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Extreme Replacement Theology: Treatment of James 1:1

October 28, 2016 3 comments

Summer continues to extend itself into now late October (I’ve never before seen temperatures in the mid-80s at the end of October), and the two Bible study series I was following are also extending their summer break.  So while continuing the adventures in Middle Earth (and Frodo and Sam have left the black gate of Mordor, soon to meet Faramir), I’m still looking for another good sermon audio series.  One possibility has been a study of the book of James, from a Reformed/covenantal view of the law, and a few weeks ago I began one such series, from a 1689 Reformed Baptist/historic premillennial church.

The first lesson started out well, an introduction to the book of the Bible, covering the basic points of any good Bible book introduction.  As noted, this is likely the earliest of the epistles, written by James the brother of our Lord.  But then, abruptly the reasoning changed, from plain sense to a non-literal idea completely unsupported by the words of the text:  the audience, “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”  In what can only be understood as an extreme reaction against traditional dispensationalism’s “two peoples of God” idea, the teacher veered away from the plain sense, literal, historical understanding and went to great lengths (including reference to Galatians 6, “the Israel of God” and Romans 4 about “true Jews”) to assert that the book of James was actually written to all true believers, to the one people of God, and that these people were not at all Jewish but generically believers.  After this, I found another sermon on this text, from another Reformed Baptist church; its style was more preaching than Bible-study/teaching, but it also took this non-literal view that the audience is really the one people of God and not any particular audience in the mid-1st century.

One obvious problem is that, as already established by this point, the book of James was written so early in the New Testament age – at a point in time when, as is also well-known, the early church was predominantly Jewish–those early years before the Gentiles came in, long before the Gentile population of believers outnumbered the Jewish believers.

More to the point, though:  what is wrong with just being honest with the text, acknowledging the historical context of who these early believers were, including their ethnicity?  And then point out the application, that the book does apply to all of us as believers.  As the early church well expressed it, the words of Peter at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:11), “we  believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

These teachers have also departed from the teaching of the Reformed theologians of past centuries, as noted in the commentaries of men including Matthew Henry, John Gill, Thomas Manton, and Charles Spurgeon’s view (no commentary, but comments from Spurgeon can be found in this sermon).  All of these Reformed teachers (Thomas Manton’s commentary is listed in the top five for the book of James; commentary available online here) acknowledged the literal, plain sense meaning of James 1:1, and considered in detail the specifics of which dispersion the author (James) was referring to.  They note that some thought this was a reference to the dispersion that occurred after the persecution of Stephen (Acts 8) – yet this dispersion only reached to Judea and Samaria – and so more properly, James 1:1 referred to the dispersion that occurred in God’s judgment of exile first to the northern kingdom by Assyria, and then the southern kingdom exile to Babylon.  James’ audience was specifically those believing Jews who were part of the dispersion, and these commentators affirm God’s mercy and providence to His people in what happened to the Jews, as with this excerpt from Matthew Henry:

The greatest part indeed of ten of the twelve tribes were lost in captivity; but yet some of every tribe were preserved and they are still honoured with the ancient style of twelve tribes. These however were scattered and dispersed. 1. They were dispersed in mercy. Having the scriptures of the Old Testament, the providence of God so ordered it that they were scattered in several countries for the diffusing of the light of divine revelation. 2. They began now to be scattered in wrath. The Jewish nation was crumbling into parties and factions, and many were forced to leave their own country, as having now grown too hot for them. Even good people among them shared in the common calamity. 3. These Jews of the dispersion were those who had embraced the Christian faith. They were persecuted and forced to seek for shelter in other countries, the Gentiles being kinder to Christians than the Jews were. Note here, It is often the lot even of God’s own tribes to be scattered abroad.

As to be expected, the commentaries provide greater depth than even the best sermon/message, due to the overall format and expectations of commentaries versus the sermon preached at a local church.  Yet one ought to expect that the layperson-level sermon might at least touch on the issues brought up in the commentary:  instead of a tangent, a non-literal interpretation of the audience, harping about how we’re all one people of God, we’re all the “true Israel,” the better approach here would be to consider the true audience (believing Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire), and the lessons to learn — what is applicable to us all — from these individuals and their circumstances.  As a sampling, some excerpts from Thomas Manton, for further consideration, regarding “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”:

