The Root of Replacement Theology

I remember the day so clearly, sitting on my living room couch and holding an Old King James Bible in my hand. I was determined to discover the truth contained within. I very much believed in the one true God of Israel. So I said to Him, “I need to know the truth.” I had no concept of the Holy Spirit speaking to me, but somehow asking God to show me His truth made sense. As I started to read the book of Matthew, there was clarity and focus on the narrative. The story came to life, and remarkably, the old English language was perfectly decipherable.

I continued reading the bible for many weeks until one day the Lord stopped me on this verse: “Surely they are My people, Children who will not lie. So He became their Savior” (Isaiah 63:8). It was now clear. God chose to become our savior, born in the flesh to die on the cross for our sins. I had to surrender my will to Him and accept the truth that Christ was the only path to salvation. However, I still had other questions about Christianity, such as: “why did the church reflect so little of its Jewish heritage?”

The Lord led me to read several historical books that explained the conditions that created the chasm between Judaism and Christianity. I was struggling with the gentile expression of Christianity. There seemed to be this intentionality about sanitizing the church from anything Hebraic or Jewish. But what was the origin and root of this behavior?

Simply labeling everything as anti-Semitic seemed to oversimplify the issue. Were all people that hateful towards Jewish people? Many Christians I knew had never even met a Jewish person. So why hate them? Or could some level of ignorance be part of the problem? This seemed to be a likely culprit, as much of the church had not been properly taught about Israel or the Jewish people. Maybe there was a deeper spiritual issue; a character flaw that distorted their proper identity with God? Perhaps this stemmed from mankind’s sinful and fallen condition that had left a wound in their souls—an identity crisis of sorts?

I understood that actions are driven by motivation. So what was the root motivation? Some scholars in the church correlated the great separation to the Nicene Creed written at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This took place during the early formation of what we call the “Roman Catholic Church.” But I discovered the root of separation goes back much farther. I found the same pattern of rejection in the Coptic Church in Egypt and northeast Africa (42 A.D.), the Assyrian Church (originally called the “church of the east,” established in the first century A.D.), and the Greek Orthodox Church (descending from churches founded in the Balkans and the Middle East, established in the first century A.D.). These three denominations predated the formation of the Roman Catholic Church. The history is more complicated than outlined here, but I intend to show that the separation began long before the Roman Catholic Church came to fruition.

The separation dates to the first century A.D., and there is a chronology of this division found in an early church writing by Tertullian, titled, “An Answer to the Jews.” Tertullian was born in the city of Carthage in North Africa around 150 A.D. Penning most of his works in Latin, he composed apologetic writings to the Romans, and other writings in which he defended Orthodox Christianity.[i] Tertullian is considered to be one of the fathers of Christianity and is the most often quoted writer of the pre-Nicene church. In the first several paragraphs of this narrative, we begin to understand how “supersessionism,” i.e., “replacement theology” entered the church.

First, we need to understand what replacement theology is? Replacement theology teaches that all the covenants and their promises have been stripped from Israel and given to the Gentiles, because of Israel’s rebellion against God and their rejection of the Messiah. And now the predominantly Gentile Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This theology often leads to a spiritualization of the Old, and New Testament prophesies regarding Israel and often supports amillennial theology which teaches that we are now living in the one-thousand-year reign of Christ, where there is no rapture of the Church and no future promises for the nation of Israel.

These theologians believe that Israel was a temporary plan; a type or picture of God’s future greater plan, which is the church. They take the writings of the New Testament out of context. For example, where it says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5), they falsely presume that God has replaced Israel with the church. And yet, they ignore God’s eternal covenant promises with Israel. For example where the Lord said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘If My covenant is not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth, then I will cast away the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, so that I will not take any of his descendants to be rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will cause their captives to return, and will have mercy on them’” (Jeremiah 33:25-26, NKJV).[ii]

They will also cite scripture about God’s issuance of a bill of divorce to Israel, yet will ignore or spiritualize the dozens of prophesies that point to God’s future redemptive plans for Israel, including His annihilation of their divorce certificate, as it is written: “Where is the certificate of your mother’s divorce, Whom I have put away?” (Isaiah 50:1).

