregard most if not all of the Old Testament as not worth serious study.  Types (regardless of whether they are specifically called that in the NT) involve specifics: a specific Old Testament passage, and specific correspondences between the original event, person, or institution and the New Testament equivalent understanding.

What I learned and found especially interesting is the treatment of specific passages, and the different variations of interpretations even amongst non-supersessionist theologians.  For instance, Vlach’s handling of Acts 15, where James cites Amos during the Jerusalem council, seems rather weak as compared to other expositions of that passage (see this post and this follow-up). Here, he does point out the importance of looking at the overall context, that Acts 15 is not a passage talking about eschatology; the main topic is the acceptance of Gentiles as Gentiles rather than Jewish converts, and so no one should use that text to prove the amillennialist view.  He also notes that James only says that “this agrees with” rather than citing fulfillment.  But then Vlach takes what appears to be a middle-road approach, that James must have seen this as somehow a partial fulfillment “in some sense” of the original Amos passage.  Yet I did not see where he further explained what he meant there.

Despite a few shortcomings (such as the handling of Acts 15), though, I have enjoyed reading Michael Vlach’s book, Has the Church Replaced Israel?  Vlach gives a good read overall, concerning the basic issues and answering the overall reasons that supersessionists give for their interpretation.

  1. April 5, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Very interesting Lynda. I have no choice now; will have to get the book, if I want to sleep nights. Will Vlach’s (Not Vlad’s, phew) site.

    As you know very well, SL Johnson has a marvellous series on “The future of ethnic Israel.”

  2. April 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Thanks, bography. Yes, SL Johnson has some excellent series regarding Israel and the future kingdom of God upon the earth. I haven’t listened to that particular series yet (a focus on Romans 11), but am now going through his full Romans series (in Romans 8 at the moment).

  3. Rick Brownell
    April 8, 2012 at 8:18 am

    I would contend that National Israel was characterized by three things– nationality, law and circumcision. These were for a limited time only and were shadows and types of the Lord’s earthly ministry and the Church. Shadows and types of the Old Covenant have their reality in the New Covenant. The proper meaning of “Jew” (Rom. 2:28, 29); “Israel” (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 6:15-16); “Jerusalem” (Gal. 4:26); “Seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:29); “Sion” (1 Peter 2:6; Heb 12:22; Rom. 9:33). The “tribes of Jacob” are those who are Jews inwardly, the entire household of faith (James 1:1; Acts 26:7).

    • April 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

      I suggest that you read Vlach’s book, which addresses all of these issues in much more detail, and interact with his book and this post.

      • April 15, 2012 at 5:26 am

        Rick

        Mike’s Musings has a good critique of charles Provan’s “The Church is Israel now.” http://fromthetopcom.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/is-church-israel-now.html

        Mike says:

        Nowhere in the book do you take into account Romans 11:1: ‘Did God reject his people? By no means!’ Nor do you engage with Old Testament verses such as Deuteronomy 4:31: ‘For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.’ Nowhere do you take into account Jeremiah 31:35-37:

        This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD Almighty is his name: ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the LORD, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,’ declares the LORD.

  4. May 2, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for the reply Bography. I had actually forgotten to get back to this issue earlier when you posted, and returned here today after reading Lynda’s pot this morning. It is proper for the Bible student to ask “what about the aspect of ‘everlastingness’ to the promises God made? Isn’t there an obligation on God’s part to fulfill what were clearly “everlasting” promises?” as you remarked in Deut. 4:31.

    The Amillenial response is that certain Old Testament promises were eternal, yet cease to be in effect. The Old Testament use of the word “eternal” (or the inferential notion of it in the passage) must be interpreted according to the radius of time being dealt with. For instance, each example listed below was instituted and pronounced by God Himself to be ‘eternal.’ If we interpret these passages literally to mean ‘eternity’ there are some difficulties that ensue aren’t there?

