Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book review: Has the Church Replaced Israel?, by Michael J. Vlach

Has the Church Replaced Israel?, by Michael J. Vlach
Nashville: B&H Academic: 2010

Readers with eidetic memories will recall my earlier review of Vlach's earlier book, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, wherein I wished for another book that "makes the robust, positive, aggressive Biblical case that dispensationalism deserves." Is this that book?

Vlach divides his 210-page presentation, of which B&H Academic provided me a review copy, into four parts:
Part 1: Introduction to Supersessionism (9-23)
Part 2: Superessionism in Church History (27-76)
Part 3: Supesessionism and Hermeneutics (79-120)
Part 4: Supersessionism and Theological Arguments (123-210)
Supersessionism? "You keep using that word," observes Inigo Montoya. Vlach uses the word as equivalent to replacement theology, while noting proponents' objections to the terms (which they use, themselves; cf. 9-11). He defines it as "the view that the NT Church is the new and/or true Israel that has forever superseded the nation Israel as the people of God," a view which sees the church as "the sole inheritor of God's covenant blessings originally promised to national Israel," and which "rules out a future restoration of the nation Israel with a unique identity, role, and purpose" (12, emphases original). That question is the book's main issue (5), with the attending focus on the question of "whether the nation Israel will experience a national salvation and restoration" (5).

A great portion of Vlach's book is expository or defensive, from a nonsupersessionistic viewpoint. That is, he is at great pains fairly to represent the varying forms of supersessionism, along both explanation and positive argument. Therefore, nonsupersessionism first appears in the book in Vlach's responses to the positive case for supersessionism. More on that, later.

The first part (9-23) is devoted to analyzing the forms of supersessionism, and setting forth and analyzing its historical roots. Vlach singles out the forms of punitive supersessionism (Israel displaced as a judgment for its sin; 13-14), economic supersessionism (the transfer from ethnic Israel to the universal church is the next phase in God's plan; 14-16), and structural supersessionism (such a stress on the NT as consummation that most of the OT effectively disappears into blurry background scenery; 16-17).

In turning to the question of the future of Israel, Vlach isolates strands of different approaches as subsets of supersessionism. While agreeing that the church is the new or spiritual Israel, these views differ as to the thought of any future for Israel. The widely-held moderate supersessionism, for instance, holds that there is some kind of future for Israel, involving its spiritual conversion and addition to the church (20-23), as opposed to a stronger form that sees no special future for Israel at all (23).

Then Vlach traces the historical development of supersessionism, from the fathers to the present day (27-76). This is an interesting journey that begins with such a Jewish presence in the church that Eusebius traced 15 Jewish bishops in Jerusalem (29), to the complete absence of Jews at Nicea (30). As allegorical interpretation and philosophical influences pair to affect and redirect hermeneutics, and as the gulf between apostate Jews and Gentile Christians increases, the notion of the church as replacing Israel becomes the established position. Still, it is striking to note Vlach's documentation again and again of belief in some sort of future for Israel as the people of God, though it involves incorporation into the church rather than a distinctive national role.

The real surprise for me in this section was how many post-Holocaust denominational statements explicitly disown supersessionism  (69-72). Good as the outcome seems, I wonder what the motivation is, whether Biblical or cultural. Vlach observes that "supersessionism's grip on the Christian church as a whole has been lessened significantly," and may no longer be the dominant view (72). Vlach also (of course) brings in dispensationalism's affirmation of Scripture's insistence on the perpetuity of Israel's distinctive place in God's plan (72-73), as well as the realization among historical-Jesus researchers that Jesus affirmed the hope for ethnic Jewish restoration (74).

Then Vlach tackles the hermeneutics (interpretive principles) of supersessionism (79ff.), which he identifies as:
  1. Belief in the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT
  2. Belief in nonliteral fulfillments of OT texts regarding Israel, and
  3. Belief in national Israel as a type of the NT church (79).
Vlach notes the range from the subtler textual massaging on the part of some, to the up-front, blatant assertion that NT writers reinterpret, change, and alter the original meaning of the OT texts in ways that do not derive from the source texts themselves (80-81). In the course of this discussion Vlach covers the use supersessionists make of Acts 2:16-21; 15:18-18; and Romans 9:24-26.

Then (finally) the nonsupersessionist response begins more heartily to make its appearance on pp. 91ff. as Vlach evaluates these hermeneutics one by one. While acknowledging the authority of the NT and Christ's right to change or cancel OT commands (as in Mark 7:19; 93), Vlach points out the difference between adding referents such as Gentiles on the one hand, and blurring categories, on the other (93-94). He shows that Scripture relates the New Covenant both to Israel and to the church, without identifying the two (94).

Further, Vlach sounds the alarm against effectively robbing 2/3 of the Bible of its authority by refusing to locate the meaning in those texts, and insisting that the OT itself does not speak for itself (94-95). Vlach observes that no explicit NT assertion warrants this overriding of the OT text, or presents the writer as claiming that his new interpretation cancels out the meaning of the OT text. This is a telling point.

