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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.

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.

Is God “Most Glorified” through His Church?

June 28, 2010 2 comments

A friend recently posted a link to the following quote from preacher Jeff Noblit:  “God is most glorified through His church. God is most glorified through His church when His church is biblically healthy. For our churches to become biblically healthy, we desperately need revival and reformation. This revival and reformation will require suffering on the part of God’s shepherd. But His glory is worth it!”

It’s a statement that sounds nice and uplifting, for the average Christian who likes to hear good things about the church — if you don’t think about the words and what it’s really saying. Yet the statement struck me as unbiblical, as an idea that comes from standard Reformed ecclesiology in which the Church is the end-all plan of God, also part and parcel of Church Replacement theology (also called Supersessionism).  I had not heard that particular wording before, though, and googled to see if anyone else had anything to say regarding what God is “most glorified” in.  I did learn that John Piper has written a type of creed statement, that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”  I also found this article that looks at the biblical question of “God is Most Glorified… When?”  We really can’t say that there is one thing which glorifies God the most — although of course the Bible tells us of several things that do glorify God.  I know that at my own moment of salvation, when suddenly God revealed basic understanding (as I was driving home listening to the Rich Mullins song “Awesome God”), I suddenly knew that everything came from God, even my very breath and every cell of my existence, and that my whole purpose for being was to glorify and praise God.

But back to the original quote from Jeff Noblit — what does the Bible actually say about the Church?  And what would cause someone to think such a thing as the statement above?

So here are just a few things said in God’s word concerning the first question:  The Church began at Pentecost, and departs at the rapture.  The Church is the body of Christ, built on the foundation of prophets and apostles.  The church structure, for the local church, includes recognized positions of elders and deacons.  The Bible recognizes the gift of pastor/teacher, but does not support the idea of “office of pastor” — a point emphasized by S. Lewis Johnson, at a church that holds to that point.

The Church has been given the role that Israel would have had, to spread the gospel in the world during this age, and as Paul tells us in Romans 11, the purpose of Gentiles coming into the Church is to make Israel jealous. But Romans 11 also tells us that this situation will end, after the fullness of the Gentiles.  Old Testament texts affirm that in the age to come (the Millennial Kingdom) Israel will be restored and will serve the purpose that God intended for her, with the special place of prominence among the nations again.  So, knowing the purpose and limits of the Church in God’s overall plan — an equal part of the full people of God, alongside Israel — how can it be said that God is “most glorified through His Church?” For such language claims that the Church is greater than anything else in God’s Divine Purpose.

The New Testament also tells us to expect difficulty and great apostasy as the end draws near.  Paul often warned the church (as in Acts 20) as well as its leaders Timothy and Titus, to guard and keep the faith, to watch out for false teachers who would soon enter the church.  Peter and Jude also spoke of such things. As Mark Hitchcock has pointed out, it is interesting that the book of Jude is listed in the canon just before the book of Revelation; God has ordained both the books of the canon as well as their sequence in our Bibles.  The parable in Matthew 13:33 uses leaven to describe this age; and despite the ideas of some, leaven is never used in a positive way in scripture, and that includes the truth taught here.  The parable of the wheat and tares also makes it clear that the church will always have true and false professors within it, and we cannot separate them out.  Believers are continually exhorted to holy living and to resist the devil (again making it clear that Satan is not currently bound), and Revelation 2-3 make it clear that even by the end of the first century the churches were having lots of problems.

From church history, we can read the words of Christian leaders from previous times, such as 19th century Britain’s J.C. Ryle, C.H. Spurgeon, and Horatius Bonar, to learn that even in past times (that we like to think of as having been morally upright and more “Christian”), the true Church was oppressed, local churches plagued with professing believers more caught up in the affairs of the world than in the study of God’s word.  Refer to my previous blog article that includes one such quote from Horatius Bonar, or one of many samplings from J.C. Ryle:

The devil is the prince of this world during the present dispensation (John 14:30). The vast majority of the inhabitants of the earth choose the things that please the devil far more than the things that please God. Little as they may think it, they are doing the devil’s will, behaving as the devil’s subjects, and serving the devil far more than Christ. This is the actual condition of Christendom as well as of heathen countries. After 1900 years of Bibles and Gospel preaching, there is not a nation, or a country, or a parish, or a long established congregation, where the devil has not more subjects than Christ. So fearfully true is it that the world is not yet the kingdom of Christ.

