Israel and the Church: The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theology

By Ronald Diprose
Milton Keynes, U.K. : Authentic Media (2004). 265 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 335-337

A scholarly work emanating from Europe that defends a premillennial view of Israel and the church is an unexpected surprise. Yet that is what Ronald Diprose has written. Diprose is Academic Dean at the Evangelical Italian Bible Institute in Rome and is Editor of the theological journal Lux Biblica. An American who studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Diprose received his doctorate from the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium.

The subtitle of the work, “The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theology” summarizes succinctly what Diprose has attempted to do. He has traced the rise of the view in the second century and has illustrated its effects in a number of theological areas. He is obviously critical of “Replacement Theology,” which he briefly defines as the idea that “all that formerly pertained to ethnic Israel now pertains to the Church” (169). While those sympathetic to this view may quibble about such an oversimplification of their theology, they will have to deal with Diprose’s thorough analysis and criticism, rather than carping about his definition. It will not do if some respond that their version of Israel and the church is not exactly what Diprose criticizes in all its details. It is true that he has painted with a broad brush, but (to continue the metaphor) he has thoroughly covered the wall with that brush.

According to Diprose, “In spite of the fact that Israel’s status as an elect people is confirmed by Paul in Romans 9–11, the view that the church had completely replaced Israel in God’s plan became the dominant opinion in post- Apostolic Christendom.” He illustrates how “some church fathers went further when they affirmed that the Church had always been the true Israel of which the physical Israelites were but the visible sign” (169). The logic of replacement theology required that much of the OT be allegorized. Only in this way could the church be made the subject of passages in which the nation of Israel is addressed. T his, according to Diprose, led to the virtual abandoning of the Hebrew worldview and concept of God and the adoption of a framework of thought which had roots in Greek philosophy. All of this then led to an attitude of contempt toward ethnic Jews and led to the exclusion of Israel as a subject of theological reflection. The author provides an abundance of quotes from fathers, both ancient and medieval, to illustrate these attitudes in Chapter Three (69-98).

Diprose then discusses in two chapters the implications of this view for ecclesiology and eschatology (99-168). The increasing use of levitical terminology (e.g., priests officiating at a sacrifice) illustrate just one ecclesiological implication. The view of the church as the normative expression of the Messianic kingdom with the result of an unhealthy triumphalism in the Middle Ages illustrates an implication for eschatology.

Diprose emphasizes two principles that emerged from his study. First is the “failure to reflect seriously on Israel in light of all the relevant biblical data has serious consequences for the entire enterprise of Christian theology” (171). He works out one further theological implication in an extended appendix where he critically evaluates the “Two Covenant View” espoused by some Christian theologians and Jewish writers (175-89). He is one of the few writers to address this view, which has a growing fascination, especially among those preferring “dialogue” between the communities, as opposed to traditional evangelism among Jewish people. Diprose encourages such advocates of the “two-covenant” view to look further back to the Abrahamic Covenant rather than the Sinaitic Covenant for greater clarity on this subject. In this regard, he would seem to have the backing of Paul, especially in Galatians 3 and 4.

The second principle emerging from his study is that “Christian theology must be based on sound hermeneutical principles which presuppose the Church’s essential relationship with Israel” (172). One of those hermeneutical guidelines is what he calls the “canonical principle” (191): “Inasmuch as the Jewish-Christian dialogue involves parties that recognize two partially different canons of Scripture, Christian partners in dialogue are obliged to bring to bear their understanding of the inter-relatedness of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings. Where the constraints of dialogue lead to the development of views involving the suppression of apostolic teaching, the best interests of both Israel and the Church are lost because no real progress can be made at the expense of truth” (191-92).

It is his commitment to ecclesiology and missions that distinguishes Diprose’s book from others who simply criticize covenant theology and amillennialism on the basis of their dispensational weaknesses. Dispensationalists will find little to criticize in this book. Although Diprose comes at the issue from a different angle, he arrives at conclusions that are essentially the same as others who have voiced concerns over replacement theology’s non-literal hermeneutic.

This book is highly recommended to students and pastors who face today’s onslaught by replacement theology in its various forms.