So I’m reading Jesus: First-Century Rabbi (Paraclete Press, 2014) by Rabbi David Laslow. He’s a practicing rabbi, not a scholar or academic. He emphasizes the Jewish context in which the Jesus of the gospels lived and preached and worked. He highlights how both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged from the same historical period and, consequently, how much they have in common. Here’s a concept that really jumped out to me: Replacement theology.

It came up in the discussion of the transition in Judaism from temple-focused practices and theology to what happened after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

Judaism was slowly morphing from Temple-based spiritual practices to synagogue and home-based practices. To accomplish this feat, the rabbis needed to tie every prayer and every ritual they innovated to the Temple rite itself. … For example, where Jews once lit fires in the Temple in Jerusalem, candles are now lit on Sabbath evening. Where fruit, grain, animal offerings, and charity were once brought to the Temple along with personal prayers, Jews now offer prayers and charity wherever they are.

Jesus: First-Century Rabbi (Paraclete Press, 2014) by Rabbi David Laslow, p. 38

Religions and particular denominations are fairly conservative institutions. They make small adjustments and changes to doctrine or practice over time, but only when circumstances require it. Big changes are always risky. Replacement theology is the theological explanation or justification for big changes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

What about Mormonism? Our Big Change was the abandonment of plural marriage at the end of the 19th century. It took decades to get the practice itself discontinued and even longer to develop a replacement theology. I think we are still working on in it! Initially, patriarchal polygamy was replaced by patriarchal monogamy (one submissive wife instead of several), which was really only a partial abandonment of polygamy. Patriarchal monogamy is more like polygamy with one wife. I would argue that it wasn’t until the publication of the Proclamation on the Family and the subsequent focus on the egalitarian language in that document (“fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners”) that the LDS Church has really articulated an adequate replacement theology for patriarchal polygamy. Recent changes to the wording of sacred temple covenants, as reported in the media, underlines the full emergence of egalitarian monogamy as a replacement theology for patriarchal polygamy.

Not all doctrines or practices that become untenable need to be replaced or upgraded — some just quietly disappear, such as female ritual healing practices within Mormonism. There might be other examples of replacement theology within Mormonism, such as the current initiative to describe Joseph Smith’s translations as inspired writing, not literal translations.

Replacement theology seems like a very helpful concept to keep in mind while reading Mormon history and trying to understand the development of Mormon doctrine.

Any other examples?