Replacement theology has been the single most damaging false teaching to enter the church, severing the Gentile Christians from their biblical foundation and a spiritual fountainhead, and isolating the Jewish people from the love of Christ and the message of salvation. Rather than share the message of the gospel and provoke them to jealousy, replacement theology has sadly fueled a root of hatred and anti-Semitism by gentile Christians that have been held ignorant of scripture through blind church leaders.

I pray the Lord removes this blindness and restores the church to her proper foundation. So let us analyze the writings of Tertullian so we can understand his thought process and the root of replacement theology.

Tertullian’s narrative originates from a dispute; not just an ordinary debate between two people who were passionately reasoning and articulating their differences, but an incredibly intense, and most likely very hostile fight between a proselyte covert to Judaism and a gentile Christian. This was so hostile that Tertullian says the truth became clouded. In other words, their fight became personal. It was no longer a discussion about discovering God’s truth—iron sharpening iron. So what were these two men fighting over? Let’s find out.

Tertullian writes:

“It happened very recently a dispute was held between a Christian and a Jewish proselyte. Alternately with contentious cable they each spun out the day until evening. By the opposing din, moreover, of some partisans of the individuals, truth began to be overcast by a sort of cloud…” “For the occasion, indeed, of claiming Divine grace even for the Gentiles derived a pre-eminent fitness from this fact, that the man who set up to vindicate God's Law as his own was of the Gentiles, and not a Jew “of the stock of the Israelites (Tertullian).”

Sadly, these men were fighting to demonstrate that the other person was not worthy of God’s grace (emphasis added). They were also arguing whether the Gentiles were subject to God’s Mosaic Law as an additional requirement for salvation.

Tertullian points out that the man arguing the Law on behalf of the Gentiles was indeed himself a gentile convert to Judaism (a proselyte). This is plausible as the Jewish rabbis historically never forced Judaism on anyone, and probably held little if any relations with anyone outside of their tight-knit circles, especially Christians.

The Jewish people consider themselves to be a separate and distinct people set apart by the Lord from all other nations. The rabbis generally teach that the Mosaic Law was exclusively given to the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, and the seven Noahide laws given to Noah after the flood pertain to the Gentiles.

Tertullian now adds his conclusion to the argument:

“Although we have God Himself as an adequate engager and faithful promiser, in that He promised to Abraham that “in his seed should be blest all nations of the earth;” and that out of the womb of Rebecca “two peoples and two nations were about to proceed,”—of course those of the Jews, that is, of Israel; and of the Gentiles, that is ours. Each, then, was called a people and a nation; lest, from the nuncupative appellation, any should dare to claim for himself the privilege of grace. For God ordained “two peoples and two nations” as about to proceed out of the womb of one woman (Tertullian).”

Tertullian believes that God intended to create two distinct people groups—Israel, who remains subject to God’s Mosaic Law, and the Gentiles (comprising the church), who are subject only to God’s grace. Why is this a problem?

Simply because it contradicts scripture, all are saved by grace in Christ, both Jew and gentile, as it says, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we [Jews] shall be saved in the same manner as they [Gentiles]” (Acts 15:11). There are not two separate paths to salvation, one through the Mosaic Law and the other through Christ’s atoning works on the cross, as it is written, “One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:49). Christ is the only way to eternal life, and “No one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6).

Also, we need to understand what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome regarding the now equal and unified relationship between the Jewish people and the Gentiles. He said, “If some of the branches [Israel] were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree [gentiles], were grafted in among them [Israel], and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18).

Paul makes two compelling statements regarding the Gentiles. First, he says they have been grafted in amongst Israel—the natural branches. And second, he warns the Gentiles not to boast or become prideful against the natural descendants of Abraham.

Tertullian is responding to what he perceives as Israel’s pride against the Gentiles, i.e., their separateness and unique qualities he perceives they hold under the Law of Moses. His response, however, only demonstrates his pride, what I call “the pride of the Gentiles.” In doing so, he declares the church and Israel are deliberately on God’s part, separate entities. As Paul said, he has somehow become “wise in his own opinion” (Romans 11:25).