    Sabbath- Exodus 31:16-17
    Circumcision- Genesis 17:9-14
    Priesthood- Exodus 40:15; Numbers 25:13

    I’ve given you the verses so you can read for yourself that God instituted these as eternal promises. In addition, II Chronicles 7:16 says God promised to live in Solomon’s house forever. Yet that house was destroyed and does not exist today. Did the God of eternal promises break His promise? Or did “forever” mean for as long as the house stood? Why isn’t the “prone to see all things literally” dispensationalist concerned with the eternal fulfillment of this promise? Or for that matter, with the eternal fulfillment of the Sabbath, circumcision and priesthood?
    An eternal priestly promise was in effect just as long as the priesthood existed in terms of how God meant it to be understood at the time it was created; a legal eternal promise (circumcision) was in effect only as long as the law regarding it was in effect; an eternal promise to national Israel was in effect only as long as God dealt with Israel as a nation (and here there is quite a discrepancy, as the dispensationalist says He still is waiting to finish dealing with Israel, and the Amillennialist says that there is no distinction between [true] Israel and the church, a case that I believe can be strongly supported in Scripture. But again, it is a matter of one’s hermeneutic we will probably not agree on).

    Promise with reference to the temple was binding upon God until the very second the temple ceased to exist; an eternal promise under the old covenant was in effect only during the life of that old covenant. To say the least, theological pandemonium has blossomed out of the attempt to make promises made under the law binding upon God long after the law has served its purpose in God’s program. I could write much more here, but let this suffice as at least an expression of the way the problem that Boice says the Amillennialist cannot answer is actually very satisfactorily answered in the Amillennialist camp.

    This naturally relates to Lynda’s question today: “If nations exist in eternity, and people in the New Earth have identity with nations, then why not have Israel as a nation as well? The biblical case for nations, both in the Millennial Kingdom as well as in the New Creation Eternal State, is abundantly clear, so why would God’s purposes for the nations exclude the nation Israel?”

    I would suggest that the issue is the same as the other eternal covenant promises God set up that he no longer seeks to fulfill. We know that circumcision of the heart is what God requires today for all believers, not circumcision of the flesh (Romans 2:28-29). The priesthood is attained by all believers in the Lord Jesus (1 Peter 2:5). The Sabbath becomes a rest in the Lord Jesus every day (Col. 2:16), “there is no doubt by the Lord Christ’s coming the ceremonial part of this commandment was abolished” (Institutes 2.8.31).

  5. May 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

    “What about the aspect of ‘everlastingness’ to the promises God made? Isn’t there an obligation on God’s part to fulfill what were clearly “everlasting” promises?

    The Amillenial response is that certain Old Testament promises were eternal, yet cease to be in effect. The Old Testament use of the word “eternal” must be interpreted according to the radius of time being dealt with. For instance, each example listed below was instituted and pronounced by God Himself to be eternal.

    Sabbath- Exodus 31:16
    Circumcision- Genesis 17:11-13
    Priesthood- Exodus 40:15; Numbers 25:13

    I’ve given you the verses so you can read for yourself that God instituted these as eternal promises. In addition, II Chronicles 7:16 says God promised to live in Solomon’s house forever. Yet that house was destroyed and does not exist today. Did the God of eternal promises break His promise? Or did “forever” mean for as long as the house stood? Why isn’t the “prone to see all things literally” dispensationalist concerned with the eternal fulfillment of this promise? Or for that matter, with the eternal fulfillment of the Sabbath, circumcision and priesthood?
    An eternal priestly promise was in effect just as long as the priesthood existed; a legal eternal promise was in effect only as long as the law was in effect; an eternal promise to national Israel was in effect only as long as God dealt with Israel as a nation (and here there is quite a discrepancy, as the dispensationalist says He still is waiting to finish dealing with Israel, and the Amillennialist says that there is no distinction between Israel and the church, a case that I believe can be strongly supported in Scripture. But again, it is a matter of one’s hermeneutic). Promise with reference to the temple was binding upon God until the very second the temple ceased to exist; an eternal promise under the old covenant was in effect only during the life of that old covenant. To say the least, theological pandemonium has blossomed out of the attempt to make promises made under the law binding upon God long after the law has served its purpose in God’s program. I could write much more here, but let this suffice as at least an expression of the way the problem that Boice says the Amillennialist cannot answer is actually very satisfactorily answered in the Amillennialist camp.

    • May 2, 2012 at 11:13 am

      I am well aware of the amillennialist spiritualizing hermeneutical approach to scripture, as one coming from a background of a local church teaching amillennialism/preterism — for too many years before I knew anything about premillennialism. As to 2 Chronicles 7:16, that is one of the key texts of the important Davidic Covenant, and futurist premillenialists indeed affirm that this promise did not end and was not broken, and will be fulfilled “forever” at the Second Coming. Bography has also pointed out some other important texts, Romans 11 and Jeremiah 31. Psalm 89, another of the three key Davidic Covenant texts, also has very sure and strong words concerning the nature of these promises.