  • God looks after his afflicted servants: he moves James to write to the scattered tribes: the care of heaven flourisheth towards you when you wither. A man would have thought these had been driven away from God’s care, when they had been driven away from the sanctuary.
  • God’s own people may be dispersed, and driven from their countries and habitations. … Christ himself had not where to lay his head; and the apostle tells us of some `of whom the world was not worthy, that `they wandered in deserts, and mountains, and woods, and caves. … Many of the children of God in these times have been driven from their dwellings; but you see we have no reason to think the case strange.
  • There was something more in their scattering than ordinary: they were a people whom God for a long time had kept together under the wings of providence. That which is notable in their scattering is:—
  1. The severity of God’s justice; the twelve tribes are scattered—his own people. It is ill resting on any privileges, when God’s Israel may be made strangers.
  2. The infallibility of his truth; they were punished. In judicial dispensations, it is good to observe not only God’s justice, but God’s truth. No calamity befell Israel but what was in the letter foretold in the books of Moses; a man might have written their history out of the threatenings of the law.
  3. The tenderness of his love to the believers among them; he hath a James for the Christians of the scattered tribes, In the severest ways of his justice he doth not forget his own, and he hath special consolations for them when they lie under the common judgment. When other Jews were banished, John, amongst the rest, was banished out of Ephesus into Patmos, a barren, miserable rock or island; but there he had those high revelations. Well, then, wherever you are, you are near to God; he is a God at hand, and a God afar off: when you lose your dwelling, you do not lose your interest in Christ; and you are everywhere at home, but there where you are strangers to God.

Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views (New Book Available)

March 19, 2015 6 comments

4viewsbookA new book on an interesting topic, which I recently purchased for my Kindle:  Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views

The four views dealt with in this book: traditional (paedobaptist) Covenant Theology, classic dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, and a type of “New Covenant Theology” variation, the “Progressive Covenantal” view. The book consists of four essays, one from the proponent of each of the views, along with three responses to each essay, one from each of the other three scholars. The scholars are not all that well-known, though Robert Saucy for the progressive dispensational view is a well-known name.

So far I have only read through the introduction and part of the first chapter; more posts to follow concerning any interesting points in the later reading.

It would have been nice to see the Baptist Covenant Theology view included: a traditional covenantal view that does not include the “genealogical principle” often mentioned in this book. As usual, the dispensational and NCT views here only interact with the paedo-baptist type of CT, with valid points in response to the covenant-child / infant baptism theology – yet ignoring the just as well-developed Baptist covenant theology. Other sources must supply the answer to that question (Israel and the Church) for CT baptists, such as the writings of Charles Spurgeon for one view, or Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology”  (which does briefly present an amillennial replacement idea, the Baptist CT “system” that rejects the literal fulfillment of the land promises).

Aside from the noted shortcoming, the book so far appears to be a good resource for general overview of this question: how do each of these “four views” think of Israel and the church and their relationship to each other?

The Ten Lost Tribes Myth: David Baron’s Classic Work

August 31, 2012 7 comments

David Baron’s “The History of the Ten Lost Tribes: Anglo-Israelism Examined” (1915) (available online in several formats, including as listed here) is an easy and relatively short yet informative work about an issue still with us today: the idea that the ten northern tribes were lost at the time of the Assyrian exile, and that the Jews of today only include the two tribes (or generally, Judah, Benjamin and Levi).  Baron provided great background on this overall topic, as well as much detail concerning a specific form of this teaching, that the ten lost tribes are the ancestors of the modern British Anglo-Saxon people.  He also describes the specific claims and “superficial philology” that comes up with such reasoning, including the actual quotes from authors promoting the idea.

I had heard mention of the Anglo-Israeli claim before, but the details are indeed disturbing – and the sort of thing that anyone with a sense of history would wonder that it’s still around.  After all, the descriptions of the Anglo-Israel claims come from the time of British Imperialism, the time of Britain’s rise to prominence as a nation.  Indeed, Baron’s observation from nearly 100 years ago seems almost prophetic today, in light of modern-day Britain:

 Its proud boastful tone, its carnal confidence that Britain, in virtue of its supposed identity with the “lost” tribes, is to take possession of all the “gates” of her “enemies” and become practically mistress of the whole globe, is enough to provoke God’s judgment against the nation, and to make the spiritual believer and every true lover of this much-favoured land tremble.

Yet the Anglo-Israeli idea continued with Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God cult in the mid-20th century.  And the general idea of the tribes being lost is still with us today, an error I have specifically answered several times in online discussions.  This error is also taught by the teacher at this church.  I often link to the John MacArthur sermon (from the Luke series, about Anna in Luke 2)  and another helpful online article which point out the truth of that “lost ten tribes” myth.

As others have pointed out, the idea of the ten tribes really being the Anglo-Saxon people (or any other people group, other than the Jewish people today) is really the ultimate in replacement theology.  Ironically, though, the error even has its proponents among those who believe in the future restoration of Israel: only, they have redefined the restoration of Israel to mean all those who know they are Jews (meaning the two tribes) – PLUS a number of other people who are descended from the lost tribes, and who don’t know they are of ethnic Israel.

