Monday, February 14, 2011

Vlach. The Church as a Replacement of Israel - A short book review

Vlach, Michael J. The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism. Edition Israelogie (EDIS), vol. 2. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Hardcover, $43.95.

The Church as a Replacement of Israel is the second volume (so far the only one in English) in Peter Lang's Edition Israelogie series. This series is a dogmatic Christian pursuit raising "the question as to how a systematic presentation of the relationship between Israel and/or Judaism and the Christian Church might enrich the development of Christian doctrine and even demand doctrinal modification" (11). Vlach's contribution is the publication of his doctoral thesis done at SEBTS. In it, he intends "to offer a systematic presentation and analysis of the doctrine of supersessionism," in which he will show that "supersessionism is not a 'one-size-fits-all' perspective." To do this, he proposes to define supersessionism and highlight the different types of replacement theology, to present the history of the doctrine, "and, most importantly, look at the major hermeneutical and theological issues involved in this debate" (13). The book follows exactly that pattern with the hermeneutical and theological investigation spanning three chapters.

Vlach defines supersessionism as "the view that the New Testament church is the new Israel that has forever superseded national Israel as the people of God" (27). He also identifies variations in supersessionism, which he subdivides into three main types: punitive, economic, and structural. The punitive view, as the name implies, believes that Israel has been replaced by the church due to its disobedience. The economic view focuses on "the Christ-event" as the reason for the replacement. Unlike the other two views, the structural view is more of a hermeneutical approach, which de-emphasizes the OT's value for "shaping Christian convictions" (31). Vlach also indentifies different intensities of supersessionism.

At the end of his historical presentation, Vlach concludes that "the doctrine of supersessionism has deep roots in church history" (80), and identifies factors which lead the church to those conclusions. He identifies Justin Martyr as "the first church father to explicitly identify the church as Israel" (81), and Origen as providing the hermeneutical foundation for supersessionism. In the middle ages, supersessionism often included the belief of a future conversion of the Jews. The reformation produced a mixed bag of supersessionist views, and it is not until the modern era that the church has seen a large scale rejection of supersessionism, partly motivated by the holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the advent of dispensationalism.

In the last three chapters, Vlach evaluates the theology and hermeneutics of both supersessionism and non-supersessionism, its opposing view that "asserts that national Israel still has a special identity and role in the program of God" (38). He identifies the nucleus of their core difference as their hermeneutical assumptions: supersessionism seeing the OT mainly in terms of shadows and types, and non-supersessionism adopting a historical-grammatical approach to the text. Ultimately, Vlach concludes that "supersessionism is not consistent with the biblical witness" (13, 203). Vlach posits that the key biblical texts in the discussion (Gal 6:16; 1 Pet 2:4-10; Eph 2:11-22; Rom 11:17-24; and Heb 8:8-13), while compatible with supersessionism, do not require such an interpretation.

Vlach's scholarly work is well written and has a great bibliography and ample footnotes for expanded research, yet it is also written in very attainable language. Therefore, I would not hesitate to recommend it in scholarly and non-scholarly settings. By presenting the full picture of supersessionism, Vlach allows any reader to go from complete ignorance to a good working knowledge of, if not proficiency in, the topic of supersessionism.

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