During my final semester of undergrad studies and the year-long interim before grad school, I underwent the arduous transformation of a dispensational premillennialist meeting Reformation Christianity. This was puzzling to my parents, who raised me as a Messianic Jew. It was difficult for my father, in particular, to accept that his son had embraced what he called “replacement theology.” After I had “confessed” Reformed theology, he sent me an article by Walt Kaiser entitled, “An Assessment of ‘Replacement Theology'” (Mishkan No. 21; 1994). The following series of posts contains the response I sent to my father.
The Kaiser article was interesting. Here are some thoughts…
First, I think that, while there is merit in understanding the supposed origins of a particular theological position, the origin or the intentions of the originator(s) should not be the lone criteria by which that position should be judged. I have heard it charged that dispensationalism originated around the same time and under parallel circumstances as did the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon church. Is it fair to portray today’s Mennonites and Brethren in the same light as those Anabaptists of the Münster rebellion? Are all Catholics anti-Semites because of the Inquisition and Crusades (and Mel Gibson)? These past events give us insight into some of the logical consequences of certain ideas, but they do not invalidate the ideas or other thoughts that came from them, any more than the notion that a person born out of wedlock should never be trusted or valued.
Having studied this subject and read extensively from both perspectives, and being more personally interested than most because of my Messianic upbringing, I have seen that there are several hinges on which this debate turns. Hermeneutics, theological themes and tendencies, and historical and social factors all play a part.
Hermeneutically, I think that the heart of the issue is the relationship and interplay between the Testaments. As you know, there are many citations and literary allusions to the OT in the NT. These “echoes” have various functions in the NT texts. Some are meant to illuminate a particular truth by giving background or setting a statement in a context; i.e., Gen. 1-3 as the key to understanding 1 Tim. 2:11-15. These echoes are apparent and obviously essential to the understanding of the NT. How could one understand the importance of Messiah in the Gospels if one did not know the messianic traditions of the TNK and second-temple writings? Everyone agrees that the OT and the traditions of its people must inform our reading of the NT.
Conversely, however, some echoes in the NT are meant to elaborate or explain the OT statement or concept. I have been listening to the first few chapters of Matthew on my iPod today, and over and over again I hear the phrase, “This was to fulfill that which was spoken by the prophet _____,” etc. Joseph, Mary, John and Jesus are all mentioned in the first four chapters as having done something that was referred to by an OT prophet. In some cases the prophecies were fulfilled quite literally, such as John “crying: ‘in the wilderness, prepare…’” However, the Evangelist portrays Mary and Joseph’s actions as fulfillments of prophecies which were not originally spoken with them in the mind of the prophet. The “virgin” in Isa. 7 was not the mother of the Messiah in that context, but Matthew uses that text and posits to the reader that Jesus, born of Mary, is the fulfillment. Joseph brings his family to Egypt at the command of the angel, and Matthew quotes Hos. 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”), even though in the OT context the Lord is referring to Israel.
I use these texts as examples of the NT reading deeper or different meanings into the OT. I think it is important to affirm that these exist and are quite prevalent. This sort of interpretation rubs literalists (dispensationalists in particular, but really many modern thinkers) the wrong way, because we feel that Matthew is taking liberties with the OT text.
However, it is well established by Judaic (e.g., Neusner and Kugel) as well as Christian scholars that the Jewish interpreters of the 2nd Temple period seem to have felt free to use this method of interpretation, adapting the OT to support their particular religious and/or political ends. We see this particularly in the Qumran texts, in which this extreme sect, presumably an Essene community, adapted the OT passages about true eschatological Israel to apply exclusively to itself, while applying Messianic language to its “Teacher of Righteousness.” The difference between Matthew and Qumran is that Matthew was interpreting correctly by the power of the Holy Spirit.