Do we as a church teach and subscribe to replacement theology?
For my readers that aren’t familiar with replacement theology, it is the teaching that since “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9) He did just that with the Gentiles. He took the bounteous promises away from apostate Israel and gave them to the Gentile converts, or today’s Christian body. In researching this topic, I found few denominations or preachers who self-identify as espousing this doctrine. It may be because our era of vilification has made people skittish around any shadow of anti-Semitism. I suspect one reason is because “replacement theology” is a broad multifaceted term that encompasses a number of themes related to the general idea I expressed, and most people have a more nuanced view than what is captured in total. Such rationales seem quite reasonable since a search for the term turns up countless articles denouncing the idea, even using it to label other denominations, but failing to express a real mastery of the subject.
Experts in the subject all seem to return R. Kendall Soulen’s work, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, to more fully explain replacement theology. Soulen identifies 3 forms, which I will use to weigh where Latter-day Saints stand on the matter.
- Structural supersessionism. This form notes that the central Christian doctrine of redemption is taught so plainly throughout the New Testament that the Old Testament is neglected, with the exception of the story of The Fall, which is used as a foil to teach the necessity of Christ’s Atonement.
- Punitive supersessionism. This form is built around the teaching that Jerusalem at the time of the Apostles was sacked, and the Jews scattered and persecuted for centuries because they rejected Christ.
- Economic supersessionism. This is probably the form that is referred to most when replacement theology is mentioned. It can also be broken into 3 related forms:
- Grace has replaced the Law (of Moses): the old law is done away and a new law in Christ has replaced it. This has some resemblance to structural supersessionism, but that may be viewed as an outgrowth of this.
- Christians have replace Israel as God’s promised people. The repercussion of this, by itself, is that the land promised to Abraham has been promised to Jesus’ disciples.
- The Christian body has replaced the nation of Israel. This is a nuanced version of the previous statement. It’s more structural than personal and serves to spiritualize the promises of yesteryear. Instead of a physical country, Christian congregations form a landless State. Leadership is not to be found on a throne, but at the pulpit.
As you can see with this broad spectrum, it would be difficult to identify a single Christian denomination that upholds or wholly rejects all of these points. Similarly, Latter-day Saint teaching supports some and rejects others.
The restored gospel would be difficult to box into the category of structural supersessionism. For starters, we have additional scripture to break the Old/New Testament dichotomy. We have The Book of Mormon which seamlessly spans the Old and New Testament periods. Regardless of which period, The Book of Mormon is constant in the Redemption message with a plainness that rivals the New Testament. We have the Doctrine and Covenants which shines a revelatory light on both Testaments. We have the Pearl of Great Price – and notably the books of Moses and Abraham in that volume – which restores the records of these Old Testament prophets.
The message that rises out of these new volumes of scripture – just by virtue of having these scriptures – is that religious history is an ongoing cycle of 2 types: Covenant, obedience, and renewal; and covenant, rebellion, apostasy, restoration. The first can be seen with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and also with Moses and Joshua. The second plays out in the gaps between Joseph and Moses, Malachi to Jesus, and the period of the apostles (and later, Moroni) and Joseph Smith. Rather than neglecting the Old Testament, Latter-day Saints find a rich history of the very cycles which call for restoration and renewal of the covenants integral to the Plan of Redemption. In this sense, the Church fits better (though not exactly) the mold of dispensationalism than supersessionsism.
The restored gospel testifies of God chastening His promised people whenever they turn their back on Him. Nephi shares the general pattern carried out in the scattering of Israel (and the scattering of the Lehites). “The more part of all the tribes [of Israel] have been led away; and they are scattered to and fro upon the isles of the sea… because … they harden their hearts [against the Holy One of Israel]; wherefore, they shall be scattered among all nations and shall be hated of all men.” (1 Nephi 22:4-5). Jesus Himself notes that Jerusalem in His day is long overdue for divine reckoning. “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” and “all these things [the woes spoken earlier in the chapter] shall come upon this generation” because the bodies of righteous prophets are piling up, all the way back to Abel (Matt. 23:34-38). Nephi prophesied that “those who are at Jerusalem … shall be scourged by all people, … [and] they shall wander in the flesh, and perish, and become a hiss and a byword, and be hated among all nations” because “they crucify the God of Israel, and turn their hearts aside, … and have despised the Holy One of Israel.” (1 Nephi 19:13-14).
But here we walk a fine line. For while prophets have framed the destruction of Jerusalem as divine retribution, we recognize that “man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also” (Mormon 8:20). Indeed, our divine mandate is “to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10) rather than to mete judgment on a nation, for often “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished” (Mormon 4:5). Elder Quentin L. Cook reminds us, “Anyone who claims superiority under the Father’s plan because of characteristics like race, sex, nationality, language, or economic circumstances is morally wrong and does not understand the Lord’s true purpose for all of our Father’s children.” (The Eternal Everyday).
In short, while we acknowledge that God has poured out His judgments on scattered Israel, fallen Lehites, and defiant Jerusalem, we denounce those who were the instruments of His judgments. God still remembers the covenants He made with their fathers. The Lehites and “all Israel” “shall be gathered together to the lands of their inheritance; and they shall be brought out of obscurity and out of darkness; and they shall know that the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel.” (1 Nephi 22:12). And Nephi’s condemnation of the Jews at Jerusalem carries the same promise. “Nevertheless, when that day cometh … that they no more turn aside their hearts against the Holy One of Israel, then will he remember the covenants which he made to their fathers.” (1 Nephi 19:15).
