The following paper was delivered at the Concordis International consultation The British Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, on 19 September 2009. (1)
The Jewish People in the Bible
In his important book The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Fortress Press, 1996) the theologian R. Kendall Soulen explains how second century responses to anti-Christian Judaism contributed to a distorted understanding of the canonical narrative. By canonical narrative we mean the thread, or overarching narrative that runs through the Bible (sometimes referred to as the Bible’s metanarrative). Establishing the central thread and tracing key biblical themes is a vital aspect of doing biblical theology.
The Church’s reaction to anti-Christian Judaism in the second century caused it to emphasise some aspects of the canonical narrative at the expense of others. In short, the New Testament was elevated and the Old Testament relegated. Naturally, this demotion of the Jewish Scriptures also downgraded the theological importance of Israel, which features so prominently in the Old Testament. Soulen refers to this relegation of Israel as “structural supercessionism” (supercessionism, also known as replacement theology, is the theological position which argues that the Church has superceded Israel as the people of God). Soulen also identifies other forms of supercessionism (economic and punitive) in his book.
A segment of the Church continues to draw on this distorted understanding of the canonical narrative which downplays the theological importance of Israel. Yet Israel is a truly biblical theology theme which is well-represented across both Testaments, receiving more biblical coverage than other important themes (including, for example, creation, baptism, or communion). Israel is mentioned or alluded to some 3000 times in the Bible; God is described as the “God of Israel” about two hundred times; Jesus’ miracles led people to glorify this God of Israel (eg Jn 12:13), while Jesus is described as the “consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25, 32). Moreover, one-fifth of Romans, that New Testament book so central to Christian theology, is specifically devoted to demonstrating the continued place of ethnic Israel in God’s plans.
So what does the Bible have to say about Israel? (2) Briefly, Yahweh is to be their God and the Jews his people. They are a nation before him, and his covenant and dealings with them are perpetual (this notion of a perpetual covenant between God and Israel is repeated several times). This nation of priests is known as God’s servant, and Israel is to be a blessing to the Gentiles. Moreover, in the Apostle Paul’s lengthy discussion of ethnic Israel in Romans he asks, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1 ESV). Paul then offers an analogy of Israel as a cultivated olive tree, whereby unbelieving branches are broken off so that Gentile believers (a wild olive) may be grafted in to Israel, not vice versa. His exposition echoes the Old Testament notion of non-Jews coming into covenant with Israel and God and becoming members of the congregation of Israel (and thus to all intents and purposes Israelites). This is typified by Ruth the Moabitess who, leaving her family and people behind, returns to Israel with her mother-in-law to join the congregation of Israel, stating “Your people shall be my people, your God my God” (1:16).
In short, the Bible presents Israel (that is, the Jewish people) as God’s historical people which he uses to reveal and bring about his salvific historical plan (i.e. Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history), fulfilled through an historical Jewish Messiah. Given how God has worked through history in this way, how then can God ditch his historical people so cavalierly? Such a position makes little sense in light of the canonical narrative, which makes clear God has not finished with the Jewish people.
Caricatures of the Pro-Israel Camp (3)
There are various expressions of the broad theological position which rejects supercessionism and holds to the view that God retains a special plan and place in his heart for the Jewish people. However, some supercessionist writers have sought to parody pro-Israel Christianity as theologically homogenous. For example, they are presented as believing in two peoples of God (the Jews and the Church), holding to two means of salvation (Torah observance for Jews and accepting Christ for the Church, a position known as dual covenantalism which emanated in reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, predominantly among the historic denominations), and also caricatured as being obsessed with two central issues: the land and the end times. Moreover, pro-Israel Christians are all regarded as Christian Zionists, assumed to be on the political right, and actively engaged in lobbying their governments on behalf of the modern State of Israel.
Such views lack nuance and belie the theological complexities of the pro-Israel bloc. The above positions do exist within it, but they are far from embraced by all. Arguably, the majority rejects dual covenantalism, believing rather that God’s plans for Israel are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Meanwhile, some who challenge supercessionism are not even Zionist, a notable example being R. Kendall Soulen. Thus, it is important to recognise that Christian support for Israel (understood to be the Jewish people) is complex and multifaceted. My own position focuses on and traces the Jewish people as a biblical theology theme, rather than the land. As such, this focus on people not land permits me, theoretically at least, to entertain the possibility of exchanging some land for peace. Pragmatically and politically, however, I believe such a move is wholly unrealistic at the present time, or indeed for the foreseeable future, as the deterioration of the security situation in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal clearly demonstrates.
