Rejecting the Rejection/Replacement Theory

Did the Apostle Paul believe that God had two plans of salvation: one for Jews and another for gentiles? John Gager thinks so, as he explains in his book Reinventing Paul.  Gager argues that Paul did not believe the gospel of Jesus was for Jews but rather for gentiles only.

The key to Gager’s position is his opposition to the “rejection/replacement” theory. According to Gager, this view teaches that “Christianity is the antithesis of Judaism” (21); the gospel of Jesus stands in opposition to the Jewish law and Israel. Within this understanding, Gentiles have replaced Jews as the people of God and the law “was no longer, indeed never had been, the means of Israel’s justification or redemption” (27). Gager calls this the traditional view, and asserts that almost all theologians have agreed over the years that Paul “rejected the law and Judaism” (37) and “converted” to a new religion, Christianity.

Gager rejects the “rejection/replacement” theory. He argues that Paul never converted from Judaism and never rejected the law as a means of salvation for Jews. Instead, Gager suggests, Paul believed that salvation by grace through Jesus was only for Gentiles and was never meant for the Jews. According to Gager, Paul’s soteriology involved two distinct and separate ways of salvation: the law for Jews and Jesus for Gentiles. Gager understands Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles only, writing letters to the Gentiles defending the gospel meant for them against other apostles who were trying to force them to follow the Jewish law.

Gager supports his position by making several exegetical points from Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, the two books he claims are most widely used to support the rejection/replacement view. One of the major claims in this section is that Paul does not explicitly argue against Judaism (45-46, 54-55, 80, 85). Indeed, in several verses Paul supports Israel and the law. (Gager lists some on page 7. They include Rom. 3:1; 3:31; 7:7; 7:12; 9:4; 11:26 and Gal. 3:21.) Of the several verses that seem to be anti-law, Gager suggests that these are addressed to Gentiles only. They are not to be understood as universally binding. For example, Gager interprets Galatians 3:11 to mean “no Gentile is justified before God by the law” rather than “no man is justified…” (84). Gager’s thesis is that Paul’s message was about the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s plans, not the exclusion of the Jews. He argues that Paul did not want Jews to abandon the law; he simply wanted Gentiles to follow Jesus. Because God has two plans of salvation for two different groups of people, there is no need to reject or replace the plan he has for the Jews (130). Christianity is not opposed to Judaism. Rather, it peacefully coexists with it.

Analysis of Gager’s Position

There is plenty to criticize in Gager’s exegesis and his method of argument.[1] However, he is correct to refute the rejection/replacement position as he describes it. Whether or not this view has a long and deep tradition (and I wouldn’t concede the tradition is as expansive as he makes it out to be2), it is not the orthodox biblical view. Unfortunately, the “Two plans of salvation” theory he proposes in its place is false as well. The major problem with both views is the false presupposition they both share: the idea that Paul understood the gospel as different from true Judaism.

Both replacement/rejection theologians and Gager see Judaism as incompatible with Paul’s message regarding Jesus. They both, loosely, understand Judaism as offering a way of salvation based on keeping the law and Christianity as offering salvation based on following Jesus and therefore it is impossible to be good Jew and good Christian at the same time; one must be one or the other. I disagree with this notion and am convinced that Paul did too. Paul’s main point in these letters was not that the Church had replaced Israel (the “R/R” group) or that the Church was an alternative to Israel (Gager). His point was that the Church was Israel. Paul did not distinguish between Judaism and Christianity; he claimed that true Judaism was Christianity.

In his letters to the Romans and Galatians, Paul is not trying to convert his readers to a new religion; he is trying to convince them about the nature of true religion. He is making the argument that God’s plan of salvation has always been for all people and has always been by grace through faith. The law has played a part in this plan, but the law has never been a “way of salvation.” In making this argument, Paul was addressing an audience that had the same misconceptions about the nature of Judaism that are shared by Gager and “R/R” group: the idea that true Judaism is a religion of salvation by works of the law available only to Jews. It isn’t and never has been. I suspect that Paul would have the same heated discussion with Gager and the “R/R” group as he had with the Judaizers of his day; the very argument presented in Romans and Galatians. Unfortunately, Gager never realizes that the position of the “new Paul” he has created is the very misconception that the original Paul is battling in his letters.

Gager also never realizes that his alternative theology does not really advance his overarching goal, which is to fight anti-Semitism. Gager is clear about the motivation for his efforts: he wants to replace the “R/R” view because he thinks it leads to anti-Semitism (17). The idea that the “R/R” view leads to anti-Semitism has some historical and philosophical merit. However, Gager’s “2-path” solution does not seem an adequate fix. Gager still distinguishes between people groups on the basis of race, something that is necessary for racism to occur. (Though, of course, distinguishing between groups does not mean racism necessarily will occur).

On the other hand, the orthodox understanding of Paul’s teaching that I presented above takes care of the racism problem completely in that it does away with distinctions. According to Paul, there are no distinctions within the family of God. God is one, his plan is one, and his people are one (Eph. 4:4:5). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This is the answer to anti-Semitism. Gager should have looked harder for it.

[1] For example, Gager completely skips Romans 8; a chapter that I think makes no sense within his view. (Within Gager’s interpretive structure, Paul would seem to be saying that only Gentiles have a sinful nature that made the law powerless and only Gentiles should live according the Spirit, garnering all of the benefits that the Spirit provides. This is ludicrous within the context of the rest of the New Testament.)