But unfortunately Tertullian goes much deeper with his argument:

“For this fact—that Gentiles are admissible to God's Law—is enough to prevent Israel from priding himself on the notion that “the Gentiles are accounted as a little drop of a bucket, or else as “dust out of a threshing-floor.” “Accordingly, since the people or nation of the Jews is anterior in time, and “greater” through the grace of primary favor in the Law, whereas ours is understood to be “less” in the age of times, as having in the last era of the world attained the knowledge of divine mercy: beyond doubt, through the edict of the divine utterance, the prior and “greater” people—that is, the Jewish—must necessarily serve the “less;” and the “less” people—that is, the Christian—overcome the “greater” (Tertullian).

Tertullian perceives that Israel’s pride under the Mosaic Law has relegated the Gentiles to, “a little drop of a bucket, or else as ‘dust out of a threshing-floor.’” In other words, Tertullian equates Israel’s response to the laws of sanctification—which left the gentiles out of God’s plan of salvation—as pride.

Tertullian unfortunately also challenges God’s sovereign election of Israel. The wall of separation established under the law and its natural hostility was indeed true. This wall, however, would be torn down once Christ fulfilled the law of atonement by offering His sinless body as a sacrifice for all—both Jew and gentile.

Paul specifically addressed this issue of the Law when he said:

“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:11-16).

The argument that started between two gentiles has now somehow concluded with damnation for all Israel. This sounds like what we hear in the news today, “blame the Jews, they killed Jesus; they are the cause of all the conflict, etc.” Tertullian’s response is likely from his insecurity caused by a wound in his soul, causing an identity crisis of sorts. As I heard one pastor tell me, “So, what are we gentiles; chopped liver, i.e., second class citizens to the Jews in God’s Kingdom?” Of course not. There is now equality of both Jew and gentile, as Paul said, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him” (Romans 10:12). So where did this injury likely come from?

I believe it came from the fall of man into sin at the Garden of Eden, and from our subsequent separation from God which has left us orphaned in this fallen world. Orphaned children tend to have an identity complex because we desperately want to know who our father is? I realize this is a bit of exegesis, but human psychology can often help explain outward behavior.

Tertullian’s distaste for Israel is really about sibling rivalry, and he is desperately seeking his own identity in God the Father without having to associate with the nation of Israel or the Jewish people. In other words, he is (1) either refusing to accept Israel’s election as God’s firstborn child or (2) he is trying to steal the honor and right of his elder brother. “But glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 2:10).

While it is true there is now equality between Jew and gentile in terms of our salvation in Christ, the Jewish people will always remain God’s firstborn, as the Lord said, “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). And with the firstborn right of inheritance comes a special honor that God will never take away or give to another. Tertullian has refused to allow himself to be grafted into Israel and sadly has turned the tables upside down regarding Israel’s election.

Paul made this point abundantly clear when he said, “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). It was Israel’s responsibility to share the good news, and the message of salvation with the Gentiles as it was foretold, “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6).

This scripture is a reference to Yeshua, but it also transferred Yeshua’s commission to the Jewish people, to carry His light and covenant to the nations. Paul used this scripture to reference his ministry to the Gentiles specifically, and as a Jewish man, he understood this calling has never changed for the Jewish people. Aren’t you thankful that God does not revoke His calling on our lives in our brief moments of sin and rebellion? I certainly am.

Tertullian sees Israel—the firstborn and older son—as somehow greater or superior to the Gentiles. Rather than embrace his special place in the kingdom, Tertullian is attempting to self-affirm his sonship by declaring that God had a better plan.

And yet scripture is clear that God always had a singular plan for both Israel and the Gentiles. As it says, “Many nations [Gentiles] shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you” (Zechariah 2:11). Jesus said, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). The God of Israel has called the Gentiles by His name, as it says, “And all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the Lord who does this thing” (Amos 9:2).

Paul affirmed this when he said, “Whom he also called, not only from the Jews but from the Gentiles as well” (Romans 9:24). As to God’s name, over two-hundred times in scripture, He is called the “God of Israel.” Even so, He is not exclusively the God of the Jewish people, for it says, “Is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles?” (Romans 3:9). Yes, He is the God of the whole earth, but He is called: “the God of Israel.” The gentiles have been joined to the God of Israel and grafted into His people.

Being joined to Israel does not however require the Gentiles to become Jewish. Paul repeatedly made this distinction. “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed [Jew and Gentile], not only to those who are of the law [the Jewish people], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [the Gentiles], who is the father of us all as it is written, I have made you a father of many nations” (Romans 4:16-17).

