Frankie Della Torre's Reviews > Has the Church Replaced Israel?: A Theological Evaluation

Has the Church Replaced Israel? by Michael J. Vlach
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The role of hermeneutics within Bible interpretation is an extremely important topic. Within Evangelical Christianity, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word; therefore, accurately handling the Word of Truth requires that we read it and interpret it properly. As finite and fallen humans, we are prone to err and many times slip false assumptions into our interpretations of the Bible. As those striving to understand and teach God’s Word, we must read and interpret it using the methods God has laid out before us, for without such methods we are lost in a sea of perspectivalism. Biblical hermeneutics as a discipline deals with the science and art of interpretation. Our hermeneutical approach will greatly influence our conclusions about the Bible’s teaching—acting as a lens that colors the way we perceive a text.

What concerns us today is an ancient debate that deals with the role of hermeneutics in deciding the relationship between the Church and national Israel. In Has the Church Replaced Israel? Michael J. Vlach delves into this discussion, seeking to provide clarity to his readers. The book itself gives a brief explanation of the doctrine of Supersessionism (what is known as “Replacement Theology”), and then explores the prominence of this doctrine throughout Church history—looking into the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern Eras. Finally, Vlach explores the hermeneutical and theological arguments that are typically advanced in defense of the doctrine of Supersessionism, and then responds accordingly from a non-Supersessionist (or Dispensational) viewpoint.

Inherent to the study of hermeneutics is the idea of “presupposition.” But what exactly is a presupposition? A presupposition is something that is tacitly assumed at the beginning of, say, an argument or course of action. For example, when studying the Old Testament, it is difficult to ignore the many promises that God gives to His people Israel. When casually reading the Scriptures for, let’s say, devotionals in the morning, when reading Jeremiah 29:11—which says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’”—someone might interpret this verse and apply it directly to his or her life. This conclusion reveals the reader’s presuppositions.

He has assumed, at least implicitly, that the Old Testament promises God gave to Israel have been, in some sense, transferred to him—ignoring the many complex disputes surrounding such an interpretation (the reader’s nationality and race, time period, immediate context of the biblical promise, et cetera). These are the types of issues that hermeneutics seeks to discuss: What are our presuppositions? Moreover, what baggage do we bring to a biblical text? And how does such baggage influence our interpretations?

Vlach briefly explores some of the factors leading to the popularity of Supersessionism: an increasing Gentile composition in the early church, the church’s perspective on the two destructions of Jerusalem (in AD 70 and 135), and distinctive hermeneutical interpretations of Old Testament passages. Each of these influences led, says Vlach, to the church’s perception that it was the genuine continuation of the OT faith. The church believed it had inherited the covenants of Israel—the new Israel.

Of perhaps even more influence to the formulation of Supersessionism are three interrelated beliefs regarding biblical hermeneutics: “(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 that national Israel is a type of the NT church.” I think Vlach does a fair job presenting the logic behind this approach to the hermeneutics of the Church and national Israel. He then responds with a full-fledged critique of each of these beliefs, saying that they’re either ungrounded or lead to nonsensical implications. I will not here comment on his critiques, but needless to say that his responses were engaging.
To close out the hermeneutical section, he gives a nonSupersessionist hermeneutic that he believes makes better sense of the biblical rationale. His proposed approach flushes out in four beliefs:

1. The starting point for understanding any passage in the Bible, including those in the OT, is the passage itself.
2. Progressive revelation reveals new information, but it does not cancel unconditional promises to Israel.
3. National Israel is not a type that is transcended by the church.
4. Old Testament promises can have a double fulfillment or application with both Israel and the church.

Vlach and others are convinced that this approach to the relationship between the Church and national Israel is the better of the two. Again, I will not give a direct response at this point, but I think that he brings up many noteworthy points that add to the discussion tremendously.

Of great importance to this discussion are the theological reasons one has for holding to a particular view. Since theological conclusions are rooted in one’s interpretation of a text, and since one’s interpretation of a text is rooted in one’s hermeneutical approach, we can conclude that theological inquiry and hermeneutics are directly linked with one another. Theology can be seen as an outpouring of hermeneutics, in a sense. This is important to realize when studying the theological reasons given for holding to Supersessionism versus nonSupersessionism. Our theological defenses for a certain view flows out of our hermeneutical lens. It can be said, then, that hermeneutics is the deciding factor that determines one’s views on the relationship between the Church and national Israel.

In this work, I think Vlach has done a wonderful job outlining the two predominant views on this topic—as well as the various nuances within the camps. It is important to remember, I think, that there are different views about God’s plan for national Israel within both camps. For example, Vlach laid out three different interpretations of “all Israel” (cf. Romans 11:26) that exist within the Supersession camp alone. At this moment in time, I cannot say that I have committed to one particular view. This book has, though, given me much clarity on the issue and I can now explain both views to someone unfamiliar with the topic, and can give strong defenses of both. I see strong reasons for both positions, and this book has piqued my interest enough to eventually (hopefully soon) set out a block of time to really delve into the topic for myself. All in all, this book provided a great entryway into the discussion. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a challenging yet concise discussion on this most important topic.
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November 19, 2013 – Shelved
November 19, 2013 – Finished Reading
November 27, 2013 – Shelved as: theology

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