      I’m not sure how the rest of your comment relates specifically to the above post. I’m not aware of Boice’s actual position, and here am referring to Vlach’s book. This issue of course is much larger than something that can be addressed briefly or in just one blog post.

      • May 3, 2012 at 1:46 am

        The following comment is pertinent:
        “My understanding is that the Old Testament prophets (viewed as a whole) basically thought of Mosaic torah living on into the new covenant age in the sense that it morphs into Messianic torah as per Moses’ prophecy in Deut 18:15-19. The old covenant is both superseded and subsumed by the new covenant, so there is a sense in which the old covenant continues on in the form of the new covenant. This is part of the argument of John’s Gospel with characters like Nathanael and verses like John 3:19-21; 5:46. Those who truly do their works in God (i.e., those who are faithful to the Mosaic covenant) come to the light of Christ. Believing in Moses in the new covenant age actually means believing in Jesus. Being a faithful keeper of Mosaic torah like Nathanael means that you will say of Jesus, “[he is] the Son of God! [He is] the king of Israel!” and follow him as the consequence.

        So even if עולם is taken to mean eternity, I don’t see any great problem. The Sabbath and circumcision still live on in the form of the eternal Sabbath and the circumcision of Christ that we participate in. In other words, the עולם of the old finds its eternal “yes” in Jesus and the new covenant.”

        http://berithroad.blogspot.com/2010/07/eternal-covenant-in-old-testament.html

        The preservation of ethnic Israel and the reign of Christ in the New Jerusalem on earth are distinct, but related, issues.

  6. May 3, 2012 at 9:12 am

    You replied:”The Sabbath and circumcision still live on in the form of the eternal Sabbath and the circumcision of Christ that we participate in. In other words, the עולם of the old finds its eternal “yes” in Jesus and the new covenant.”

    Well, if this isn’t a glaring example of the liberties taken in ‘literal interpretation’ I don’t know what is! I find it just short of fascinating that the “amillennialist is taking a spiritualizing hermeneutical approach to scripture in his interpretation” (as Lynda mentioned above), but you, with this interpretation are supposedly taking it literally; and this no less when Dispensationalists teach that any and all ‘spiritualizing’ is a tacit denial of Scripture!

    I suppose I’m to understand then that God keeps his literal eternal covenant of the Sabbath day now in a person; and the covenant of the cutting of the foreskin is not a literal removal of the flesh and longer, it’s ‘the circumcision of Christ we participate in;’ and that all of this is called ‘literal interpretation.’

    • May 3, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Rick: bography can expand further on what he means about the eternal Sabbath etc., and the specifics of that.

      But as to your second paragraph about literal interpretation: here is another common error, the wooden literalist interpretation. When have dispensationalists ever really taught that “any and all ‘spiritualizing’ is a tacit denial of Scripture”? The literal-grammatical-historical hermenuetic recognizes the normal use of language, which includes narrative form as well as other types of language that we all use in everyday life. The literal-grammatical-historical hermenuetic recognizes the difference between symbolic and non-symbolic language. From my notes in an old post, regarding the dispensationalists normative-language (not wooden literalism) hermeneutic:

      Rules to follow concerning determination of symbolic language, general hermeneutical approach to take:

      1. Does it possess a degree of absurdity when taken literally? Example: Isaiah 55:12 “the trees of the fields will clap their hands.”

      2. Does it possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically? Symbolic language effectively communicates what it symbolizes. Isaiah 55:12 does possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically.

      3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language? — figures of speech, etc. You have to be able to identify what kind of symbol you’re dealing with. Isaiah 55:12 is a Personification type of symbol.

      As an example of a text that is not to be taken as symbolic / figurative but as literal:
      The symbolic view of “1000 years” in Rev. 20 fails these 3 questions.

      Question 1 –Revelation 20 does NOT possess any degree of absurdity when taken literally — there is nothing difficult here.

      Question 2 — look at all the literature, the differing ideas that amills/post-mills come up with when they try to take it symbolically. Since they all have such different ideas of what it means, question 2 fails — a symbolic view of 1000 years does not possess a degree of clarity.

      Question 3 — The symbolic use of 1000 years does not appear to fall into any clear category of symbolic language.

      Not to get side-tracked onto that issue here, I’m just bringing it up as an example (that was the topic from a post over two years ago).

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