Paul continually articulates and distinguishes that there are natural descendants of Abraham, who are the Jewish people, and there are the wild olive trees grafted into Israel contrary to nature, who are the Gentiles—the nations. The nations are joined to the Lord, and for that part are also joined to Israel; reaffirming what Paul said, “Grafted in amongst them.” Scripture says: “Many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you” (Zechariah 2:11). And since all the covenants were made with Israel, the nations can only be joined to the Lord through Israel.

When Yeshua said He had other sheep that He would bring into this fold, He was saying that He would bring the Gentiles to Himself and join them with Israel. And He affirmed there would only be “one” flock and “one” shepherd. Therefore, there are only “one” people of God, and this “one” people is who we call “the church” (in Greek ecclesia and Hebrew kahal), or more accurately called the “assembly.” And this “one” assembly who are a new creation in Christ comprised of every nation, will sing a new song to the God of Israel. As it is written, “You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Tertullian, on the other hand, believes that since Israel rejected her Messiah, God’s divine mercy has left Israel and has now fallen upon the Gentiles. The Gentiles have become the new Israel, i.e., the church, and he believes the church was always God’s plan, and Israel was a temporary dispensation. This manifestation of jealousy is an outward expression of hatred towards the Jewish people, and the behavior that perpetuates this hatred is what we call anti-Semitism.

This is a demonic spirit, and in large part is fueling the age-old conflict between Israel and her older siblings—Ishmael and Esau, as it says, “One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). This hatred comes straight from the pit of hell and is Satan’s attempt to use the weakness of man’s soul and flesh, his pride to divide the kingdom of God.

Tertullian’s last nail in his coffin of false theology is when he declares that Israel, being the greater will eventually be overcome by the lesser (gentile) Christian. Instead of Israel ultimately becoming the fulfillment of God’s plan in His earthly kingdom where the nations would be joined to her, the church which is comprised of mostly gentiles replaces Israel, and Israel becomes subservient to the Gentile church.

Tertullian refuses to embrace the truth of scripture, “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). And, per Romans 11 and Ephesians 2, the Gentiles have been grafted in amongst Israel to become “one new man” in Christ Yeshua.

All require the blood of Yeshua to atone for our sin, and we are all adopted children, brought back into relationship with our heavenly Father through the blood of Christ. However, the Jewish people will always remain God’s firstborn. Again, it is important to remember that all the covenants and their promises were made with the nation of Israel, and were reserved exclusively for the Jewish people, who in their due time would receive them by faith, the same way as the Gentiles. The Gentiles have now received the same blessings and promises, including the gift of salvation and the responsibility of sharing this message of salvation with the world.

Because of Israel’s transgression and unbelief in her Messiah, the Gentiles have been grafted into the covenant promises made with Israel so they would provoke Israel to jealousy. Sadly, Tertullian is holding to a demonic lie—that the church has supplanted Israel as God’s chosen people.

Rather than provoking Israel to salvation in their Messiah, the Gentile church has largely despised and persecuted the Jewish people. This was why, during all my early years in the church, I was unable to connect with the gentile expression of Christianity. It was not because the songs or worship formats were different, or even for any lack of Jewish observances, such as Passover or the Sabbath, but simply because of the spirit of replacement theology that has continued to infect the church. The gentiles have tried to usurp the place of God’s firstborn and have tried to steal their spiritual identity.

The children of Israel are the rightful heirs to all of God’s covenants and promises, not by any works of the flesh, but only by their faith in Christ. God’s promises to Israel are irrevocable, meaning they are still in effect. And yet, because of Israel’s rejection of both her Messiah and her calling to bring God’s salvation message to the nations, the Lord has turned (for a season) to the Gentiles and given them the mantle and responsibility for completing the great commission. This commission, not to the exclusion, but fully with the inclusion of God’s remnant of Jewish believers, that we together as “one new man” in Christ Yeshua would labor to provoke Israel to jealousy.

This would not only result in bringing the full number of Gentile believers into the kingdom of God but would also bring resurrection life to the church and the whole earth thereby ushering in the return of the Lord and the Millennial kingdom. As it is written: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

[i] History of the Early Church. Tertullian Contender For God.
[ii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Bible (NKJV) unless otherwise noted, Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982.