Vlach also correctly notes that this approach "defangs" the OT, and impugns its integrity, as it raises legitimate questions as to whether "OT revelations were actually revelations in good faith to the original readers of the promises" (96). The OT clearly insists on the perpetuity of Israel as a nation (Jeremiah 31:35-37; 98), and the NT affirms this expectation (ibid).

Finally Vlach begins presenting the positive case for nonsupersessionism in chapter 10 (109ff.), as he develops four beliefs:
  1. The starting point for understanding any Biblical passage (including OT passages) is the passage itself
  2. Progressive revelation reveals new information without canceling unconditional promises to Israel
  3. National Israel is not a type that is transcended by the church
  4. OT promises may have double application or fulfillment with both Israel and the church (109)
Each of these points is unfolded, illustrated, and defended in the following pages.

But then in Chapter 11, we're back to presenting supersessionism's position in its own terms, including permanent rejection of Israel as the people of God (based in part on Matthew 21:43), application of OT Israel-language to the church (i.e. Galatians 6:16; Romans 2:28-29), unity of Jews and Gentiles (i.e. Ephesians 2:11-22), the church's lone possession of OT covenants, and supposed NT silence on the restoration of Israel to the land. He devotes an entire chapter to supersessionist understanding of Romans 11:26 ("and thus all Israel will be saved"), before finally turning to an evaluation of these arguments.

In his evaluation (141-164), Vlach takes supersessionists' claims one by one and verse by verse. I appreciate the breadth of Vlach's reading, and his willingness to defend less-popular views if he finds the evidence convincing. For instance, he notes the view of many that Matthew 21:43 refers to the leaders, a view strengthened by v. 45, but then explains his preference for the interpretation that the "nation" referred to is that (future Jewish) generation which will acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, in line with vv. 37-39 (142-143). Or in 1 Peter 2:9-10, Vlach defends the view that Peter's addressees are Jews (147-149). In both cases, he offers alternative responses in case his specific position is not convincing.

Then two chapters are devoted to making the case for the future restoration of national Israel (177-201), built on seven positive declarations, including the specific promises and affirmations in both OT and NT. This is followed by a chapter on God's future plan for nations (165-176), in which Vlach notes two basic eschatological models: the Spiritual Vision model, influenced by Platonism and relegating anything physical to a lower and less-worthy plane, and the New Creation model, which affirms all of creation as under God's Lordship, and sees eternal life as embodied life on Earth. Vlach correctly affirms the latter as the Biblical model, and Biblically develops its implications for the existence and ministry of Israel and the nations in the eschaton.

In the Conclusion (203-206) Vlach sums up his reasons for concluding "that supersessionism is not a biblical doctrine" (203). He notes that a strong case for national Israel's salvation and restoration can be made Biblically, as well as a strong counter to supersessionism, and very briefly recaps the book's argument. A single appendix deals with the Biblical teaching concerning the origin of the church, followed by a Bibliography and Indices.

So... what'd I think? I enjoyed the book, learned from it, read it twice, marked it thoroughly, and recommend it. I expect to use it in the future. It's certainly a calm, irenic, well-reasoned book. Vlach's position and rationale is clear, but he is never belittling of his doctrinal opponents, and seems to work hard to present their views in their words. In other words, he doesn't write as I probably would, on this subject.

In fact, a great portion of the book is devoted to tracing and explaining supersessionism — at great length. This makes sense, given the dominance that this position unfortunately came to have for a time (and still has in some circles). Though I'm sure the opposition will complain that they weren't presented fully enough, it will be a hard case to establish.

This very feature made me a bit impatient. I found every bit of Vlach's book informative and helpful, but I was (and remain) still hoping for a more aggressive presentation of a positive case for the Biblical affirmation of God's faithfulness to all of His promises.  Vlach's mode of argument doesn't come across with quite the urgency and insistence that I'd give it. Yet Vlach says a great deal of what I'd say (and a lot more besides), but says it more kindly and gently and ambient-temperaturedly than I would. I don't doubt that, in the long run, that's a good thing, and while a more aggressive book would light up my lights, it would have a narrower appeal and usefulness.

So, I could have wished for more space and depth devoted to developing the Biblical position, along with its history and advocates.

Also, I wish Vlach did more direct work in the text, himself. He tends to quote really excellent sources, and let them make his case. This is useful, but it reads more like something intermediate between a term paper and a book. Few will be quoting Vlach per se, because he in turn devotes a great deal of space to quoting others, and the strongest and most memorable statements trace to Fruchtenbaum, Horner, Saucy, Blaising, Bock, Kaiser, Feinberg, and others.

This is clearly an area of great interest to Vlach. He knows his stuff, he has academic training, and he cares about it. Also, he occupies a (sadly) unique niche in that he affirms both the Biblical teaching concerning the sovereignty of God and the full implications of inerrancy and perspicuity.

That is, he's a Calvinist and a dispensationalist.