What these online links (above) mention briefly, David Baron’s work describes in full: the remnant of believing Israelites of the other tribes migrated to the southern kingdom as recorded at several points in 2 Chronicles, and were amongst the southern tribes after the return from the Babylonian exile.  Also, that the Assyrians did not carry off every single person of the northern tribes, only their political power and what made them a separate nation.  Baron also cites many texts that show the terms Israel and Jew used interchangeably in the post-exilic as well as New Testament era, including number counts for the two terms:

 I might add the significant fact that in the Book of Ezra this remnant is only called eight times by the name “Jews,” and no less than forty times by the name “Israel.”  In the Book of Nehemiah they are called “Jews” eleven times, and “Israel” twenty-two times. As to those who remained behind in the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the Persian Empire, which included all the territories of ancient Assyria, Anglo-Israelites would say they were of the kingdom of “Israel”; but in the Book of Esther, where we get a vivid glimpse of them at a period subsequent to the partial restoration under Zerubbabel and Joshua, they are called forty-five times by the name “Jews,” and not once by the name “Israel”!

In the New Testament the same people who are called “Jews” one hundred and seventy-four times are also called “Israel” no fewer than seventy-five times. Anglo-Israelism asserts that a “Jew” is only a descendant of Judah, and is not an “Israelite”; but Paul says more than once: “I am a man which am a Jew.” Yet he says: “For I also am an Israelite.” “Are they Israelites? so am I”

Going beyond the error itself, Baron also explains well the danger of this error, the important thing to remember regarding this issue:

 It diverts man’s attention from the one thing needful, and from the only means by which he can find acceptance with God. This it does by teaching that “a nation composed of millions of practical unbelievers in Christ, and ripe for apostasy, in virtue of a certain fanciful identity between the mixed race composing that nation and a people carried into captivity two thousand five hundred years ago, is in the enjoyment of God’s special blessing and will enjoy it on the same grounds for ever, thus laying another foundation for acceptance with God beside that which He has laid, even Christ Jesus.” After all, in this dispensation it is a question only as to whether men are “in Christ” or not. If they are Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles, their destiny is not linked either with Palestine or with England, but with that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled and which fadeth not away; and if they are not Christians, then, instead of occupying their thoughts with vain speculations as to a supposed identity of the British race with the “lost” Ten Tribes, it is their duty to seek the one and only Saviour whom we must learn to know, not after the flesh, but in the Spirit, and without whom a man, whether an Israelite or not, is undone.

Michael Vlach: Has the Church Replaced Israel?

April 5, 2012 11 comments

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.

Studying the Minor Prophets

April 21, 2011 2 comments

Among people I’ve talked to, who read or have read using the Horner Bible Reading plan, often I hear a common frustration:  that it’s hard to just read through some of the books (for instance, the minor prophets) when I really don’t understand them.  How should we follow the Horner reading plan and yet do specific-verse study?  The answer, of course, is not an “either-or” but “both – and.”  The Horner Bible reading plan is the groundwork layer, overall reading to become increasingly familiar with the Bible as a whole, but not intended as its own end with nothing else.  In addition to the genre-style reading, add additional study of different scripture texts — and the overall Horner reading will suggest many ideas for such further, in-depth study.

As with anything we have questions about in Bible reading, it’s best to pick a particular Bible book, find a good commentary or sermon series, and start listening/reading it through sequentially, through all the chapters of the study along with the actual Bible book chapters.  For commentaries and other resources, the “Precept Austin” site compiles good listings, on a Bible book basis.  At this point I prefer audio sermon series, and S. Lewis Johnson taught through most of the minor prophets.

From my general reading and sermon listening (through Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and some of Jonah), here are some of my observations concerning the prophets.

Not everything in the Bible was written to us (in the church age) as the primary audience.  We can certainly make application from the reading, while still recognizing the original intent.

Expanding further on this point, consider the wise words of J.C. Ryle (from Practical Religion, chapter 5)

Determine to take everything in its plain, obvious meaning, and regard all forced interpretations with great suspicion. As a general rule, whatever a verse of the Bible seems to mean, it does mean. Cecil’s rule is a very valuable one, “The right way of interpreting Scripture is to take it as we find it, without any attempt to force it into any particular system.” Well said Hooker, “I hold it for a most infallible rule in the exposition of Scripture, that when the literal construction will stand, the furthest from the literal is commonly the worst.”

Anyone who confuses the church with Israel, who does not understand Israel’s unique situation and the covenants established between God and Israel (the Abrahamic /Davidic as well as the Mosaic law), will likely become confused.  Likewise, anyone who comes to the text with the general idea, taught at too many churches, that all prophecy was fulfilled at Christ’s First Coming, will be confused over many specific things said in the prophets.  Instead, let the text speak for itself and do not try to “fit” what is said to any preconceived idea of how the prophecy is about something accomplished in the distant past (i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.).