To say that we “desperately need” revival and that it requires suffering on the part of God’s shepherd (presumably by this he means local church leaders) to accomplish this, is to put the matter in man’s hands, as if God’s glory is dependent on our producing “biblically healthy” churches.  Furthermore, the only way to come up with such a positive view concerning the Church and the necessity for revival and “biblically healthy” churches, is to re-interpret scriptures that are not even talking about the Church but about the promised future for Israel, as being really about the church — the common error of Church Replacement Theology that looks at the optimistic passages in the Old Testament prophets and applies the blessings to the Church but leaves the curses to Israel.

Since God never promised such blessings to the Church but to the future Kingdom age, those who re-interpret the scriptures (to think of our age as the glorious Church/Kingdom) face a serious disconnect between their view of God’s word and observed reality — a disconnect that can only lead to disappointment and frustration as they continue to expect to see certain things, such as revival and biblically healthy churches — while the reality fails to live up to the ideal of the great “blessings” as described by the prophets.

Dispensationalism and Ecclesiology

March 12, 2010 5 comments

Michael Vlach, in his recent Shepherd’s Conference message highlighted the distinctives of dispensationalism, including one point I’ve often heard, that dispensationalism speaks to the matters of eschatology and ecclesiology.

In my studies over the last year and a half, I’ve mainly learned dispensational eschatology.  However, as I continue my daily (12-14 chapters) Bible reading and consider what scripture has to say concerning the Church Age, versus the ideas promoted by amillennialists, I understand more of what the ecclesiological issues are.

The New Testament speaks of this present evil age (Galatians 1:4), of how we wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11-12), of how we must resist the devil (James 4:7).  In Acts 20:29-30, Paul warns the Ephesian elders to be on guard, for “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Horatius Bonar well said, in reference to this Church age:

With reference to the Church, the interval is evil, not good; dark, not bright. During all this period she is a little flock,—a lily among thorns. Her lot is tribulation, persecution, shame, and tears! As an oppressed widow, she cries against her adversary day and night, “How long, O Lord! how long?” Satan rages on every side, seeking to devour her. The world, like a flood, circles her about with its swelling waves. The haters of the Master are haters of the servant too. Nor does time soften the hostility or abate the persecution. The evil increases, the darkness thickens into deeper darkness as the crisis approaches. Satan pours forth his fiercest, fullest rage when the time of his binding draws near. And, besides all these, the absence of the Bridegroom keeps her sad and weary. So long as he is not with her, earth must be a wilderness, even though no enemy threatened, no sorrow wounded, and tempest wasted her. Nothing but His return can satisfy her.

Contrast this with the unbiblical ideas of amillennialists who say that this is the glorious millennial age, in which Satan is bound (a concept they redefine to something less than the words mean) and the gospel is going out triumphantly into the world.  Jeremiah (they say) wrote of our age, and they then quote words from the prophets — words about the future Millennial Kingdom — but claim that it’s really talking about our age.  But never does the New Testament speak of the Church Age in such terms, but to the very opposite, as demonstrated in the verses cited above (among many other passages).

Surely, if those Old Testament passages were really meant to be reinterpreted by our New Testament understanding, then the New Testament authors would at least agree with those reinterpretations, with New Testament statements affirming a more positive description of the present Church age.

Amillennialists are said to be the more pessimistic version of their close-cousin post-millennialists, but both groups give great credence to the unscriptural idea that the Church is now experiencing the blessings originally promised to Israel.  Since both groups spiritualize Old Testament texts that speak of Israel’s future kingdom and apply them to the Church — while conveniently ignoring the very plain, literal words of the New Testament regarding this age — both take an overly optimistic and unwarranted view regarding the impact of the gospel and the Church’s influence on the world.  Post-millennialists have the hubris to think that man can bring God’s kingdom to the earth,  but amillennialists are equally blinded and do not see the inevitable decline, failure and apostasy that must come to pass in the Church age, up to the time of the Second Advent.

