I just finished listening to someone I consider a friend, and someone who is definitely a brother in Christ: James Kaddis. He was having his weekly discussion with his friend, Olivier Melnick, on the nation of Israel; particularly as that pertains to biblical prophecy from the Dispensational framework. In this particular discussion the topic was what they call: Replacement Theology. Most people, in the “business” will know what this is referring to by its more common terminology of: Supersessionism. The idea is that the Church has become the new Israel, thus displacing Israel and all of the Old Testament promises made to her. James believes that anyone who holds to ‘replacement theology’ is ultimately evil, and probably not saved; Melnick seems to agree with that. The problem though, and this is what the rest of this post will engage with, is that both Kaddis and Melnick (and many in their tribe) are too reductionistic with refernce to the history of interpretation on this issue, thus leading them to construct a caricature of anyone who is not a Pretribulational, Premillennial Dispensationalist. Both Kaddis and Melnick maintain that if someone is operating with a proper biblical hermeneutic (meaning ‘literalistic’ V literalist), that they will arrive at the dispensational perspective (this is also what one of dispensationalism’s most prominent teachers, Charles Ryrie, maintained).
What I want to do in this post, in particular, is to engage with what in fact a ‘literal’ hermeneutic entails. Much of the body of this post will be in reference to a post I wrote some time ago dealing with the same issue. After we survey how ‘literal’ has developed in the history of interpretation I will close by applying that understanding to the question of so-called ‘replacement theology,’ and how much of what Kaddis and Melnick assert as entailing replacement theology reflects too facile of an understanding of the history of interpretation.
A Survey of ‘Literal’ vis-à-vis Biblical Hermeneutics
As theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).
So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:
sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.1
As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.
To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.
The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.2
For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:
Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.3
Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.
I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
Applying a Historical Biblical Literalism to Supersessionism
What the aforementioned survey reveals is that what it meant (and ought to mean currently) in the history of interpretation to be ‘literal,’ particularly as that is understood from within a medieval Catholic and Protestant frame, respectively, is that Christian biblical literalism, principially, finds its centrum and absolute focus on Jesus Christ. In other words, a historic understanding of a biblical literalism isn’t one that is grounded in a post-Enlightenment rationalism, such as we find that in the biblical theology movement and history of religions schools, which gets further distilled into something like we find in Ryrie’s and dispensationalism’s literalism; no, a historic Christian understanding of biblical literalism, again, sees Christ as the meaning and referent point of all the Old Testament promises (Jesus thought this too, see Jn 5.39 etc.). A historical biblical literalism sees Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel, per se, as canonical regulator of how the Christian exegete arrives at their respective exegetical conclusions.
And this leads us into the question under consideration: has the whole Christian tradition and its history of interpretation suffered from a supersessionism or ‘replacement theology?’ If you’re a non-dispensational interpreter of Holy Scripture, as ALL Christians have been, up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as dispensationalism developed in the UK and the USA therein, does this mean you are an antisemite? The answer to that question is a loud NO! Have there been antisemites in the Church since its very inception? Yes, Marcion among others come to mind. But most in the history of interpretation, at least most who have been nuanced in this area, have outright rejected supersessionism as the Gnostic heresy of someone like Marcion and his so-called Marcionitism is. To hold to a biblical literalism, as our survey has helped to clarify, didn’t (and doesn’t) lead the exegete to be a ‘replacement theologian’ (so-called), but instead to see the promises made to the nation of Israel fulfilled in the person who served and serves as these promises’ reality; we are of course referring to the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.
In my view, Jesus Christ is the Israel of God. He is ethnically Jewish, and scandalously so (according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1.17-25); He was and is the One for the many; for the Jew first then the Gentile. He is the One new humanity of God (cf. Eph 2.12ff) wherein both Jew and Gentile alike are made one as they participate in Christ’s risen humanity. Christ is the ground that the root of Abraham and its olive tree finds its sustenance from. Jesus is God’s Israel, and all the promises have been and yet will be (now-and-not-yet) fulfilled in Him. Jesus made all of the promises to Israel, as actualized in Him, open for the whole world. He is the Jew first for the whole world; for the house of Israel, and for the Gentiles. Jesus will forevermore remain the Son of David, the seed of the woman referred to in the so-called proto-evangelium (cf. Gen. 3.15); He is forevermore the Jew from Nazareth. This is the historical Christian reading of biblical prophecy as that is realized in its reality in Jesus Christ. This reading has always already militated against heresy known as supersessionism and/or ‘replacement theology.’ Here is something I once wrote (circa 2007) back when I was still a dispensationalist. But I was attempting to offer a charitable reading of amillennialism (or any non-dispensational understanding of the Bible). You will notice how it militates against facile readings that renders anything other than a dispensational reading as an antisemite reading.
1) The non-dispensational reading of the Bible is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic). 2) It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants. 3) It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel). 4) It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff). 5) It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then) 6) It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history. 7) It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation).
It is not insignificant that a site like Monergismdotcom picked my description up, and used it (and continues to) as a summary of what the amillennial position entails.4 This shouldn’t be seen as insignificant because Monergismdotcom is a proponent of classically Reformed theology (which I am a well-known critic of online and in print), of the sort that Kaddis and Melnick would label as promoting ‘replacement theology.’
I would invite James Kaddis (who I love as a brother), and Olivier Melnick to dig deeper on these things, and push past the superficial caricatures that are often pervasive in the evangelical world. There are surely mainline Protestant traditions out there, such as the PCUSA et alia, that do operate with a supersessionism (which is illustrated by their support of the BDS movement etc.), but most Reformed and Lutheran people are not supersessionist; even if they aren’t dispensational, which they of course are not. Thus, I would ask my brothers to consider these things more carefully and with a more nuanced brush. We should want to accurately represent even those we consider our theological opponents; this is a sword that cuts both ways.
1 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.
2 Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle.
3 Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis.