Defining Supersessionism

Written by Michael Vlach.

This section we will attempt a precise definition of supersessionism. Various titles have been used in identifying the view that the church has permanently replaced Israel in God’s plan. As Marten H. Woudstra observes, “The question whether it is more proper to speak of a replacement of the Jews by the Christian church or of an extension (continuation) of the OT people of God into that of the NT church is variously answered.”[i] The most common designation used in recent scholarly literature to identify this position is “supersessionism.” Commenting on this term, Clark M. Williamson writes, “‘Supersessionism’ comes from two Latin words: super (on or upon) and sedere (to sit), as when one person sits on the chair of another, displacing the latter.”[ii] In addition, the title “replacement theology” is often viewed as a synonym for “supersessionism.”[iii]

Several theologians have offered definitions of “supersessionism” or “replacement theology.” According to Walter C. Kaiser, “Replacement theology . . . declared that the Church, Abraham’s spiritual seed, had replaced national Israel in that it had transcended and fulfilled the terms of the covenant given to Israel, which covenant Israel had lost because of disobedience.”[iv] Ronald E. Diprose defines replacement theology as the view that “the Church completely and permanently replaced ethnic Israel in the working out of God’s plan and as recipient of Old Testament promises to Israel.”[v] R. Kendall Soulen argues that supersessionism is linked with how some view the coming of Jesus Christ: “According to this teaching [supersessionism], God chose the Jewish people after the fall of Adam in order to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior. After Christ came, however, the special role of the Jewish people came to an end and its place was taken by the church, the new Israel.”[vi] Herman Ridderbos asserts that there is a positive and negative element to the supersessionist view: “On the one hand, in a positive sense it presupposes that the church springs from, is born out of Israel; on the other hand, the church takes the place of Israel as the historical people of God.”[vii]

These definitions from Kaiser, Diprose, Soulen, and Ridderbos appear consistent with the statements of those who explicitly declare that the church is the replacement of Israel. Bruce K. Waltke, for instance, declares that the New Testament teaches the “hard fact that national Israel and its law have been permanently replaced by the church and the New Covenant.”[viii] According to Hans K. LaRondelle, the New Testament affirms that “Israelwould no longer be the people of God and would be replaced by a people that would accept the Messiah and His message of the kingdom of God.”[ix] LaRondelle believes this “people” is the church who replaces “the Christ-rejecting nation.”[x] Loraine Boettner, too, writes, “It may seem harsh to say that ‘God is done with the Jews.’ But the fact of the matter is that He is through with them as a unified national group having anything more to do with the evangelization of the world. That mission has been taken from them and given to the Christian Church (Matt. 21:43).”[xi]

When comparing the definitions of Kaiser, Diprose, Soulen, and Ridderbos with the statements of those who openly promote a replacement view, it appears that supersessionism is based on two core beliefs: (1) national Israel has somehow completed or forfeited its status as the people of God and will never again possess a unique role or function apart from the church; and (2) the church is now the true Israel that has permanently replaced or superseded national Israel as the people of God. Supersessionism, then, in the context of Israel and the church, is the view that the New Testament church is the new Israel that has forever superseded national Israel as the people of God.  The result is that the church has become the sole inheritor of God’s covenant blessings originally promised to national Israel in the Old Testament. This rules out any future restoration of national Israel.



[i] Marten H. Woudstra, “Israel and the Church,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1987), 237. Woudstra believes that the terms, “replacement,” and “continuation” are both acceptable and consistent with biblical teaching. See also G. B. Caird, New Testament Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 55.

 

[ii] Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of IsraelPost-Holocaust Church Theology(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 268, n. 9.

 

[iii] Diprose views the titles “replacement theology” and “supersessionism” as being synonymous. He also notes that the title “replacement theology” is a “relatively new term in Christian theology.” Ronald E. Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought (Rome: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000), 31, n. 2. In this present work, we will use the titles “supersessionism” and  “replacement theology” as synonyms. We acknowledge, though, that these designations may not be entirely satisfactory to those who view the church more as the continuation or fulfillment of national Israel. See Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 333–34; Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1058–59.

 

[iv] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “An Assessment of ‘Replacement Theology’: The Relationship Between theIsrael of the Abrahamic–Davidic Covenant and the Christian Church,” Mishkan 21 (1994): 9.

 

[v] Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought, 2.

 

[vi] R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 1–2.

 

[vii] Herman Ridderbos,  Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt. (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), Paul, 333–34.

 

[viii] Bruce K. Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, 274. He also states, “The Jewish nation no longer has a place as the special people of God; that place has been taken by the Christian community which fulfills God’s purpose for Israel” (275). Emphasis in original.

 

[ix] Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in ProphecyPrinciples of Prophetic Interpretation(Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983), 101. Emphasis in original.

[x] Ibid.

 

[xi] Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1957), 89–90. According to Bright, “The New Testament triumphantly hails the Church as Israel . . . the true heir of Israel’s hope.” John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1953), 226.

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