A Response to Paul Wilkinson and Jack Hibbs in Regard to ‘Replacement Theology’
I have just recently watched a couple of videos/interviews done by Pastor Jack Hibbs with Paul Wilkinson (here and here). Paul Wilkinson has his PhD from the University of Manchester in the UK; in fact he is an Associate Pastor of a church in the UK, where Christian Zionism is a central part of the teaching, apparently. His PhD, based upon what he has communicated in his interviews, is on what he calls Christian Palestinianism. What he is referring to is the impact that he believes, what he calls, ‘replacement theology,’ has had upon many Western evangelical and Reformed churches. The result being, for Wilkinson’s view, these churches have placed the Palestinians into the historic role of the Jews—the oppressed and victimized—and the Jews into the place of the victimizer. His main focus is on the mainline denominations involved in the divestment movement, a move to not have any dealings with any Israeli businesses, with the hope of engaging in a type of economic terrorism on what these churches consider Israel to be; an apartheid state.
But the primary premise of Wilkinson’s critique is a theological hermeneutical one. He lays all of the blame for this at the feet of the Covenantal amillennial approach. He asserts that this interpretive lens requires that the adherents of this view believe that the church has replaced Israel; as such, and if this is so, he maintains that as a result of this belief it makes it easy to continue to elevate Israel as the enemy of Christ, and all those who fit into the oppressed category in the world. One might discern that Wilkinson sees replacement theology as a framework wherein ‘Israel’ becomes a symbol for what it means to be oppressed rather than an actual people who have been and are being oppressed and persecuted by the world.
I agree with Wilkinson, that any move to see Israel as an apartheid state, and consequently attempt to ‘divest’ from any engagement with the nation of Israel as a result of this is folly. What I don’t agree with Wilkinson on is that so called ‘replacement theology’ is the necessary culprit. In fact I would contend that most mainline churches don’t elevate scripture to this sort of authoritative level when it comes to constructing their ethical framework. In other words, so called ‘replacement theology’ is not even on the radar of most mainline thinkers; they have other theopolitical theories afloat in their universe, something more along the lines of a neo-Marxism or Democratic Socialism.
And the churches who are amillennial in approach (which Wilkinson maintains are churches that promote replacement theology) are typically quite evangelical and theologically conservative in every way. It’s just that they have found a hermeneutical framework—usually covenantal—that leads them to the eschatological belief that the church historical has held for millennia. This in itself does not speak to the veracity of the amillennial interpretive lens, but it does, at minimum suggest, or it should, that there is a greater more careful sobriety to this teaching than Wilkinson wants it to have. He can’t lay all the evils of the nations towards Israel at the feet of the amillennial interpretation; as if it is the church and Christendom against the nation of Israel. Indeed, historically, many, if not most amillennialists have not held to what Wilkinson et al. claim. Amillennialists are not ‘replacement theologians,’ this is a pejorative caricature, and sweeping generalization that does not withstand historical nor theological scrutiny.
Personally, I have moved back and forth between the amillennial and historic premillennial position over the last nine years (prior to that I was a card holding dispensationalist, of one stripe or another). At the moment I think the amil position makes the most sense. But I have never held to a ‘replacement theology’ in the midst of these views, nor is it incumbent upon me to do so. I do see Jesus as the reality of Israel, and all of scripture about Jesus, not Israel per se. But this is not so radical, at least not any more radical than what Jesus believed,
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, – John 5:39
Jesus maintained that the Hebrew Bible (indeed the only scriptures Israel had at that point) wasn’t intended to terminate in the nation of Israel, but instead it was intended to point to God’s terminus and telos for all of creation in his dearly beloved Son. This is why I see Jesus as ‘Israel,’ indeed a national Jew, but the One for the many in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. He went to the Jews first, and then the Gentiles; as did the Apostle Paul. The basis of the New Covenant, and what we have as the Apostolic Depositum in the New Testament writings, is indeed a very Jewish ground; a ground not superseded by the church, but a ground nonetheless that was and is and always will be about Jesus, the man from Nazareth. Within this reality, the reality of expansion, the Jew and the Gentile have become one new human (Eph. 2:1-12) in the new creation of God in Christ. Within this reality the promises made to the fathers (Rom. 11:29) indeed are irrevocable, and so it will be. But this does not mean that there are two distinct people of God, as Wilkinson’s view maintains (classic Dispensationalism); at least not according to the Apostle Paul, and the implications of the Abrahamic Covenant itself. What it does entail is that, again, Israel’s purpose was always one; to mediate God’s salvation to the nations. As such, there are certain promises made to the nation of Israel that indeed have been and will be fulfilled; it’s just that those promises are no longer seen as exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead as exclusive to the Son of Israel, Jesus Christ. As such, all those who are participants in his life, the Jew from Nazareth, will also be partakers, along with the ‘fathers’, of the promises made originally to Abraham. I think though that it’s important to note: in Romans 4, the Apostle Paul made it very clear, as part of his argument, that the promises made to Abraham were prior to the circumcision; in other words, the promises themselves were not exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead to the ‘seed’ (Gen. 3:15; 49:10) that the nation of Israel would mediate to and for the nations.
I think Paul Wilkinson, Jack Hibbs, and all the others who claim that ‘replacement theology’ is the vice they maintain that it is, should reconsider. For one thing replacement theology is almost a straw man these days; for another it involves a serious sweeping generalization that does not withstand critical scrutiny. Unfortunately it is these types of representations that continue to be made in large swaths of American evangelicalism (and British, to a lesser degree). I do agree that we ought to be more sensitive to the Jewish background and reality of the Christian faith, but we ought to allow that to be tempered by the fact that the ‘flesh’ itself is not the end, instead the God-man, Jesus Christ is. We cannot think of Jesus as non-Jewish, but in that, we ought also not think that his Jewishness is the terminus of God’s program; instead what is the terminus is the salvation that God has brought, in his Son, to all the nations.
Addendum: I will write a follow up post to this one where I make a distinction that Wilkinson, Hibbs, et al. do not make. Indeed, Wilkinson engages not only in the fallacy known as ‘sweeping generalization,’ but he also engages in the fallacy known as ‘reductionism’ and ‘caricature.’ He equivocates on the term ‘replacement theology’ and presumes, by assertion, that replacement theology and amillennialism are the same things; but they are aren’t. More importantly, and this is the distinction I’ll make in a later forthcoming post, Wilkinson fails to identify that most amillennialists, at least contemporary ones, are not supersessionists, and thus definitionally cannot be ‘replacement theologians’ who claim that the church has replaced or superseded the nation of Israel in God’s economy; this is utter rubbish and non-sense.