Here indeed is the great divide between Covenant Theology / NCT, and dispensationalism, in the matter of ecclesiology.  To the one, the Church is the end all of God’s Divine Purpose, the complete fulfillment of God’s plans until His return, the resurrection and establishment of the New Heavens and New Earth.  The latter, however, looks at the whole counsel of God, to understand that in every age (or dispensation) man is given increasing advantages, yet every age reveals the complete failure of man — to the greater glory of God and His greatness;  along with a sober understanding that the Church is God’s plan for this age, but not THE final purpose, which will include a restored Israel along with saved Gentiles. “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32).

Barry Horner and Future Israel

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently listened to Barry Horner’s Bible conference series on “Future Israel,” and I’ve looked at a lot of material on his website.  The conference series relates to Horner’s book, Future Israel, which I may purchase and read this year, as it comes highly recommended by John MacArthur and others including Fred Butler.

Much of the content I’ve learned previously, but it was still a good refresher on the basics of Israel and the error of Replacement Theology.  As he mentions, amillennialists confuse the issue by associating the land promise with the Mosaic (conditional) covenant.  They don’t study their Bible that much; the land promise came earlier, with the Abrahamic covenant.  Such critics also claim that the land is of the “shadows” and therefore replaced with the “reality” of the whole world and heaven.  Again, they don’t know their scripture:  the land is never referred to as being a shadow.  Some things in scripture are types and shadows, such as the sacrifices and feasts of Leviticus — but not the land.  Again it shows how important it is to really understand God’s word, and my regular re-reading and study through the different genres of the Bible helps to affirm this (not just taking someone else’s word for it).  The Old Testament does have types (examples), as brought out especially in S. Lewis Johnson’s “Typology in Leviticus” series — the five main sacrifices, the cleansing of the leper, and other items.  The land is never mentioned in such a way, either in the Old or New Testament.

Here is yet another (new) term:  restorationist premillennialist.  I don’t think it’s a commonly used term, but Barry Horner uses it to describe the premillennialist view that sees a future restoration of Israel.  He similarly defines historic premillennialist, as the view of many 19th century men including Nathaniel West, J.C. Ryle, Horatius Bonar, and Charles Spurgeon, the “true” historic premillennialists as distinct from Ladd.

Barry Horner especially points out the connection between good doctrine and good fruit, and specifically notes the bad Augustinian eschatology and its shameful fruit: over a thousand years of persecution of the Jews.  He suggests that someone who has their eschatology right will bring forth good fruit, proper treatment and consideration of Jewish people.  I would only add that the cause and effect are actually the reverse of his explanation.  A person who is already anti-Semitic will find an eschatology that suits their prejudice, to justify what they already feel inside. Augustine certainly did so when he came up with amillennialism in the first place.  I personally know someone who dislikes Jewish people (based on past experiences with a few), who after conversion to Christianity happily embraced Replacement Theology and amillennialism, ideas which agree with his pre-existing view.  I’ve also heard about recent Arab converts to Christianity, who are proclaiming that the land is not significant to today’s Jews — as taught to them no doubt by like-minded amillennialists.

As Paul says in Romans 11, the purpose of Gentile salvation is to make the Jews jealous.  But as Horner rightly notes, the Church in its persecution of Jews has failed miserably in this.  Jews are not jealous of Gentile Christians, but are fearful of them.  I think of Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s testimony as well as the incidents mentioned by Horner.  This made me wonder:  if Gentile salvation is supposed to make the Jews jealous, will that in fact occur — in contrast to the past 1,000+ years — before the end of the Gentile Church Age?  Horner later pointed out that biblically-minded Christians only began pro-Jewish missionary work starting in the late 19th century, and such efforts have had some success.  That fact suggests the answer, that Jews will become jealous (instead of fearful) by the time this age ends.

Romans 11 speaks of much more than a mere remnant in the Church Age, a small trickle of Jewish believers merged in with the Gentile Church.  The remnant of Jews throughout history is proof of God’s plan and future purpose (like a deposit on the full thing), but God is not satisfied merely with a remnant.  The first part of the dough is holy, but God wants all the dough.

I have now started reading Horatius Bonar’s “Prophetical Landmarks,” an online text available at the Future Israel website.

For further information:
www.futureisraelministries.org
www.bunyanministries.org