The restored gospel provides a new model that defies the conventional molds of economic supersessionism and dispensationalism, yet allows for a fully literal fulfillment of prophecy regarding the gathering of Israel and the restoration of the 10 tribes. We cannot distance ourselves too far from dispensationalism, however, as we revisit the gospel principles that shatter structural supersessionism. Paul goes to great lengths to show that the Law of Moses is done away and the Law of Grace stands in its place. One key evidence of this is that Christ’s priesthood is greater than that of the Aaronic order because Christ’s priesthood predates the Mosaic system and has Melchizedek as the archetype (Hebrews 7, see particularly vs. 14-17). With latter-day scripture laying the groundwork for covenant renewal and restoration, we recognize that the New Testament church did not have a completely new priesthood, but a restored priesthood that was in use before Moses (as restorationists, we have both priesthoods in use today). Similarly, under Christ we see principles of the Mosaic dispensation renewed (“thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18)) and others done away through fulfillment (such as animal sacrifice and portions of the law of holiness). We extend this today, with new revelations for a new dispensation that both renews and restores covenants from previous dispensations (D&C 42 is a good example of this, both renewing the Decalogue and restoring the law of consecration). So while Latter-day Saints view the new law as greater than the old (through the lens of what’s been given for our day), we take it farther than traditional replacement theology would by heaping on new laws and newer revelations. It goes even farther than traditional dispensationalism with a new dispensation. Perhaps we could coin it as a restorational dispensationalism, which not only repeats the pattern anew, but also allows for renewing and restoring covenants of previous dispensations.
Latter-day Saints also differ from economic supersessionists (economy, besides referring to systems of trade and production, also refers to running a household) in identifying the covenant bride. The Old Testament has Israel as the covenant bride of Jehovah. The New Testament has the church as the covenant bride of Christ. So who is it today? We believe the Church today is Israel, so the question is moot. We don’t believe this in a manner that replaces the original heirs, but rather “we believe in the literal gathering of Israel” (Article of Faith 9) into the Church today of those heirs. President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “It is Ephraim, today, who holds the priesthood. It is with Ephraim that the Lord has made covenant and has revealed the fulness of the everlasting gospel. It is Ephraim who is building temples and performing the ordinances in them for both the living and for the dead. When the ‘lost tribes’ come – and it will be a most wonderful sight and a marvelous thing when they do come to Zion – … they will have to receive the crowning blessings from their brother Ephraim, the ‘firstborn’ in Israel.” (Doctrines of Salvation 3:252-3). The 10 tribes are lost to the world but they are known to God who reveals them through patriarchs. As quickly as they renew the covenants of their forefathers, we find the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the gathering of the scattered tribes.
This naturally leads us to the next issue, which is whether the promises of a land inheritance (and other similar Old Testament promises) are more spiritual than literal. After all, Paul does seem to spiritualize Abraham’s land promise into a metaphor for heaven (Hebrews 11:8-10). Instead, we take a page out of Nephi’s book and see “that it was a representation of things both temporal and spiritual” (1 Nephi 15:32). Sure, the promise of an inheritance should remind us that we’re seeking citizenship in a divine kingdom, but that doesn’t take away the land that’s here right now.
Joseph Smith made this a focus of the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland temple. He asked “that Jerusalem, from this hour, may begin to be redeemed; And the yoke of bondage may begin to be broken off from the house of David; And the children of Judah may begin to return to the lands which thou didst give to Abraham, their father” (D&C 109:62-64). The Lord had already taught Joseph that Ephraim’s inheritance was in Zion (in America) while Judah’s was in Jerusalem (D&C 133:12-14), but now the time was ripe for more. Days after Joseph prayed for the gathering of Judah to the land of his inheritance, Moses conferred on him the keys of the gathering of Israel (D&C 110:11). In 1841, that key was exercised in behalf of Judah. Apostle Orson Hyde was given a special assignment to go to the Holy Land and dedicate it for the gathering. Information on that mission and its fallout can be found here.
Modern revelation teaches that literal Ephraim has a literal land inheritance in Zion. It also teaches that literal Judah has a literal land inheritance in Jerusalem. Revelation has largely been silent on the other tribes, but we look forward to additional revelation as part of the ongoing restoration. Before leaving this subject, Levi poses a special case. Levi was not promised land. That tribe was instead to devote itself full time in the service of the Lord, and was to be supported by the other tribes. Today, Levi still a special role to play, as cited early in the restoration. As promised, “the sons of Levi [will] offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness” (D&C 13). However this has, in some respects, been spiritualized in a way that fits in with replacement theology. “Whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods … become the sons of Moses and of Aaron” who were brothers in the tribe of Levi (D&C 84:33-34). A popular notion has therefore arisen that the fulfillment of D&C 13, along with the Old Testament prophecies about Levi, will come about by the priesthood holders in the Church. However, a counter view point is suggested by “legal right” literal descendants of Aaron have to preside over the Aaronic priesthood (D&C 107:76). Once again we await further revelation for guidance on who will fulfill the prophecies about Levi.
The Church of Jesus Christ has little resemblance to replacement theology. The strongest affiliation is with punitive supersessionism, but we staunchly oppose heaping persecutions on Jews for their past. The Church’s teachings line up closer to dispensationalism, but unify the body of Christ and scattered Israel to ensure a greater literalness to scriptural prophesy. Even then, by renewing and restoring old covenants, the Church charts territory that the dispensationalist model doesn’t cover. Additionally, the Church has a much broader scope than most who engage in the replacement theology debate. Most focus on modern Jews and the state of Israel. The Church is intent on gathering all the descendants of Jacob to all of their promised lands. For this reason, I would think of it in terms of restorational dispensationalism, thus capturing both the old and the new covenants in each renewal and restoration cycle.