We can make many applications from the overall minor prophet themes.  For instance, in Hosea and Amos — both written at about the same time period, to the northern kingdom of Judah — we can relate to people living in a very prosperous, and very secular and worldly society, a time of formalism in worship.  How often that indeed relates to our day, of worldly entertainment-oriented churches, with many people only observing the outward forms of Christianity but lacking the true heart substance.  In Jonah we see the attitude of the self-righteous who think God should only bless “us” and not our enemies.

As a general rule, the first books in the minor prophets section are thought to be “earlier” in time than the later books:  Hosea and Amos were contemporaries in the 8th century B.C.  The last few books in the set — Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi — are the post-exilic prophets, and the book just before those (Zephaniah) was just before the exile, contemporary with Jeremiah and King Josiah.  Sometimes, as with the smallest book of Obadiah, we know very little about the book’s time setting (other than the general idea that it probably was written earlier during the prophets), and yet we can take comfort in the fact that it’s not necessary to know such details in order to understand the message of the book.  In Obadiah the prophecy is Edom’s doom, and we know about Edom from earlier in the Bible, especially in the Genesis section dealing with Jacob and Esau.

Also generally, the prophets first speak of judgment — and spend a great deal more time there — followed by briefer yet certain promises that God will not forever abandon His people.  Amos contains 8 1/2 chapters of judgment, followed by the wonderful future promise in the last part of Amos 9.  Hosea too is mostly focused on the judgment.  We find the prominence of judgment rather discouraging, but here I remember also that Jesus spent far more time talking about hell than He did about heaven.  Before we come to the great news of salvation and our glorious future, we must recognize our tremendous sin guilt, to be confronted and warned to flee from the wrath to come.  Yet we can also hold on to these treasures, the promise of redemption and that God will not forsake His people forever (with meaning specific first to the Jews, but also to all the people of God, including us who have been grafted into the Romans 11 olive tree), of the wonderful things yet to come.

Future Israel: The Seed of Abraham

August 24, 2010 5 comments

I’m now reading through Barry Horner’s Future Israel, which includes many examples of the wrongs brought about by supersessionist eschatology.  I previously noted that often the people who are already prejudiced against Jews, upon conversion to Christianity, will choose a theology that suits their own ideas, and thus replacement theology is a natural fit for such individuals.  Yet I also see his main point, that we can judge a particular eschatology, discern whether it’s right or wrong, based on the type of fruit it yields.  Does the Augustinian Church replacement view produce Christians with the same fervency, passion and love that Paul expresses in Romans 11, that he almost wishes he were cursed and cut off, for the salvation of his people Israel?  Only a right biblical understanding of Israel’s place in God’s Divine Purpose can understand that kind of compassion for Jews.

In chapter three of Horner’s book he gives a point-by-point refutation of the points in an “Open Letter to Evangelicals” (p. 66 and following) by anti-Zionists, for a good contrast between the two belief systems.  Here he addresses the common mistake of confusing the unconditional Abrahamic covenant with the conditional Mosaic covenant.  (See my previous blogs about the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, from S. Lewis Johnson’s Divine Purpose series, for further information.)  The following is a good explanation concerning the different aspects of the Abrahamic covenant:

From Future Israel (page 72):

(From the Open Letter):  The inheritance promises that God gave to Abraham were made effective through Christ, Abraham’s True Seed (Gal. 3:16).  … Since Jesus Christ is the Mediator of the Abrahamic Covenant, all who bless Him and His people will be blessed of God, and all who curse him and his people will be cursed of God. (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:7-8)  These promises do not apply to any particular ethnic group, but to the church of Jesus Christ, the true Israel.  The people of God, whether the church of Israel in the wilderness in the Old Testament or the Israel of God among the Gentile Galatians in the New Testament (Gal. 6:16), are one body who through Jesus will receive the promise of the heavenly city, the everlasting Zion…

Horner responds by pointing out, first, that Jesus Christ is never said to be the “mediator of the Abrahamic covenant.”  But even if we grant that idea, that does not do away with the additional use of seed (in the Abrahamic covenant) in its national meaning:

Furthermore, the seed of Abraham has application to Christ according to Galatians 3:16, but this in no way invalidates the “seed” of Genesis 12:1-3 being the nation of Israel anymore than does “seed” in Genesis 13:15; 17:7.  The exegetical reason is that God says to Abraham, “your descendants (seed)” shall be as the innumerable stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5).  These references are to the nation of Israel, not exclusively to Christ as an individual.  Paul’s employment of midrash (a distinctive Jewish, applicatory interpretation) incorporates Christ as the root of promised blessing without at all denying the obvious promise of national blessing, the plurality of “Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).  Plainly the terms of the curse/blessing in Genesis 12:2-3 principally refer to the national seed here, notwithstanding the textual manipulation which betrays a difficulty that the obvious sense presents.  To be sure, Christ is the ground of covenant blessing, but this does not nullify national blessing as is plainly indicated.