A key passage in the current debate over whether God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people is Romans 9 to 11. By the end of chapter 9 one might be forgiven for believing Paul is arguing for so-called fulfilment theology. Fulfilment theology argues that the promises given to the Old Testament congregation are fulfilled in the New Testament congregation - the Church - of which believing Israelites become a part. The term is favoured by those eschewing the label "replacement theology" (embraced by many throughout Church history) because of its elitist and negative overtones suggesting the Church has superseded Israel. Yet this theology likewise argues that Israel is subsumed within the Church (in his analogy of the wild olive in Romans 11 Paul says the opposite, that Gentile believers are grafted into Israel, rather than the other way around). It also says God has finished dealing with Israel as a nation (by nation I mean the entire Jewish people rather than the State of Israel). In short, fulfilment theology argues for the fulfilment of the OT promises, and that's fine. But the problem is that it does so at the negation of the Jewish people for whom God no longer retains a plan and purpose as a distinct people. So fulfilment theology is replacement theology in all but name, de facto if not de jure supersessionism.
So to get back to my opening statement, by the end of Romans 9 on the surface there appears to be a case for fulfilment theology. This is because Paul seems to suggest the promises of the OT are now fulfilled in the people of God who are a remnant of Jews and believing Gentiles combined. So is a doctrine of fulfilment therefore tenable? But first, a little background. After setting out the central doctrine of justification by faith (which, incidentally, is undermined by some proponents of the New Perspective on Paul), Paul wraps up chapter 8 with a declaration of the triumph the believer in Christ enjoys. He concludes this "hymn" by declaring how nothing, nothing at all, can separate us from the love of God. But this, of course, then begs the inevitable question: If nothing can separate us from God, what about His people Israel? If salvation comes through faith in Christ, which means we have the security of not being separated from God, what about the Jewish people who, on the whole, rejected Yeshua HaMashiach? Thus the Apostle Paul launches his three-chapter discussion concerning Israel.
In chapter 9 the apostle begins by expressing anguish over his countrymen because of their rejection of Messiah. But he wants his readers to understand that this rejection does not mean God's promises to Israel have failed (9:6). Quite the contrary. Another people (believing Gentiles) join a remnant of Israel, despite the wider nation of Israel rejecting Messiah, and partake of those promises. Thus God's word has not failed, the OT promises are fulfilled in this remnant + Gentile community. And if Paul had stopped here, there would indeed be a case for fulfilment theology as currently understood. However, Paul doesn't stop here. Indeed, he is only a third of the way through his discussion.
Having discussed a remnant of Israel in chapter 9, Paul now shifts to a discussion of the wider nation. The Israelites are zealous for God, he says, but not according to knowledge (of the Messiah). Echoing back to the first eight chapters of Romans Paul makes it clear that salvation is through faith in the Messiah alone, not through the law (there is no place for dual covenantalism in Paul's theology). Unfortunately, wider Israel has rejected this gospel of faith. Thus chapter 10 culminates with the observation that while the nation rejects the gospel, God calls a people who are not a nation (the Gentiles). The purpose? To make the nation of Israel jealous (10:19).
It is in chapter 11 Paul now reaches the climax of his argument. No, the promises of the OT haven't failed because a remnant of Israel, together with believing Gentiles, bring about their partial (or initial) fulfilment (chapter 9). Meanwhile, the rest of the nation has rejected Christ (chapter 10). But it doesn't end there, Paul argues in chapter 11, where he shifts his discussion from a remnant being saved at the present time to the whole nation being saved at a future time. Paul's juxtaposition of a remnant versus the whole nation is unequivocal (remnant, first fruits (12), root (16) versus full number (12), branches (12), whole batch (16), all Israel, 25). Thus Paul makes the startling statement, "If their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full number bring?" (12).
All this leads Paul to present the analogy of the cultivated olive tree and the wild olive, which he specifically directs towards his Gentile Roman readers. In AD 49 Claudius had the Jews expelled from Rome. Two such Jews later became Paul's colleagues (Aquila and Priscilla, see Acts 16:1-2). The edict was repealed in AD 54 and Jews were permitted to return (thus Aquila and Priscilla are back in Rome when Paul wrote his epistle, see Romans 16:3). Several commentators have dwelt on this absence of Jewish believers and its effects upon the church in Rome. One can quite easily imagine how, during their absence, Gentile believers who remained in the imperial city interpreted their exile from Rome as evidence of God's judgment upon them. After all, didn't the OT Scriptures indicate exile as a form of judgement upon the nation of Israel? Whatever went through their minds one thing is clear: The Gentile church in Rome had no Jewish believers within its midst for at least five years. Eventually Jewish believers returned to Rome and their churches. But it seemed in their absence some Roman Christians now viewed their Jewish counterparts differently, no longer as God's elect nation but rather a people subsumed by and indistinct from the Church, which had become the new people of God. In short these Roman Christians had become the first replacementists, leading Paul to challenge their arrogance. Thus the apostle directs his comments to the Gentiles (11:13), setting out his analogy of the wild olive and warning the Gentiles not to become arrogant towards the Jews, because it is they who join Israel and not vice versa.
And how is this vindication of Israel and the ultimate fulfilment of the OT promises to be manifest? As stated earlier, in chapter 11 Paul shifts from a remnant to the wider nation, salvation of the first fruits (a remnant at the present time, 11:5) to the salvation of the whole batch, the salvation of "all Israel" at a future, eschatological date (11:25-6, cf Zech 12:10, 13:1 also eschatological in setting). Why? Because, Paul explains, they are loved while the gifts and callings of God are without repentance (11:28-9).
Fulfilment of OT promises through a remnant of Israel (together with Gentile believers) is theologically unproblematic. What is problematic is when such theology is at the negation of Israel. It is crucial to juxtapose this partial fulfilment "at the present time"(11:5) with its eschatological, full and climatic fulfilment at the end of time (11:25-6). In the same way that the kingdom of God is inaugurated but not yet, extended and widened to all the world but not yet seen in its fullness when Christ returns in person and Israel receives her King, so too there is a present and partial salvation of Israel but also an eschatological salvation of all Israel. No wonder, after 40 days of being taught by the Risen Lord about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) that the apostles asked Jesus if He was about to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). They had not misunderstood. Far from correcting them Jesus tells them it is not for them to know the times set by God. But for now their task was to preach the kingdom to all nations, until - as Paul makes clear - the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled (11:25).