So this makes me hope that Vlach will go on to produce a persuasive, charitably-aggressive work with other scholars more quoted in the footnotes, and the Bible more deeply dealt with by Vlach in the text. When that happens, you'll hear me singing its praises all over.

In sum: I'm still waiting for that book that, with spiritual fervor and academic depth, "makes the robust, positive, aggressive Biblical case that dispensationalism deserves." This isn't it — nor does Vlach aim to make it so. This book is devoted to one question: does the Bible teach that the church has displaced Israel, or does it affirm a spiritual and national future for ethnic Israel? Vlach treats and answers that question helpfully and usefully and, I hope, persuasively.

Leaving my longed-for tour de force still to be written.


GG said...

You're a great writer Dan. You should write the book!

DJP said...

That's very kind of you. I'd love to. But first we have to see if anyone wants to buy my books that are supposed to be coming out next year! That'll have a lot to do with whether to do more.

Then — for this book in particular — there's the issues of time and smarts. I'd need the time to read my brains out, then back in again. That's a problem.

Al said...

Dan, does he address the point of view that Jesus Christ is the New Israel, fulfilling all that Israel was to be, and that those who are united to Him are now part of that People?

The book sounds interesting. I will see what the Kindle version costs.

al sends

DJP said...

Yep, one way or th'chether.

The Squirrel said...

Vlach's book is on my "to be read" stack, along with Barry Horner's Future Israel and the 3rd edition of Geisler's Chosen But Free. I've just not gotten to them yet.

Thanks for your review.


(LOL @ "Conan the Dispensationalist")

Stefan said...

Thanks for this review. From what little I've read and heard by Mr. Vlach, he seems to be excellent at explaining the biblical foundations for dispensationalism.

I'm definitely in the premillenial camp, but where within that camp I'm still trying to figure out.

To what degree has anyone advanced the idea that the Church is neither the replacement of Israel nor parallel to it, but rather an organic continuation of Israel?

I mean, the Church in its earliest stage was more or less coterminous with the Remnant: a subset of believing Jews, who affirmed Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah. Over time, the number of Gentiles within the church greatly eclipsed the number of Jews, but the Church today is in a sense simply an outgrowth of that earliest group of believers.

No doubt we are waiting for a future eschatological fulfilment, though, that brings a close to Old Testament prophecies not yet fulfilled, not to mention Romans 11 and much of Revelation, and brings to fruition such passages as Isaiah 2.

Jesse said...

That book is supposedly coming. There is a compilation due out in late 2011 with Vlach, Mayhue, MacArthur, and Nate Busenitz that I think will be more what you are looking for.

jmb said...

Excellent and thorough review. Thanks.

Vlach observes that "supersessionism's grip on the Christian church as a whole has been lessened significantly," and may no longer be the dominant view (72).

This surprised me. I hope it's true.

lee n. field said...

I'll watch for it.

I listened to one of Vlach's presentations (I think one that you recommended here). I was impressed that he seemed to have actually read the people he's arguing against. Most in InternetForumLand, don't, and just don't seem to get what their opponents are saying.

DJP said...

Sweet! Thanks! Do you know who's publishing it, O Insider?


GG said...

I don't mean to ask a dumb question but MacArthur a dispensationalist? Is it possible for someone to be both a dispensationalist and proponent of Lordship salvation? I am really not trying to stir up something. I am just confused. Seems like Chafer, Walvoord and Ryrie never traveled in that camp.

DJP said...

He is. Dispensationalism has absolutely nothing whatsoever with gutless-grace theology.

This might be helpful to you.

rwt said...

I'd love for you or anyone to write that book. I have assembled quite a library on the subject. I'm currently reading Israel in the Plan of God by David Baron. It is pure exposition of OT texts by a converted rabbi ca. 1925. Excellent read. Kregel reprinted it several years back.

This past Sunday, I happened to hear a message by someone who stated explicitly that Jesus replaced Israel, and of course we get to help Him replace them since we are His body.

The question I have is why do so many feel the need to replace Israel? If Israel needs replacing, then so does the church. The church has been given far more light than Israel ever had and it doesn't take much effort to see how the church has perverted what it was given.

Steve B said...

I don't see how anyone can continue to defend replacement theology in the face of Romans 11.

The way I read it, Christian don't replace the Jews, Christians become Jews. Otherwise known as Messianics.

Romans 11 says that those Jews which deny Christ have been "broken off" but can and will be grafted back in when they acknowledge Him.

But it still uses the word "some" not "all". Christians SHARE in an inheritance already promised to God's chose people, the Jews. We were added in, the Jews were not taken out.

Leastwise that's the way I read it.

Jesse said...

The book by Vlach, MacArthur, Mayhue, Busenitz, and maybe another person or two is slated for release in 2012 by Moody. It will be done before then, but for reasons that only make sense in the publishing world cannot be released until 2012.

DJP said...

"...for reasons that only make sense in the publishing world...."

I heard that!