Eschatology (theology of the end times) features strongly among some Christian Zionists (especially in the U.S.) who claim the existence of the modern State of Israel is a sign of the prophetic end times and that Christ’s return is imminent. But there are others within the pro-Israel camp who are far less dogmatic, identifying how the Bible in numerous places indeed indicates how the Jews will be in the land in the end times, but who are nonetheless unconvinced those times are necessarily upon us. By instinct such Christians have sympathy with the view that God has brought the Jewish people back to their homeland in what is the current State of Israel, but they do not hold to this position inflexibly or dogmatically. Meanwhile, many Christian Zionists do not focus solely on the Abrahamic covenant, acknowledging also God’s covenant with Hagar (the mother of Ishmael) and recognising that he has a unique plan for the Arab people also.
Finally, several extreme Christian Zionists (especially some well-known preachers in America) read themselves into pivotal roles within biblical prophecy, either believing that Israel’s existence relies on their lobbying on her behalf, or indeed seeking to give God a “helping hand” to bring about and even hasten the parousia (Second Coming of Christ). But other pro-Israel Christians take quite a different “watch and pray” approach, recognising that God’s sovereignty is such that his will and plans will be brought about in his own time, regardless of human activity or agency that assists or opposes him. Thus, attempts to portray the pro-Israel bloc as homogenous lack sophistication and it is important to be aware of such caricatures.
In juxtaposition to these caricatures, I want to conclude by making several observations concerning pro-Israel Christians. We have noted how the theme of Israel features strongly within biblical theology. Now it is true some Christian Zionists focus on the land, but as demonstrated, much more important is the theme of Israel (i.e. the Jews) as God’s historical people, a people for whom he still has a plan and purpose. Therefore, for Christians sympathetic to this theological concept it is inevitable that such a position will have a bearing – quite a positive one theologically – on how they view and respond to modern Israel. Regardless of the fact that it is a secular state, or that segments of Israeli society are not Torah observant, or indeed deeply sinful, nonetheless as a collective entity modern Israel is, by definition, a Jewish state, and as such will inevitably be viewed theologically in light of the canonical narrative’s treatment of the Jewish people.
Secondly, while some Christian Zionists undeniably take an “Israel right or wrong” position, many pro-Israel Christians regard such a view as untenable (after all, if even biblical Israel sinned it is folly to say modern Israel does not). But there is also considerable frustration at some pro-Palestinian Christians who seem to hold unbendingly and selectively to a similarly untenable “Israel is always wrong” position. Not only is such a view ideologically-driven and disingenuous, it specifically singles out the historical people of God as the primary, indeed in the view of some the only cause of the present conflict. Such a mindset merely contributes to the polarisation of Christian opinion on this issue, making any kind of consensus quite impossible. Also, such a virulent anti-Israel mindset serves to make Jewish evangelism even more of an impossible task by reinforcing enduring Christian anti-Jewish stereotypes.
Finally, one must recognise the deeply-entrenched theological nature of this conflict. Apart from Christian Zionist and pro-Palestinian views, together with Judaism’s theological claim to the land, the existence of Israel in what is regarded as Muslim land demonstrates the inherently theological nature of this conflict. It is for this reason that groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah seek a return not to pre-1967 or even to 1948 borders, but rather a redrawn map of the Middle East in which Israel does not feature in any shape or form. As long as this theological reality exists, arguably there can be no solution to the present conflict in the Middle East.
1. I am grateful to my colleague Stephen M. Vantassel for reading through and commenting on the final version of this paper.
2. For a detailed treatment of the contents of this paragraph, see my “Biblical Theology and the Modern State of Israel” in Calvin L. Smith, ed. The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians (Lampeter: King’s Divinity Press, 2009).
3. In this paper, by “pro-Israel” I mean Christians who reject supercessionism and broadly hold to the view that God has not finished with the Jewish people, rather than a more limited definition referring specifically to Christian Zionists who are strongly supportive of the modern State of Israel.
This and the other papers presented at the conference have been published together by Concordis International.